The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA

The CIA had its eye on Tibet. The Buddhist nation of vast plateaus and mountain ranges in Central Asia was completely isolated from the rest of society. A diplomatic relationship with the small country surrounded by China on three of its sides was of utmost importance. On a mission from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, two Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officers, Capt. Brooke Dolan and Maj. Ilia Tolstoy, traveled through India to Tibet in September 1942 to contact the Dalai Lama, then just 7 years old.

Following the conclusion of World War II, the OSS was disbanded and re-formed as the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947. Only two years later, the CIA watched its new ally from afar and monitored the increased hostilities of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Mao had threatened to “liberate” Tibet, a strong-armed escalation to retake the government from the Dalai Lama.


In a contested intensification of force, the Chinese military marched through the Himalayas toward Chamdo, the third-largest city in the eastern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. On May 23, 1951, China forced Tibet to sign a peace treaty called the 17-Point Agreement — declaring its autonomy as long as China oversaw its foreign policy including the civil and military components. If Tibet hadn’t signed the “agreement,” the action would have been a death sentence.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA

Brooke Dolan, second from left, and Ilya Tolstoy, right, with their monk-interpreter, Kusho Yonton Singhe, standing in front of a traditional Tibetan tent set up outside Lhasa for the expedition’s official greeting ceremony. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The young Dalai Lama had his hands tied. Without outside help, his nation’s independence was under threat. The staff types and officers at the CIA with covers as diplomats began searching for a hardy group who had special training in remote and mountainous areas.

The US military had previously established a relationship during World War II with the US Forest Service (USFS). US Army paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions participated in an exchange program with the smokejumpers — an elite firefighting force that parachutes from planes into isolated areas to fight forest fires. The all-Black paratroopers chosen became known as the Triple Nickles, and they were trained to prevent the spread of fires caused by Japanese balloon bombs.

Instead of training airborne paratroopers as the military did before, the CIA contracted smokejumpers who already had all the necessary knowledge in terrain, reconnaissance, weather, and a variety of other critically important skills. Smokejumpers go through their own selection course to get to their units; the CIA could choose from the very best in their ranks.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA

From left to right: Vang Pao, leader and general of the CIA’s Hmong Army in the 15-year “secret war” in Laos; smokejumper Jack Mathews; and Kong Le, the neutralist forces leader. Photo courtesy of the National Smokejumpers Association.

Garfield Thorsrud was a Missoula, Montana, smokejumper tasked with training two CIA officers at the Nine Mile training facility in Montana in 1951. The CIA recruited Thorsrud and six other smokejumpers on a covert operation in Taiwan to train Nationalist Chinese paratroopers to facilitate personnel and cargo drops over mainland China. From 1957 to 1960, however, this covert relationship between the smokejumpers and the CIA went global.

More than 100 smokejumpers were sworn to secrecy on behalf of the US government. Ray “Beas” Beasley, a former Air Force winter survival expert who trained aircrews in airborne operations in Libya and the Korean War, was called upon in multiple capacities.

“We were training air crews for Africa and Ivy Leaguers for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA),” Beasley told Smokejumper Magazine. “Those Ivy Leaguers thought they were special, but they didn’t know a goddamned thing. It was truly unbelievable.”

Smokejumpers, including Beasley, acted as “kickers” or jumpmasters who “kicked” out 10,000 pounds of weapons, ammunition, and equipment to Tibetan resistance forces at elevations as high as 14,000 feet. The pilots from the CIA’s Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew sorties using old China Air Transport civilian routes in C-130B planes across Tibet to arm Khampa guerillas. The first pass dropped the agents, and the second dropped the pallets of supplies. These operations also trained as many as 200 Tibetan commandos at Camp Hale in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to jump alongside CIA officers.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA

Smokejumpers involved in the Taiwan Project where they trained Nationalist Chinese agents and paratroopers starting in 1951. Standing with Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek are smokejumpers Herman Ball, 2nd from left; Jack Mathews, between Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife; Gar Thorsrud, 2nd from far right; and Lyle Grenager, far right. Photo courtesy of the National Smokejumper Association.

“We were always ‘Romeo,'” Beasley told the Great Falls Tribune in 2014, referring to the call sign for their mission. “When we did these jobs, it was in the full moon and we flew right by Everest.”

When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet to India in 1959, the CIA kickers rigged a yellow parachute to a pallet filled with 300,000 rupees. As the Dalai Lama was in exile, the CIA funded id=”listicle-2647693389″.7 million per year to support Tibet’s resistance against Chinese and Soviet Union influence.

After Tibet, Beasley participated in covert operations in the “secret war” in Laos as well as the Bay of Pigs invasion. During the 1960s, if the CIA was running an operation inside a country they weren’t supposed to be in, flying unmarked aircraft, the smokejumpers often towed along. The smokejumpers’ roles expanded beyond jumpmaster duties to acting as liaison and operations officers in Guatemala, the Congo, India, Guam, Indonesia, and even the Arctic.

Thorsrud and five other smokejumpers dressed in parkas participated in Project Coldfeet, which premiered the ingenious Fulton surface-to-air recovery system (STARS) or Skyhook: The passing plane intercepts a 500-foot line with a smokejumper attached and yanks him into the air to retrieve him. Project Coldfeet was an intelligence-gathering mission at an abandoned Soviet Arctic drifting ice station — and the CIA deemed the mission a success.

The smokejumpers’ clandestine service with the CIA and their heroism was kept in the shadows. David W. Bevan was killed on Aug. 31, 1961, when his Air America C-46 plane crashed into a Laotian mountaintop. The former smokejumper’s mission remained a secret for 56 years, and not even his family were aware of how he had died. In 2017, the CIA publicly acknowledged Bevan and other CIA operations officers with a star on its memorial wall. At that time, there were 125 stars. Since 2019, the wall has grown to 133 stars, some of which honor those whose identity remains classified.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Google Maps accidentally sparked a military invasion

Computer programming is a complex, detail-oriented skill that is extremely prone to human error. Oftentimes, those little errors are found and fixed before anyone even notices, but when a tech giant like Google makes even the slightest mistake, there are massive, real-world consequences.


Mapmaking is as painstaking a task as it is a political one. It’s easy when a border follows distinct geographical markings (such as the Rio Grande, which demarcates Texas to the north and Mexico to the south), but when lines are drawn based on nothing but territorial claims, there is almost always conflict. Borders on maps are created after both parties agree on where each side’s land ends. If they don’t agree and maps are created anyways (declaring one region, in part, belongs to another), you get conflicts, like that of Kashmir.

Today, many rely on Google Maps for a fairly accurate representation of the world. Years of research and the collection of billions of bytes of data has helped Google calculate where roads are, figure out which restaurants serve the best grub, and determine where borderlines are drawn. This is rarely an issue but, in October 2010, Nicaraguan troops invaded Costa Rica because Google Maps showed a region, which was indisputably Costa Rican, belonged to Nicaragua.

 

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Eden Pastora, former Sandinista commander turned politician, was in charge of dredging a river along the border. For the safety of the workers, the Nicaraguan military sent 50 troops for protection. The river was created and the armed troops entered the Costa Rican territory of Isla Calero unannounced. When pressed on the issue, Pastora responded that he was only following the map he picked up from Google.

Google apologized, corrected their mistake, and the world laughed — but the troops didn’t leave. In fact, the conflict was very heated.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
Costa Rica may not have a standing army, but their police force is serious AF. (Photo by Spc. Jaccob Hearn)

 

Costa Rica disbanded their military in 1948 following a bloody civil war, retaining only a small commando unit. The 50 Nicaraguan soldiers and 70 Costa Rican police officers stared each other down at Isla Calero for well over a month, each ready to fight over the land.

It wasn’t until Nov. 12, when the Organization of American States voted that the land did, in fact, belong to Costa Rica, that Pastora backed down. Five years later, Pastora watched from Nicaragua as the river was filled in with sand.

MIGHTY HISTORY

5 rituals warriors used to prepare for battle

War, like math, is a universal language shared by every strata of civilization. Warriors from all cultures have, in one form or another, prepared themselves physically and mentally for the task at hand using rituals. More often than not, stepping onto the battlefield meant risking bodily death.

With the end of natural life so near, many warriors would confer with the divine, looking for their blessing to carry them to victory. Some conjured animal spirits to lend them their strength while others requested that deities guide their blades.

These are the rituals that prepared the champions of various cultures to meet their fate.


The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
Marines are known for summoning the strength of the Devil Dog.
(Knut Stjerna)

Berserkers used mind-altering drugs to induce rage

The berserker was an elite Norse warrior that used pure rage to find success in battle. To achieve the status of a berserker, one had to live in the wilderness and become possessed by one of three animals, from which they’d conjure strength: the bear, the boar, or the wolf. The warrior then had to drink the blood of the chosen animal and wear its pelt when summoning its strength in battle.

But it wasn’t all possessions and summonings. Historians theorize that berserkers would eat Amanita muscaria (a hallucinogenic mushroom) and rub henbane leaves onto the skin (which causes a numbing sensation) to better endure pain in battle. Copious amounts of alcohol combined with mind-altering chemicals would send these warriors into a rage, effectively summoning severe aggression on demand.

Original maori haka dance

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Maori tribes used an intimidating dance

The Maori tribes developed a war cry dance to intimidate the enemy at the outset of battle and to inspire their warriors into a frenzy. They, like many other cultures, called upon the God of War using a ritual dance called the perperu haka when a fight was imminent.

Over time, the haka evolved into several distinct versions, each used in a specific ceremony. There are hakas for national events in New Zealand, weddings, funerals, and special guests. Each dance has a cultural significance and a rich history woven into the choreography.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
Good things come to those who wait — or pay cash.
(Ugo Bardi)

The Greeks used sacrifices to predict the outcome of battles

The ancient Greeks did not take superstition lightly and often sought the guidance and protection of their Gods before battle. Before the Battle of Plataea, which took place near Boeotia, Greece, in 479 B.C., both the Armies of Xerxes I and the Greek alliance consorted with their respective seers to determine the outcome of the battle. Each offered ritual sacrifices to their Gods, looking for the signal of imminent victory. The sacrifices revealed omens that defeat belonged to whichever side initiated combat.

After days of indecision, the Persian general Mardonius decided that he had waited long enough and attacked. He lost.

Kamikaze Pilots Take-Off. Archive film 96623
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Kamikaze pilots drank magical sake

The term ‘Kamikaze‘ comes from the Mongols’ failed invasion of Japan in 1281. A typhoon completely destroyed the invaders and became known as the Divine Wind, or the Kamikaze, that saved Japan. The victory at the Battle of Midway by the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 1942 forced Vice Admiral Takashiro of the Japanese First Air Fleet to use suicidal pilots to inflict damage upon U.S. vessels.

The Kamikaze was a call to action that drew university students from all walks of life. The ceremony these pilots would undertake before flying their last consisted of drinking sake ‘infused’ with magic to provide ‘spiritual lifting.’ They were thanked by their officers and boarded their planes with 550-pound bombs. Out of approximately 2,800 Kamikaze pilots, 14% of Kamikaze hit U.S. ships and only 8.5% managed to sink them.

Some African tribes still practice scarification

To this day, tribes in Ethiopia engage in ceremonial stick duels between 20 or more young men of rival villages to earn respect from their families and community. Before a duel takes place, a witch doctor will bless the fighters with sacred leaves and cut patterns into their skin with razors. These patterns serve as a supernatural defense against serious harm. In most cases, these duels aren’t usually deadly — ‘usually’ being the operative word.

The cutting ritual, also known as scarification, is a lengthy and painful pre-battle requirement. Showing courage during this process also grants the young man the right to marry a wife. If a fighter cannot bear the pain of scarification, he will not be seen as worthy to bear the responsibilities of marriage.

There are videos out there for the strong-stomached, but we’ll not be providing one.

MIGHTY HISTORY

An airman and his dog flew 30 combat missions in World War II

Czech Foreign Legionnaire and airman Vachlav Bozdech and his French wingman, Pierre Duval, were shot down over no man’s land between France and the invading German Army in 1940. After the crash, Bozdech dragged the wounded Duval into a nearby house. Its tenants were nowhere to be found, having evacuated the house of all they could carry — which did not include their German Shepherd puppy.


Despite having just walked away from a plane crash and running from oncoming enemy troops, the Czech and French airmen stopped to feed the puppy a bit of candy from their coats and melt some snow to give it a drink. As the night wore on, the two men decided they would make a break for the French lines, but without the dog.

Almost as soon as they left, the puppy began to howl. Duval and Bozdech decided they would have to kill the dog before he gave away their positions to the Nazis. Cue Sarah McLachlan.

No, Bozdech did not kill the pup. The other method of getting the dog to be quiet was as simple as the Czech putting the puppy in his coat and bringing him along — which he did.

As the downed airmen made their way to the French lines, German flares lit up the night sky, turning their darkness cover into the light of day. The three booked it to the nearest tree line, running into some fresh troops. Luckily they were French, a search party sent to look for the downed airmen. When they all arrived back at their home airbase, Duval went to the infirmary while Bozdech took the dog back to the barracks of the exiled Czech airmen. The Czech named him Antis after their favorite Czech aircraft.

Or just “Ant” for short.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA

Stiff upper lip, pup.

(Damian Lewis)

Antis slept in the barracks with Bozdech and the Czechs as World War II got into full swing. The Nazis rolled on France at max blitzkrieg, destroying most of the planes at Saint-Dizier, their home base. But Bozdech still went up to meet the Luftwaffe in air combat, only this time, Ant went with him. He was the perfect back-seater. He didn’t even flinch as the Czech fired dual .50-caliber machine guns at the oncoming Me-100.

Eventually, the airmen were forced to flee from France and make their way through neutral Spain to Gibraltar, where they could fight the Nazis from Britain. But their evacuation ship wouldn’t allow dogs. No problem – Ant remained on shore as the Czech boarded the ship. After it departed, the dog swam 100 yards or more to the ship. The Czechs hoisted him up and made a space for him to sleep below decks.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA

Antis’ Dickin Medal.

(Damian Lewis)

The pair made it to the UK after a few close calls. Bozdech flew with the RAF’s Czech Squadron near Liverpool for much of the war – with Antis flying some 30 missions with his best friend. The loyal pup even helped look for survivors of an air raid, despite his own injuries. After the war, Vachlav Bozdech returned to his home country, but he didn’t get to stay long. In 1948, the Czech government began cracking down on anyone who fought with the Western Allies during the war. Bozdech found himself escaping across another border with Ant, this time into West Germany.

Antis was later awarded the Dickin Medal, the highest award for gallantry bestowed upon an animal in service. Vaclav and Antis eventually became British subjects and Ant lived to the ripe old age of 14.

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4 planes the Americans borrowed from Britain during World War II

The United States was the “Arsenal of Democracy” in World War II, but even this arsenal had to get a little help from allies. The British, in fact, loaned us some of their planes during that conflict. Here are four planes we borrowed from the Brits.


1. Supermarine Spitfire

Yes, even though the United States had the P-40, P-38, P-47, P-51, F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, and the F4U Corsair, they had to acquire the plane that won the Battle of Britain.

The American Spitfires mostly saw service in North Africa and Italy, according to SpitfireSite.com, until they were replaced by P-51s. United States Army Air Force Spitfires scored almost 350 kills during World War II.

The Spitfire is also notable for being the plane that got Jimmy Doolittle chewed out by Eisenhower.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
Spitfire LF Mk IX, MH434 being flown by Ray Hanna in 2005. The Spitfire served with the USAAF in the Mediterranean Theater from 1942-1944. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2. Airspeed Horsa

Okay, this is technically a glider. Still, the United States needed a glider to bring in heavy gear for units like the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The Airspeed Horsa fit the bill with its ability to carry a lot of troops and gear, and the United States got 301 of the planes for D-Day, according to the book World War II Glider Assault Tactics.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
An Airspeed Hora glider under tow. The United States got over 300 of these for D-Day. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3. Bristol Beaufighter

This was a multi-role heavy fighter, which packed a huge punch (four 20mm cannon, six .303-caliber machine guns). According to Combat Squadrons of the Air Force, the United States operated four squadrons of Beaufighters in the night-fighter role. These squadrons operated in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, eventually switching to the P-61 Black Widow.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
The Bristol Beaufighter, which equipped four USAAF squadrons in World War II. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4. De Havilland Mosquito

This plane was very versatile, used for photo reconnaissance, as a night-fighter, as a heavy fighter, and even as a light bomber. The Army Air Force used a number of these planes in all of those roles during World War II, but historynet.com noted that most of them were crashed because this airborne hot rod was difficult to fly.

America may have missed out — the Mosquito is considered a legend.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
A de Havilland Mosquito NF Mark XIII of No. 256 Squadron RAF, caught in the beam of a Chance light on the main runway at Foggia Main, Italy, before taking off on a night intruder sortie over enemy territory. The USAAF equipped squadrons of bombers, night fighters, and recon planes with the Mosquito. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Even today, America’s importing warplanes: The A-29 Super Tucano is a Brazilian design, while the AV-8 Harrier was British.

MIGHTY HISTORY

‘The Attack of the Dead Men’ was a horrifying WWI infantry charge

Just in time for Halloween, the horrifying tale of a Russian infantry charge gone bad. Listen, everyone knows the Russian infantry historically gets the worst of every war, but World War I was especially horrific for the Russians fighting Germany. For the Russians defending Osowiec Fortress, it was especially horrible.

Welcome to the age of poison gas. You know something was intense if Sabaton has a song about it.


In true, stupid World War I fashion, the German high command ordered a full-frontal assault on Osowiec Fortress, using 14 battalions of infantry, along with sappers, siege guns, and artillery. The Russians had roughly 900 men defending the fortification, with less than half of that being conscripted militiamen. Instead of the usual artillery pounding, the Germans decided to use poison gas on the fort, opting to use chlorine gas on the Russians.

Well, it turns out the gas and the water in the air, along with the water in the lungs of the Russian defenders didn’t just choke the Russians; it turned the chlorine into hydrochloric acid and began to dissolve the Russians from the inside out. Russians tried to stem the gas using wet rags, but they had no chemical defenses, and the skin on their faces soon began to melt as well.

Instead of just taking the assault, the beleaguered Russians decided to counter attack.

The 100 or so men who formed up to charge the Germans ran into 12 battalions of enemy troops, but kept on running anyway. What the Germans saw coming through the mists was the difference-maker. A horde of face-melting zombies charged through the darkness and slammed into an army of 7,000. The Germans panicked and bolted at the sight of the undead Russians.

German troops turned and ran from the horrifying scene so fast, they ran into their own booby traps and barbed wire. The bold, outnumbered counter-charge was short-lived, however. The fortress would have to be abandoned as other fortifications surrounding Osowiec were starting to fall, and the Russians would soon be trapped. They demolished the fort and fell back.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These were the helicopters of World War II

Think of a military helicopter. Think of it in combat. Is it a Black Hawk dropping off operators in urban combat? A Chinook picking troops up from a remote ridge or rooftop? Maybe you’re old school and you see a Piasecki H-25 or H-19 Chickasaw from the Korean War. But few people will think all the way back to World War II when German and American helicopters all served on the front lines.


The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA

The Sikorsky R-4 helicopter was one of America’s only helicopters to see active service in World War II, acting predominantly as a rescue and transportation asset in the China-Burma-India Theater.

(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

America’s military helicopter program was largely carried by two companies, both prominent helicopter manufacturers today who, oddly enough, are now competing to create the Army’s next generation of vertical lift aircraft. Sikorsky’s founder, Igor Sikorsky, was a Russian-American immigrant who wanted to help his adopted country fight in World War II.

He received financial backing from friends to start manufacturing aircraft, predominantly fixed-wing planes, for the U.S. military. But, off to the side, he was developing new helicopter designs including the VS-500, an aircraft that used one large rotor blade to generate lift and another, smaller rotor blade mounted on a long boom to generate anti-torque. This is the same blade configuration now used on everything from the UH-60 to the AH-64 Apache.

The VS-300 prototype quickly gave way the R-4, a two-seater helicopter that would serve most predominantly with the U.S. Army but also the Navy, Coast Guard, and the Royal Air Force. It first began rolling off the production line in 1942 and was primarily used for observation and to ferry supplies.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA

The German-made Flettner 282 helicopter was employed against Allied naval assets near the end of World War II, but was then captured by Allied troops. In this photo, it’s undergoing testing with the U.S. military.

(Public Domain)

But, the helicopter was also employed in two daring rescue missions in the challenging terrain of the China-Burma-India Theater. The helicopters could just barely make it through the high mountain passes that planes could easily fly over, but the rotary aircraft could land in small clearings that were impossible for planes to stop in or take off from.

Other helicopters were in development during the war. The Bell Aircraft Corporation, later known as Bell Helicopters and now Bell Flight, created the Bell Model 30 that would see limited use on the home front, but it would not be deployed overseas.

Meanwhile, Germany’s helicopter program was much more advanced than America’s or the Allies’. They debuted experimental helicopter designs before the war and even flew prototypes in front of adoring crowds for weeks in 1938.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA

The Focke-Angelis Fa-223 helicopter was a German machine popular during the war. It had a heavy lift capability for the day that allowed it to re-position artillery in forward positions.

(U.S. Air Force)

This pre-war research led to the Fa-223, the “Dragon.” Five types were planned with missions from anti-submarine, to search and rescue, to cargo carrying. But it really predicted future developments when it was used to recover crashed aircraft and to move artillery batteries to inaccessible mountaintops where they would have greater range and better defenses.

Meanwhile, the Flettner-282 Hummingbird was designed to seek out enemy submarines at sea and other threats. It was completed late in the war with early models going through testing in 1943. But the first 24 were completed in time for limited deployments to the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean Sea.

A number of other models were in experimental phases during the closing months of the war, but saw limited or no combat use before war’s end. But the American, German, and other designs that didn’t quite make it into the fight would prove influential for decades to come.

MIGHTY HISTORY

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

In 1814 the War of 1812 was rising in intensity and the young American nation found itself struggling to mount a serious defense against the British juggernaut. Compounding America’s problems of short-manning and a limited supply of weapons was the fact that officers kept killing each other in duels over matters of honor, Donald R. Hickey said in his book, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.


 

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
Duelists fighting to the death over perceived insults. Painting: Public Domain

 

“One in twelve American navy officers who died on active duty before 1815 were killed in duels, eighteen in all,” Stephen Budiansky wrote in Perilous Fight; “easily twice that number had fought a duel, and every officer lived with the knowledge that his reputation for courage was always liable to be tested on the field of honor.

A Smithsonian.com article noted an even grimmer statistic saying, “Between 1798 and the Civil War, the Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did to more than 60 years of combat at sea.”

One spot of ground near Washington, D.C. was popular for both duelists and journalists. At least 26 duels, many of them between military officers, were fought there. In one duel in 1820, Commodore Stephen Decatur, a decorated naval officer, was killed by Commodore James Barron over a years-old disagreement.

The disagreement stemmed from the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair and was the root cause of 8 other duels as well. Officers fought each other to the death to determine who should be blamed for the USS Chesapeake‘s surrender to the HMS Leopard in a skirmish in 1807.

Gen. Andrew Jackson was nearly killed in a duel in 1806 when he dueled attorney Charles Dickinson and was shot within inches of his heart. Jackson plugged the wound with a handkerchief before killing Dickinson.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
Andrew Jackson wins the Battle of New Orleans two weeks after the War of 1812 ended. Not photographed: The hole in his chest from the nearly fatal dueling wound he shrugged off. Painting: Public Domain.

It got so bad that in 1814 the War Department threatened to discharge duelists in a failed attempt to bring the practice to an end.

This would have been a direct reversal of common military culture at the time. In 1813, a regimental commander refused a duel from one of the doctors in his unit. The doctor was later convicted of insubordination but immediately pardoned.

Other officers from the same camp had convinced the commanding general that it was a greater injustice that a duel had been refused than that a doctor had posted insubordinate notices. When the war was over, the Army kept the insubordinate doctor but released the colonel from service.

Abraham Lincoln, before he was president, nearly cut down Army officer James Shields. Lincoln had ridiculed Shields in the press and Shields demanded the chance to defend his honor. Lincoln chose broadswords as the weapon and, on the dueling ground, used his much larger arms to cut down a branch that was over Shields’ head.

With the encouragement of the crowd, the men called off the duel. During the Civil War, then-Brig. Gen. Shields defeated Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Kernstown, an important victory for the Union.

Although generally frowned upon, duels still happened until after the Civil War.

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That time 621 Brits rammed a suicide ship into a Nazi fortress

In 1942, a group of British commandos and sailors launched a daring raid to cripple the Nazi drydocks at St. Nazaire, France — the only facility in the northern Atlantic that could handle repairs to Germany’s largest battleships.


The raid consisted of 18 vessels and 621 British servicemen who ran a destroyer loaded with explosives into the Nazi-held docks.

The drydock at St. Nazaire — often called the Normandie docks after the French passenger ship Normandie that the docks were originally constructed to support — was the only facility capable of repairing the legendary German battleship Tirpitz if it was damaged.

The Tirpitz was a strategic target for the British.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
The HMS Campbeltown as it was being converted to resemble a German warship for the St. Nazaire raid. (Photo: Royal Navy)

Britain’s audacious plan was dubbed “Operation Chariot.” It called for the HMS Campbeltown, a former U.S. destroyer that was traded to the United Kingdom, to sail straight down the river approach to Normandie.

When it reached the target, the ship would ram the drydock at full speed.

The Campbeltown had a 4-ton bomb nestled in the hull that would be set to go off in the early morning hours after the ramming.

Fifteen motor launches — 112-ft. long wooden boats with little armor or firepower — along with a motor torpedo boat and a motor gunboat provided a 17-ship escort for the Campbeltown.

These ships were supposed to provide some cover for the destroyer and evacuate the sailors and commandos after the mission.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
British Motor Torpedo Boat 74 before it took part in the St. Nazaire raid. (Photo: Royal Navy)

The entire convoy left England on March 26, 1942. Only a few senior officers believed the mission had any chance of success, and even those thought that there was little or no chance that any of the men would make it home alive.

The fleet sailed down to the entrance to the waterways and turned east for the final five-mile trip upriver. As they turned, the commander ordered the fuzes on the bombs be lit. The men had approximately eight hours until their ship would blow sky high.

A Royal Air Force bombing mission was supposed to distract the defenders for as long as possible, but cloud cover caused the crews to not drop their bombs for fear of causing French casualties. Instead, the circling planes just alerted the Germans that something was going on.

The little-known stories of smokejumpers working with the CIA
British commandos rush with scaling ladders. (Photo: YouTube/993ti)

The Campbeltown had been modified to make it appear a little like a German ship, and it flew a German flag. But the camouflage job wasn’t particularly good.

The first few German defenses let the ships pass unmolested, but the flotilla quickly came under scrutiny.

Initially, British signallers using a stolen German code book were able to provide the right responses to challenges, but the Nazis got wise to the ruse and opened fire on the British.

Dozens of artillery emplacements and machine guns on both banks of the river started shooting the Campbeltown as other machine guns concentrated on the smaller ships.

The motor launches were quickly engulfed in flames as rounds pierced the external fuel tanks on the wooden decks and turned the boats into raging bonfires.

The Campbeltown proceeded upriver even after the helmsman was killed. The man who stepped up to replace him was also killed.

Finally, the scientist who had designed the bomb in the Campbeltown’s hold stepped up and steered the ship forward.

The commandos and sailors silenced as many German guns as they could, but survivors said the ship was still alight with the fire and sparks kicked up by the constant volleys hitting the Campbeltown.

Despite the fierce fire, the Campbeltown was able to strike the dock and ran aground on its lip.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown" The HMS Campbeltown sits on the lip of the Normandie dock after crashing into it. (Photo: German army archives)

The surviving commandos spilled off of the ship and rushed to their assigned targets, setting bombs on the pumping house, the winding houses, and the caissons that made the drydock work.

Despite the commandos wounds and fatigue, they got the job done, knocking out the dock’s infrastructure.

But when they arrived back at their pickup point, nearly all of the motor launches were sinking or on fire. The commander gave the order for the men to disperse into small groups and attempt to fight their way to the Spanish border, 350 miles away.

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British prisoners are escorted by German troops in the final hours of the St. Nazaire raid. (Photo: German army archives)

Most of the men were captured or killed during the attempted escape through the French city. The Germans treated the British fighters well, probably in honor of their bravery for having attacked a fortress at 10 to 1 odds.

Only 227 British troops made it out. Five fought their way to France, and 222 made it to safety on the surviving boats.

The prisoners left in the town were dismayed to see that the Campbeltown did not blow up on schedule. At 10 a.m., hours after the bomb was set to blow, the ship was covered in German soldiers.

Some of them were walking with their French girlfriends on the ship’s decks.

According to Lt. Cmdr. Sam Beattie, one of the mission commanders who later received the Victoria Cross for his actions, was being mocked by a German officer for trying to break the docks with a flimsy ship when the bomb blew. Then the bomb went off.

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The remains of the HMS Campbeltown sit in the Normandie dry dock after a bomb in the ship’s hull rendered the docks unusable. (Photo: YouTube/993ti)

The resulting damage killed most of the men nearby and did so much damage to the dock that it wasn’t operable again until 1947.

The mission resulted in the award of five Victoria Crosses and four Croix de Guerre, Britain and France’s highest awards for valor. Another 80 awards were given to the men who carried out the raid.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Puerto Ricans gained US citizenship just in time to be drafted for World War I

In 2017, Puerto Ricans battled economic hardship and the lasting effects of Hurricane Maria at home as they celebrated 100 years of American citizenship. On March 2, 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act was passed by Congress, making the island a U.S. territory and guaranteeing citizenship to all Puerto Ricans born after April 25, 1898. With citizenship came all the requirements of citizenship: serving on juries, paying taxes, and being drafted for military service.

Just in time for World War I.


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Welcome to the party, pal.

It was just twenty years after the United States usurped the island’s Spanish rulers in the Spanish-American War and annexed Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States. By the end of the United States’ participation in World War I, the Selective Service Act would draft some 2.8 million men, sending an estimated 10,000 troops to France every day. The U.S. Army had come a long way from the third-rate militia it was before the war. To meet the requirements of becoming a great, global power, it needed the manpower of one.

American territories, which at the time included Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and others, were exempt from the draft. The legislature of Puerto Rico immediately asked Congress to extend conscription to American territories – namely Puerto Rico. But this was purely at the request of the Puerto Ricans.

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Puerto Rican Cpl. Ricardo LaFontaine in 1917.

In all, some 236,000 Puerto Ricans from the island signed up for selective service for a potential draft notice. Of those, 18,000 would go on to serve in the war. But they weren’t always welcome. African-American Puerto Ricans, like many minorities in the U.S., weren’t entirely welcome and ended up in segregated units. For those Puerto Ricans not of African descent, they would be assigned to some regular units in the U.S. military. Still, President Wilson, in the face of discouragement from the War Department, created a Puerto Rican Division.

A full 70 percent of those Puerto Ricans who signed up for service in World War I were rejected for no other reason than the War Department didn’t know what to do with them in a segregated Army. Despite this, there has long been a conspiracy theory that held Puerto Rico was only granted citizenship so they could fight in the war. If that were true, the U.S. would have sent a lot more Puerto Ricans than it did.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The war that forced Paris to eat its zoo

For four months from Sept. 19, 1870 to Jan. 28, 1871, the Prussian Army laid siege to the city of Paris, as part of the Franco-Prussian War. Prior to having all supply lines cut off, the French Ministry of Agriculture furiously worked to gather as much food and fuel as it could, and at the beginning, “livestock blanket[ed] the Bois de Boulogne park on the edge of Paris.”

Apparently insufficient, within less than a month, the Parisians began butchering the horses, with the meat used as you would expect and even the blood collected “for the purposes of making puddings.” By the end of the siege, approximately 65,000 horses were killed and eaten.


Within another month, by Nov. 12, 1870, butchered dogs and cats began to appear for sale at the market alongside trays full of dead rats and pigeons. The former pets sold for between 20 and 40 cents per pound, while a nice, fat rat could go for 50.

As Christmas approached, most of Paris’ restaurants and cafés were forced to close, although a few of its top eateries continued serving, albeit with a markedly different menu. And as traditional meats were becoming increasingly scarce, the formerly impossible became the actual – when M. Deboos of the Boucherie Anglaise (English Butcher) purchased a pair of zoo elephants, named Castor and Pollux, for 27,000 francs.

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The enormous animals were killed with explosive, steel tipped bullets fired at close range, chopped up and sold, with the trunks being the most desirable and selling for 40-45 francs per pound, and other parts between 10 and 14.

Prized by the fine dining establishments, for its Christmas feat, the Voisin served elephant soup, and for New Year’s Day, Peter’s Restaurant offered filet d’éléphant, sauce Madère.

The elephants weren’t the only zoo animals featured on these menus, as the Voison also served kangaroo and antelope, while Peter’s also served peacock. In addition, rats, mules, donkeys, dogs and cats were also transformed by their chefs into roasts, chops, cutlets and ragouts.

Ultimately most of the animals in the zoo were eaten, with the voracious Parisians sparing only the monkeys, lions, tigers and hippos. It is thought that the monkeys were left because of their close resemblance to humans, but it isn’t clear why the lions, tigers, and hippos escaped the menu.

In any event, the siege was ended by a 23-night bombardment campaign in January, in which the Prussians lobbed 12,000 shells into the city, killing and wounding around 400 people. The Franco-Prussian War officially ended with the Treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1871.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

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The last soldier killed in WWI died one minute before the war ended

Sergeant Henry Gunther was actually a private the day he charged a German machine gun nest for the last time in World War I. He had just been busted down in rank for criticizing the war in a letter he wrote home, and he wasn’t happy about it.


Luckily for millions of other soldiers and civilians in Europe, everyone knew the Armistice would come into effect on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

This is why so many question why Sgt. Gunter charged a German machine gun nest at 10:59 that same day.

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A memorial to Gunther built on Nov. 11, 2010 at his gravesite in Baltimore.

Gunther and his unit came across a German position north of Verdun on Nov. 11, 1918. As they took cover from the machine guns, they received word that the war would be over in less than an hour.

That’s when Sgt. Gunther charged the position with a fixed bayonet.

The Germans fired a number of warning shots and tried to yell at Gunther – in English – to stop.

But Gunter wasn’t the only troop to die in that last hour of World War I. Some 3,000 men died in that short time. Some historians even speculate that Gunther was ordered to charge the machine guns.

Even though so many others died around the same time, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force General John J. Pershing declared that Gunther would be known as the last man killed in action in the war.

Sergeant Henry Gunther was engaged before the war started and just secured a job as a bookkeeper in the Baltimore area before he was drafted in 1917.

After his death was recorded at 10:59, his fellow troops moved his body and buried him near where his company was posted. His remains were moved to the United States in 1923.

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A man in WWI-era French uniform stands beside a memorial stone at the spot where Henry Gunther fell on Nov. 11, 1918. The stone was unveiled by the French government as part of a 90th anniversary event in 2008. (Photo by American War Memorials Overseas)

On Veteran’s Day 2008, a memorial was constructed on the site where he was killed in Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, France.

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Why the Navy has midshipmen instead of cadets

Contrary to what many civilians believe, not everyone in the military is a soldier. While the Army has soldiers, the Navy has sailors, the Air Force has airmen, Space Force has Guardians (we’re still trying to wrap our heads around that one), and don’t ever let a Marine hear you call them anything but a Marine. While the Army and Air Force call their officer trainees in ROTC and their service academies cadets, the same can’t be said for the Navy.

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Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy (U.S. Navy)

Students at the Naval Academy, Merchant Marine Academy, and enrolled in Navy ROTC are called midshipmen. Not only does this differentiate them from their Army and Air Force counterparts, but it reflects the long lineage of naval history and tradition.

1662 saw the first recorded use of the term midshipman. It referred to more experienced sailors aboard British ships with increased responsibility over regular deckhands, but was not a formal military rank. The name itself is derived from the middle section of a ship called amidships. Between the main and mizzen masts, this is where midshipmen generally worked and berthed below decks.

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An illustration of an 18th century Royal Navy Midshipman by Thomas Rowlandson (Public Domain)

In the 18th century, midshipman became a more formal title held mostly by officer candidates who failed their lieutenant exam or were passed over for promotion. By 1794, midshipman evolved into a proper rank and referred exclusively to officer candidates. Midshipmen were generally young men who aspired to become naval officers and were sent into naval service by their families. After a set amount of time at sea and upon completion of their naval studies, midshipmen could be promoted to lieutenants.

When the United States declared its independence from Britain, much of its military was modeled after the British. After all, many Americans previously served in the British military. Moreover, the British had the most powerful Army and Navy in the world, so it made sense to copy them. With the Naval Act of 1794, Congress established the United States Navy and included midshipman as a warrant officer rank. Like their British counterparts, American midshipmen were generally young men between the ages of 14 and 22 who were in training to become naval officers.

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Future Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz as a Midshipman (U.S. Navy)

In 1845, the United States Naval Academy was created. This formal institution replaced the longstanding practice of naval apprenticeships that previously created naval officers. To distinguish these new naval students, Naval Academy trainees were referred to as cadet midshipmen.

In 1865, the Department of Steam Enginery was created and engineer students were admitted to the Naval Academy. To differentiate them from the regular cadet midshipmen, the Naval Academy created the titles of engineer cadet and naval cadet. However, this didn’t last long. In 1882, Congress eliminated the distinction and all student officers were referred to as naval cadets. In 1902, the naval cadet title was eliminated entirely and reverted back to midshipman.

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The Oklahoma University NROTC Midshipman Drill Team (Oklahoma University NROTC)

Legally, midshipmen in the U.S. Navy are a special grade of uncomissioned (not noncommissioned) officer. They sit between E-9 and W-1 (W-2 in the Coast Guard). Today, the midshipman rank is also held by aspiring Marine Corps officers at the Naval Academy and in NROTC. Whereas the Navy midshipmen wear gold fouled anchors for their rank, Marine-option midshipmen wear a gold Eagle, Globe, and Anchor to differentiate themselves.

Upon graduation, Naval Academy and NROTC midshipmen are commissioned as ensigns in the Navy or as 2nd Lts. in the Marine Corps.

Feature Image: Lt. JG Sterling Orren

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