In 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf knew that victory over Iraq was imminent. Operation Desert Storm lasted just 42 days. Once it ended, Schwarzkopf gave “The Mother of All News Conferences” across the street from his command headquarters in Saudi Arabia. The presser is lauded as being one of the most comprehensive and inviting news conferences ever given by a general of the US Army.
Gen. Schwarzkopf led the coalition forces during the Gulf War. But that wasn’t his first experience with combat. He was also a battalion commander during the Vietnam War. During Vietnam, Schwarzkopf earned three Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, and the Legion of Merit. He also served as a commander during the Invasion of Grenada in 1983.
Operation Desert Storm
In 1988, Schwarzkopf assumed CENTCOM command. Initially, he was tasked with defending Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression. So, he set out to create and strengthen diplomatic relations with both countries. However, talks failed.
So Schwarzkopf quickly realized something else would need to be done to ensure peace in the region. He planned and led Operation Desert Storm. ODS was an aggressive air campaign that was followed by a grueling 100-hour ground operation. This tactic helped the coalition forces achieve victory over Iraq. Kuwait was liberated and Schwarzkopf decided that the best thing to do would be to explain to the world’s press how the battle was won. Units activated for ODS included the 101st Airborne, 82nd Airborne, along with the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division and the 3rd Armored Cavalry. These units were positioned behind the Saudi Arabian task force. Forces were deployed to the region on August 7.
As soon as it was clear Operation Desert Storm was a success, Gen. Schwarzkopf led a presser where he made good on his promise to provide information on how he constructed his mission plan and what the strategy was behind it. During the hour-long press conference, Schwarzkopf gave the following rundown of the mission.
Breaking it down battle by battle
By the middle of November, the decision to increase the number of ground troops was made, in part because of an increase in Iraqi forces to the area.
“We made a very deliberate decision to align all of those forces within the boundary looking north toward Kuwait,” Schwarzkopf briefed, “… so it looked like they were all against directly on the Iraqi positions.”
Adding to that was a very active and very known naval presence in the Gulf. Schwarzkopf said one of the reasons he made sure that the naval presence was so widely known was because it was obvious that the Iraqis were concerned about a water-based attack.
The hour-long brief given by Gen. Schwarzkopf is considered one of the most detailed and comprehensive military news conferences because of the depth and detail that he provided during the presser.
In his cadet picture from Bordentown Military Institute, a ten-year-old Schwarzkopf isn’t smiling. Apparently, he flat out refused and instead, frowned sternly.
“Some day when I become a general, I want people to know that I’m serious.”
For everyone attending the Mother of All Press Conferences, that message was received loud and clear.
If you thought that air warfare was reserved for a time after airplanes were invented, you thought wrong. During the American Civil War, the Union troops used hot air balloons to spy on Confederate troops.
The idea to use balloons was the brainchild of Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Joseph Henry, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. They suggested that the military should create the balloon corps under the command of Thaddeus Lowe to do some “aerial reconnaissance” for the Union.
On June 17, 1861, Lowe demonstrated his balloon in front of President Abraham Lincoln. He went up to the lofty height of 500 feet and flew the balloon the short distance between the Washington Mall to where the National Air and Space Museum now stands. Lincoln had doubtless seen hot air balloons do such things at fairs for years; what made this journey special was that the balloon was hooked up to a cable that linked an air bound Lowe to the War Department.
In the first air-to-ground communication in America, Lowe sent the following telegram to Lincoln from his balloon: “The city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene…”
Soon after, Lincoln wrote to General Winfield Scott about Lowe’s abilities. However, when Lowe presented himself to the general, he found that Scott was less than impressed. Lincoln ultimately had to personally intervene to get the general to accept Lowe into the ranks.
In August 1861, the first army balloon was constructed and named The Union. The balloon depended on tapping into Washington D.C.’s natural gas lines, so it wasn’t able to go very far. However, the next month Lowe was able to take his balloon up to 1000 feet and spy on the Confederate troops residing at Fall’s Church, VA. With his direction, Union troops were able to accurately aim at enemy troops without actually seeing them. This was a military first, and the success resulted in the establishment of the Balloon Corps.
The first order of business was to hire more aeronauts. Around October 1861, a number of balloons were tethered along the Potomac River. From their vantage point, the people manning the balloons were able to see any Confederate activity up to a day’s march away, giving the Union time to prepare a plan of defence.
After a short period of time, balloon technology advanced. Lowe himself invented a way to make gas portable: a wooden tank lined with copper, set up on a wagon that also carried water, iron, and sulfuric acid. Combined, these wagons produced hydrogen gas which lifted the balloons up. The army had twelve wagons built to aid the balloons in long-distance missions. Each of them weighed 1000 pounds.
Throughout 1862, Lowe continued to go on reconnaissance missions, noting on maps where Confederate troops were located. When he travelled at night, he would count campfires. It wasn’t all good news, though. The Confederate troops quickly caught on to what was happening and started shooting at the balloons with guns and cannons. Luckily for the people in the balloons, it was pretty difficult for soldiers on the ground to actually hit them—and it was easy for the soldiers in the balloon to gun down anyone who took a shot.
When shooting failed, the Confederates learned how to cloak their positions with camouflage and blackouts, making Lowe’s job more difficult. If Confederates made fewer fires, then Lowe’s estimates of their forces would be low, and the Union troops would underestimate the South’s strength. They would also paint fake cannons black and set them up around camp, so that if a balloon happened to fly over while it was still light, the North would think that they had too many resources to chance a fight. These fake cannons were called “Quaker guns” because they were, like the pacifist Quakers, completely harmless in war.
Two of the hydrogen gas generators assigned to each balloon for inflating on the battlefield.
The South did set out to copy the balloons’ success at one point, but they lacked the technology and resources required to make their balloons practical. The first Confederate balloon was difficult to control, as it was made out of varnished cotton and kept aloft with hot air. The balloonist did manage to draw a map of Union positions around Yorktown despite the difficulties, however. A second attempt was less successful. A balloon made of silk (said to have been sewn from the gowns of Southern Belles) was tied to a tugboat and dragged along the James River before the tugboat crashed and Union troops took control of the balloon.
The Union Balloon Corps met its demise before the end of the Civil War. With a switch of command in 1863, funding was cut to the program which meant that the balloonist could no longer continue staying aloft. On top of that, Lowe himself was accused of “financial impropriety” and forced to resign. Lowe had become the driving force behind the entire campaign, and without him to advocate for the corps, it disbanded.
In addition to the technology of balloons, the Civil War saw a significant use of telegraph machines on both sides. The Union sometimes handled upwards of 4500 telegrams a day reporting on Confederate movements. Both sides encrypted their messages with ciphers, and both sides learned how to tap telegraph machines. Sometimes, messages would become unreadable due to mistakes made on behalf of the people sending them. Robert E. Lee hated telegraphs and even ordered his officers not to send anything, lest the Union find out what the messages contained.
Before he was appointed Chief Aeronaut, Lowe was simply an aeronautic scientist. A week after the fall of Fort Sumter, which kicked off the Civil War, Lowe could be found on a nine hour balloon trip from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Union, South Carolina. When he landed, Confederate troops accused him of spying for the Union. They were eventually convinced of his innocence—something they regretted later—and Lowe returned to the North, where he learned that Mr. Henry wanted to talk to him.
Lowe continued to be passionate about flying. He also made the “railway into the clouds” in California, which took passengers to the summit of Echo Mountain. But one of his biggest legacies is that of his granddaughter, the remarkable Pancho Barnes, who also caught the flying bug.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
These days, when things go south while in a fighter, pilots are trained to reach for the loops that trigger their ejection seats. You just give it a yank and the ejection seat takes it from there, launching you from the stricken plane and setting you up for a safe(ish) landing on the ground (hopefully far from people you’ve just bombed or strafed).
Easy as pie — but it’s still something you don’t wanna do.
But in World War II, the process was very different. Today’s ejection seats use technology that didn’t exist in that era, so much of the process had to be handled manually, which was extremely hazardous.
The pilot of a MiG-15 uses an ejection seat to make his escape from a plane that has been shot down.
When future president George H. W. Bush’s Grumman TBF Avenger was hit by enemy over Chichijima, the other two men on board were immediately killed and he had to bail out. In the chaos, Bush ejected improperly and collided with the plane’s tail — luckily, his injuries were minor compared to what could’ve happened. He drifted to the ocean below tethered to a parachute and was eventually rescued.
The method of properly ejecting from a World War II-era fighter varied depending on the plane. What worked for a P-38 Lightning wouldn’t work for a F4U Corsair. But, in general, the procedure was to slow the plane down as much as possible and manually open up the canopy. That’s when things got real tricky.
This gun-camera footage shows a Nazi pilot trying to bail from a FW190.
A pilot’s natural instinct is to use their foot to jump from the side of the cockpit, but that would expose him or her to the slipstream — and that means a collision with the tail. Instead, pilots must use their hands on the side of the cockpit and roll over the “wall.” Then, the pilot waits to clear the plane (usually with a ten count) before pulling the ripcord, deploying a parachute.
Tom McCaslin is a police detective in Omaha, Neb. and his coldest case is turning 75 in 2019. It’s the search for his uncle, Staff Sgt. Thomas J. McCaslin, one of eight crew members of a bomber that was shot down over Nazi-occupied France on June 22, 1944.
All these decades later, his nephew is hunting for his remains in order to bring the bomber crewman back home while four of his 12 siblings are still alive.
Top row, from left: Lt. Col. Don Weiss, Lt. David Meserow, Lt. Axel Slustrop. Bottom row: Staff Sgt. John H. Canty,, S/Sgt. Tom McCaslin, T/Sgt. Clement Monaco. All but Monaco were aboard the B-26 when it was shot down.
Their B-26 Marauder was shot down by Nazi flak while supporting the Allied push inland. As the British Second Army fought the German Panzergruppe West in the streets of below, the crew of the B-26 tried in vain to stay aloft. They went down anyway, and that was the last anyone ever heard of them. Well, most of them, anyway. The first was found in 1946, buried after the crash by locals. The remains of the bird’s four officers were discovered in 1986 by a farmer in his fields. They were taken to the American cemetery at Normandy. Another, the enlisted top tail gunner, was found by an amateur historian who also found the man’s dog tag.
That leaves two – and one of those is Thomas J. McCaslin, the Marauder’s bottom turret gunner. McCaslin’s nephew is looking for his uncle and the other crewman.
McCaslin’s mission has led him to talk to both the historian and the farmer who found the previous remains. He has also obtained numerous documents about the B-26 mission. It was one of 36 planes to fly over a chateau being used as a headquarters building by the Nazi SS. As the bomber began to make its run and open the doors, a flak burst cut the plane in two and sent it careening to earth. No one was able to bail out. In 40 seconds, it was all over, leaving those eight men among the 73,000 who would be unaccounted for during the war. McCaslin even has aerial recon photos of the crash site taken right after the crash.
McCaslin and his detective skills are largely responsible for the 2018 discovery of Staff Sgt. John Canty’s remains. His work persuaded French authorities to further search the field where his dog tag was found. Canty was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery. From interviewing relic hunters to requesting documents, McCaslin has worked tirelessly to track down the entire crew since the discovery of the first remains – which he only learned about through a newspaper.
The B-26 Marauder.
Detective McCaslin and his family have all worked the case tirelessly for years. As a family, they have hounded government agencies in an effort to step up the recovery of his uncle and another unaccounted-for airman from his crew. All hope is not lost. McCaslin is currently waiting for the DNA identification of some finger bones found in the area. He even has an eyewitness to the battle who reports that she saw parachutes as a young girl.
“The stuff they’ve uncovered is incredible,” says Jed Henry, a journalist and independent researcher who has become an advocate for families of missing service members from World War II. “To have the intelligence to sort through it, and the tenacity — and to care about it. … I’ve never seen a family that has gotten into this as much as they have.”
“My uncle joined (the military) in 1942, and we never saw him again,” Tom McCaslin said. “If there’s a chance to find him, we should do it.”
It’s no secret the military trains the way they fight — which is pretty hardcore. Marines and sailors train in the terrible heat and rough terrain of the Mojave Desert to prepare them to face the enemy in the harsh conditions of Afghanistan.
During their pre-deployment workup, troops pretend to get hurt so that nearby medics can practice rendering proper treatment. This training only goes so far, though, as the semi-stressful situations can’t compare to the real vigors of war.
So, to get young medical professionals ready for bloody working conditions overseas, some of the troops are sent to a live-tissue training course stateside where they must keep wounded pigs or goats alive for hours — or fail the course.
These animals are chosen specifically due to their tissue similarities to humans.
Before heading down to the live-tissue training grounds, young troops go through three days’ worth of brutal training missions throughout Camp Pendleton. These missions consist of hunting down mock “high-value targets,” several hours of intense physical training, and miles of foot patrols with little to no sleep. Then, troops board a bus that takes them to an undisclosed location — the live-tissue training grounds.
“The instructors worked us hard all day and night,” one former hospital Corpsman recalls. “We all were completely exhausted before the lab even started.”
Once at the training ground, the troops gear up in full battle rattle, place their highly anesthetized agricultural animal on an Army litter, and carry it up a steep hill where the training begins. After dropping the animal off at the first station, medics seek cover until signaled to retrieved their severely wounded patient.
Once the troops retrieve their patient, the docs make lifesaving interventions.
Three or four battle-themed stations and several massive wounds later, the troops enter a large metal container and load their “patient” on board as if it were a medical evacuation helicopter. After being locked in for several minutes, the container’s door opens to a mock-hospital, where the troops continue to care for their patient.
If the animal dies throughout this process, the student fails.
Compared to a computer simulator, the “pig lab,” as many refer to it, puts actual life into the student’s hands, forcing them to think on their toes to keep their patient alive.
Although humans control the stimulator, this lab comes with an extreme level of unpredictability and is considered “great training.”
“It was the best damn training I’ve ever received,” the former hospital Corpsman remembers. “I felt much more confident to take care of one of my Marines if they got hurt.”
Although considered to be “great training,” PETA, or the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has voiced, on many occasions, that they are entirely against using agricultural animals for military training.
In the military, everyone loves to compare their job with others as part of a pissing contest to see who has it worst. Some cite their terrible living conditions, others tell horror stories of intense training, and the rest point to the awful, boring tasks handed to them. But there’s only one clear winner of the Absolute Worst Job contest — and that goes to the U.S. Navy’s loblolly boy.
Now, we’re not saying this to discredit your terrible MOS or rating — we’re sure yours is perfectly horrible — but unless your job is centered almost entirely around handling the medical waste that accumulated out at sea in the 1700s, then you probably can’t compete.
If reading about medical waste makes you a bit squeamish, we wouldn’t blame you if you’d instead like to check out our article about cute animals greeting returning troops. No? Alright, weirdo — but don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Which also involved a lot of cleaning. Pre-Industrial Era medicine wasn’t known for its cleanliness.
The loblolly boy was the junior-most enlisted surgeon’s assistant back in the day. While the average operating table on a vessel consisted of the surgeon and a surgeon’s mate or two, all of the work that was deemed “below the officer” was shoveled directly onto the loblolly boy.
The name comes directly from the English slang term ‘lob,’ which meant ‘bubbling’ or ‘boiling,’ and ‘lolly,’ which was a soup or broth. This is in regards to one of the more lighthearted tasks assigned to these troops: to feed soup or stew to the injured sailors and Marines.
But since they were the lowest-ranking member of the medical team, they also had to handle the other tasks associated with nursing the wounded, like cleaning chamber pots, organizing medical supplies, cleaning medical instruments, and, of course, assisting in surgery.
We’re not talking the cleanest of working environments here, but at least they tried their best.
Back in the 18th century, amputation was a go-to answer for a lot of dire medical situations. Wound too bad? Amputation. Infection looks like it’s spreading? Amputation. Bone shattered too much? Amputation. Skin starting to turn green after you ignored a simple scrape? Amputation. It’s a pretty grim solution, but there’s no denying its effectiveness when the alternative was often death.
This was also long before anesthetics or analgesics, so the operations had to be done quickly — because, you know, that was the most “humane” way to cut someone’s leg off. They’d have the loblolly boy hold them down while Doc sawed it off. Problem is, the loblolly boy was often just a kid or young adult, which made restraining a fully grown Marine who’s getting parts cut off a significant challenge.
Old Victorian English surgeons in a hospital got the process down to 30 seconds flat. Civil War surgeons in the midst of a battle would clock in at around the same time, but the process was a whole lot messier. The loblolly boy, of course, had to clean up the inevitable splatters before the next patient came in. Disposing of amputated limbs was one of the primary duties of the loblolly boy.
If you’re a corpsman, now you know you can always win the debate of how’s job has been historically worse.
(U.S. Navy photo)
The job wasn’t the most glamorous, but it did open the doors for loblolly boys to work their way up in the medical field. This gave an opportunity to those who would otherwise not have it — for social, economical, or racial reasons. Many of the first African American surgeons got their start in the military as loblolly boys.
Ann Bradford Stokes, an escaped slave, was taken aboard the USS Red Rover during the Civil War and became both one of the first women to enlist and one of the first African Americans to enlist in the United States Navy. Though she could not read or write during her time of service, she did her job dutifully for years and became the very first woman in U.S. history to receive a military pension.
This terrible job evolved throughout the years, later known as surgeon’s steward, apothecary, and bayman, before becoming what we today know: the hospital corpsmen.
Two platoons were ordered to engage the enemy at once; the first stormed toward the Japanese at full force as the second gave “support-by-fire” position in the rear.
As Nett and the first platoon advanced, they slid Bangalore charges through the enemies’ barb wired defense system, clearing their path. The flamethrowers operators then crawled through the detonated gaps and incinerated the enemy forces, allowing allied troops to create a stable foothold for themselves.
Nett’s objective was to clear a sizeable fortified enemy building just up ahead. He called to the forward observer to light the area up with 105mm shells to break the structure’s exterior security.
Just as the shells struck the building, Nett took a surprising neck wound — his jugular vein had been nicked.
Ignoring the pulsating wound, Nett crawled from squad-to-squad while engaging enemy that appeared nearby. Nett decided that it was time for him and his men to fix their bayonets.
With adrenaline pumping through their veins, Nett and his fellow soldiers carefully dashed toward their objective. Nett moved his machine gun teams to their new fighting positions while dangerously engaging the enemy in close quarter combat along the way. At that time, he took another enemy round, this time to his chest — collapsing a lung.
When considering the most courageous and indomitable soldiers of World War II, the likes of Jack Churchill, Leo Major, and Audie Murphy come to mind. But New Zealand had their own contribution to that list: Charles Upham.
If it hadn’t been for the outbreak of World War II, Charles Upham would have likely passed his days in anonymity on a farm in New Zealand.
Instead, when war broke out in Europe, Upham, despite being college educated and 30 years old, enlisted as a private in the New Zealand Army. He was assigned to the 20th Battalion before accepting a position in an Officer Cadet Training Unit from which he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant.
Upham rejoined the 20th Battalion before they shipped out for Greece in 1941. In the face of an overwhelming German invasion, Upham and other Allied forces were evacuated to Crete, where they awaited an inevitable Axis offensive.
In May 1941, German Fallschirmjager (paratroopers) conducted a parachute assault on Crete. Upham was part of the heavy fighting around the Maleme Airfield.
During an attack by his battalion on the airfield, Upham led his platoon at the front of the assault. Through his undaunted courage, he and his men advanced over 3,000 yards against the Germans. During the advance, Upham single-handedly attacked three separate German machine gun positions, silencing two of them with grenades and allowing his men to take out the other.
As his platoon withdrew, he carried a wounded soldier from the field under heavy fire.
Upon his return to friendly lines, Upham was sent back to return a beleaguered company to the battalion’s new position. Without Upham’s effort, the company likely would have been cut off and annihilated.
But Upham was far from done on Crete.
Over the next two days, Upham and his men endured bombardment by the Germans, during which time he was wounded by shrapnel in the shoulder and shot in the foot. However, he remained on duty with his men and refused to be evacuated.
On the fourth day, Upham led his platoon against a German attack and drove them back. He then moved forward to, once again, pull back another unit. During his withdrawal, he was fired upon by two Germans. Upham feigned death before crawling into a firing position. With his arm disabled by the shrapnel wound, he cradled his rifle in the crook of a tree branch and gunned down his attackers as they charged him.
Finally, Upham led his men one more time against the Germans as they attempted to assault the Force Headquarters and utterly annihilated the attacking unit.
Despite Upham’s valiant efforts, the Allied forces on Crete were defeated and he and his unit were evacuated to Egypt.
While in Egypt, Upham was promoted to Captain and placed in charge of a company in the 20th Battalion.
In October 1941, Upham was conferred the Victoria Cross for his actions on Crete.
But back in Egypt, Upham would once again distinguish himself. This time, during the fighting at El Ruweisat Ridge during the First Battle of El Alamein. Early in the fighting, Upham was wounded twice, once while crossing open ground under fire and again when he personally attacked and destroyed a truckload of Germans with hand grenades.
Despite his wounds, Upham stayed with his men.
After personally conducting an information gathering mission armed with an MG42, Upham led his unit against a strongly defended German position. Through force of personality and an indomitable spirit, Upham motivated his men forward to seize the positions. During the attack, Upham personally destroyed a German tank as well as several other vehicles. During his daring offensive, he was wounded a third time by a bullet to the elbow.
Upham continued to lead his men in a courageous defense of their hard-won position from a German counterattack. Finally, weakened by blood loss, Upham was evacuated to the Regimental Aid Station. However, as soon as his wound had been dressed, he left the aid station to return to his men. When a final German counterattack severely wounded him and decimated his company, Upham fell into German hands as a prisoner of war.
For most soldiers, their story would end here. But Upham was not “most soldiers.” Discontent with being a POW, Upham tried numerous times to escape. He jumped from a moving truck in one instance and from a moving train in another. He tried to climb over a fence, in broad daylight, before being caught. And even once, while placed in solitary confinement, made a run for it and was able to clear the gates before being recaptured.
Upham’s repeated escape attempts earned him a spot at the notorious Colditz Castle in late 1944.
When Colditz was liberated by American forces, Upham declined immediate repatriation and instead insisted on fighting with the Americans who gladly accepted him.
However, he was soon returned to Britain where he married his sweetheart, a nurse from New Zealand, in June 1945, shortly after the end of hostilities.
Upham was presented his first Victoria Cross in May 1945 by King George VI. When another recommendation came through for Upham’s actions at El Alamein, King George questioned whether he deserved a bar to his Victoria Cross as it has only been done twice before. Major General Howard Kippenberger replied, “in my respectful opinion, Sir, Upham won this VC several times over.”
He received a bar, indicating a second award of the Victoria Cross, in September 1945.
Upham returned to New Zealand and took up farming, avoiding the fame that came with his exploits during the war as much as possible.
Bob Hicks was spending a cold December night in his barracks 53 years ago at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City when the phone rang.
It was the chief of his missile maintenance team, who dispatched Hicks to an incident at an underground silo.
“The warhead,” the team chief said, “is no longer on top of the missile.”
Hicks eventually learned that a screwdriver used by another airman caused a short circuit that resulted in an explosion. The blast popped off the missile’s cone — the part containing the thermonuclear warhead — and sent it on a 75-foot fall to the bottom of the 80-foot-deep silo.
The courageous actions Hicks took that night and over the next several days were not publicized. The accident was not disclosed to the public until years later, when a government report on accidents with nuclear weapons included seven sentences about it. The report listed the accident as the nation’s first involving a Minuteman missile.
Further details are reported publicly for the first time here, drawn from documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by the Journal and others, and from Hicks himself, who is now 73 years old and living in Cibolo, Texas.
When Hicks was sent to the accident on Dec. 5, 1964, he was only 20 years old, and the cryptic statement from his team chief was the only information he was given.
“That was enough,” Hicks recalled, “to cause me to get dressed pretty quickly.”
The trouble began earlier that day when two other airmen were sent to a silo named Lima-02. It was 60 miles northwest of Ellsworth Air Force Base and 3 miles southeast of the tiny community of Vale, on the plains outside the Black Hills.
Lima-02 was one of 150 steel-and-concrete silos that had been implanted underground and filled with Minuteman missiles during the previous several years in western South Dakota, where the missiles were scattered across 13,500 square miles. There were hundreds more silos in place or soon to be constructed in North Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska, eventually bringing the nation’s Minuteman fleet to a peak of 1,000.
The original Minuteman missiles, called Minuteman I, were 56 feet tall and weighed 65,000 pounds when loaded with fuel. The missiles were capable of traveling at a top speed of 15,000 miles per hour and could reach the Cold War enemy of the United States, the Soviet Union, within 30 minutes.
Each missile was tipped with a thermonuclear warhead that was many times more powerful than either of the two atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japan during World War II. One government agency reportedly estimated that the detonation of an early 1960s-era Minuteman warhead over Detroit would have caused 70 square miles of property destruction, 250,000 deaths, and 500,000 injuries.
The two airmen who visited the Lima-02 silo on Dec. 5, 1964, were part of a young Air Force missile corps that was responsible for launching and maintaining the missiles. The two airmen’s names are redacted – as are many other names – from an Air Force report that was filed after the accident.
At noon that Saturday, the airmen received orders to troubleshoot and repair the Lima-02 security system. They made the long drive and arrived at 2 p.m.
The rectangular, north-south aligned, 1-acre silo site was surrounded by a chain-link fence that was topped with strands of barbed wire. The unremarkable-looking place consisted mostly of a flat expanse of gravel. Toward the south end were several low-slung tops of underground concrete structures.
One of the structures was a 3½-foot-thick, 90-ton slab that covered the missile and would have been blasted aside during a launch. A couple of paces away from that was a circular, steel-and-concrete vault door, about the diameter of a large tractor tire. The door concealed a 28-foot-deep shaft leading to the underground work area known as the equipment room.
Working in 24-degree conditions above ground, the airmen began a series of steps with special tools and combination locks that allowed them to open the massive vault door. Next, they climbed the ladder down to the equipment room, which encircled the upper part of the silo and missile like a doughnut.
The airmen worked in the roughly 5 feet of space between the steel launch tube and the equipment-room wall, among racks of electronics and surfaces painted mostly in pale, institutional green. Though the launch tube was between them and the missile, the missile was not much more than an arm’s length away.
According to the Air Force report on the accident, one of the airmen removed a fuse as part of a check on a security alarm control box. The report says the airman was “lacking a fuse puller,” so he used a screwdriver to pry the fuse from its clip.
When the fuse was re-inserted, the report says, it was supposed to click. The sound of a click indicated good contact with the holder. But there was no click, so the airman repeated the procedure. Still not certain he heard a click, he pulled the fuse out a third time and pushed it back into the holder again.
“At 1500 hours MST,” the report says, referencing 3 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, “simultaneously with the making of this contact, a loud explosion occurred in the launch tube.”
Hicks arrived at the silo later and heard a simpler story from his team chief. According to that story, it was merely the removal of the fuse with a screwdriver – not the pushing-in of the fuse – that caused the problem. Hicks said the metal of the screwdriver contacted the positive side of the fuse and also the fuse’s grounded metal holder, causing a short circuit that sent electricity flowing to unintended places.
“It would be just like you taking your car battery and you touch a screwdriver to the positive terminal on the battery and you touch the frame of the car,” Hicks explained in a recent interview. “You have just put voltage potential on your entire car.”
Hicks and the accident report agree that the wrong tool was used. In the language of the report, “The technician did not use the authorized, available tool to remove the fuse.”
The resulting short circuit might not have been problematic had it not been for some wiring in one of the missile’s retrorockets that was later found to be faulty. According to Hicks, some weakly insulated or exposed wiring may have been in contact with the metal casing of a retrorocket, allowing for a jolt of electricity that caused the retrorocket to fire.
The retrorockets were housed below the cone of the missile. They were supposed to fire when the missile was in outer space, to separate the third and final fuel stage from the cone, allowing the cone and its warhead — which were collectively called the “re-entry vehicle” — to fall toward the target.
When one of the retrorockets fired inside the missile in the Lima-02 silo, pressure built up in the space where the retrorockets were housed, and the cone of the missile — which was about 5 feet tall, nearly 3 feet in diameter at its base, and about 750 pounds in weight — burst off and fell down in the few feet of space between the missile and the silo wall.
The cone hit the wall of the silo, bounced back toward the missile and grazed it in two spots along the second fuel stage, hit two of the three suspension cables that supported the missile, and finally crashed to the concrete floor of the silo and came to rest on its side. Luckily, the cone did not do enough damage to the missile to cause the missile to explode.
Neither of the airmen immediately knew what had happened. The bureaucratically written accident report says they “expeditiously evacuated” after hearing the explosion, as the silo filled with gray smoke.
In later years, Buddy Smith, who now lives in Texas and is a friend of Hicks, received training about the South Dakota accident before working in the missile fields of Wyoming.
“I wasn’t there,” Smith said of the explosion, “but I know there were two technicians who ruined their underwear. ‘Cause that ain’t supposed to happen.”
Bob Dirksing, who was Hicks’ roommate at Ellsworth and now lives in the Cincinnati area, said the two airmen who were in the silo when the explosion happened were lucky to survive.
“It could’ve been a lot worse,” Dirksing said. “If the short had gone to the missile instead of to the retrorockets, it would’ve been a completely different story. I’m sure there would’ve been fatalities. The boys who were down there would’ve been fried.”
The explosion triggered a flurry of activity over the next seven hours. A potential “broken arrow” was declared, which is military-speak for an accident involving a nuclear weapon. A strike team was deployed to set up a 2,000-foot cordon around the silo, including a roadblock. Medics were dispatched to the scene. Three sergeants were flown in by helicopter.
The sergeants went down to the equipment room after the smoke cleared and made two observations: Everything was covered in gray dust, and the missile was missing its top.
A radiation-monitoring team went down next and did not detect alarming radiation levels but did find the missile’s cone, which contained the warhead, damaged and lying at the bottom of the silo.
By about 10 p.m., the scramble to assess the situation was over. Nobody was injured. The missile was slightly damaged but otherwise intact. The warhead was safe inside its cone, although the cone was damaged. And except for some Vale-area residents who probably saw the commotion and wondered what was going on, the public knew nothing.
The emergency was over, and it was time to plan a salvage operation. Sometime before midnight at Ellsworth, the phone rang for Bob Hicks.
Into the silo
Hicks had enlisted less than two years earlier as a skinny, 6-foot-tall, 19-year-old farm boy from Somerset, Texas, a small town about 20 miles south of San Antonio. He was the youngest in a family of 13 children, which included six boys who served more than a combined 90 years on Air Force active duty from World War II to Vietnam and beyond.
After basic training, Hicks had been sent to nuclear weapons maintenance school in Colorado. By October 1963 – eight months after his enlistment – he was installing warheads and guidance packages atop Minuteman missiles in the silos of western South Dakota.
The silos had been rushed into existence after a groundbreaking ceremony in 1962, with Americans still reeling from the shock of seeing the Soviets launch their Sputnik satellite in 1957. If the Soviets could put a satellite into orbit, American leaders reasoned, it would not be long until they could launch a missile on an arcing path through outer space to the United States.
When Hicks got the call about the accident on Dec. 5, 1964, he and another airman jumped into the specially equipped truck-and-trailer rig that they typically used to transport warheads. They sped into the night, traveling on the newly constructed Interstate 90 toward Sturgis. It wasn’t long before Hicks had to pull over when he saw a state trooper’s cruiser lights flashing in his rear-view mirrors.
“He said, ‘Ya’ll seem to be in a hurry,'” Hicks recalled.
Hicks did not divulge that he was en route to a potential nuclear disaster, and the trooper inquired no further.
But the trooper did mention some smoke emitting from one of the rig’s wheels. Hicks and his companion traced the problem to some bad brake hoses. They made an impromptu fix and sped off again toward Sturgis.
After passing through Sturgis and heading east, Hicks steered the rig north around the hulking, dark mass of Bear Butte and motored across the quiet countryside to Vale before finally reaching the silo.
There were perhaps a dozen people at the scene.
“As we later joked,” Hicks recalled in his slight Texas drawl, “They were standing around not knowing whether to scratch their watch or wind their butts.”
According to Hicks, the missile had not yet been rendered safe, and his team chief said somebody had to do it. Hicks volunteered.
When he saw the missile was fully upright, Hicks was relieved. If it had fallen against the silo, the missile might have been weakened to the point of a collapse and explosion. But that disaster had been avoided.
Incredible as it may sound to a civilian, Hicks said he spent no time worrying about the thermonuclear warhead. He had been convinced by his training that it was nearly impossible to detonate a warhead accidentally. Among other things, he said, the warhead had to receive codes from the launch-control officers, had to reach a certain altitude, and had to detect a certain amount of acceleration and G-force. There were so many safeguards built in, Hicks later joked, that a warhead might have been lucky to detonate even when it was supposed to.
That’s not to say his trip down the silo was without danger. The missile, which contained a load of fuel, had been grazed and damaged by the falling cone. And with only a few years of history behind the Minuteman missile program and no known nuclear accident involving a Minuteman until the one Hicks was confronting, he was heading into the unknown.
Nevertheless, he climbed down the shaft and into the equipment room that encircled the upper part of the underground silo. Next, he lowered the so-called “diving board,” which extended from the launch tube toward the missile and allowed Hicks to essentially walk the plank at a height of about 60 feet above the silo floor.
He also installed a work cage, which was a man-sized steel basket that could be hung from motorized cables on the inner wall of the launch tube. The cable assembly not only moved the cage vertically but could also move horizontally on a track around the launch tube, allowing airmen to access every part of the missile.
Hicks maneuvered the cage down the side of the missile and started the procedure to “safe” it. At each point between the missile’s three fuel stages, Hicks inserted a long metal rod with a socket-like head and turned the rod to break the electrical connections between the stages, rendering them incapable of firing.
With the missile “safed,” it was time to figure out what to do about the warhead.
‘Up very slowly’
Hicks said there was a particularly high-ranking officer at the scene who’d been flown in by helicopter. After Hicks had rendered the missile safe, Hicks came back to the surface and heard the officer asking some other men how to retrieve the warhead.
Hicks heard no response, so he piped up. Cargo nets were sometimes used to move heavy equipment in and out of the silo, he said. He suggested that a net could be lowered to the bottom of the silo, and the cone with its warhead could be rolled into the net. The net could then be hoisted up on a cable by a crane.
The officer did not appreciate the boldness of Hicks, whose rank was airman second class.
“He said, ‘Airman, when I want an opinion from you, I’ll ask you,'” Hicks recalled.
Hicks retreated to his truck and awaited further orders. Later, Hicks said, he was recalled to the officer’s side and asked to explain the idea again.
The cargo-net method was eventually chosen as the plan, but Hicks said the Air Force wanted the procedure to be practiced in another silo. The practice proceeded over the next couple of days.
Following the practice, the operation was green-lighted, and a crew assembled at Lima-02 on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1964 – four days after the accident – to retrieve the damaged missile cone and its thermonuclear warhead.
First, some jagged edges on the cone that were caused by its violent separation from the missile were covered in padding, and the cone was hoisted about a foot off the silo floor while a mattress pad was slid underneath it. Next, two cargo nets, which were layered one on top of the other under the pad, were pulled up around the cone and hooked to the cable.
Then began the painstaking process of raising the cone up out of the 80-foot-deep silo, in the few feet of space between the missile and the silo wall, without hitting the missile and causing an explosion. The crane did the lifting, but three men also held tight to a hemp rope that was connected to the cone in case of any problems with the crane, cable or net.
“Up very slow,” reads a portion of a minute-by-minute account of the operation, as printed in the later accident report. “Dead slow. Stop. Up very slow. Stop. Up slow. Stop ”
And on it continued like that for about two hours until the cone emerged from the silo late that afternoon. The cone and its inner warhead were placed on top of some mattresses, Hicks said, in a truck-and-trailer rig. There the cone and warhead sat overnight, in the trailer.
The next day – Thursday, Dec. 10 – a convoy assembled to escort the truck to Ellsworth Air Force Base. According to Hicks, he drove the truck, in part because nobody else at the scene seemed to know how.
The warhead was eventually transported to Medina Annex at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for disassembly. The written record is not as clear about the fate of the missile, but the accident report indicates it may have been removed from the silo the next day, Friday, Dec. 11.
Also on Dec. 11, 1964, the Air Force appointed a board of officers to investigate the accident. The board filed its report seven days later, on Dec. 18, and listed “personnel error” as the primary cause. The report said the cost of the damage was $234,349, which would equate to about $1.85 million in inflation-adjusted 2017 money.
Large sections of the report’s findings and recommendations are redacted, and the non-redacted portions do not disclose the fate of the two airmen who were at the silo when the explosion happened.
Several months after the accident, in March 1965, Hicks was selected as the maintenance man of the month for his division. A short article about the honor in the base newspaper did not disclose that a missile accident had occurred, but it vaguely referenced Hicks’ role in rendering a missile safe and transporting “damaged components.”
That same month, Hicks was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal for acts of courage. The written citation with the medal briefly summarized the accident and the role Hicks played in responding to it.
“By his personal courage and willingness to risk his life when necessary in the performance of dangerous duties,” the citation said, in part, “Airman Hicks has reflected credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
The accident did not scare Hicks away from dangerous jobs. Shortly after receiving his medal, he trained in explosive ordnance disposal and was eventually sent to Guam during the Vietnam War, where he disarmed and extracted bombs that failed to release from B-52 planes.
Hicks went on to work for the Office of Special Investigations, which is the Air Force equivalent of the FBI. He retired from active duty during the 1980s and was hired to work as a civilian agent for OSI until his final retirement in 2005. Along the way, he and his wife, Janet, had two sons.
The missile silos in western South Dakota were decommissioned following the 1991 signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the United States and the Soviet Union. By 1996, all but one of South Dakota’s silos had been imploded. The last remaining silo, called Delta-09, is now host to an unarmed missile and is part of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which includes three attractions spread out along Interstate 90 east of Wall – the silo, a preserved launch-control center called Delta-01, and a visitor center.
The former Lima-02 silo site near Vale has passed into private ownership and is now home to a honey-extracting business. The fence that formerly surrounded the silo complex is still there, kept intact by the landowner.
Although South Dakota’s Minuteman missiles now belong to history, the United States still has 400 Minutemans ready to launch from silos in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. Each of the missiles is a Minuteman III – two generations advanced from the Minuteman I that was in the Lima-02 silo in 1964.
The Minuteman III fleet is just one part of the US nuclear-weapons triad, which comprises 5,113 nuclear warheads in all, including some in storage and others that are deployed and ready for use from land, sea, or air.
To opponents of nuclear armament, that’s a lot of accidents waiting to happen. The US government has officially acknowledged 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons since the 1950s, while additional accidents, incidents, mishaps, and close calls have been uncovered by journalists and activists.
And accidents continue to happen. In 2014, three airmen were conducting maintenance on a Minuteman III missile at a silo in Colorado when an accident caused $1.8 million worth of damage to the missile – roughly the same amount of damage, taking inflation into account, as the 1964 accident in South Dakota. The few known details of the 2014 accident were revealed only after persistent requests for information from The Associated Press.
None of the accidents suffered by the nation’s nuclear-weapons program has ever caused a nuclear detonation. That there was not a detonation at Lima-02 in 1964 is an indication of the safety and reliability of the Minuteman missile program, according to Bob Hicks, who did not sour on nuclear weapons after the accident.
Hicks views the nuclear triad as a necessary and effective deterrent against attacks from nations such as North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un is provoking worldwide anxiety about his development of nuclear weapons.
As the future of nuclear weaponry unfolds, the world may need more unflappable people like Hicks, who considers himself lucky rather than unfortunate to have been called to the site of a nuclear missile accident.
“A career is made up of opportunities,” Hicks said. “Being in the right place, at the right time.”
That’s right, Marine Corps legend and one of America’s greatest fighters from any branch Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, a true American Iron Man, spent his childhood dreaming of being a soldier.
Army guys, before you go too nuts with this information, keep in mind that Puller ended up joining the Marine Corps because he was inspired by the Marines’ legendary performance at the Battle of Belleau Wood and because the Corps gave him a chance at leading troops in World War I before it was over.
Yeah, Chesty changed his service branch preferences for the most Puller reason ever: he thought the Marines would let him draw more blood, sooner.
Puller grew up as a tough kid and the descendant of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. His grandfather and many other relatives fought for the Confederacy while a great uncle commanded a Union division.
His grandfather was a major who had died riding with Jeb Stuart at Kelly’s Ford. Confederate Maj. John W. Puller had been riding with Maj. Gen. Tomas Rosser when a cannon ball took much of his abdomen out. He continued riding a short distance despite his wounds but died on the battlefield.
The young Lewis Puller grew up on the stories of his grandfather and other prominent Confederate soldiers in the town, and it fueled a deep interest in the military for him. At the time, the Marine Corps was a smaller branch that had fulfilled mostly minor roles on both sides of the Civil War, meaning that there were few war stories from them for Puller to hear.
Those stories and Puller’s love of the outdoors naturally led him to the Virginia Military Institute, a college which, at the time, sent most of its candidates to Army service (now, cadets can choose from any of the four Department of Defense branches).
At the institute, Puller was disappointed by the nature of training. He wanted more time in the woods and working with weapons, but the school’s rifles had been taken by the Army for use in World War I. After only a year of training, Puller told his cousin Col. George Derbyshire, the commandant of cadets of the school, that he would not be returning to VMI the following year.
“Well, I’m not old enough to get a commission in the Army, and I can get one in the Marines right away. I don’t want the war to end without me. I’m going with the rifles. If they need them, they need me, too.”
His decision came as the Battle of Belleau Wood was wrapping up, a fight which greatly enhanced the Marine Corps’ reputation in the military world. Puller went to Richmond, Virginia, and enlisted in the Marine Corps on June 27, 1918, the day after his 20th birthday and the end of the Battle of Belleau Wood.
Unfortunately for him, he wouldn’t make it to Europe in time for World War I. Instead, he was assigned to train other Marines and achieved his commission as a second lieutenant just before the Marine Corps drew down to a peacetime force, putting many commissioned officers on the inactive list, including Puller.
But Puller resigned his commission to return to active service and went to Haiti and Nicaragua where he performed well enough to regain his butterbar and claw his way up the ranks, allowing him to make his outsized impact on World War II and the Korean War.
Donald Large had one of the aptest last names in the history of last names. He was a beast, 6-ft. 6 inches tall and 240 pounds by the time he went through SAS selection the first time (more on that in a moment). But his road to military service started when he was just an over-sized tyke.
Born in 1930, he was just a boy when British troops preparing for service in France and Germany began training near his home. He watched the men readying to take the fight to Hitler and decided he would be a military man as well, a goal made even easier by his frame, and the frequent hunting trips his dad took him on.
He started as an Army Cadet, a sort of military-affiliated Boy Scouts in Britain, and then managed to get into the real British army at just 15 years old. As he trained in the military and then served Britain, he grew to his adult height and received the nickname “Lofty,” but he still craved combat.
But Large was wounded from a gunshot and shrapnel in the fighting and was taken prisoner, surviving a 10-day forced march to a prisoner of war camp. He survived another gunshot wound, disease, 80 pounds of weight loss, and two years of muscle atrophy and near starvation before he was swapped in a wounded prisoner exchange.
Despite all the scar tissues, Large reportedly did quite well in selection, only struggling with jumping out of the plane due to his being oversized for the plane and parachute. He weighed enough that he fell faster than other paratroopers, and this combined with a fear of heights made falling the hardest part for him.
But he was a stalwart man and made the jump anyway. He had proven himself capable and was on his way to the SAS.
Except that he rode a motorcycle soon after and crashed, crushing his ankle. The SAS told him that he would need to go back through selection to prove he was still capable of meeting the unit’s high standards. While most people would’ve probably waited a few months if they ever went back, Large simply re-bandaged his ankle, found out what his new boot size was with the swelling and bandages, and went back.
Yeah, he went back through selection while his ankle was still injured. He had only taken four weeks from crash to his second selection process.
He would serve with the SAS around the world and retired in 1973. He died in 2006.
When the Nazis steamrolled into the Netherlands in May of 1940, Jannetje Johanna “Hannie” Schaft and Truus and Freddie Oversteegen were just 19, 16, and 14 years old respectively.
As for the Oversteegen sisters, their mother, Trijn, had left their father years before. Freddie states of this, “She was just fed up one day—we lived on a large ship in Haarlem, but my father never made any money and didn’t pay anything for the barge. But it wasn’t an ugly divorce or anything—he sang a French farewell song from the bow of the ship when we left. He loved us, but I didn’t see him that often anymore after that.”
Immediately after the Nazis came to town, despite the risks, Freddie goes on, “During the war, we had a Jewish couple living with us, which is why my sister and I knew a lot about what was going on…”
At the same time, their mother also had her daughters join in with her in the rather dangerous task of posting and distributing anti-Nazi and communist literature around town.
Given their brazen activities, word soon got around to the resistance that the girls might be open to joining, with one Frans van der Wiel coming calling in 1941. Freddie states, “A man wearing a hat came to the door and asked my mother if he could ask us [to join the resistance]. And he did… she was OK with it. “
She also states her mother simply requested of them that no matter what the resistance asked them to do, to “always stay human.”
Of the sisters’ personal decision to join, Truus stated,
A war like this is a very raw experience. While I was biking, I saw Germans picking up innocent people from the streets, putting them against a wall and shooting them. I was forced to watch, which aroused such an enormous anger in me, such a disgust… You can have any political conviction or be totally against war, but at that moment you are just a human being confronted with something very cruel. Shooting innocent people is murder. If you experience something like this, you’ll find it justified that when people commit treason, such as exchanging a four-year-old Jewish child for 35 guilders, you act against it.
Needless to say, they were all for it, though not quite realizing at that point everything they’d be asked to do. She states, “I thought we would be starting a kind of secret army. The man that came to our door said that we would get military training, and they did teach us a thing or two. Someone taught us to shoot, and we learned to march in the woods. There were about seven of us then—Hannie wasn’t a part of the group yet, and we were the only girls.”
Indeed, in the beginning because of their age and gender, the authorities paid little attention to them. Thus, they were natural message runners between resistance members, as well as ideally suited for smuggling and stealing identity papers to help various Jewish people escape; they also occasionally were tasked with transporting weapons and even helping escort Jews to hiding places- generally Jewish children as they blended in with the girls well and the authorities on the whole weren’t suspicious of the young girls walking along with kids. Also thanks to Freddie’s ultra youthful look, particularly when she did her hair up in pigtails, she was often used for reconnaissance missions, as nobody paid attention to her.
Things escalated from these sorts of tasks, however, with assignments such as helping to burn down various enemy installations. In these cases, the girls were sometimes tasked with flirting with any guards while other resistance members slipped in and set the fires.
In 1943, the sisters were joined by a third female member of their resistance cell, Hannie Schaft- a woman who would go on to be one of the most famous Dutch resistance members in all of WWII, with her activities seeing her marked for death by Hitler himself.
When the Nazis invaded, the then 19 year old Hannie was studying international law, and particularly human-rights law, at the University of Amsterdam. Unfortunately for her, she would soon be given the boot from university owing to refusing to sign a declaration of allegiance to Germany- a requirement to remain a student and something over 3/4 of the rest of the students did. As you might imagine even if you knew nothing else about her but her choosing to study human-rights law at school, and given the activities the Axis were getting up to in the country, she almost immediately joined the resistance.
In the interim since the start of the war and being assigned to the same resistance cell as Truus and Freddie, Hannie had worked with the resistance in various capacities and countless missions, even learning German to aid in her activities.
Naturally, the three girls became fast friends and frequently teamed up for the remainder of the war, with their missions having been expanded to something few women in the resistance were tasked with- directly eliminating enemy targets.
Their big advantage over their male compatriots was their age and gender allowed them to get close to enemy soldiers without garnering any suspicion. Thus, the girls were eventually trained with weapons and set to, as Freddie put it, “liquidating” the enemy.
As for the number of people they killed- a question they were frequently asked- they never disclosed, with the sisters’ stock answer to that question being, “You never ask a soldier how many people he’s killed.”
Perhaps their most famous method was flirting and convincing a mark to join one of them for a stroll. For example, in one instance, their target was an SS soldier who they scouted and, once he entered a restaurant to eat, a slightly drunk acting Truus entered and struck up a conversation. At a certain point, she then suggestively asked if he’d like to go for a walk in the woods with her- a prospect he apparently eagerly accepted.
When they got there, however, Freddie states,
Then they ran into someone—which was made to seem a coincidence, but he was one of ours—and that friend said to Truus: “Girl, you know you’re not supposed to be here.” They apologized, turned around, and walked away. And then shots were fired, so that man never knew what hit him. They had already dug the hole, but we weren’t allowed to be there for that part.
Beyond luring unsuspecting enemy soldiers and Dutch collaborators to their deaths, sometimes they just killed them outright. As Truus once said after watching horrified as a Dutch SS soldier grabbed a baby from the child’s family “and hit it against the wall. The father and sister had to watch. They were obviously hysterical. The child was dead… I pulled out a gun and shot him dead. Right there and then. This wasn’t an assignment. But I don’t regret it.”
Other times they would simply ride along on their bike- Truus on the front, and Freddie on the back with a hidden gun. As they passed their mark, if no one was around, Freddie would pull out the gun and shoot him. After this, Truus would peddle off as fast as she could; once out of sight, they were once again to all the world just a couple of young girls out for a bike ride.
Other times they’d follow the mark home and then come a-knocking, again with their young, innocent look helping to ensure their targets’ guard would be down when they’d kill him.
Beyond this, the trio also took part in bombings and other sabotage efforts, reportedly only refusing one mission in which they were asked to kidnap the three children of Riech Commissioner and former Chancellor of Austria Arthur Seyss-Inquart. The children were then to be used to get the commissioner to release certain prisoners in exchange for their safe return. If he refused, the children would be killed. Said Truus of their refusal of this mission, “Resistance fighters do not kill children.”
As for Hannie, while the two young girls often went overlooked, she was not so lucky, with her bright red hair and the many missions she took part in helping her stand out. The authorities soon caught on and she was initially marked as the “the girl with the red hair.” As the heat turned up on her and Hitler himself ordered efforts towards her capture ramped up, she began dying her hair black and changed her name. Unfortunately her real name was accidentally revealed to an undercover Nazi operative working as a nurse. What followed from this was her family being detained; though eventually when it became clear they didn’t know where she was or anything about her activities, they were let go.
The Axis got her in the end, however, when she was picked up at a random military checkpoint on March 21, 1945, having been caught with copies of the communist newspaper de Waarheid. She was subsequently tortured for a few weeks, but apparently never broke. Given the war was in its final stages, she may have survived if not for her bright red hair giving her away as it grew and with no dye to keep the roots black. Once the Germans figured out who she was because of this, the then 24 year old Hannie was slated to be immediately executed- a sentence carried out on April 17, 1945, a mere 18 days before the Germans withdrew from the Netherlands.
Apparently defiant to the end, it is reported that when the two soldiers tasked with killing her shot her, she fell, but both had missed their mark for a killing shot. Her last words were reported to be mocking the soldiers, allegedly stating after the first volley, “Idiots! I shoot better!”
The Oversteegen sisters in 2014.
As for the sisters, they survived the war, but suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, with Truss burying herself in art and Freddie stating she quickly got married and started a family as her way to cope. Her son, Remi, would state of this, “She shot… people… but she hated it, and she hated herself for doing it.” Freddie would also state, “I’ve shot [them] myself and I’ve seen them fall. And what is inside us at such a moment? You want to help them get up.”
Truss added, “It was tragic and very difficult and we cried about it afterwards. We did not feel it suited us… I wasn’t born to kill. Do you know what that does to your soul? …One loses everything. It poisons the beautiful things in life.”
In the end, both sisters lived to the ripe old age of 92, with Truus dying in June of 2016 and Freddie following her in September of 2018, the day before her 93rd birthday.
Army Pvt. Jacob Parrott was only 19 when a civilian spy and contraband smuggler proposed a daring plan, asking for volunteers: A small group of men was to sneak across Confederate lines, steal a train, and then use it as a mobile base to destroy Confederate supply and communications lines while the Union Army advanced on Chattanooga.
It was for this raid that the Army would first award a newly authorized medal, the Medal of Honor. Jacob Parrott received the very first one.
The military and political situation in April, 1862, was bad for the Union. European capitals were considering recognizing the Confederacy as its own state, and the Democrats were putting together a campaign platform for the 1862 mid-terms that would turn them into a referendum on the war.
Meanwhile, many in the country thought that the Army was losing too many troops for too little ground.
It was against this backdrop that Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel heard James J. Andrews’ proposal to ease Mitchel’s campaign against Chattanooga with a train raid. Mitchel approved the mission and Andrews slipped through Confederate lines with his volunteers on April 7, 1862.
An illustration for The Penn publishing company depicting the theft of the “General” locomotive by Andrews’ Raiders.
(Illustration by William Pittenger, Library of Congress)
The men made their way to the rail station at Chattanooga and rode from there to Marietta, Georgia, a city in the northern part of the state. En route, two men were arrested. Another two overslept on the morning of April 12 and missed the move from Marietta to Big Shanty, a small depot.
Big Shanty was chosen for the site of the train hijacking because it lacked a telegraph station with which to relay news of the theft. The theory was that, as long as the raiders stayed ahead of anyone from Big Shanty, they could continue cutting wires and destroying track all the way to Chattanooga without being caught.
This led to “The General” running out of steam just a little later. The Raiders had achieved some success, but had failed to properly destroy any bridges, and the damage to the telegraph wires and tracks proved relatively quick to repair.
Mitchel, meanwhile, had decided to move only on Huntsville that day and delayed his advance on Chattanooga. All damage from the raid would be repaired before it could make a strategic difference.
An illustration for The Penn publishing company depicting the Ohio tribute to Andrews’ Raiders.
(Illustration by William Pittenger, Library of Congress)
The Raiders, though, attempted to flee the stopped train but were quickly rounded up. Eight of them, including Andrews, were executed as spies in Atlanta. Many of the others, including Parrott, were subjected to some level of physical mistreatment, but were left alive.
“The General” went on an odd tour after the war, serving as a rallying symbol for both Union and Confederate sympathizers. “The General” was displayed at the Ohio Monument to the Andrews’ Raiders in 1891. The following year, it was sent to Chattanooga for the reunion of the Army of the Cumberland.
In 1962, it reprised its most famous moments in a reenactment of the raid to commemorate the centennial of the Medal of Honor. It now sits in the Southern Museum of Civil War Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia, the same spot from which it was stolen and the chase began.