It was the Red Army’s “Iwo Jima” moment, Soviet troops fixing the flag of the Soviet Union on top of the most infamous symbol of Hitler’s rise to power. On May 2, 1945, Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldei snapped the now-famous photo of Alyosha Kovalyov and Abdulkhakim Ismailov raising the hammer and sickle over the Reichstag.
But the truth behind the photo, who was in the photo, and who actually raised the Soviet victory banner, was clouded in the fog of war and muddled by the Russian propaganda machine for decades. The first to raise the flag were a Kazakh, Lt. Rakhimzhan Koshkarbaev and Pvt. Georgij Bulatov, a Russian from Sverdlovsk.
At first, the Kremlin announced that Georgia-born Meliton Kantaria and Russian Mikhail Yegorov were the men in the photo. The men were hailed as heroes and lived the rest of their lives in the glory created by Soviet propaganda.
Only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 did the truth come out. Kovalyov and Ismailov were really the ones who hoisted the flag on the building… in the photo. But they weren’t the first to raise one. One story has it that a Sergeant Mikhail Menin, part of a five-man fire team led by Vladimir Makov raised a flag on the building first.
In 2007, the Russian Institute of Military History announced that honor went to Koshkarbaev and Bulatov. The only problem was they hoisted the red banner at 10:30 at night. No one believed these two, however – it was too dark for photos.
A documentary film titled “The Motherland Calls” about Kazakhs in the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet term for WWII), relayed anecdotal evidence from other Red Army veterans that described Koshkarbaev and other men from the 674th regiment moving on the parliament building – including the Soviet filmmaker and combat cameraman Roman Karmen.
Karmen recalled filming “the Kazakh officer” as a Red Army combat cameraman in Berlin.
“You see, we received an order from Moscow: the Victory Banner over the Reichstag should be hoisted by representatives of Georgia and Russia, but it was difficult to stop. I was told to cut the frames [of Koshkarbaev], but they are preserved, in the archives.”
Kovalyov and Ismailov were pressured by the the KGB to stay quiet about their role in the flag raising. Bulatov was found hanged in his apartment in 1955.
Soviet leadership began pressuring their troops to capture the building in preparation for the International Workers Day celebrations for May 1st. The Soviets tried to drape red banners on the building via aircraft, but came up short when the banners were caught on the girders of the roof.
But as of May 30th, Hitler still controlled the Reichstag.
The German parliament building, Hitler’s rubber stamp, was defended by 1,000 German troops, so Soviet leadership ordered nine divisions to attack the building. Red Army troops used mortars fired horizontally to punch through bricked-up doorway throughout the building. They fought room by room until Soviet fire teams could make their way to the stairs and the roof of the building.
By May 2nd, the only Germans left in the building surrendered from the basement. That’s when the photographer Yevgeny Khaldei made his way up to the roof and enlisted Kovalyov and Ismailov to help raise the now-famous red banner. He burned through a whole roll of film taking the image.
The U-2 has wheels aligned like bicycle tires and an 80-ft. wingspan, forcing pilots to carefully guide the plane down the runway just to keep from accidentally banging the tips into the asphalt and ruining the plane.
That’s why it’s so crazy that a group of Air Force and CIA pilots and crew tested the U-2G, a modified version of the spy plane, and certified the Dragon Lady onboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.
In 1839, England went to war with China because it was upset that Chinese officials had shut down its drug trafficking racket and confiscated its dope.
Stating the historical record so plainly is shocking — but it’s true, and the consequences of that act are still being felt today.
The Qing Dynasty, founded by Manchurian clans in 1644, expanded China’s borders to their farthest reach, conquering Tibet, Taiwan and the Uighur Empire. However, the Qing then turned inward and isolationist, refusing to accept Western ambassadors because they were unwilling to proclaim the Qing Dynasty as supreme above their own heads of state.
Foreigners — even on trade ships — were prohibited entry into Chinese territory.
The exception to the rule was in Canton, the southeastern region centered on modern-day Guangdong Province, which adjoins Hong Kong and Macao. Foreigners were allowed to trade in the Thirteen Factories district in the city of Guangzhou, with payments made exclusively in silver.
The British gave the East India Company a monopoly on trade with China, and soon ships based in colonial India were vigorously exchanging silver for tea and porcelain. But the British had a limited supply of silver.
Starting in in the mid-1700s, the British began trading opium grown in India in exchange for silver from Chinese merchants. Opium — an addictive drug that today is refined into heroin — was illegal in England, but was used in Chinese traditional medicine.
However, recreational use was illegal and not widespread. That changed as the British began shipping in tons of the drug using a combination of commercial loopholes and outright smuggling to get around the ban.
Chinese officials taking their own cut abetted the practice. American ships carrying Turkish-grown opium joined in the narcotics bonanza in the early 1800s. Consumption of opium in China skyrocketed, as did profits.
The Daoguang Emperor became alarmed by the millions of drug addicts — and the flow of silver leaving China. As is often the case, the actions of a stubborn idealist brought the conflict to a head. In 1839 the newly appointed Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu instituted laws banning opium throughout China.
He arrested 1,700 dealers, and seized the crates of the drug already in Chinese harbors and even on ships at sea. He then had them all destroyed. That amounted to 2.6 million pounds of opium thrown into the ocean. Lin even wrote a poem apologizing to the sea gods for the pollution.
Angry British traders got the British government to promise compensation for the lost drugs, but the treasury couldn’t afford it. War would resolve the debt.
But the first shots were fired when the Chinese objected to the British attacking one of their own merchant ships.
Chinese authorities had indicated they would allow trade to resume in non-opium goods. Lin Zexu even sent a letter to Queen Victoria pointing out that as England had a ban on the opium trade, they were justified in instituting one too.
It never reached her, but eventually did appear in the Sunday Times.
Instead, the Royal Navy established a blockade around Pearl Bay to protest the restriction of free trade … in drugs. Two British ships carrying cotton sought to run the blockade in November 1839. When the Royal Navy fired a warning shot at the second, The Royal Saxon, the Chinese sent a squadron of war junks and fire-rafts to escort the merchant.
HMS Volage‘s Captain, unwilling to tolerate the Chinese “intimidation,” fired a broadside at the Chinese ships. HMS Hyacinth joined in. One of the Chinese ships exploded and three more were sunk. Their return fire wounded one British sailor.
Seven months later, a full-scale expeditionary force of 44 British ships launched an invasion of Canton. The British had steam ships, heavy cannon, Congreve rockets and infantry equipped with rifles capable of accurate long range fire. Chinese state troops — “bannermen” — were still equipped with matchlocks accurate only up to 50 yards and a rate of fire of one round per minute.
Antiquated Chinese warships were swiftly destroyed by the Royal Navy. British ships sailed up the Zhujiang and Yangtze rivers, occupying Shanghai along the way and seizing tax-collection barges, strangling the Qing government’s finances. Chinese armies suffered defeat after defeat.
When the Qing sued for peace in 1842, the British could set their own terms. The Treaty of Nanjing stipulated that Hong Kong would become a British territory, and that China would be forced to establish five treaty ports in which British traders could trade anything they wanted with anybody they wanted to. A later treaty forced the Chinese to formally recognize the British as equals and grant their traders favored status.
More war, more opium
Imperialism was on the upswing by the mid-1800s. France muscled into the treaty port business as well in 1843. The British soon wanted even more concessions from China — unrestricted trade at any port, embassies in Beijing and an end to bans on selling opium in the Chinese mainland.
One tactic the British used to further their influence was registering the ships of Chinese traders they dealt with as British ships.
The pretext for the second Opium War is comical in its absurdity. In October 1856, Chinese authorities seized a former pirate ship, the Arrow, with a Chinese crew and with an expired British registration. The captain told British authorities that the Chinese police had taken down the flag of a British ship.
The British demanded the Chinese governor release the crew. When only nine of the 14 returned, the British began a bombardment of the Chinese forts around Canton and eventually blasted open the city walls.
British Liberals, under William Gladstone, were upset at the rapid escalation and protested fighting a new war for the sake of the opium trade in parliament. However, they lost seats in an election to the Tories under Lord Palmerston. He secured the support needed to prosecute the war.
China was in no position to fight back, as it was then embroiled in the devastating Taiping Rebellion, a peasant uprising led by a failed civil-service examinee claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ. The rebels had nearly seized Beijing and still controlled much of the country.
Once again, the Royal Navy demolished its Chinese opponents, sinking 23 junks in the opening engagement near Hong Kong and seizing Guangzhou. Over the next three years, British ships worked their way up the river, capturing several Chinese forts through a combination of naval bombardment and amphibious assault.
France joined in the war — its excuse was the execution of a French missionary who had defied the ban on foreigners in Guangxi province. Even the United States became briefly involved after a Chinese fort took pot shots at long distance at an American ship.
In the Battle of the Pearl River Forts, a U.S. Navy a force of three ships and 287 sailors and marines took four forts by storm, capturing 176 cannons and fighting off a counterattack of 3,000 Chinese infantry. The United States remained officially neutral.
Russia did not join in the fighting, but used the war to pressure China into ceding a large chunk of its northeastern territory, including the present-day city of Vladivostok.
When foreign envoys drew up the next treaty in 1858 the terms, were even more crushing to the Qing Dynasty’s authority. Ten more cities were designated as treaty ports, foreigners would have free access to the Yangtze river and the Chinese mainland, and Beijing would open embassies to England, France and Russia.
The Xianfeng Emperor at first agreed to the treaty, but then changed his mind, sending Mongolian general Sengge Rinchen to man the Taku Forts on the waterway leading to Beijing. The Chinese repelled a British attempt to take the forts by sea in June 1859, sinking four British ships. A year later, an overland assault by 11,000 British and 6,700 French troops succeeded.
When a British diplomatic mission came to insist on adherence to the treaty, the Chinese took the envoy hostage, and tortured many in the delegation to death. The British High Commissioner of Chinese Affairs, Lord Elgar, decided to assert dominance and sent the army into Beijing.
British and French rifles gunned down 10,000 charging Mongolian cavalrymen at the Battle of Eight Mile Bridge, leaving Beijing defenseless. Emperor Xianfeng fled. In order to wound the Emperor’s “pride as well as his feeling” in the words of Lord Elgar, British and French troops looted and destroyed the historic Summer Palace.
The new revised treaty imposed on China legalized both Christianity and opium, and added Tianjin — the major city close to Beijing — to the list of treaty ports. It allowed British ships to transport Chinese indentured laborers to the United States, and fined the Chinese government eight million silver dollars in indemnities.
The Western presence in China became so ubiquitous, and so widely detested, that an anti-Western popular revolt, the Boxer Rebellion, broke out in 1899. The hapless Qing Dynasty, under the stewardship of Dowager Empress Cixi, first tried to clamp down on the violence before throwing its support behind it — just in time for a multi-national military force of U.S., Russian, German, Austrian, Italian, French, Japanese and British troops to arrive and put down the rebellion.
It then spent an entire year looting Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding countryside in reprisal.
‘Century of Humiliation’
It’s hard to over-emphasize the impact of the Opium Wars on modern China. Domestically, it’s led to the ultimate collapse of the centuries-old Qing Dynasty, and with it more than two millennia of dynastic rule. It convinced China that it had to modernize and industrialize.
Today, the First Opium War is taught in Chinese schools as being the beginning of the “Century of Humiliation” — the end of that “century” coming in 1949 with the reunification of China under Mao. While Americans are routinely assured they are exceptional and the greatest country on Earth by their politicians, Chinese schools teach students that their country was humiliated by greedy and technologically superior Western imperialists.
The Opium Wars made it clear China had fallen gravely behind the West — not just militarily, but economically and politically. Every Chinese government since — even the ill-fated Qing Dynasty, which began the “Self-Strengthening Movement” after the Second Opium War — has made modernization an explicit goal, citing the need to catch up with the West.
The Japanese, observing events in China, instituted the same discourse and modernized more rapidly than China did during the Meiji Restoration.
Mainland Chinese citizens still frequently measure China in comparison to Western countries. Economic and quality of life issues are by far their main concern. But state media also holds military parity as a goal.
I once saw a news program on Chinese public television boasting about China’s new aircraft carrier Liaoning— before comparing it to an American carrier. “They’re saying ours is still a lot smaller,” a high school student pointed out to me. “And we have only one.”
Through most of Chinese history, China’s main threat came from nomadic horse-riding tribes along its long northern border. Even in the Cold War, hostility with the Soviet Union made its Mongolian border a security hot spot. But the Opium Wars — and even worse, the Japanese invasion in 1937 — demonstrated how China was vulnerable to naval power along its Pacific coast.
China’s aggressive naval expansion in the South China Sea can be seen as the acts of a nation that has succumbed repeatedly to naval invasions — and wishes to claims dominance of its side of the Pacific in the 21st century.
The history with opium also has led China to adopt a particularly harsh anti-narcotics policy with the death penalty applicable even to mid-level traffickers. Drug-trafficking and organized crime remain a problem, however. The explosion of celebrity culture in China has also led to punitive crackdowns on those caught partaking in “decadent lifestyles,” leading to prominent campaigns of public shaming.
For example, in 2014 police arrested Jaycee Chan, son of Jackie Chan, for possessing 100 grams of marijuana. His father stated he wouldn’t plead for his son to avoid imprisonment.
Past history does not always determine future actions. Chinese sentiments toward the United Kingdom today are generally positive despite the Opium Wars. The escalating military confrontation over the South China Sea is a reality of our times, but that doesn’t mean China’s leaders will forever be committed to a strategy of expansion and confrontation.
Nonetheless, fostering better relations requires that we understand how China’s current foreign policy has it roots in past encounters with the West.
The story of Robert Prongay gets more confusing the more anyone retells it, but it all begins with prolific serial killer and alleged mafia hitman, Richard Kuklinski. Known as “The Iceman” for masking his victims’ times of death by freezing their corpses, Kuklinski claimed to have killed more than 100 people for the five families of the New York City mafia — and he claimed to have learned his skills from a Special Forces veteran.
Kuklinski was only ever convicted of five murders, but it was enough to put him away for the rest of his days. These victims were small-time drug and porn dealers in the mid-1980s. In one of those murders, he used a hamburger laced with cyanide, a murder technique he picked up from a man he described as a Special Force veteran-turned-ice cream man, Robert Prongay.
“He taught me a lot,” Kuklinski once said. “But he was extremely crazy… he’d go into these neighborhoods and sell ice cream to the kids, then maybe kill one of their fathers.“
Kuklinski was known as “The Iceman” to law enforcement and Prongay was called “Mister Softee.” According to Kuklinski, the two men met at a New Jersey motel while stalking the same mark. They summed each other up and realized they were both contract killers. Prongay told Kuklinski he was an Army Special Forces veteran, trained in using explosives and poisons.
In Kuklinski’s words, Prongay used his ice cream truck as a surveillance van to follow around his potential victims, whom he would kill using aerosol cyanide and remotely-detonated grenades. It was from Prongay that Kuklinski said he learned to freeze bodies to mask time of death.
Not much is really known about the real Prongay. Kuklinski claimed to have a very firm moral code when it came to killing. He could kill anyone without feeling anything at all, but he wouldn’t kill innocent women and children. The Iceman claimed that Mister Softee asked Kuklinski to kill his wife and young son for him, which Kuklinski declined. When Prongay began to talk about poisoning an entire reservoir just to kill one family, Kuklinski shot him.
The only verification that Prongay existed and may have known Kuklinski is that an ice-cream man by the name of Robert Prongay was killed in his ice cream truck, shot twice in the chest. On Aug. 9, 1984, his body was found hanging out the side of his ice cream truck. The real Prongay, it turns out, was facing trial in New Jersey for bombing the front house ex-wife and making terrorist threats against his ex-wife and son.
Before murdering Prongay, the Iceman and Mister Softee teamed up on a few occasions. An HBO Documentary in 2001 found old film reels of Prongay and called him an “Army demolitions expert,” a claim verified by Paul Smith of the New Jersey Organize Crime Bureau.
“It is our opinion,” Smith told HBO, “that friendship led to Richard Kuklinski learning a lot about killing with different types of chemicals, including cyanide.”
In reality, Kuklinski made a lot of claims about himself and his famous hits. He was convicted of killing the members of a small-time burglary gang he led in New Jersey, along with one of his cyanide suppliers. The claims of the people he worked for and murdered makes his resume sound like one of the most prolific hitmen in the history of the American mafia. If you believe Kuklinski, he was recruited by Gambino capo Roy DeMeo, who gave Kuklinski his death orders.
Kuklinski claimed the murder of NYPD detective Peter Calabro, a murder in which Gambino underboss Sammy “The Bull” Gravano was also charged. The Iceman also claimed the death of Roy DeMeo and claimed to be involved in John Gotti’s famous hit on Gambino boss Paul Castellano. The only mafia hit law enforcement really related to Kuklinski was that of Calabro.
Kuklinski claimed to have killed some 100-250 people between 1948 and 1986 but his claims varied wildly in later years, as some of them were unverifiable and others were found to be complete fabrications (he claimed to have killed famous disappearing act Jimmy Hoffa, for example). Renowned mafia writers and historians claim to never have heard of a hitman named Kuklinski.
If Kuklinski’s claims are true, he would be the most prolific serial killer/hitman in American history.
The ground war of Desert Storm lasted all of 100 hours. After giving Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army the Noah’s Ark treatment and raining death on them for 40 days and 40 nights, the Army and Marines very swiftly moved in and expelled the entire army all the way out of Kuwait and deep into their own territory.
But it wasn’t all Iraqi troops surrendering to helicopters en masse.
On Feb. 22, 1991, the First Marine Division already had 3,000 Marines and Corpsmen 12 miles inside of Kuwait. The grunts were on foot, carrying heavy packs along with their weapons for all of those 12 miles since the wee hours of the morning. They crossed a minefield and evaded Iraqi armor to do it, and they had already stormed Iraqi positions and taken prisoners. That’s when the Marines were informed that President Bush called a halt to the invasion to give Saddam time to leave Kuwait on his own.
Up until this point, some of the 92,000 Marines in the area of responsibility had already seen action, defending Saudi Arabia from Iraqi border attacks, Iraqi artillery attacks, and even an Iraqi amphibious assault on the Saudi city of Khafji. In each of these encounters, Marines were left unimpressed with the performance of the Iraqis on the battlefield, so they changed their tactics to make the best use of their speed and armor while making up for their lack of supplies – but the new plan required new logistical plans in the middle of the Saudi desert, which Navy Seabees accomplished in a hurry. The stage was set.
By the 20th of February, the First Marine Division was staged along the minefields that protected the Kuwaiti border with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Marine engineers discovered a path through the mines by watching Iraqi defectors walk through the minefield. The Marines simply mimicked that path and within hours were miles inside Kuwait. The Marines, some carrying up to 100 pounds, walked for 30 miles and then crawled through a minefield. In chemical warfare gear.
Marines along the line began to break through the minefields so their heavy armor could roll through. At least three separate locations drove two lines through the mines under enemy fire. They did the same thing through an inner minefield. Once the Marines were through, they carried on to where the enemy was and began taking out the entrenched defenders immediately. Resistance was uncoordinated and incomplete. The First and Second Divisions invading Kuwait might have met more resistance, but Marines were landing all over the area.
Meanwhile, a Marine landing of reserve troops was going down in Saudi Arabia. For days before landing, these amphibious Marines had conducted training exercises throughout the Persian Gulf, making the Iraqis believe a large amphibious invasion of Kuwait was coming. Instead of that, the Americans moved that Marine force back to Saudi Arabia and replaced its force. That force held up 10 Iraqi divisions and 80,000 Iraqi troops who were just waiting to pounce on the invading Americans. All the while, their cities in Western Kuwait would fall.
Marine artillery was at work as well, destroying 9 APCs, along with some 34 tanks. By the time President Bush declared a cease-fire, Marines had defeated 11 Iraqi divisions, destroyed 1,600 tanks and armored vehicles, and taken 22,000 prisoners.
Shortly after the Marine advance, everything was over. Kuwait was liberated, and Iraqis were back in Iraq.
Ask a Buckeye why they think Michigan sucks and they’ll probably spout off some college football stats. But the truth is, this deep-seated rivalry actually stretches back almost two hundred years ago and it’s all to blame on a poorly-drawn map.
Today’s hatred both Buckeyes and Michigan fans are quick to express is fueled by each state’s claim to the Toledo Strip, a 468-square mile region of land that borders each state. Ohio natives will tell you that Toledo is as Ohioan as Cincinnati, but Michiganders will tell you the land truly belongs to them. So who’s right?
Back in the day, Toledo was an economic hotspot. When Michigan tried to join the country in 1835, it wanted to take Toledo for itself. But Ohio said in no uncertain terms that was never going to happen. Eventually, President Andrew Jackson had to step in a find a compromise. But before that could happen, mistrust and rivalry between the two states took hold.
It all began with a bad map
Turns out that the whole OH vs. MI thing started long before the Mitten State tried to join America. Roughly 50 years earlier, the 1787 Northwest Ordinance created the Northwest Territory, which included the land to the northwest of the Ohio River. The plan was to divide the land into at least three states and maybe five. There was also really clear language on where Michigan’s southern border should be … but it was wrong.
The idea of where to “end” Michigan was based on an error on that map which incorrectly included Toledo as part of MI. When Ohio Congressional delegates heard that, they jumped into action trying to secure as much of Lake Erie’s shoreline as possible. Of course, that included Toledo. Then they drafted a new provision that said the map was wrong and Toledo should be part of Ohio.
That all sounds pretty straightforward, but there was one small problem. For some reason, Congress decided not to address that provision. So, when the US established the territory of Michigan a couple of years later, they ended up using the original language of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, despite it being based on a faulty map.
Toledo still up for grabs
Ohio became a state way back in 1803. They kept trying to get Congress to establish a northern border for the state. But Congress kept dodging them. It took almost 20 years for the government to respond and when they finally sent surveyors in 1816, they determined that Toledo was Ohio’s. (No shock there for anyone living in Ohio at the time!) Naturally, Michigan’s governor was not having it. At this point, President Monroe stepped in to re-determine where the border was. Monroe decided Toledo was part of Michigan.
This conflict went back and forth without resolution for years. Then when Michigan applied for statehood in 1835, they tried to officially claim Toledo as its own. Of course, Ohio was not going to let that fly, which prompted both states to deploy their militias to take matters into their own hands. While no violent battles nor casualties occurred, the Militias of each state went back and forth arresting each other’s partisans as well as causing plenty of disturbances to the peace.
Enough is enough
In the meantime, discussions of Michigan statehood halted until they resolved the dispute over Toledo. Finally, in June 1836, President Jackson was sick of dealing with the matter and signed a bill to give Michigan statehood, only if it would let go of its claim to Toledo. In exchange, Jackson gave Michigan what became known as the Upper Peninsula. After a while, Michigan eventually accepted the deal, achieving its statehood but losing the Toledo War, giving it to Ohio once and for all.
These days, the only war OH and MI are fighting is the one during football season. Of course, the Bucks are always going to outplay the Wolverines – even if the score doesn’t always reflect it.
Ancient Rome is credited with major contributions to modern day language, religion, law, art, and government. Indeed, the Roman Empire was filled with breathtaking architecture and an intricate and fascinating socio-economic culture. But it was also full of drama.
Most people know at least a few key facts about Julius Caesar and his infamous assassination on the Ides of March. But as the Roman Republic crumbled with him and the Roman Empire rose in its place, the rulers that came after him were no less controversial. Extravagance, executions, and extreme religious persecution stand at the forefront of many Roman emperor’s legacies. And that’s not mentioning the sex scandals.
So here’s a list of the absolute worst Roman emperors, in order from the mildly incompetent to the devastatingly unstable.
Diocletian, 284-305 CE
Emperor Diocletian deserves some credit, as his rule marked the end of the Crisis of the Third Century. His governmental reforms are cited as being one of the main contributors to the Roman Empire’s longevity for the next millennium. Diocletian regained control over a wild military force, suppressed enemy threats along the Empire’s borders, and revised the tax system in a broken economy.
However, he’s also credited with one of the most brutal attempts to purge Christianity in history, which definitely resides in the “cons” column. Diocletian revoked the legal rights of Christians, trying to encourage his citizens back to a more traditional worship of the old Roman gods. He razed churches and destroyed religious scriptures, and went even further to prohibit Christian’s from even gathering to worship. After a suspicious fire within the imperial palace, Diocletian’s belief in a Christian conspiracy led to a spree of scourging, torture, and beheading.
In 305 CE, after becoming greatly weakened by a severe illness, Diocletian resigned from his rule, passing the torch to someone with the strength to bear the Empire’s burdens. The first person to willingly abdicate from the role, the former Emperor spent the rest of his days tending a vegetable garden—sounds like a pretty fulfilling retirement.
Elagabalus, 218-222 CE
Elagabalus became Emperor at the tender age of 14, kicking off a reign that would be known for sex scandals and religious controversy—not exactly the sort of things you expect from someone fresh out of puberty.
Emperor Elagabalus started out in life as a high priest serving the Syrian sun god he shared a name with. When he came to rule over Rome, his devotion to the god drove him to try and elevate him to the same status as Jupiter, a move which greatly displeased the Empire. He even insisted upon marrying a Vestal Virgin, Aquilia Severa, which was in direct opposition to not only Roman tradition, but to the law.
On the more salacious side, it’s said that Elagabalus prostituted himself throughout the palace. He was married to five different women, and took on countless lovers of all sexes. He sent servants out into the city to procure lovers for him, and even opened the imperial baths up to the public to enjoy the spectacle of watching others bathe.
Some historians say that Elagabalus might have been one of the first transgender historical figures, offering large amounts of money to any physician who would be able to successfully administer gender reassignment surgery. This was regarded as wholly scandalous by the people of Rome, casting him in a negative light he couldn’t hope to overcome.
Elagabalus’s general incompetence on the throne led to the devaluation of the Roman currency. Showing his immaturity further, he began appointing lovers to crucial political positions. So while history tends to be unfavorable towards him for his personal choices, it does seem likely that he was unfit as an emperor mostly due to the fact that he was a literal child.
The Emperor’s youth did him no favors in the end, however. At 18 years old, Elagabalus and his eccentric behavior were brought to an end by the Praetorian Guard. After Elagabalus stripped his cousin’s titles and wealth, the Guard, who much preferred said cousin, rebelled against Elagabalus, killing both him and his mother in the violence.
Tiberius, 13-37 CE
There were plenty of things that Emperor Tiberius did right. He avoided needless and financially draining military campaigns and instead relied heavily on diplomacy. He reinforced the borders of the Empire. He even kept the Empire’s treasury generously stocked.
However, Tiberius never really wanted to rule as emperor, and that was very apparent. He left many responsibilities to the Senate and was otherwise distant and reclusive. He left Rome in the middle of his reign—a decision widely regarded as the worst one he could possibly make—and opened himself up to a reputation fully up to interpretation.
Whether these claims are rooted in truth or based fully in fabrication is impossible to know at this point, but either way, Tiberius was hated enough to get tongues wagging with the most vicious of talk. During his stay on the island of Capri, Tiberius was accused of flinging people off of cliffs for minor slights and engaging in disturbing sexual acts with very young boys. While that doesn’t have very much to do with governing an empire, it’s pretty much the last thing you want out of a ruler.
Tiberius earned a reputation as a bloodthirsty emperor after a mess grew out of a man named Sejanus making a grab for power. Sejanus tried to set himself up as Tiberius’s next heir by assassinating Tiberius’s son. Tiberius, of course, called for the death of not only Sejanus, but of those who were associated with him—including his children.
It seems likely, too, that much of his bad reputation comes from his connection to Caligula, who you’ll hear much more of later.
Caracalla, 211-217 CE
For the first 13 years of his reign, Caracalla ruled as a co-emperor alongside first his father, Septimius Severus, and then his brother, Geta. In 211 CE, he had his brother assassinated by the loyal members of his Praetorian Guard. Not satisfied, Caracalla went a step further to slaughter most of his brother’s supporters as well. In a further act of insult, Caracalla removed Geta’s image from paintings, coins, and statues, struck him from record, and made it an actual crime to utter his name.
On top of being generally regarded as a tyrannical and cruel emperor, Caracalla wasn’t all that effective in other aspects of his rule. He put into effect an edict which declared all free inhabitants of the Empire to be official citizens… so he could collect taxes from a wider base of people. He depleted much of the Empire’s funds trying to keep his army happy and often engaged in ruthless and unnecessary military campaigns.
Caracalla had an obsession with Alexander the Great, and in a fit of erratic behavior went on to persecute those philosophers of the Aristotelian school based solely off the legend that Aristotle poisoned Alexander. His behavior only got worse when, after discovering a play mocking him in the city of Alexandria, he dispatched his troops to massacre, loot, and plunder the city.
In 217 AD, Caracalla was stabbed to death by a defected soldier—an almost ironic end, considering his adoration for his own army.
Maximinus Thrax, 235-238 CE
Emperor Maximinus Thrax was a very large man, and he was also largely hated. In direct contrast to Emperor Diocletian, he’s often considered to be the ruler who caused the Crisis of the Third Century. He brought Rome to near ruin with his exhaustive military campaigns, overextending his soldiers by dispatching them to multiple fronts at once.
His distrust and distaste for anyone apart from his army did him no favors and caused social instability. Maximinus even had members of his own family put to death. He was a man who preferred to rule by conquest rather than favor and became known for wrecking public property and setting fires to any village he passed through.
His short three-year rule ended in 238 CE, when members of the Imperial Roman army assassinated him alongside his son and advisors.
Nero, 54-68 CE
Nero’s 14-year reign had some significant successes, including the negotiation of peace with the Parthian Empire and the quelling of Boudica’s revolt. While the upper class considered him overly extravagant and undignified, the lower classes of Rome actually had a strong positive opinion towards their ruler. This was true despite the fact that some of his methods leaned toward tyrannical madness. Seeing as he was only 16 years old when he took the throne, that’s not all that surprising—adolescence is hard.
In the beginning of his reign, Nero’s rule was closely guided by his mother, Agrippina the Younger, much as she had orchestrated Nero’s rise as emperor. Agrippina married his great-uncle and previous emperor, Claudius, and arranged for Nero to marry his new stepsister, Octavia. By 59 CE, an unexplained falling out caused Nero to order his troops to have her killed. This wouldn’t be the last time he organized a death.
In 62 CE, Nero divorced Octavia, citing that she was incapable of producing an heir. When his subjects looked negatively at this decision, he had Octavia exiled. Not long after that—either to further change public opinion or to solidify his claim to the throne—he accused her of adultery and had her put to death. His second wife, Poppaea Sabina, died in 65 CE. Some writers of ancient times say that Nero was responsible for this death, too, though others disagree.
Nero’s legacy as a madman is most closely tied to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, which completely destroyed three of Rome’s 14 districts, leaving another seven heavily damaged. Many myths surround the terrible tragedy which killed hundreds of citizens, including the dramatically evil story of Nero fiddling as Rome fell to ashes.
In actuality, the fiddle wasn’t even in existence at the time. While some classical sources cite that Nero was on the roof of his palace singing from “The Sack of Ilium,” others place him dozens of miles away from the flames.
While it’s impossible to know the truth of the fire’s origins, many people blamed Nero directly for the destruction. It was believed that he was intentionally making way for a new city aesthetic. Whether out of genuine belief or a desperate attempt at scapegoating, Nero blamed the fire on followers of the growing Christian religion.
Nero set out to cruelly persecute the Christians, implementing an array of creative tortures and deaths, including wrapping them in animal skins to be torn apart by dogs.
After that, Nero’s rule started to crumble. Reconstruction efforts had stretched the Roman currency thin, and Nero’s indecision in dealing with further revolts caused widespread instability. In 68, his Praetorian Guard renounced their loyalty and declared Nero an enemy of the people. In one last dramatic flair, Nero committed suicide before he could be executed.
Caligula, 37-41 CE
There aren’t many reliable surviving accounts of Caligula’s reign. Even if the myriad stories surrounding him are fabrications, he’d have to be pretty unpopular to generate that kind of libel in the first place.
To be fair, Caligula had a bit of a rough start in life. He was the sole survivor after his entire family perished either in imprisonment or directly at the hands of Emperor Tiberius. He was then taken in by the emperor and indulged in all of his worst whims, until Tiberius passed and Caligula took to the throne at 25 years old.
In the first six months of his rule, things actually went pretty well. He cut unfair taxes, recalled those sentenced to exile, and granted military bonuses to soldiers. However, after a strange illness overtook him, his recovery was shrouded in a madness that gave way to sadistic and perverse tendencies. He became known for uttering the phrase, “Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.”
Any perceived mockery from his subjects was met with the punishment of death. In fact, in his infinite paranoia, Caligula began sending those closest to him off to exile or death—including his adopted son. His cruelty led to him gaining a sense of satisfaction out of making parents watch as their children were killed.
His arrogance rose to new heights as he declared that he was an actual living god. Caligula even had the heads of statues of gods and goddesses replaced with his own.
Further accounts of his insanity include throwing an entire section of a gladiatorial audience into the arena to be eaten by beasts for his own amusement, planning to appoint his horse as a consul, and turning the palace into a veritable brothel.
Caligula was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard after only four years as emperor. The man was so hated by the Senate that they even rallied to have him erased from the record of Roman history. Thanks to this campaign, it remains unclear to this day what is fact and what is fiction in the Caligulan reign.
Commodus, 180-192 CE
Commodus was appointed as a co-ruler by his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in 177 CE. Marcus Aurelius died in 180 CE, leaving his narcissistic and self-indulgent son as the sole Emperor of Rome.
Because Caligula couldn’t be the only one to have all the fun, Commodus also thought himself to be a god, referring to himself as Hercules reborn and forcing others to follow suit. He swanned around the city in lion skins and participated in gladiatorial events—an act in which was considered scandalous for a ruler to partake.
What’s worse: He often chose to compete against weak soldiers who were sickly or maimed from the war, sometimes tying two of them together to club them to death with a single strike. To add insult to the already grave injury, he also exorbitantly charged Rome for his arena appearances.
Commodus’s self-love knew no bounds. He changed the calendar months to reflect his own self-bestowed epithets. He shamelessly exiled and executed his wife and proudly kept a harem of hundreds. He forced his advisors to take the fall for political blunders and had entire families slaughtered on suspicion of conspiracy.
The universe has been finding ways to mess with people long before Edward A. Murphy uttered his famed statement in the aftermath of Dr. John Paul Stapp strapping himself onto a rocket powered sled. One of the earliest instances of this “law” being stated explicitly happened in 1877 where Alfred Holt, in an address to the Institution of Civil Engineers, said, “It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later…”
By 1908, it had become a well-loved maxim among magicians as well, as explained by Nevil Maskelyne in The Magic Circular: “It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion . . . everything that can go wrong will go wrong…”
This was reiterated by Adam Hull Shirk in The Sphinx in 1928, “It is an established fact that in nine cases out of ten whatever can go wrong in a magical performance will do so.”
This all brings us to our unsung hero of the hour, Dr. John Paul Stapp — a man whose work has saved hundreds of thousands of lives since, and who Joseph Kittinger — who famously did a high altitude jump from 102,800 ft — called the “bravest man I’ve ever met… He knew the effects of what he was getting himself into… And he never hesitated.”
Dr. John Paul Stapp.
Born in Brazil, the son of American missionaries there, Stapp eventually became an English major in college, but he changed career paths due to a traumatic incident that occurred during his Christmas break of 1928 when a 2 year old cousin of his was severely burned in a fireplace. Stapp helped to try to nurse the child back to health, but efforts failed and, 63 hours after getting burned, the toddler died. Said Stapp, “It was the first time I had ever seen anyone die. I decided right then I wanted to be a doctor.”
Unable to afford to go to medical school initially, after he earned a Master’s Degree in Zoology, he instead started teaching chemistry and zoology at Decatur College in Texas while he saved up money. Two years later, he attended the University of Texas where he got a PhD in Biophysics. Next up, he went to the University of Minnesota Medical School and got a Doctor of Medicine degree while working as a research assistant there.
Initially planning on becoming a pediatrician, Stapp changed career paths after joining the Army Medical Corps during WWII. While working as a flight surgeon, among other things, he was heavily involved in designing high altitude oxygen systems as well as studying the effects of high altitude/high speed flight on the human body. The end goal of all of this was to create better safety systems for pilots. During this time, he became puzzled at how some people would survive crashes, even extreme ones, while others in similar or lesser crashes would receive fatal injuries.
This all brings us around to Project MX-981 at the Edwards Air Force Base in 1945.
Up until this point, the prevailing theory was that a human body could not withstand more than 18Gs of force without suffering a fatal injury. The problem here was that airplanes of the age were flying faster and higher than ever. As such, the military wanted to know if their pilots could safely eject at these high velocities without being killed, as well as to try to design the safest possible system for doing so.
Testing towards this end was overseen by Dr. Stapp, using a rocket powered sled called the “Gee Whiz”. This was placed on rails on a 2000 foot track, at the end of which was an approximately 50 foot long section where a hydraulic braking system would stop the 1500 lb sled in its tracks.
Stapp rides the rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base.
The passenger aboard the cart was to initially be a 185 lb dummy named Oscar Eightball and then later chimpanzees. Stapp, however, had other ideas. He wanted to see what an actual human could handle, stating of Oscar Eightball at the project’s onset, “You can throw this away. I’m going to be the test subject.”
David Hill, who was in charge of collecting the test data throughout the experiments and making sure all the telemetry gear stayed working, said of this, they all thought Dr. Stapp must be joking as “We had a lot of experts come out and look at our situation. And there was a person from M.I.T. who said, if anyone gets 18 Gs, they will break every bone in their body. That was kind of scary.”
Dr. Stapp, however, used his extensive knowledge of human physiology, as well as analyzing various crashes where people must have survived more than 18Gs of force, and determined the 18G limit was absurdly low if a proper restraint system was designed and used.
That said, Dr. Stapp wasn’t stupid, but rather an excellent and meticulous researcher, who would soon earn the nickname, “The Careful Daredevil”.
Thus, step one was first to design a proper restraint system and work out all the kinks in the testing apparatus. Towards this end, they conducted nearly three dozen trial runs using the dummy, which turned out to be for the best. For example, in test run number one, both the main and secondary braking systems didn’t work owing to the triggering teeth breaking off, and, instead of stopping, Gee Whiz and Oscar Eightball shot off the tracks into the desert. Funny enough, after the teeth were beefed up, the braking cams engaged, but themselves immediately broke…
In yet another catastrophic failure, the forces were so extreme that Oscar broke free from his restraints. The result of this was his rubber face literally being ripped off thanks to the windscreen in front of his head. As for the rest of his body, it went flying through the air well over 700 feet (over 200 meters) from where the Gee Whiz stopped.
This brings us to about two years into the project on December 10, 1947 when Dr. Stapp decided it was his turn to be the dummy.
Initially strapping himself in facing backwards — a much safer way to experience extreme G-forces — the first run with a human aboard was a rather quaint 10Gs during the braking period.
After this, they continued to improve the restraint system as Dr. Stapp slowly ramped up the Gs all the way to 35 within six months of that first run. He stated of this, “The men at the mahogany desks thought the human body would never take 18 Gs; here we’re taking twice that with no sweat!”
And by “no sweat”, of course, he no doubt meant that throughout the tests, he’d suffered a hemorrhaged retina, fractured rib, lost several fillings from his teeth, got a series of concussions, cracked his collarbone, developed an abdominal hernia, developed countless bloody blisters caused by sand hitting his skin at extreme velocities, severe bruising, shattering his wrists, and fracturing his coccyx. But, you know, “no sweat”.
While recovering, if further tests needed conducting in the interim, he did begin allowing other volunteers to do the job, but as soon as he was healthy enough again, Dr. Stapp was back in the seat instead. One of his coworkers on the project, George Nichols, stated that Stapp couldn’t bare the idea of someone being seriously injured or killed in experiments he was conducting, so whenever possible made himself the guinea pig instead.
Of course, in order for the research to be as useful as possible and for other scientists to believe what Dr. Stapp was managing to endure, extremely accurate sensors were needed, which is where one Captain Edward A. Murphy comes in.
For a little background on Murphy, beyond very briefly helping out on this project, the highlights of his career included working on the SR-71, XB-70 Valkyrie, X-15 rocket plane, and helping to design the life support system for the Apollo missions.
Going back to Dr. Stapp’s project, at the time Murphy was working on a separate project at Wright Field involving centrifuge, including designing some new sensor systems in the process. When Dr. Stapp heard about this, he asked if Murphy wouldn’t mind adapting the sensors for use in Project MX-981, to which Murphy happily complied. More specifically, Murphy’s sensor system would allow them to directly measure the G forces on the passenger, rather than relying on measuring the G forces on the sled body itself.
Now, before we go any further, we should point out that exact details of what occurred over the two days Murphy was directly involved in the project have been lost to history, despite many first hand accounts from several people. You might think it would make it easy to sort out given this, but human memory being what it is, the accounts from those who were there vary considerably.
This acrobatic airplane is pulling up in a +g maneuver; the pilot is experiencing several g’s of inertial acceleration in addition to the force of gravity.
Illustrating this point in the most poignant way possible we have a quote from Chuck Yeager, who was good friends with Dr. Stapp. In the quote, Yeager was responding to the widely reported idea that Yeager had sought out Dr. Stapp to clear him for his famous flight where he broke the sound barrier. As to why he chose Dr. Stapp, Yeager supposedly felt that no other doctor but Stapp would clear him on account of Yeager’s supposedly broken ribs.
Yeager’s response to this almost universally reported story is as follows: “That’s a bunch of crap!… That’s the way rumors get started, by these people…who weren’t even there…”
He goes on,
that’s the same kind of crap…you get out of guys who were not involved and came in many years after. It’s just like Tom Brokaw’s book if you’ll pardon the analogy here, about the best of the breed or something like that. Well, every guy who wrote his story about World War II did it fifty years after it happened. I’m a victim of the same damn thing. I tell it the way I remember it, and that’s not the way it happened. I go back and I read a report that I did 55 years ago and I say, hmm, I’d better tell that story a little bit different. Well, that’s human nature. You tell it the way you believe it and that’s not necessarily the way that it happened. There’s nothing more true than that.
During this impressive and extremely accurate rant about how difficult it is to get an accurate report of some historic event, even from those who were there, he notes of those writing about these things after, “Guys become, if you’ll pardon my expression, sexual intellectuals. You know what the phrase is for that? Sexual intellectuals. They’re fucking know-it-alls, that’s what.”
And, we’re not going to lie, we mostly just included that little anecdote because we’re pretty sure “Sexual Intellectuals (Fucking Know-It-Alls)” is the greatest description of the staff and subscribers of TodayIFoundOut we’ve ever come across, and we kind of wish we’d named the channel that (and are pretty sure we’re going to make a t-shirt out of it…)
In any event, that caveat about the inherent inaccuracy of reporting history out of the way, this finally brings us around to the story of how Murphy and his law became a thing.
The general story that everybody seems to agree on is that Murphy or another worker there installed Murphy’s sensors and then a chimpanzee was strapped into the sled to test them out. (Note here, that years later in an interview with People Magazine, Murphy would claim it was Dr. Stapp that was strapped in.) After the test run, however, they found the sensors hadn’t worked at all, meaning the whole expensive and dangerous test had been run for nothing.
As to exactly why the sensors hadn’t worked, there are a few versions of this tale. As for the aforementioned David Hill, he states that it was one of his own assistants, either Jerry Hollabaugh or Ralph DeMarco, he couldn’t remember which, who installed the sensors incorrectly. As Hill explained in an interview with Nick T. Spake, author of the book A History of Murphy’s Law, “If you take these two over here and add them together. You get the correct amount of G-forces. But if you take these two and mount them together, one cancels the other out and you get zero.”
Cover of “A History of Murphy’s Law.”
George Nichols, however, claimed Hill and DeMarco had both double checked the wiring before hand, but had missed that it had been wired up backwards. That said, Nichols stated it wasn’t DeMarco nor Hill’s fault, as the wiring had been done back at Wright Field by Murphy’s team.
Said Nichols, “When Murphy came out in the morning, and we told him what happened… he was unhappy…” Stating, “If that guy [his assistant] has any way of making a mistake… He will.”
Nichols, however, blamed Murphy as Murphy should have examined the sensor system before hand to ensure it had been wired correctly, as well as tested the sensors before they were ever installed in the sled, and on top of it all should have given them time to test everything themselves before a live run on the sled. However, as Murphy was only to be there for two days, he’d supposedly rushed them. Nichols stated this inspired the team to not repeat Murphy’s mistakes.
Said Nichols, “If it can happen, it will happen… So you’ve got to go through and ask yourself, if this part fails, does this system still work, does it still do the function it is supposed to do? What are the single points of failure? Murphy’s Law established the drive to put redundancy in. And that’s the heart of reliability engineering.”
Hill also claims this ultimately morphed into the mantra among the group, “if anything can go wrong, it will.”
As for Murphy himself, years later in an interview with People Magazine, he would state what he originally said was, “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.” He then claimed when Dr. Stapp heard this, directly after the failed sled run, he shortened it and called it “Murphy’s Law”, saying “from now on we’re going to have things done according to Murphy’s Law.”
In yet another interview, Murphy painted an entirely different picture than accounts from Hill and Nichols’, stating he’d sent the sensors ahead of time, and had only gone there to investigate when they’d malfunctioned. He stated when he looked into it, “they had put the strain gauges on the transducers ninety degrees off.”
Importantly here, contrary to what the other witnesses said of how Murphy had blamed his assistant, in the interview, Murphy said it was his own fault, “I had made very accurate drawings of the thing for them, and discussed it with the people who were going to make them… but I hadn’t covered everything. I didn’t tell them that they had positively to orient them in only one direction. So I guess about that time I said, ‘Well, I really have made a terrible mistake here, I didn’t cover every possibility.’ And about that time, Major Stapp says, ‘Well, that’s a good candidate for Murphy’s Law’. I thought he was going to court martial me. But that’s all he said.”
Murphy then went on to explain to the interviewer that he actually didn’t remember the exact words he said at the time, noting “I don’t remember. It happened thirty five years ago, you know.”
This might all have you wondering how exactly this statement that nobody seemed to be able to remember clearly came to be so prevalent in public consciousness?
John Paul Stapp Fastest man on Earth – rocket sled Pilot safety equipment 1954
It turns out, beyond being incredibly brave, brilliant, and hell-bent on saving lives, even if it cost him his own, Dr. Stapp was also hilarious from all accounts from people describing him. He even wrote a book with jokes and various witty sayings called For Your Moments of Inertia. For example, “I’m as lonely as a cricket with arthritis.” or “Better a masochist than never been kissed…”
Or how about this gem from an interview where he was asked about any lasting effects on him as a result of the experiments — Dr. Stapp wryly responded, the only residual negative effect was “all the lunches and dinners I have to go to now…”
Beyond all this, he was also a collector of “Laws”, even coming up with one of his own, Stapp’s Law — “The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.”
When collecting these laws, he would name them after the person he heard them from, though often re-wording them to be more succinct, which, for whatever it’s worth, seems to align most closely to Murphy’s own account of how “his” law came about.
And as for this then becoming something the wider public found out about, during one of his interviews about the project, Dr. Stapp was asked, “How is it that no one has been severely injured — or worse — during your tests?”
It was here that Stapp stated, he wasn’t too worried about it because the entire team adhered to “Murphy’s Law”. He then explained that they always kept in mind that whatever could go wrong, would, and thus, extreme effort was made to think up everything that could go wrong and fix it before the test was actually conducted.
Going back to Project MX-981, having now reached 35 Gs after 26 runs by himself and several others by 11 volunteers, Dr. Stapp needed a faster sled. After all, at this point humans were flying at super sonic speeds and whether or not they could survive ejecting at those speeds needed to be known.
Enter the Sonic Wind at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. This sled could use up to 12 rockets capable of producing a combined 50,000 pounds of thrust, resulting in speeds as high as 750 mph. The track was about 3,550 feet long, with the braking system using water scoops. The braking could then be varied by raising or lowering the water level slightly.
This now brings us to December 10, 1954, when Dr. Stapp would pull off his most daring and final experiment.
Previous to this run, Dr. Stapp stated, “I practiced dressing and undressing with the lights out so if I was blinded I wouldn’t be helpless”, as he assumed he would probably be blind afterwards, if he survived at all. He would also state when he was sitting there waiting for the rockets to be fired, “I said to myself, ‘Paul, it’s been a good life.'”
In order to stop his arms and legs from flapping involuntarily in the wind during the test, they were securely strapped down and a mouth guard was inserted to keep his teeth from breaking off.
All set, he then blasted off on his 29th and final sled run, using nine solid fuel rockets, capable of producing 40,000 pounds of thrust.
As an interesting aside here, beyond ground based cameras, none other than Joe Kittinger piloted a T-33 over head with a photographer in back filming it.
As for the sled, it accelerated from 0 up to 632 miles per hour (1,017 kilometers per hour) in a mere 5 seconds, resulting in about 20 Gs of force on the acceleration phase. Then, in the span of just 1.4 seconds, he came to a full stop, experiencing 46.2 G’s of force in the other direction, meaning his body weighed almost 7,000 pounds at the peak G force! In the process, he had also set the record for highest landspeed of any human.
Col. John Paul Stapp aboard the “Gee Whiz” rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base.
(Air Force photo)
Said Kittinger of watching this, “He was going like a bullet… He went by me like I was standing still, and I was going 350 mph… I thought, that sled is going so damn fast the first bounce is going to be Albuquerque. I mean, there was no way on God’s earth that sled could stop at the end of the track. No way. He stopped in a fraction of a second. It was absolutely inconceivable that anybody could go that fast and then just stop, and survive.”
Nevertheless, when he was unstrapped from the chair, Dr. Stapp was alive, but as Nichols would observe, “His eyes had hemorrhaged and were completely filled with blood. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible.”
As for Dr. Stapp, he would state, it felt “like being assaulted in the rear by a fast freight train.” And that on the deceleration phase, “I felt a sensation in the eyes…somewhat like the extraction of a molar without anesthetic.”
He had also cracked some ribs, broken his wrists, and had some internal injuries to his respiratory and circulatory systems.
And on the note of his eyes, he was initially blind after, with it assumed that his retinas had detached. However, upon investigation, it was determined they had not, and within a few hours his sight mostly came back, with minor residual effects on his vision that lasted the rest of his life.
Apparently not knowing when to quit, once he had healed up, he planned yet another experiment to really see the limits of human endurance via strapping himself to that same sled and attempting to reach 1,000 mph this time…
When asked why, he stated, “I took my risks for information that will always be of benefit. Risks like those are worthwhile.”
To lead up to this, he conducted further experiments, going all the way up to 80Gs with a test dummy, at which point the Sonic Wind itself ripped off the tracks and was damaged.
It is probably for the best that it was here that his superiors stepped in. As you might imagine given his end goal was seemingly to figure out the extreme upper limit of G forces a human could survive with a perfected restraint system, and to use himself as the guinea pig until he found that limit, Dr. Stapp had previously run into the problem of his superiors ordering him to stop and instead to use chimpanzees exclusively. But while he did occasionally use chimpanzees, he went ahead and ignored the direct order completely. After all, he needed to be able to feel it for himself or be able to talk to the person experiencing the effects of the extreme Gs to get the best possible data. And, of course, no better way to find out what a human could take than use a human.
Rather than getting in trouble, he ultimately got a promotion thanks to the extreme benefits of his work. However, after his 46.2G run, they decided to shut down the experiment altogether as a way to get him to listen. After all, he had already achieved the intended goal of helping to develop better restraint and ejection systems, and proved definitively that a human could survive ejecting at the fastest speeds aircraft of the day could travel.
Now, at this point you might be thinking that’s all quite impressive, but that’s not Dr. Stapp helping to save “hundreds of thousands” of lives as we stated before. So how did he do that?
Well, during the experiments, Dr. Stapp became acutely aware that with a proper restraint system, most car accidents should be survivable, yet most cars of the age not only didn’t have any restraint systems whatsoever, they also were generally designed in ways to maximize injury in a crash with unforgiving surfaces, strong frames and bodies that would not crumple on impact, doors that would pop open in crashes, flinging occupants out, etc.
In fact, Dr. Stapp frequently pointed out to his superiors that they lost about as many pilots each year to car accidents as they did in the air. So while developing great safety systems in the planes was all well and good, they’d save a lot of lives simply by installing a restraint system into the cars of all their pilots and requiring they use them.
The military didn’t take this advice, but Dr. Stapp wasn’t about to give up. After all, tens of thousands of people each year in the U.S. alone were dying in car accidents when he felt many shouldn’t have. Thus, in nearly every interview he gave about his famous experiments almost from the very beginning of the project, he would inevitably guide the conversation around to the benefits of what they were doing if adopted in automobiles.
Not stopping there, he went on a life-long public campaign talking to everyone from car manufacturers to politicians, trying to get it required that car manufacturers include seat belts in their vehicles, as well as sharing his team’s data and restraint system designs.
Beyond that, he used his clout within the Air Force to convince them to allow him to conduct a series of experiments into auto safety, test crashing cars in a variety of ways using crash test dummies and, in certain carefully planned tests, volunteer humans, to observe the effects. This was one of the first times anyone had tried such a scientifically rigorous, broad look into commercial automobile safety. He also tested various restraint systems, in some tests subjecting the humans to as high as a measured 28 Gs. Results in hand, in May of 1955 he held a conference to bring together automobile engineers, scientists, safety council members and others to come observe the tests and learn of the results of his team’s research.
He then repeated this for a few years until Stapp was reassigned by the Air Force, at which point he requested Professor James Ryan of the University of Minnesota host the 4th annual such event, which Ryan then named the “Stapp Car-Crash and Field Demonstration Conference”, which is still held today.
Besides this and other ways he championed improvement in automobile safety, he also served as a medical advisor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, in both heavily pushing for better safety systems.
It is no coincidence that not long after Dr. Stapp started these campaigns, car manufacturers started installing seatbelts as a matter of course, as well as started to put much more serious thought into making cars safer in crashes.
In the end, while Dr. Stapp got little public credit for helping to convince car manufacturers to prioritize automobile safety, and provided much of the initial data to help them design such systems, he was at least invited to be present when President Johnson signed the bill that made seat belts required in cars in 1966.
Besides ignoring direct orders to stop using himself as a guinea pig, other ways Dr. Stapp apparently used to frequently flout the rules was to, on his own time, freely treat dependents of people who worked at Edwards’ who were nonetheless not eligible for medical care. He would typically do this via doing house calls to airmen’s homes to keep the whole thing secret, including apparently attending to Chuck Yeager’s sons in this way according to Yeager.
It turns out Murphy was also good friends with none other than Lawrence Peter, remembered today for the Peter Principal — people inevitably get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. According Murphy’s son, Robert, at one point Peter and Murphy tried to get together with Cyril Northcote Parkinson of Parkinson’s Law — “Work expands to meet the time and money that is available.” However, Robert claims that fateful meeting ended up getting canceled when other matters came up to prevent the get together.
One other strong safety recommendation Dr. Stapp pushed for, particularly in aviation, was to turn passenger seats around to face backwards, as this is drastically safer in crashes. And, at least in aviation would be simple to do on any commercial airline, requiring no modification other than to turn the seat around in its track. As Stapp and subsequent research by NASA shows, humans can take the most G-forces and receive fewer injuries overall with “eyes back” force, where the G-forces are pushing you back into your seat, with the seat cushions themselves also lending a hand in overall safety. This also insures tall people won’t smack their heads and bodies against anything in front of them in a crash. Despite the massive safety benefits here for people of all ages, outside of car seats for babies and toddlers, nobody anywhere seems interested in leveraging the extreme benefits of rear facing passengers to increase general safety.
If you’re wondering about the safest place on a plane to sit, funny enough, that’s the rear. In fact, you’re approximately 40% more likely to survive a plane crash if you sit in the back of the plane, rather than the front. The other advantage to the rear is that most passengers choose not to sit in the back. So unless the plane is full, you might get a row of seats to yourself. (Of course, a bathroom is also often in the rear on planes, soooo.) Another factor to consider is where the closest exit is. As a general rule, studies examining accidents have shown you’ll want to be within six rows of an emergency exit to maximize your survival chances. So if the plane doesn’t have a rear exit, that’s something to be factored in.
During Joe Kittinger’s then record leap from about 102,800 feet on August 16, 1960, the following happened during the ascent:
At 43,000 feet, I find out [what can go wrong]. My right hand does not feel normal. I examine the pressure glove; its air bladder is not inflating. The prospect of exposing the hand to the near-vacuum of peak altitude causes me some concern. From my previous experiences, I know that the hand will swell, lose most of its circulation, and cause extreme pain…. I decide to continue the ascent, without notifying ground control of my difficulty… Circulation has almost stopped in my unpressurized right hand, which feels stiff and painful… [Upon landing] Dick looks at the swollen hand with concern. Three hours later the swelling disappeared with no ill effect.
His total ascent took 1 hour and 31 minutes, he stayed at the peak altitude for 12 minutes, and his total decent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds, so his hand was exposed to a near vacuum for quite some time without long term ill effects. Incidentally, during his fall, he achieved a peak speed of 614 mph, nearly as fast as Dr. Stapp had managed in his little rocket sled. His experience, however, was very different than Dr. Stapp’s. Said Kittinger,
There’s no way you can visualize the speed. There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception. If you’re in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It’s the same thing if you’re free falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don’t feel it. You don’t have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
The SR-71 Blackbird was the fastest military jet that has ever taken to the skies. But there was a plane that not only went twice as fast, but it also went much higher.
That speedy plane was the North American X-15.
The X-15 was one of the first true spaceplanes, with a number of flights going beyond Earth’s atmosphere, according to a 2005 NASA release. It was capable of going over 4,500 mph, or nearly Mach 6, and it went as high as 354,200 feet – or just over 67 miles – above the Earth.
The plane didn’t actually take off from the ground. In fact, it needed the help of a B-52 bomber before it could reach those dizzying heights and super-high speeds. NASA used two of the first B-52s, an NB-52A known as the “High and Mighty One,” for some flights before a NB-52B known as “Balls 8” took over the duty.
Once released from the B-52 at an altitude of 45,000 feet and a speed of 500 miles per hour, the X-15’s Reaction Motors XLR-99 would activate providing 70,400 pounds of thrust, according to a NASA fact sheet. At most, the plane had two minutes of fuel.
Among the pilots who were at the controls of this marvel was Neil Armstrong – you’d know him as the first man to walk on the moon. Armstrong didn’t get into space with this plane in any of his seven flights, but he did post the 6th-fastest speed among the X-15 sorties, according to an official NASA history.
One of those who achieved the rating of astronaut, Major Michael Adams, received the honor posthumously after he was killed in a crash of his X-15A on Nov. 15, 1967. Adams had broken the 50-mile barrier that the Air Force and NASA used to define entering space on his seventh and final flight, reaching an altitude of 266,000 feet and a top speed of 3,617 mph, according to the NASA history’s list of X-15 flights.
Below, take a look at the video from Curious Droid, which talks about the X-15 – and the awesome career it had.
The opening few minutes of the movie Top Gun make for, arguably, one of the coolest aerial scenes ever caught on film. There’s a reason it’s the enduring air power movie of the 1980s. Too bad for the Air Force that Top Gun featured the Navy.
Except Air Force pilots do that sh*t in real life.
In 2013, two Iranian Air Force F-4 Phantoms moved to intercept an MQ-1 drone flying in international airspace near the Iranian border. The two IRIAF fighters were quickly shooed away by two F-22 Raptors who were flying in escort.
Except, they didn’t just get a warning message, they were Maverick-ed. That’s what I’m calling it now.
How an F-22 Raptor intercepts a Russian-built bomber.
The two F-22 Raptors were escorting the drone because of an incident the previous year in which two Iranian Air Force Sukhoi Su-25 close air support craft attempted to shoot down a different Air Force MQ-1. In the Nov. 1, 2012, incident, the drone was 16 miles from Iran, but still in international airspace. Iran scrambled the two Su-25s to intercept the drone, which they did, using their onboard guns.
The fighters missed the drone, which captured the whole incident with its cameras. The drone returned to base, completely unharmed. Not surprising, considering the Su-25 isn’t designed for air-to-air combat.
Iranian Air Force F-4 Phantom fighters.
The following year, another drone was being intercepted by Iranian aircraft. This time, however, it had serious firepower backing it up. The Iranians came at the drone with actual fighters, capable of downing an aircraft in mid-flight. The F-4 Phantom could bring what was considered serious firepower when it was first introduced – in the year 1960. These days, it’s a museum piece for the United States and most of its Western allies. Not so for the Iranians, who still have more than 40 of them in service. When the F-4s came up against the MQ-1, they probably expected an easy target. That didn’t happen.
One of the F-22 Raptor pilots flying escort for the drone flew up underneath the Iranian Phantoms. According to then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, the Raptor pilot checked out the armaments the Iranian planes were carrying, then pulled up on their left wing and radioed them.
It wasn’t like this, but it could have been.
“He [the Raptor pilot] flew under their aircraft [the F-4s] to check out their weapons load without them knowing that he was there, and then pulled up on their left wing and then called them and said ‘you really ought to go home’,” Welsh said.
Today, we see cruise missiles as very accurate. This was not always the case. In fact, one cruise missile has the distinction of hitting the wrong continent – and it was quite a miss.
The missile in question was the SM-62 Snark. It was intended to help deter Soviet aggression. According to Designation-Systems.net, with a maximum range of 6,000 miles and a top speed of 550 knots, it had a W39 nuclear warhead with a 4 megaton yield – 20 times as powerful as the W80 used on the Tomahawk cruise missile and the AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile.
It flew at 50,000 feet – which at the time made it hard to intercept with enemy anti-aircraft missiles.
The Snark needed the big warhead. The closest it came to hitting its target was within about eight miles. That is a very far cry from the 260 feet that Designation-Systems.net cited the early models of the Tomahawk cruise missile achieving.
But Air Force magazine described the miss to end all misses. On Dec. 5, 1956, a Snark was launched with a flight plan to cruise to Puerto Rico and return to its base in Florida. Only, it stopped responding to signals.
Even a self-destruct command didn’t work. The Air Force scrambled fighters to shoot down the wayward missile, but they couldn’t pull off the intercept – proving that the design got that part right.
Ultimately, the missile went beyond tracking range – last seen headed towards Brazil. The missile would remain missing for 26 years until some wreckage was found in that South American country.
According to a Reuters report in the Regina Leader-Post, unidentified Brazilians found the parts and reported them.
Designation-Systems.net reported that the Snark would achieve a brief period of fully operational service from February to June 1961 (an initial operating capability was established in 1959). But then-President John F. Kennedy ordered the one active wing to stand down, largely due to the development of inter-continental ballistic missiles.
The average life expectancy of a Marine with a flamethrower on any given battlefield is about five minutes, according to Medal of Honor recipient and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Herschel “Woody” Williams. Those tanks made tempting targets – and they weren’t bulletproof.
Woody Williams was one such flamethrower. He not only earned his Medal of Honor, he’s the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the Pacific War.
Williams was on the battlefields of Iwo Jima, an all-out slugfest that took place near the end of the war. But just because the end was nigh, that didn’t mean the Japanese were going to make it easy on the Americans. By the time Woody Williams began torching Japanese pillboxes on the island, the Marines had been fighting for days. Williams had the idea to form a five-man team with him bearing the flamethrower and four Marines providing cover for him as he moved.
The idea was a brilliant success, one he repeated many times over the course of four hours, much longer than the five minutes he would have normally given himself.
He had a lot going against him. The fuel inside a flamethrower weapon will give its user just a few blasts, lasting a couple of seconds at best, so he had to be judicious with his targets; Moreover, the fuel tank weighed roughly 70 pounds, so running with the clunky behemoth would be a challenge. On top of that, he would have to get in close, as the range of the weapon was severely limited. As if that weren’t bad enough, if he wasn’t killed outright and was instead captured by the Japanese, he would be executed as a criminal immediately.
It was not a rosy outlook but time and again Woody crept up on the enemy positions, cooked them very quickly, and returned to base to take up a new, fully loaded flamethrower. To the young Marine, he was just doing his job, even when a bullet ricocheted off his fuel tank. To the Marine Corps, he was a hero.
Woody Williams careful bravery on the battlefields of Iwo Jima allowed the Marines to advance inland after days of being stymied by enemy fortifications and bayonet charges that had begun to take its toll. Within a few weeks, Iwo Jima belonged to the Marines. Corporal Williams would soon receive the Medal of Honor from President Truman himself.
“You go in automatic drive when something like that happens, I think,” Williams told Stars and Stripes. “Much of that four hours, I don’t remember. I attribute that to fear. Because to say I wasn’t scared would be the biggest lie that’s ever been told. Because you do experience fear.”