When you go to Sagamore Hill — the home (and now museum) that President and Medal of Honor recipient Teddy Roosevelt had on Long Island — you may see a .38-caliber Model 1892 Army and Navy revolver. This was a six-shot revolver chambered in .38 Long Colt.
As a standard revolver, many were produced, but Teddy’s gun was important to him. It had been recovered from the wrecked battleship USS Maine (ACR 1). He famously used the revolver to rally the troops (as seen in artwork about the charge up San Juan Hill), but he also pulled the trigger, taking out the enemy with it at least once during that charge.
Roosevelt kept the gun, and after his death in 1919, his house became a museum; the revolver remained in the home for display. It was stolen in 1963 and recovered, but according to a 1990 New York Times article, it was swiped again. Valued at $500,000 at the time, it had not been insured.
Oddly enough, for a revolver that was clearly inscribed “From the Sunken Battle Ship Maine” and “July 1st, 1898, San Juan, Carried and Used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt,” it was missing for 16 years until it was turned in to the FBI’s Art Crime Team.
The pistol is now back in the Dagamore Hill museum — presumably well-protected against theft. The thief who took the gun in 1990, though, is still at large.
Below is a video by Brad Meltzer about the gun’s history — and its 1990 theft.
Carl Brashear was no stranger to adversity. A sharecropper’s son, he grew up on a farm in Kentucky and attended segregated schools his entire life. He enlisted in the Navy the same year that President Truman effectively ended segregation in the military by issuing Executive Order 9981. Brashear was told repeatedly that he couldn’t be a Navy diver: no black man ever had. His application was ignored and lost, over and over until 1954 when he made the cut. But those struggles paled in comparison to the mission that cost him his leg.
When Brashear enlisted, black sailors were only offered jobs like serving white officers meals or cleaning up. Brashear knew he was meant to do more. He wanted to be a Navy diver.
In addition to the physical attributes it takes to be a Diver, you also have to have a bit of smarts too. There is a science to diving and understanding it is a key prerequisite to becoming and advancing through the Diving hierarchy. Brashear had grown up in rural Kentucky and, because of the lack of education in segregated schools, had the equivalent of an 8th grade education. While he had become a salvage diver which was difficult in and of itself, in order to get to the next step, he had to pass a grueling science component.
It took him almost 9 years, but he was able to do so, and became a First-Class Diver in 1964. Braesher made history as the first African American to become a Navy diver.
Then the accident happened.
In January 1966, off the coast of Spain, two Air Force planes collided while attempting to link up to refuel. A B-52G Stratofortress Bomber collided with a KC-135A Stratotanker causing both planes to go down. All four of the refueler’s crew perished while three of the seven crew died on the bomber when their plane broke apart.
While the loss of life itself was devastating, the cargo of the bomber was cause of grave concern as well. Falling to the earth were four MK28 Hydrogen bombs.
Three of the bombs were found immediately in a Spanish fishing village. The fourth was believed to have fallen into the Mediterranean.
The Air Force asked the assistance of the United States Navy. After 80 days of searching, the bomb was finally located. It took over 20 ships, thousands of men and about 150 Navy Divers, one of whom was Carl Brashear.
Two months into the search, a tow cable snapped and sent a pipe into Brashear’s leg almost shearing it off. Brashear was medevaced to Germany and then Virginia. Despite all attempts to save his left leg below the knee, doctors could not stop the infections and necrosis that set in.
Brashear would have to lose his leg.
For most of us who served, this should have meant the end of his career and most certainly should have ended his time as a Navy Diver.
For Carl Brashear, that was not an option. His journey in the Navy had already been long and arduous, and he had his eyes set on something bigger. One of his personal beliefs was, “It’s not a sin to get knocked down; it’s a sin to stay down”.
It should have been the end of his career. For Brashear it was just another fight he was going to win. The Navy set about the process to medically retire him.
Brashear refused to show up for his med-board meeting and instead went about proving to the Navy that he could be returned to active duty. As reported by the L.A. Times, Brashear said, “Sometimes I would come back from a run, and my artificial leg would have a puddle of blood from my stump. In that year, if I would have gone to sick bay, they would have written me up. I didn’t go to sick bay. I’d go somewhere and hide and soak my leg in a bucket of hot water with salt in it — an old remedy.”
It took almost two years of determination, but in 1968, Brashear was able to be recertified as a Navy Diver.
Again, for most people this would have been a remarkable finale. For Brashear, there was one more major goal he wanted.
Brashear pushed through the limitation of having a prosthetic leg and studied master the scientific criteria that was needed to get to the next level.
In two years, he did it. In 1970, he became the first African American to become a Master Diver in the United State Navy.
Brashear retired in 1979 as a Master Chief Petty Officer and Master Diver.
Through his career he told people, “I ain’t going to let nobody steal my dream”.
During World War I, France created the Croix de Guerre to decorate its bravest troops, and it gave the decoration to members of foreign armies who took great risks or who achieved great things in service of liberating France from German occupation.
In the years following the Battle of Verdun, France issued the Croix de Guerre to units with 2,500 White Company trucks and named the vice president of the company, Walter C. White, as a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor in recognition of how important a humble truck was in France’s ultimate victory over Germany, especially at Verdun.
White Motor Company trucks at Fort Riley. Full panoramic image available here.
(Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General)
The story of the White Motor Company is a strange one. In 1902, it was the White Sewing Machine Company, and the Surgeon General proposed that the Army Quartermasters purchase a motor vehicle to serve as an Army ambulance in future conflicts. R. H. White, already looking to diversify the company’s offerings, pushed the company to take part in the competition.
But the company wasn’t done. They developed more truck designs and, in 1916, one of their trucks was upgraded with armor and sent on the Mexican Punitive Expedition. By the time World War I rolled around, White trucks were trusted by plenty of military men.
The automotive business proved to be a great investment for the company, and the White Sewing Machine Company opened itself a second company, the White Truck Company. This particular confederation of engineers and businessmen found themselves a ready market for reliable trucks and sold thousands of Model A trucks to France and other allied militaries.
From 1914 onward, France was sending these “Little trucks” into combat and seemed to have been more than pleased with the trucks’ performance. In the 1916 Battle of Verdun, the trucks were used to transport supplies and troops. At the Battle of Château-Thierry in 1918, the trucks moved U.S. troops into position in time to stop a German advance.
But it was at the 1918 Battle of Verdun, when many of the same trucks returned to that blood-soaked stretch of land, that the trucks earned their major laurels.
White Trucks of Cleveland advertisement
(Thoth God of Knowledge)
It was there that France needed to move hundreds of thousands of troops to the front over a stretch of just a few days, and they turned to the 2,500 Model A trucks of Great Headquarters Reserve No. 1. The drivers and trucks carried 200,000 troops to the front, some for over 100-mile stretches.
The task was tremendous, the crisis very grave. A supreme effort was necessary to stop the German advance last March on the British front. Without this unprecedented movement of French reserves right into the teeth of the fighting, the issue might have been serious indeed for the Allies.
According to the same article, drivers often drove for 24 hours straight. One unit averaged driving 20 hours a day, and another pulled 60 hours straight of duty.
It was the only time that a motor convoy unit would be awarded the medal, and some chalked it up to the service of the trucks. According to Time Magazine in 1932, the only White trucks to break down in the battle were those disabled by shells and so, “The result was that 2,500 of them received the distinction of France’s Croix de Guerre.”
It was the fourth day of the 1995 Gordon Bennett Cup, one of the world’s most prestigious balloon races and one of the most challenging as well.
Alan Fraenckel, 55, and John Stuart-Jervis, 68, were over the skies of Poland before dawn on September 12, 1995, heading toward Belarus with a real chance of winning.
The two Americans, residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, were excited by the prospect of flying over the former Soviet republic, which was mostly off limits until gaining independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Race organizers said Belarusian authorities had been informed about the Americans’ plans and had cleared them, along with four other American racers who were also planning to fly over Belarus in two other balloons.
However, as Fraenckel, an airline pilot by profession, and his copilot, Stuart-Jervis, headed into Belarus, they were tracked for more than two hours by Belarusian air-defense system before a military helicopter sprayed the balloon – which was filled with some 900 cubic meters of highly flammable hydrogen — with machine-gun fire, sending it crashing into a forest in western Belarus and killing both men.
Belarusian authorities said the balloon – registered in Germany as D-Caribbean — had strayed too close to a military airbase and missile-launch site and had failed to respond to radio calls or warning shots.
The International Aeronautical Federation would later say that Belarusian authorities had known about the race since March, had authorized the balloon of Stuart-Jervis and Fraenkel as well as those of J. Michael Wallace, Kevin Brielmann, David Levin, and Mark Sullivan. Moreover, race officials said the pilots had provided specific flight plans during the race.
Belarus did express regret over the tragedy, but stopped short of issuing a formal apology. Washington slammed Minsk for dragging its feet on notifying them of the incident and was further incensed when Belarusian authorities issued fines of $30 to the other balloonists – who had been forced to land — for not having visas.
“This is a farce,” said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns at the time. “We expected an apology from the Belarusian government and instead we got a bill.”
The incident came a year after Alyaksandr Lukashenka — a former collective farm manager who cast himself as a crime and corruption buster — had been elected president of Belarus, a post he would hold for decades as he erected an authoritarian system much like the former Soviet one, crushing all opponents who stood in his way.
Hours before tragedy struck, Fraenckel and Stuart-Jervis were in radio contact with Wallace and Brielmann, who were only 20 kilometers away after more than 60 hours of flight.
“We have 12 bags [of ballast] left,” said Fraenckel, “and all our water. We’re going to do a fourth night.”
“If you can’t find your crew,” answered Wallace, a close friend of Fraenckel’s, “you could still land now. My guys are right under you.” Half joking, half serious, Wallace was aware that the other balloon stood a good chance of winning if it stayed aloft.
“I don’t think so,” chuckled Fraenckel.
The Gordon Bennett Balloon Race, named for the millionaire sportsman and owner of the New York Herald newspaper, is the premier event among balloon racers. In principle, it is a simple event — the winner is the balloon that flies the furthest from the starting point without landing.
But it is literally a killer, and dozens have fallen victim to it over the years. In the 1923 race, which was held in Europe, five balloonists were killed by lightning, and a half dozen more were seriously injured in storms.
In 1995, the year of the Belarus tragedy, German balloonists Wilhelm Elmers and Bernd Landsmann set the race record for longest flight time, remaining aloft for more than 92 hours before touching down in Latvia on September 13.
That year, the race began on September 9 when 17 balloons lifted away from the starting point at Wil, Switzerland. By the evening of September 10, six of the balloons had landed in various locations in Western Europe, ending their bid for the trophy.
Witness To A Tragedy
As the Americans were traversing the skies of western Belarus, Vasil Zdanyuk, editor in chief of the Belarusian newspaper Svododnye Novosti and a correspondent for the Moscow-based Military Journal, sat down for an interview in his Minsk office with Belarusian Air Force commander Valery Kastenka.
“About 20 minutes into our interview, the operative on duty at the Air Defense Forces called and said: ‘We have the following situation: an unidentified object has appeared not far from our facilities, not far from an airfield.’ There is a military airbase nearby,” recounted Zdanyuk to Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
In fact, according to Zdanyuk, Kastenka was at that moment explaining the nuisance that low-flying probes — mostly weather balloons — posed for Belarus’s air defenses.
“Kastenka recounted how one of these balloons flew right over Minsk and almost caused a panic, although there was no danger,” he recalled. “And he says, ‘See how lucky you are. We are discussing it, and there is a balloon in the air.'”
Kastenka ordered a military helicopter – a Mil Mi-24 — up in the air to check out the object.
As the military gunship got closer to D-Caribbean, Kastenka flicked on the speakerphone, letting Zdanyuk hear the conversation between Kastenka and the helicopter commander.
“After five more minutes, when the helicopter had flown around [the balloon], the operative asked: ‘What should we do with it?’ ‘What should we do? Let’s shoot it down,’ [Kastenka] added a few tough expletives. And I’m sitting there, doing the interview, and all of this is being recorded,” Zdanyuk said.
Zdanyuk said he could even hear the fusillade of machine-gun fire as Kastenka allegedly boasted to him: “You see, this is how we work. This is how we serve.”
The bodies of Fraenckel and Stuart-Jervis were later found in a forest near the town of Byaroza, after having fallen some 2,000 meters.
Zdanyuk told Current Time in his December 2019 interview that he was confident Kastenka did not know the balloon was manned, speculating things may not have taken a tragic turn had Kastenka waited some 20 minutes until the other two American balloons appeared.
“Then he would have been more cautious: Why are they flying one after another,” Zdanyuk said. “And it would have become clear that a world ballooning championship from Switzerland was taking place.”
The Other Americans
Of the two remaining U.S. balloons, the first to land was the N69RW, navigated by David Levin and Mark Sullivan.
“At first we stuck to a more northern route: we headed to a small part of Russia near Latvia and climbed over the Baltic. But when in the morning the balloon began to rise due to solar energy, we turned east to Belarus,” Sullivan later recounted.
Two hours before crossing the border, the balloonists tried to contact the Minsk air traffic control center. Their signal was confirmed, but they were answered in Russian, although English is normally used in international aviation communication.
Wallace and Brielmann landed in Belarus after being ordered to do so by the Belarusians. Levin and Sullivan ignored a similar order, but also landed in Belarus because of deteriorating weather.
The Belarusian government expressed regret for the incident but stopped short of offering a formal apology.
“We would call upon the Belarusian government to get its act together and to make sure that all the entities of the Belarusian government…begin to understand that the way they are handling this incident and the way they are treating American citizens is really a mockery,” the State Department’s Burns said on September 16, 1995.
“Whatever the circumstances may have been, and whether or not the balloon was able to answer radio calls from the Belarus military, the shooting was absolutely indefensible,” he said. “Moreover, the Belarus government took 24 hours even to notify us of the incident. We are strongly protesting and demanding a full investigation by the Belarus government.”
The Interstate Aviation Committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — a loose grouping of former Soviet republics — investigated the incident with representatives of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and German aviation authorities also participating.
In its final report, the committee concluded the causes of the shooting were: “Unauthorized flight into the airspace of [Belarus] by an unidentified balloon, with no radio communication [between the balloon crew and Belarus air traffic control (ATC)0],” and “errors by [Belarus] anti-aircraft defense elements in the identification and classification of the airship that violated [Belarus] airspace.”
Yury Sivakou, head of the Belarusian Security Council at the time of the incident, defended Belarus’s actions, telling Current Time in 2019 that any country under similar circumstances would have done the same.
“If an unidentified aircraft appears in foreign space — in any country — first they negotiate with it, then they raise the appropriate air defense forces, which either enter into communication or force it to land,” said Sivakou, now blacklisted by the EU for his alleged role in the abduction and killings of opposition leaders in Belarus in the 1990s. “Even if radio communication does not work, there is a whole range of various [actions]: flapping wings and so on to force it to land, or indicating manually, ‘Follow me.’ In this case, the balloon did not react at all, and that was very strange at the time.”
According to Sivakou, the military assumed there could be “anything” in the balloon gondola. They came to this conclusion because there was an air base and other military facilities nearby.
He dismissed reports that the crew involved in the downing had been awarded medals as “speculation and rumors.”
“People died – it’s a tragedy,” he said. “Who awards anything in such cases? This was no act of aggression. It was just an accident.”
While families of the victims have never received a formal apology or any compensation from Minsk, many ordinary Belarusians expressed sorrow and shame for how its government had acted.
Alyaksandr Artsyukhovich, studying at a U.S. university at the time, expressed hope the shooting would be the last such tragedy.
“My country is a mess now,” he wrote at the time. “Millions of people feel themselves manipulated and frustrated. I only hope that the [recent] incident [will] be the only tragedy. Only removal of the artificial barriers built by the West to our integration into the world’s community can normalize things in Belarus.”
On the first anniversary of the tragedy, activists in Belarus placed a simple stone at the crash site with a cross, the date of the accident, and the phrase in Belarusian: “Forgive us.”
Hollywood might often showcase submarines hunting down and attacking other submarines in a variety of movies and TV shows, but it’s actually been a very rare event in history.
In fact, the only time a submarine has ever been known for successfully hunting down and destroying an enemy submarine while underwater was in February 1945, with the destruction of the U-864, a German Type IX U-boat off the coast of Norway by a Royal Navy sub.
Towards the end of the war in Europe, U-864 under the command of Ralf-Reimar Wolfram, was sent out on a secret transport mission as part of Operation Caesar to smuggle jet engine components and schematics, bottles of mercury for constructing explosives, advisors and engineers to Japan undetected by Allied warships prowling around for U-boats.
The faltering German higher command had hoped that even if they were unsuccessful in their theater of war, the Japanese military could benefit from the advanced technology they sent over, continuing the war effort and eventually affording Germany a chance to get back in the fight.
In December 1944, the U-864 left its submarine pen in Kiel, Germany, for a trip to occupied-Norway where it would be refitted with a new snorkel before departing on its mission. The problematic refit and damage sustained from accidentally running aground pushed its deployment back until January of the next year.
Unbeknownst to the German navy, Allied forces were already aware of Operation Caesar, having cracked the Enigma code which was used by the German military to encrypt its classified communications. As a response to Caesar, the Royal Air Force and Navy bombed a number of submarine pens in Norway, including one where U-864 was temporarily housed in for repairs.
The U-864 eventually deployed on Operation Caesar, slipping away undetected by nearby Allied warships. However, a monkey wrench was thrown into the covert mission’s gears when the Royal Navy – unwilling to take unnecessary chances – tasked the HMS Venturer to hunt down and kill the U-864 before it could make a dash for the open oceans.
Venturer was commanded by Lt. Jimmy Launders, a highly-respected and brilliantly-minded tactician. Within days of reaching the U-864’s last suspected position, Launders “spotted” his quarry, thanks to noises emanating from the German warship’s engines.
Wolfram, unaware of the Venturer’s presence, had ordered his sub to turn around and head for port when it began experiencing engine troubles which created considerable noise – something he feared would easily give away their position. But by then, it was too late.
Launders began tracking the U-864 using a hydrophone instead of his sonar, as the “pings” from the sonar system would have likely alerted his prey to his existence. After a lengthy tracking phase, Launders fired off a spread of four torpedoes — half of his entire armament — and awaited the fruits of his efforts.
Wolfram’s bridge crew realized they were under attack when the noise from the inbound torpedoes reached the ears of their own hydrophone operators. Ordering the U-864 to take evasive maneuvers, Wolfram and his crew powered their submarine up in an attempt to speed out of the area.
Out of the four torpedoes launched by the Venturer, one hit its mark directly, fracturing the U-boat’s pressure hull and immediately sending it and its entire crew to the bottom. Launders and the crew of the Venturer had just effected the first and only submarine vs. submarine kill in history — a feat that has never been matched to this very day.
The wreck of the U-864 was discovered in 2003 by the Norwegian Navy, near where the Royal Navy had earlier reported a possible kill. Its cargo of mercury has since been exposed to the sea, severely contaminating the area around the shipwreck.
In the years since its rediscovery, the U-864 has been buried under thousands of pounds of rocks and artificial debris in order to stop the spread of its chemical cargo. It will remain there for decades to come while the metal of the destroyed submarine slowly disintegrates away.
When bombers beat fighters, it is very notable. But some bombers have more tools than others in an air-to-air fight. For instance, the F-105 shot down 27 MiGs during the Vietnam War, many thanks to its M61 cannon.
Here are some bombers that an enemy fighter would not want to get caught in front of.
1. De Havilland Mosquito
While some versions of this plane were designed as out-and-out bombers, with the bombardier in the nose, others swapped out the bombardier for a powerful armament of four .303-caliber machine guns and four 20mm cannons.
It goes without saying just what this could do to a fighter. One incident saw a number of Mosquitos being jumped by the deadly Focke-Wulf FW190. The Mosquitos shot down five of the enemy in return for three of their own in the dogfight.
2. Douglas A-20G Havoc
During the Pacific War, Paul I. Gunn, also known as “Pappy” came up with the idea to make use of the extra .50-caliber machine guns that came from wrecked fighters. He put those on A-20 bombers.
Eventually his modifications were something that Douglas Aircraft began to put on the planes at the factory. The A-20G had six .50-caliber machine guns in the nose — the same firepower of a P-51 Mustang or F6F Hellcat. Against a Zero, that would be a deadly punch. The A-20 later was used as the basis for the P-70, a night fighter armed with four 20mm cannon.
3. Douglas A-26B Invader
Designed to replace the A-20 Havoc, the Invader was equipped to carry up to 14 .50-caliber machine guns in its nose. Nope, not a misprint; this was the combined firepower of a P-47 and a P-51. That is more than enough to ruin the life of an enemy pilot who gets caught in front of this plane.
4. North American B-25J Mitchell
The medium bomber version of the B-25J was pretty much conventional, but another version based on the strafer modifications made by “Pappy” Gunn in the Southwest Pacific held 18 M2 .50-caliber machine guns. One B-25, therefore, had the firepower of three F4U Corsairs.
Other versions of the B-25, the G and H models, had fewer .50-caliber machine guns, but added a 75mm howitzer in the nose.
5. Junkers Ju-88
Like the Allied planes listed above, the Ju-88 proved to be a very receptive candidate for heavy firepower in the nose. Some versions got four 20mm cannon and were equipped as night fighters. Others got two 37mm cannon and six 7.92mm machine guns, and were intended to kill tanks and/or bombers. Either way, it will leave a mark, even on the P-47.
6. Vought A-7D/E Corsair
The A-7 Corsair is widely seen as an attack aircraft. It carries a huge bomb load, but the D (Air Force) and E (Navy) models also have a M61 Vulcan with a thousand rounds of ammo. While no Navy or Air Force Corsairs scored an air-to-air kill in the type’s service, if a plane or helicopter was caught in front of this bird, it wouldn’t last long.
7. F-105D/F/G Thunderchief
The F-105 is probably the tactical bomber with the highest air-to-air score since the end of World War II. Much of this was due to its M61 Vulcan with 1,029 rounds of ammo. You know what Leo Thorsness did with his F-105 against a bunch of MiGs.
8. F-111 Aardvark
While it was an awesome strike aircraft that could still be contributing today, it is not that well known that the F-111 did have the option to carry a M61 cannon with 2,000 rounds of ammo. That is a lot of heat for whatever unfortunate plane is in front of it.
9. A-10 Thunderbolt
Widely beloved for its use as a close-air support plane in Desert Storm and the War on Terror, the A-10’s GAU-8 was designed to kill tanks. That didn’t mean it couldn’t be used against aerial targets. During Desert Storm, a pair of Iraqi helicopters found that out the hard way.
Osama Bin Laden, the terror leader behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US, has gone down as one of the most vicious figures in history, but he admittedly lacked the courage to fight in an actual battle.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence for 24 years until September 1, 2001, told The Guardian that “there are two Osama bin Ladens… One before the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and one after it.”
Bin Laden got his first taste of warfare in Afghanistan during its 1970s war with the Soviet Union, but it turned out he wasn’t made of soldiering stuff.
“He was very much an idealistic mujahid [this word has a similar meaning to jihadist]. He was not a fighter. By his own admission, he fainted during a battle, and when he woke up, the Soviet assault on his position had been defeated,” Turki said.
2001 video of Bin Laden.
Bin Laden’s family portrays him as drifting towards radicalism and away from the family in the decades between that struggle and 2001 in The Guardian interview. The family has tried to distance itself from Bin Laden’s acts of terrorism, but his youngest son went to Afghanistan to “avenge” his death, they said.
Bin Laden famously led Al Qaeda and planned the 2001 attacks. Again, Bin Laden himself did not engage in the hijackings, and simply coordinated them behind the scenes.
When Bin Laden finally came face to face with US forces, taking the form of US Navy SEALs storming his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, initial US government reports said he hid behind women in the complex to use them as a human shield.
The nation’s highest medal for valor under enemy fire dates back over 150 years and has been awarded to well over 3,000 men and one woman in honor of heroic acts, including everything from stealing enemy trains to braving machine gun fire to pull comrades to safety.
This is the true history of the Medal of Honor.
Army Pvt. Jacob Parrott was one of Andrew’s Raiders and the first recipient of the Medal of Honor. Most of the other soldiers on the raid were eventually awarded the medal.
(Illustration by William Pittenger, Library of Congress)
The bill quickly made it through Congress and President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law on December 21. At the time, the president was authorized to award 200 medals to Navy and Marine Corps enlisted personnel. It would be another seven months, July 1862, before Army enlisted personnel were authorized to receive the medal — but another 2,000 medals were authorized at that time.
The first medal to be awarded went to a soldier, Army Pvt. Jacob Parrott, one of Andrews’ Raiders who stole a locomotive in Big Shanty, Georgia, and took the train on a 87-mile raid across Confederate territory in April, 1862. Parrott received the Medal first, but nearly all Army personnel on the raid eventually received it. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presented the first six.
The Navy was the first service authorized to present Medals of Honor, but the Army beat them to the punch. Still, hundreds of medals were awarded to deserving sailors for actions taken during the conflict, including this one presented to William Pelham for actions on the USS Hartford in 1864.
(Naval History and Heritage Command)
Although Andrews’ Raiders were among the first to receive the Medal of Honor, they were not the first persons to earn it. Recommendations for the award trickled in for actions taken earlier.
The earliest action that would earn an Army Medal of Honor took place in February, 1861, when assistant Army surgeon Bernard Irwin rescued 60 soldiers from a larger Apache force with only 14 men. The first naval action to earn the medal took place in October, 1862, when sailor John Williams stayed at his position on the USS Commodore Perry when it was under heavy fire while steaming down the Blackwater River and firing on Confederate batteries.
In 1863, the medal was made permanent and the rules were broadened to allow its award to Army officers. Soon after, in 1864, a former slave named Robert Blake became the first Black American to receive the Medal of Honor when he replaced a powder boy who was killed by a Confederate shell, running powder boxes to artillery crews while under fire.
Seven years later, the Civil War had ended but campaigns against Native Americans were being fought in earnest. It was during these Indian Wars that William “Buffalo Bill” Cody also received the medal despite being technically ineligible.
The medals for Walker and Cody were rescinded in 1917 but later reinstated. Walker’s was reinstated in 1977, Cody’s in 1989.
It’s sometimes noted that the Civil War-standard for the Medal of Honor was lower than the standard applied during World Wars I and II and more modern conflicts. The change in requirements began in 1876 after a surge of recommendations poured in following the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Additional recommendations came from the Legion of Honor, a group led by Medal of Honor recipients that would later become the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. In 1897, President William McKinley adopted new, higher standards that would later be applied during World War I.
Air Force Capt. Jay Zeamer received a Medal of Honor of the Gillespie design featuring a blue ribbon with 13 stars, the word valor, and a wreath of laurels.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)
While Civil War and Indian Wars-era Medals of Honor featured designs that incorporated a red, white, and blue ribbon and multiple clasps, in 1904, Medal of Honor recipient and Gen. George Gillespie introduced a new design with a blue ribbon carrying 13 stars. It also added a laurel wreath around the iconic star, added the word “VALOR” to the medal, and made a number of other, smaller design changes.
All Medal of Honor designs approved after 1904 are an evolution of this design.
In 1915, the Navy broadened its rules for the medal so that naval officers, like their Army counterparts, were eligible. In 1918, additional rules for the Army Medal of Honor required that the valorous action take place in conflict with an enemy, that the recommended awardee be a person serving in the Army, and that the medal be presented within three years of the valorous act.
Another change during World War I was that the Medal of Honor was officially placed as the highest medal for valor. While it had always been one of the top awards, it was previously uncertain if the Medal of Honor always outranked service crosses, distinguished service medals, and the Silver Star. In July 1918, the relative tiers of each medal were established, officially putting the Medal of Honor on top.
U.S. Coast Guardsman Douglas Munro and his compatriots work to protect U.S. Marines on the beaches of Guadalcanal during a withdrawal under fire from Japanese soldiers.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
The other military services would later adopt similar restrictions.
Because no Coast Guard version of the medal had ever been designed, Munro’s family was presented the Navy version. A 1963 law allowed for a Coast Guard design but no design has been approved and no medals of such a design have ever been made.
There’s ongoing debate among historians and military history buffs about which general was better, Grant or Lee? Or maybe the question should be Sherman or Jackson? The name you never hear in these debates is George H. Thomas, who is arguably better than all of them, because he would not publicize himself or allow history to give him the credit he richly deserves.
Thomas cut his teeth in the Mexican War under General Zachary Taylor. There, he learned the harsh lessons that come with poor planning and poor logistics. He also learned to trust the fundamentals of fielding an Army and keeping it secure — a lesson that would later earn him the nickname “The Soldier’s Soldier” from enlisted Union Men.
But when Civil War came, Gen. Thomas was not well-trusted by President Lincoln, seeing as Thomas was born a Virginian — and your home state really meant something at the time. Thomas remained a loyal Union man because his wife was born in the North and, considering his skill as a leader, we should be glad he was. Still, his family turned their backs on him, President Lincoln never accepted him, and other officers never trusted him, but that didn’t matter. He did whatever was asked of him with whatever tools his superiors gave him without complaint.
The main tool they gave him was the battered, bloodied, and often undisciplined rabble from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, many of whom were basically thrown into the meat grinder at Shiloh by General Ulysses S. Grant (whose mismanagement of the battle nearly lost it for the Union). Conversely, Thomas, known by his fellow officers at the beginning of the war as “Slow Trot,” emphasized planning, preparation, and attention to detail — and how it made a difference when the bullets started to fly.
Thomas did not get an easy start in the Civil War, however. His first opponent was General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s cavalry shortly before the Battle of Bull Run. Though first Bull Run pitted even numbers of Northern troops against Southern, the North performed terribly. They broke and ran in a disastrous rout — all except Thomas’ cavalry. Thomas earned a promotion to brigadier for manhandling Jackson’s cavalry.
His next opponent was Albert Sidney Johnston, the Texan whom Confederate President Jefferson Davis considered the best officer before Robert E. Lee’s rise. The North needed a win — any win — to boost morale. Thomas gave it to them, plowing the Confederates at Mill Springs and pushing them into the Cumberland River. In doing so, he completely smashed Johnston’s hold on Kentucky.
By 1863, Thomas was moving into Tennessee as second to Gen. William Rosecrans, pushing Confederate General Braxton Bragg out of Chattanooga. Believing Bragg was in full retreat, Rosecrans marched the Army of the Cumberland into a trap. Bragg hit Rosecrans at a place called Chickamauga Creek — “the River of Death” according to the the Cherokee.
As James Longstreet committed his men, veterans returning from the fighting at Gettysburg, to the battle, the Union right flank began to fold. Rosecrans began riding for Chattanooga, some of his officers in tow — but Thomas wasn’t going anywhere. As fleeing men came into his sphere, he reorganized them along a ridge and implored them to hold the line at any cost. With the support and guidance of General Thomas’, or “Old Reliable,” as he was called by his men, they held off the Confederates long enough to save the Army of the Cumberland, along with the Union hold on Tennessee.
Grant wrote off Thomas’ army as used-up during the Battle for Chattanooga. Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland were to hold until all the attacking armies in position to advance on Chattanooga. But when Grant’s plan fell apart, Thomas had to move his army to support General Sherman’s troops, who were struggling. Not only did Thomas’ men relieve Sherman’s troops, they forced the Confederate Army from the field.
Despite his higher rank and superior ability, Grant instead chose William T. Sherman to lead the march on Atlanta. Still, Thomas commanded most of Sherman’s infantry and protected the column as it moved south into Georgia. After they took the city, Confederate General John B. Hood moved North, deftly avoiding the Union Army and moving into Nashville. Sherman reduced the Army of the Cumberland and ordered Thomas to take the remaining troops north in pursuit.
He destroyed Hood’s entire army, earning the nickname the “Hammer of Nashville.”
After the war, Thomas stayed in the military for the rest of his days. He was never celebrated like his contemporaries and he never bothered to publish memoirs of his time in combat. He even deliberately burned his notes to keep someone else from doing it in his stead. Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan would sometimes give him credit, but always with the caveat that he was slow.
“Time and history will do me justice,” Thomas said before his death in 1870.
War, like math, is a universal language shared by every strata of civilization. Warriors from all cultures have, in one form or another, prepared themselves physically and mentally for the task at hand using rituals. More often than not, stepping onto the battlefield meant risking bodily death.
With the end of natural life so near, many warriors would confer with the divine, looking for their blessing to carry them to victory. Some conjured animal spirits to lend them their strength while others requested that deities guide their blades.
These are the rituals that prepared the champions of various cultures to meet their fate.
Berserkers used mind-altering drugs to induce rage
The berserker was an elite Norse warrior that used pure rage to find success in battle. To achieve the status of a berserker, one had to live in the wilderness and become possessed by one of three animals, from which they’d conjure strength: the bear, the boar, or the wolf. The warrior then had to drink the blood of the chosen animal and wear its pelt when summoning its strength in battle.
But it wasn’t all possessions and summonings. Historians theorize that berserkers would eat Amanita muscaria (a hallucinogenic mushroom) and rub henbane leaves onto the skin (which causes a numbing sensation) to better endure pain in battle. Copious amounts of alcohol combined with mind-altering chemicals would send these warriors into a rage, effectively summoning severe aggression on demand.
The Maori tribes developed a war cry dance to intimidate the enemy at the outset of battle and to inspire their warriors into a frenzy. They, like many other cultures, called upon the God of War using a ritual dance called the perperu haka when a fight was imminent.
Over time, the haka evolved into several distinct versions, each used in a specific ceremony. There are hakas for national events in New Zealand, weddings, funerals, and special guests. Each dance has a cultural significance and a rich history woven into the choreography.
The Greeks used sacrifices to predict the outcome of battles
The ancient Greeks did not take superstition lightly and often sought the guidance and protection of their Gods before battle. Before the Battle of Plataea, which took place near Boeotia, Greece, in 479 B.C., both the Armies of Xerxes I and the Greek alliance consorted with their respective seers to determine the outcome of the battle. Each offered ritual sacrifices to their Gods, looking for the signal of imminent victory. The sacrifices revealed omens that defeat belonged to whichever side initiated combat.
After days of indecision, the Persian general Mardonius decided that he had waited long enough and attacked. He lost.
Kamikaze pilots drank magical sake
The term ‘Kamikaze‘ comes from the Mongols’ failed invasion of Japan in 1281. A typhoon completely destroyed the invaders and became known as the Divine Wind, or the Kamikaze, that saved Japan. The victory at the Battle of Midway by the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 1942 forced Vice Admiral Takashiro of the Japanese First Air Fleet to use suicidal pilots to inflict damage upon U.S. vessels.
The Kamikaze was a call to action that drew university students from all walks of life. The ceremony these pilots would undertake before flying their last consisted of drinking sake ‘infused’ with magic to provide ‘spiritual lifting.’ They were thanked by their officers and boarded their planes with 550-pound bombs. Out of approximately 2,800 Kamikaze pilots, 14% of Kamikaze hit U.S. ships and only 8.5% managed to sink them.
Some African tribes still practice scarification
To this day, tribes in Ethiopia engage in ceremonial stick duels between 20 or more young men of rival villages to earn respect from their families and community. Before a duel takes place, a witch doctor will bless the fighters with sacred leaves and cut patterns into their skin with razors. These patterns serve as a supernatural defense against serious harm. In most cases, these duels aren’t usually deadly — ‘usually’ being the operative word.
The cutting ritual, also known as scarification, is a lengthy and painful pre-battle requirement. Showing courage during this process also grants the young man the right to marry a wife. If a fighter cannot bear the pain of scarification, he will not be seen as worthy to bear the responsibilities of marriage.
There are videos out there for the strong-stomached, but we’ll not be providing one.
When World War I ended and the smoke settled, the United States military was left with an overabundance of men, vehicles, ships, supplies and horses. The demobilization of the effort needed to fight in Europe and elsewhere was chaotic and abrupt.
President Woodrow Wilson quickly set to work getting the U.S. military and the government bureaucracy that managed it back to its prewar size and role. In hindsight, the quick movement was a huge mistake.
During the war, Britain experienced a shortage of horses early on, which led to the U.S. sending 1.1 million horses overseas. By the end of the war, the U.S. forces had some 60,000 horses at its disposal. Back home, horses were plentiful, but no longer in demand.
Four million soldiers and sailors were suddenly discharged from the military, and were subsequently unemployed. Those who were working found themselves in the middle of labor strikes amid an economic crisis. Critical industries were not as productive as they were during wartime and farm prices dropped.
This included the meatpacking industry, which also saw production shortfalls. The prices of meat rose sharply as Americans abandoned some of their wartime practices, which included swapping out beef for horse meat so the beef could be sent to the front lines.
Horse meat gained a reputation for being inferior, even the cause of illness, and fell out of favor, leading to surplus of horses in the United States.
Ken-L-Ration, get it? Because soldiers eat rations. It’s a colorful play on words at a time when most Americans were familiar with many aspects of military life. As for the horses, the animal was still as beloved as they are today, but Americans had been raising horses as food animals for years, even before World War II.
They also made the same dietary changes during World War I and the interwar years. It was never as popular as other meat animals, but Americans did what they had to support the country’s war efforts.
Horses were being used less and less with the rise of the automobile, and Americans still found the idea of eating a useful animal unsettling, so the dog food didn’t take off right away, but it eventually found its niche.
While USDA-inspected, Grade A horse meat appeared unfit for the family dining room, some clever marketing made Ken-L-Ration’s “lean, red meat” a premium meal for Fido. Ken-L-Ration first debuted in 1922 and was a dog food staple for decades.
Ken-L-Ration’s marketing was so good that the reason Americans refer to dogs as “Fido” is because the company’s trademark yellow mascot was named “Fido.” The brand became the biggest dog food brand in the United States and was eventually sold to the Quaker Oats Company in 1942.
Many readers will still be able to remember the company’s jingle from the 1960s, called “My Dog’s Bigger Than Your Dog.”
Before canned dog food, people commonly fed their dogs whatever they had laying around. The first specially made dog food available to consumers was a dog biscuit made by James Spratt, which consisted of a mixture of vegetables, wheat, and beef blood.
Spratt’s creation sparked an entire market, which eventually led to today’s industry devoted to canine nutrition.
Long before that fateful day in January 1944, James Howard was a man of action. After graduating college in 1937 with the intention of becoming a doctor he instead joined the Navy and became a pilot.
After just two years in the fleet Howard left the Navy and joined many other American aviators in Asia to become a part of the famed Flying Tigers. While fighting in Asia Howard flew 56 combat missions becoming a squadron commander and being credited with the destruction of six Japanese planes.
Howard then left the Flying Tigers in July 1942 when the unit was disbanded and returned to the United States. Wanting to get back in the war he joined the United States Army Air Corps and was commissioned as a Captain.
By 1943, he had been promoted to Major and put in command of the 356th Fighter Squadron based in England. His unit flew its first mission on Dec. 1, 1943, escorting bombers over Europe. Armed with the new P-51B Mustangs, this was an entirely different mission than Howard had ever flown, but his previous experiences would soon prove useful.
During the winter of 1943-44, the Eighth Air Force was working hard to establish air superiority over Europe before the upcoming invasion in the summer. This meant that heavy bombers had to strike aircraft manufacturing deep inside German territory.
For most of 1943, this had been accomplished without fighter escort over the target. Heavy losses had scaled back the number of bombing raids to Germany. But the arrival of Howard’s 356th Fighter Squadron and other Mustang outfits meant the missions could resume.
On Jan. 11, 1944, Howard was flight lead for his entire fighter group, the 354th, leading his own squadron as well as two others to protect bombers striking aircraft factories at Oschersleben and Halberstadt.
The plan called for Howard’s P-51’s to pick up the Eighth Air Forces bombers — 525 B-17’s and 138 B-24’s — after their initial escort of P-47’s and P-38’s had to turn back. They would then cover the bombers over the target and again hand off the escort to a new group of short range fighters as the P-51’s returned to base.
When the 354th Fighter Group rendezvoused with the bombers they had already completed their bombing run. However, they were being swarmed by some 500 German fighters according to an Eighth Air Force estimate.
Approaching from the rear of the formation, Howard directed fighters to different parts of the formation as his element made its way towards the lead bombers.
Almost immediately, Howard’s fighters found themselves attacked, and as they engaged the Germans, Howard soon found himself all alone heading towards the lead bomber group.
That group, the 401st, was on its 14th combat mission and had seen plenty of action. None of them, however, had ever seen anything like the display Howard was about to put on.
As Howard approached the group, he saw that they were heavily engaged by some 30 German fighters. Although only a lone fighter, Howard was undeterred; as he put it, “I seen my duty and I done it.”
Howard quickly jumped a German twin-engine fighter and sent it earthward. He then spotted an FW 190 coming up underneath him and dispatched it too. “I nearly ran into his canopy,” Howard said, “as he threw it off to bail out.”
After two quick kills, Howard started to circle back to find the rest of his formation. As he did so, he spotted an Me 109 moving in on the bombers. The German spotted him too and took evasive action.
A turning dogfight ensued. The German tried to dive away but Howard’s P-51 was up for the challenge. A short burst from his .50 caliber machine guns sent the Messerschmitt down in flames.
As Howard returned to altitude with the bombers he engaged more fighters. According to his own reports he probably destroyed two further fighters. According to the bomber crews that number was more like four or five.
Howard was “all over the wing, across it and around it,” the lead bomber pilot reported “for sheer guts and determination, it was the greatest exhibition I’ve ever seen. They can’t give that boy a big enough award.”
Indeed Howard was determined. For over half an hour he fought alone against the swarm of German fighters. When his ammunition was exhausted he simply dove at the Germans in the hopes of driving them off — often times it worked.
Finally, low on fuel, Howard waved his wings to the bombers and departed with a few straggling P-51’s that were still in the area.
For his efforts that day, Howard received the Medal of Honor, the only fighter pilot in the European theatre to be so awarded. He was officially credited with four enemy aircraft shot down that day. He would later add two more, becoming an ace.
In 1945 he was promoted to Colonel and would eventually retire as a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve in 1966.
As far as modern conventional warfare is concerned, the bullet or small explosive device are the standard, go-to weapon. And even today, many units around the world still adapt a bayonet into the unit crest.
But no weapon turns more heads while cracking the most skulls quite like the shovel.
To the uninformed, the shovel seems casual enough. It’s even played up for comic effect in cartoons, usually with a wacky sound effect. There’s even a video game called Shovel Knight that treats the titular character’s weapon as a joke.
Young privates don’t believe the shovel’s history as a weapon because they don’t know military history and only heard it used as a weapon from an salty old Sergeant First Class who has a story about his buddy “getting an e-tool kill.”
This isn’t like those stories about a guy killing three men in a bar with a pencil. The spade had many uses back in the day, especially during the trench warfare of WWI and WWII. It wasn’t the most effective melee combat weapon, but damn was it handy.
But the bayonet has practically lost its importance. It is usually the fashion now to charge with bombs and spades only. The sharpened spade is a more handy and many-sided weapon; not only can it be used for jabbing a man under the chin, but it is much better for striking with because of its greater weight; and if one hits between the neck and shoulder it easily cleaves as far down as the chest. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Much of the fighting was done between opposing trenches and occasionally the unfortunate bastards who found themselves in no-man’s land. But to even take an inch from the enemy, you had to over take their trench.
Raiding parties generally cleared portions of the trenches with hand grenades and shotguns. When it came time to fight the stragglers, the longer rifle and bayonet combo just wasn’t effective in narrow and often swamped trenches. Even the beauty of the trench knife – which included a knife for stabbing, brass knuckles for punching, and a spiked pummel for puncturing the enemy’s head– just didn’t have the range or power needed.
Troops being raided quickly adapted the tool they used to dig those trenches into a deadly weapon to defend those trenches. The sharp edge, originally purposed to cut through roots, found it’s way into the necks of their enemy. The additional weight behind it meant it could also break bones where the bayonet just pierced.
If the bayonet became the successor to a spear with a firearm, the spade was a mix of a battle ax with a club. Of course, troops would carry both into battle. But if one were to get lodged too deep in the enemy, which would make more sense to leave on the battlefield?
Stories about troops using a shovel as a weapon continue well through the Vietnam War. Even the modern E-Tool is designed as a call back to the glory days of it being an unexpectedly deadly weapon.
For more information on and the inspiration for this article, watch the video below.