When Georgia Ann Thompson was just 15 years old, she had a 2-year-old daughter and was working in a North Carolina cotton mill. The baby’s father had run out on them. She was catching a well-deserved break, watching Charles Broadwick’s “World Famous Aeronauts” jump from hot air balloons, landing safely on the ground with the use of parachutes.
The sight so inspired Thompson, she decided to leave her young one with her parents and join the aeronauts. She had no idea her new venture would lead her to become the godmother of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.
Broadwick didn’t invent the parachute, but he made two important design advances. He designed a “coat pack” chute that could be packed in a backpack and unfurled. He also created the static line that would open the chute when it became tight enough to pull on the pack. This was the parachute Georgia Thompson saw in 1908.
Thompson made her first jump from a balloon the same year she joined the troupe. Broadwick soon adopted Georgia and she became a headliner for the show. Now, with Georgia Thompson going by the name “Tiny Broadwick” (Georgia was only five feet tall and weighed 85 pounds) and being the star of the show, the aeronauts were more popular than ever.
As balloons gave way to powered flight, so did the stunts of the World Famous Aeronauts. Tiny became the first woman to jump from an airplane and the first person to ever jump from a seaplane when she glided into Lake Michigan. As her career took off, she sent money back home for her child and eventually married again.
One of Tiny Broadwick’s biggest gifts to aborted aviation came when demonstrating the use of parachutes to the U.S. Army. In 1914, she performed a series of demonstration jumps to Army commanders who were leery of both the reliability of their aircraft, but also the reliability of parachutes.
After making three normal static line jumps using Broadwick’s coatpack design, she had an accident on the fourth jump. The line became tangled in the airplane’s fuselage. So for the fifth jump of the day, she detached the static line from the plane and pulled on it during freefall to deploy the chute.
It was both the first freefall jump from an airplane and the first appearance of what would come to be known as a ripcord.
Her personal life wasn’t as successful as her professional career, having divorced again after a few short years of marriage. She remarried in 1916 but by 1920, was divorced once more. Her aeronautical career ended a short time later, in 1922. After an estimated 1,100 jumps, the life of a daredevil parachutist took its toll on her ankles. Tiny Broadwick died in 1976 but a handmade silk parachute built by Charles Broadwick for her is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution.
December 7, 1941 is a date which will live in infamy. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor took the lives of 2,403 Americans, wounded 1,178, and served as the catalyst for America’s entry into WWII. Multiple factors like Japanese misinformation, American focus on the war in Europe, and the fact that the attack took place on a Sunday contributed to the high loss of American life that day. Despite the surprise nature of the attack and the low state of readiness of American military forces in Hawaii, American servicemen fought back valiantly. With the sky littered with Japanese aircraft, American aviators did their best to get airborne and repel the attack. Though 14 Army Air Corps pilots tried to take off, most were shot down as they taxied. However, a few of them managed to get airborne and take the fight to the skies.
2nd Lt George Welch and 2nd Lt. Kenneth Taylor spent the evening of December 6th at the Wheeler Field officers club and an all-night poker game. The next morning, as the two men discussed the idea of an early morning swim, they were alerted to the attack by the sound of distant gunfire and explosions. Miles away from their airfield at Haleiwa, they phoned ahead to have their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters fueled and armed before they hopped into Taylor’s Buick and raced toward the fighting. Reaching speeds of 100mph on their dash to the airfield, the two men were attacked by Japanese planes who attempted to strafe them on the ground.
When they reached the airfield, their P-40s were only partially loaded with ammunition. Despite this, and with Taylor still wearing his tuxedo pants from the night before, the two men took off. They engaged a formation of Nakajima B5N2 Kate torpedo bombers and shot down two each. However, one of Welch’s .30-caliber guns jammed and Taylor was hit in the arm and leg by a tail gunner, and the two returned to the airfield.
As they refueled and rearmed, their mission was debated. “We had to argue with some of the ground crew,” Welch recalled. “They wanted us to disperse the airplanes and we wanted to fight.” As their planes were refitted and Taylor was advised to remain grounded to have his wounds treated, a second wave of Japanese planes appeared. With Welch’s jammed gun still not cleared and Taylor refusing medical treatment, the two men took off again. Soon after, Taylor caught the attention of a flight of Mitsubish A6M2 Zero fighters. Welch managed to shoot one of the Zeros off of Taylor’s tail before pursuing an Aichi D3A Val dive bomber out to sea and shooting it down.
Welch and Taylor are officially credited with six kills during the attack on Pearl Harbor. “We went down and got in the traffic pattern and shot down several planes there,” Taylor recalled. “I know for certain I shot down two planes or perhaps more; I don’t know.” Taylor later appeared before Congress to testify during an investigation into the attack.
For their actions, Welch and Taylor both received the Distinguished Service Cross. Though General Henry “Hap” Arnold recommended both men for the Medal of Honor, the honor was denied by their commanding officer because they had taken off without permission.
The other three aviators who managed to take off, 1st Lt. Lewis Sanders, 2nd Lt. Philip Rasmussen (who was still in his pajamas), and 2nd Lt. Gordon Sterling, were at a slight disadvantage compared to Welch and Taylor. Though their Curtiss P-36 Hawk fighters were very similar to Welch and Taylor’s P-40s, the P-36 had a less powerful radial engine. Still, the three men managed to get airborne. “We climbed to 9,000 feet and spotted Japanese ‘Val’ dive bombers,” Rasmussen recounted in a 2002 interview. “We dived to attack them.” Sanders is credited with one enemy aircraft kill. Sadly, after this initial attack, Sterling was shot down and drowned after getting out of his plane.
Rasmussen, who witnessed Sterling’s death, charged his guns only to have them malfunction and begin firing on their own. In an incredible stroke of luck, a Japanese plane flew into the uncontrolled burst of fire and exploded. Rasmussen got his guns back under control and, after shaking two Zeros off his tail, managed to score one more kill. That was when he felt his aircraft get hit.
“There was a lot of noise,” Rasmussen recalled. “He shot my canopy off.” Rasmussen’s P-36 had lost its hydraulics and tail wheel. Nursing his badly damaged plane back to the airfield, he managed to land without his brakes, rudder, or tail wheel. It was later discovered that two 20mm cannon shells had lodged themselves in the bulky radio behind the pilot’s seat which saved Rasmussen’s life.
2nd Lt. John Dains, 2nd Lt. Harry Brown, and 2nd Lt. Malcolm Moore also managed to get airborne at Pearl Harbor. Moore did not score any kills during the attack and Dains’ suspected kill remains unconfirmed. Brown, however, is credited with the final American kill of the attack.
Of the 29 Japanese planes shot down at Pearl Harbor, these men were responsible for 10. Though America’s war in the Pacific began with a badly bloodied nose, men like Welch, Taylor, Sanders, Rasmussen, and Brown gave the Japanese a taste of what was to come.
The man who would construct American armored units in France in World War I and lead combined arms units, with armor at the forefront, in World War II got his start leading cavalrymen and cars in Mexico. In fact, he probably led the first American motor-vehicle attack.
Pancho Villa, 5, Gen. John J. Pershing, 7, and Lt. George S. Patton Jr., 8, at a border conference in Texas in 1914.
He attended West Point, became an Army officer, designed a saber for enlisted cavalrymen, and pursued battlefield command. When Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing was sent to Mexico to capture raiders under Pancho Villa, Patton came along.
Patton was on staff, so his chances of frontline service were a bit limited in the short term. But he made his own opportunities. And in Mexico, he did so in May 1916.
U.S. Army soldiers on the Punitive Expedition in 1916.
(U.S. Department of Defense)
Patton led a foraging expedition of about a dozen men in three Dodge Touring Cars. Their job was just to buy food for the American soldiers, but one of the interpreters, himself a former bandit, recognized a man at one of the stops. Patton knew that a senior member of Villa’s gang was supposed to be hiding nearby, and so he began a search of nearby farms.
At San Miguelito, the men noticed someone running inside a home and Patton ordered six to cover the front of the house and sent two against the southern wall. Three riders tried to escape, and they rode right at Patton who shot two of their horses as the third attempted to flee. Several soldiers took shots at him and managed to knock him off his horse.
An Associated Press report from the 1916 engagement. Historians are fairly certain that this initial report got the date and total number of U.S. participants wrong, believing the engagement actually took place on May 14 and involved 10 Americans.
(Newspapers.com, public domain)
It was a small, short engagement, but it boded well for the young cavalry officer. He had made a name for himself with Pershing, America’s greatest military mind at the time. He had also gotten into newspapers across the U.S. He was his typical, brash self when he wrote to his wife about the incident:
You are probably wondering if my conscience hurts me for killing a man [at home in front of his family]. It does not.
Patton’s bold leadership in Mexico set the stage for even greater responsibility a few short years later.
Lt. col. George S. Patton Jr., standing in front of a French Renault tank in the summer of 1918, just two years after he led a motor-vehicle charge in Mexico against bandits.
(U.S. Army Signal Corps)
When America joined World War I, Pershing was placed in command of the American Expeditionary Force.
Patton, interested in France and Britain’s new tanks, wrote a letter to Pershing asking to have his name considered for a slot if America stood up its own tank corps. He pointed out that he had cavalry experience, experience leading machine gunners, and, you know, was the only American officer known to have led a motorized car attack.
Pershing agreed, and on Nov. 10, 1917, Patton became the first American soldier assigned to tank warfare. He stood up the light tank school for the AEF and eventually led America’s first tank units into combat.
Dec. 26, 1872, the day after Christmas — the weather in Norfolk was bitter cold, with sleet and a gale-force wind. Aboard USS Powhatan, a sidewheel steamer commissioned in 1852, it was particularly unpleasant, with a wet, slippery deck and a dangerous pitch.
Then came a cry of, “man overboard!” Boatswain Jack Walton had fallen from the fo’c’sle into the choppy, freezing water below. He had minutes — maybe seconds — before he either drowned or succumbed to hypothermia.
Seaman Joseph Noil didn’t hesitate, didn’t stop to think of the danger or the risk to his own life. He came running from below deck, “took the end of a rope, went overboard, under the bow, and caught Mr. Walton — and held him until he was hauled into the boat sent to his rescue,” his commanding officer, Capt. Peirce Crosby, wrote. “Mr. Walton, when brought on board, was almost insensible, and would have perished but for the noble conduct of Noil.”
Noil received the Medal of Honor the following month.
Then, he slowly faded from history.
Coming to America
Noil was black and was probably from Liverpool, Nova Scotia, although various records also mention Halifax, the West Indies, New York, and Pennsylvania, said Bart Armstrong, a Canadian researcher dedicated to finding some 113 Medal of Honor recipients connected to that country.
The distinguished Medal of Honor — Navy version. (Image from U.S. Navy)
“During the early days, it was not uncommon for a Soldier or Sailor to fake their residence or place of birth, date of birth or marital status.”
No one knows just what brought Noil to the U.S. or what inspired him to enlist in the Union Navy, Oct. 7, 1864. According to Armstrong, many Canadian black men who traveled south to fight in the Civil War did so to help free the slaves.
Canada was the terminus for the Underground Railroad, and many citizens, particularly in the black community, would have seen or heard of the pitiful, dehumanizing conditions escaped slaves endured.
Noil was from a coastal area, and the Navy may have been a natural fit. Enlistment papers indicate his occupation was carpenter. Dr. Regina Akers, a historian who specializes in diversity at the Navy’s History and Heritage Command, noted that he also served as a caulker and would have helped keep his ship watertight – “a very important job.”
Many free black Sailors had some type of ship or shipyard experience, whether it was as a crewmember on a merchant or whaling ship, as a fisherman or as a dockyard worker, Joseph P. Reidy, a history professor at Howard University in D.C. and the director of the African-American Sailors Project, wrote in “Prologue,” a publication of the National Archives.
According to Akers and Reidy, African-American Sailors had always been, if not precisely welcome in the Navy, at least not institutionally discriminated against. They had served honorably in the Revolution and in the War of 1812, and some 18,000 black Civil War Navy veterans have been identified by name.
Unlike the Army, the Navy in the 19th century did not segregate black servicemen. They pulled the same watches, slept in the same bunks — hammocks in those days — and ate in the same galleys as their white counterparts.
Although their ranks were limited to enlisted, there were few, if any, rating restrictions for skilled, experienced men of any color, said Akers. They served in almost every billet, from fireman to gunner, although Reidy wrote that service ratings, such as cook or steward, were the most common.
“If they could qualify or were able to learn that skill set and fill that rating, just like today, many commanding officers would allow them to do so,” Akers said, noting that the background of the ship’s commander and crew could affect the treatment African-American Sailors received.
Noil eventually became captain of the hold, a petty officer in charge of the men assigned to a storage area. He would probably have been responsible for ensuring barrels and containers were properly stowed and locating the appropriate barrels when needed, according to the Navy History and Heritage Command. However, he wouldn’t have had any authority over white Sailors.
Conditions were worse for escaped slaves, Reidy pointed out. By classifying escaped or captured slaves as contraband, the Union could legally consider them spoils of war and put them to work. Contrabands served in the Navy. They fought in the Army. They built fortifications. They cooked. They did laundry. Both men and women served in various capacities. In fact, nearly three men born into slavery served for every black man born free.
Contrabands’ naval ratings and pay tended to be the lowest and least skilled, with most classified as boy or landsman, Reidy explained. They scrubbed, painted, and polished ships. They also served in large numbers on supply and ordnance ships, where they provided manual labor. By the late 1800s, the ratings available to all African-American Sailors became extremely restricted.
Noil, who had given his age as 25 when he enlisted in 1864 and his height at 5 feet, 6 inches, transferred to USS Nyack, a wooden-hulled screw gunboat, in January 1865. Nyack was then part of the blockade off of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Noil was likely present for her involvement in the capture of nearby Fort Anderson the following month.
His next posting is listed as the steam sloop USS Dacotah in March 1866, although Navy records indicate the ship put out to sea that January on a tour that took her to Funchal, Maderia, Portugal; Rio de Janerio, Brazil; Montevideo, Uruguay, the Strait of Magellan, and Valparaiso, Chili.
Noil was discharged, March 18, 1867. Perhaps he found it difficult to make a living or perhaps he simply missed the sea, for he re-enlisted, Dec. 18, 1871, giving his age as 30. Presumably, he went straight to Norfolk and USS Powhatan, then part of the North Atlantic Squadron and one of the Navy’s last, and largest, paddle frigates.
The ship’s conduct book noted Noil was “always 1st class and on time.” Upon receiving the Medal of Honor, Noil followed in the footsteps of eight African-American Sailors who received the medal during the Civil War. Akers noted that no African-American Sailor has received the Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War.
For Noil and the others, their actions showed that valor transcended color, that black, brown, white, it didn’t matter — shipmates came first.
Shipmate comes without definition. It’s not because you’re white, because you’re black, because we come from the same state, because you’re in the same rating — It doesn’t stop when the orders stop. Your shipmates are your shipmates. I mean, that’s your family.” – Dr. Regina Akers
Noil’s story, Akers continued, also “reminds us of – the importance of Sailors’ readiness, their physical and mental fitness, the training. Drill, drill, drill. Drill them down to the point where they can think almost unconsciously about what to do. So, man overboard. – There’s just certain procedures that pop into place. Now, the environment makes it that much worse. But it doesn’t change the routine or the requirements or the plan for what to do if someone falls overboard.”
Over the next few years, Noil was discharged and re-enlisted twice. His next ship was USS Wyoming, a wooden-hulled, 198-foot screw sloop of war. The Wyoming arrived in Villefranche, France, near Nice, Christmas Eve 1878, and spent the next two years in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
She returned to Hampton Roads, Virginia, May 21, 1881. It was her final cruise. It was Noil’s as well. It must have been a difficult one, for that month, he was admitted to the naval hospital in Norfolk and quickly transferred to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C.
“For many months,” his admission paperwork reads, “it has been noticed that the patient’s mind was failing, that he was losing his locomotive powers. … Early in April last, he had an epileptic attack, and another on the 13th of May. For two days after latter attack he was speechless, though able to walk and eat. As he has been in the U.S. Naval service for the last seventeen years, it is natural to infer the disease originated in the line of duty.”
No one knows exactly what condition Noil suffered from, whether it was what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, some form of depression, or something else, said Jogues Prandoni, Ph.D., a volunteer historian and former director of forensic services at the hospital, now called St. Elizabeth’s.
“There could be so many reasons. Back in that era, so little was known about mental illness that sometimes certain disorders that were clearly neurological and brain-based were attributed to other causes.” – Jogues Prandoni, Ph.D.
There also wasn’t much 19th-century medicine could do for Noil, Prandoni continued, noting that although the hospital was the premier treatment facility for servicemen and veterans – as well as local civilians – only six medical doctors were on staff to treat roughly a thousand patients.
“What you had, basically, was moral therapy,” he explained. “The concept was that if you could remove people from the stresses of day-to-day living, put them in a homelike atmosphere with beautiful surroundings and caring individuals that would assist them in recovering.”
Noil’s wife, Sarah Jane, was terribly worried about her husband. With two daughters to support, she couldn’t afford to visit him, but she wrote to his doctor regularly: “I was sorry to hear that my husband was so sick and out of his mind. – Doctor do you think that I had better come on and see him? I am very poor with two children to look after,” she wrote in July 1881, later telling the doctor that her “poor little children are always talking about their papa and it makes me feel bad to hear them.”
“Doctor I am glad to think he has had good care. … Doctor if my husband should die I tell you I have not got the means to bury him,” she added that November.
Lost then found again
Her husband did pass away, March 21, 1882. “He was a relatively young man,” said Prandoni. “He died within nine months. That really raises questions about what kind of disease process was going on. It certainly sounds like more than just a psychiatric disorder.”
“The loss of my poor husband has been quite a shock to me. – My friends assure me that time will reconcile me to my great bereavement,” Sarah Jane wrote after learning of his death. “Yet time and the great consolation that I have in meeting in a better world where parting will be no more, will I trust enable me to bear my sorrow.”
Unfortunately, Noil’s name was misspelled on his death certificate and subsequently his headstone. For more than a century, he lay lost in Saint Elizabeth’s graveyard under the name Joseph Benjamin Noel until a group of historians and researchers connected with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the Medal of Honor Historical Society, including Armstrong, finally tracked him down.
Noil finally received a new headstone spring 2017, one with not only the correct spelling of his name but also recognizing him as a Medal of Honor recipient.
Your shipmate is not simply someone who happens to serve with you. He or she is someone who you know that you can trust and count on to stand by you in good times and bad and who will forever have your back. – We are [Noil’s] shipmates and 134 years after he passed, we have his back.” – Vice Adm. Robin Braun, Chief of Navy Reserve
RICHMOND, Va. — Every time he straps on the leather band of his watch in the morning, Phillip Brashear remembers his father.
“My dad’s famous saying is, ‘It’s not a sin to get knocked down. It’s a sin to stay down,'” Brashear said.
Those words are engraved on the back of a Swiss limited-edition wristwatch, surrounding the iconic image of a Mark V diver suit helmet. The watch was manufactured in honor of Carl Brashear, the first African-American master diver in U.S. Navy’s history who lost his leg during a tragic accident on a mission off the coast of Spain in 1966.
Two airplanes had collided, dropping a payload that included three nuclear warheads. One of them fell into the Atlantic Ocean. Carl Brashear was called to dive and recover the bomb, but during the mission a towline was pulled so tight that it ripped off a pole, dragging it across the deck with so much tension that it cut the bottom part of his leg, nearly ripping it off. Back in the United States, doctors decided to amputate the leg below the knee.
“My father is an American legend,” said Brashear. “He was the first amputee to return to active-duty service in one of the most challenging jobs in the Navy.”
His life story was depicted in the Hollywood movie “Men of Honor” which starred Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro.
“My father overcame five barriers in his lifetime. He overcame racism. My father overcame poverty, being a poor sharecropper’s son. He overcame illiteracy. He lost the bottom part of his leg and was physically disabled. … He overcame his alcoholism, and in 1979 retired with honors,” Brashear said.
Today, Phillip Brashear is the command chief warrant officer for the 80th Training Command, which is responsible for military courses that train thousands of Army Reserve Soldiers around the country.
Brashear thanks service members like his father and the Tuskegee Airmen for the opportunities that men and women of every skin color and background have today.
“He opened the door for many others to come behind him,” he said.
Brashear has more than 38 years of military service, starting in the U.S. Navy Reserve, then the U.S. Army National Guard and now with the U.S. Army Reserve. He spent most of that time flying helicopters.
“I used to tease my dad all the time. … I scored higher than you on the ASVAB test,” he said, referring to the aptitude test used to assign military jobs. “I get to be a helicopter pilot. I go up, not down. My daddy said, ‘Aw, get the heck out of my face. … Remember son, there’s always divers looking for pilots. There’s never pilots looking for divers.”
That banter between father and son came close to becoming a dark premonition for Phillip in 2006 while deployed to Iraq. A flash flood washed away part of a convoy, and Brashear was involved in recovering the bodies.
“That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life was to get out of that helicopter in a combat operation to retrieve dead Americans, bring them back to safety so their families could have closure,” he said.
Though the bodies were not Navy divers in the middle of the ocean, Brashear recovered Marines whose lives were taken by water.
The rest of his Iraq tour offered no relief. He was with the Virginia Army National Guard at the time, responsible for flying personnel and material across Iraqi deserts under constant gunfire and the threat of improvised explosive attacks. Even at night, he could see the barrage of tracer rounds piercing the sky like lasers.
“I remember the heat. Constant heat. Like a blow dryer in your face. I remember the constant thirst. The constant fear from getting in that helicopter in a combat zone,” Brashear said.
Then one day, he came home from deployment on a Red Cross message. His father was ill. However, Brasher didn’t think it was severe, and during his visit home, Phillip believed his father would recover. He thought his dad was invincible. This was the man who had endured a year of recovery wearing a 300-pound suit after losing a leg to become a master diver. As a master chief petty officer later in his career, Sailors scurried out of the way whenever this legend walked onto a ship.
“He’s gonna be fine,” the son thought, so he walked into his father’s hospital room complaining about Iraq.
“I’m like, Dad, man. I’m getting shot at. The food’s bad. It sucks over there. It’s hot,” he recalled.
“Son, what are you complaining about?” his father asked.
The calm in the old man’s voice took him by surprise. Something in his father’s presence caused the younger Brashear to pause.
“He was on his deathbed. He would have traded places with me in a heartbeat … to go fly helicopters in harm’s way, but I wouldn’t have traded places with him,” Brashear said.
“A few days after, he died in my arms. … His body just gave up. He’d been through so much. He just couldn’t suffer any more. So he – he left us,” he said.
After his deployment, Brashear decided to retire from the Army, but while going through his father’s belongings, he remembered his father’s fighting words.
“It’s not a sin to get knocked down. …”
He returned to service in the U.S. Army Reserve, which he said offered him opportunities even the National Guard couldn’t have given him, including the command-level position he holds now. He continued to fly helicopters for about a decade. Over the course of his career, he’s flown the UH-1 “Huey” – recognized as the Vietnam-era helicopter – the UH-60 Black Hawk and two different models of the CH-47 Chinook.
Then, in 2014, Brashear faced adversity of his own. During his annual flight physical, he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a heart arrhythmia that took him off flight status.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world to be denied your job because of something medical. That’s like someone taking away your livelihood. So, just like my dad, I said, ‘I’m not going to let this stop me. I’m going to get back up and get my job back,'” Brashear said.
He received a procedure known as cardioversion, a medical treatment that restores normal heart rhythm through electric shocks. As it turns out, his heart doctor, Michael Spooner, also treated Brashear’s father in the last 10 years of his life. The A-Fib kept Brashear off flight status for a year, but he continued his recovery until he passed his physical and returned to flying.
Now, Brashear is among the few dozen command chiefs in the U.S. Army Reserve. He serves as the top technical expert for his command and invests his time mentoring warrant officers and Soldiers wherever he goes.
With all four of his children grown, Brashear lives with his wife, Sandra, outside Richmond, Virginia. They have three daughters – Tia, Megan, Melanie – and a son, Tyler, who is an ROTC cadet studying biology at North Carolina AT University.
“It’s just a great legacy to have my father, who in the Navy was a great legend. Then myself a combat veteran in the Army. And now my son, who is going to be following our footsteps with leadership and service to our country,” he said.
This article originally appeared on DVIDS. Follow @DVIDShub on Twitter.
The officers of the USS Liberty were sunbathing on the decks of their ship on June 8, 1967, just outside of Egypt’s territorial waters. Not too far away, Egypt was in the middle of the Six Day War with the Israelis, who would occupy the Sinai Peninsula by the war’s end.
The peaceful day aboard the intelligence-gathering ship was destroyed when Israeli Mirage and Mystere jets tore through the air – and dropped ordnance that ripped through the Liberty’s hull.
Commander William McGonagle was severely wounded as the Israelis fired rockets, dropped napalm on the bridge, and then strafed his ship. He still managed to call his crew to quarters and take command of the Libertyfrom the bridge. The ship was on fire, men were dead and wounded, and McGonagle himself was burned by napalm and losing blood.
The Liberty was not a warship but a lightly-armed, converted freighter — a holdover from World War II. Her mission was to collect signals intelligence and radio intercepts on the war between the Arabs and Israelis but not to get involved in the fighting or violate Egyptian sovereignty.
With his ship still in range of the U.S. 6th Fleet, Cmdr. McGonagle radioed the USS Saratoga, which sent 12 fighters to assist. Those fighters were recalled on orders from Washington. The Israeli fighters eventually let up and disappeared on their own. But that wasn’t the end of the attack. When they were gone, three Israeli torpedo boats opened up on the American ship and blew a 40-foot hole in the Liberty’s hull.
The armaments on the USS Liberty were totally outmatched. The ship was carrying only four .50-caliber machine guns, a far cry from the Egyptian ship Israelis claim shelled the coastline that morning. The Liberty was a sitting duck.
With his ship burning and flooded, McGonagle directed the maneuvering of his ship for 17 hours while critically wounded. He refused medical treatment until he was convinced more critically wounded members of his crew were treated. He didn’t give up command until the Liberty encountered a U.S. destroyer.
For his gallantry and determination, McGonagle was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Israel maintained that its attack on the Liberty was a mistake, that the planes were looking for an Egyptian ship, the El Quseir. Some find this troublesome, considering the El Quseir was a very different size than the Liberty and had a very different profile. Still, The IDF’s own inquiry says the Israeli Chief of Naval Operation did not know the Liberty was in the area. The captains of the torpedo boats maintained that closer identification was impossible because the Liberty was “enveloped in smoke.”
McGonagle’s official account of the incident corroborates the Israeli account, but the crew of the Liberty aren’t so certain. A 2002 BBC Documentary includes interviews with the Liberty’s crew, Israeli officials, and even Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time.
“I was never satisfied with the Israeli explanation,” then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk said of the Liberty Incident “Their sustained attack to disable and sink Libertyprecluded an assault by accident or some trigger-happy local commander. … I didn’t believe them then, and I don’t believe them to this day. The attack was outrageous.”
There are numerous conspiracy theory-related sites, some even run by Liberty crewmembers, that call into question some of the actions of the Israeli forces and of the orders from Washington. Some of these theories include:
• The Liberty was attacked to keep the U.S. from knowing about Israel’s upcoming attack on Syria.
• Trying to draw the U.S. into a greater anti-Arab war.
• Hiding Israeli war crimes (alleged massacres of Egyptian POWs).
• Israelis using unmarked aircraft.
• Torpedo boats machine gunning life rafts.
• Jamming radio signals meant that Israel knew the frequency the ships would be on– and thus knew they were American.
Official accounts (including from McGonagle) maintain that the Israeli torpedo ships halted mid-attack and offered assistance once the identity of Liberty was ascertained. The Americans politely declined.
For many Americans, military service was their pathway to citizenship. For their service during the Revolutionary War, three foreign generals have been declared honorary citizens of the United States. Citizenship can only be granted by an act of Congress or by a proclamation issued by the President. Although purely ceremonial, the awarding of citizenship highlights the enormous contribution that these men made to the United States of America in its struggle for independence.
1. Marquis de Lafayette
Arguably the most important foreign national in American history, Lafayette was born into one of the oldest and most distinguished French families. Following family tradition, he commissioned as an officer in the Musketeers. In 1776, the 19-year-old Lafayette was put in contact with American agents by King Louis XVI. The French hoped to regain influence in North America and exact revenge against the British for the Seven Years’ War by covertly supporting America in its revolution. However, Britain learned of these backroom dealings and threatened France with war if support was provided to the colonies. Against the orders of his commanding officer (and father-in-law) and a decree by the king, Lafayette was determined to join America’s fight and bought a ship with his own money for the trip across the Atlantic. Agreeing to serve without pay, he was commissioned by Congress as a major general on July 31, 1777. During the revolution, Lafayette was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine and endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge. His commands at the Battles of Rhode Island and Yorktown were instrumental in America’s victory and independence. Lafayette was awarded honorary citizenship in 2002.
2. Casimir Pulaski
Another foreign military officer who served in the Continental Army, Casimir Pulaski was a Polish nobleman and skilled cavalryman. He was involved in the revolution within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for which he was exiled. Upon Benjamin Franklin’s recommendation, Pulaski traveled to America to help in its own revolution. After arriving in America, he wrote, “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.” Like Lafayette, Pulaski served alongside General Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. When the Continental Army was forced into a retreat, Pulaski led a charge that prevented a British encirclement and saved Washington’s life. For this action, Congress commissioned him as a brigadier general in the Continental Army cavalry. Pulaski was a strong believer in the superiority of cavalry over infantry. He organized the Continental Army’s cavalry units and wrote the first doctrine on its formations. For this, he is known as the father of the American cavalry. Pulaski was killed leading a charge at the Battle of Savannah on October 11, 1779. For his service to the nation, Pulaski was made an honorary citizen in 2009.
3. Bernardo de Gálvez
Like France, Spain had strategic interest in helping America achieve its independence from Britain. On January 1, 1777, General Gálvez was appointed governor of Luisiana (the colony’s name under Spanish rule). Under his command, the Spanish practiced an anti-British policy by inhibiting British smuggling in the region and promoting trade with France. Moreover, Gálvez sold desperately needed supplies like gunpowder, muskets, uniforms, and medicine to Americans. Although the British blockaded the colonial ports, Gálvez allowed the patriots use of the Mississippi River via New Orleans. The city also served as a safe haven for American raiding parties after attacking British ships. Following Spain’s declaration of war on Britain in 1779, Gálvez carried out an impressive military campaign against the British. He scored major victories at Fort Bute, Baton Rouge, and Natchez that year. This campaign eliminated the British presence in the lower Mississippi Valley. At the Battle of Fort Charlotte in 1780, he recaptured Mobile from British control. His most important victory was the land and sea campaign that captured Pensacola. This left the British with no military bases on the Gulf Coast. Although his contributions are not commonly taught in American history, his campaigns against the British and support for the patriots on the Southern Front were vital in America’s victory over Britain. Gálvez was awarded honorary citizenship in 2014.
Feature image: Charles Henry Jeans/ Wikimedia Commons
President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery Thursday afternoon.
The ceremony took just under 13 minutes, according to video of the event available at CSPAN.org. Neither the president-elect nor vice-president elect chose to speak at the event.
According to a report by Bloomberg, the ceremony is one of the first of the series of events that will culminate in Trump and Pence taking their oaths of office on the West Front of the Capitol Building on Jan. 20.
A 2013 report by EverythingLubbock.com notes that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden took part in a similar ceremony on Jan. 20, a day prior to their second public inauguration, and C-SPAN.org has video of Obama and Biden taking part in a 2009 ceremony prior to taking office on Jan. 18 of that year. The ceremony honors military personnel who have “served and sacrificed” according to EverythingLubbock.com.
The ceremony takes place at the Tomb of the Unknowns. According to the website of Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb was first built to honor an unknown serviceman who fell during World War I. It was dedicated on Armistice Day, 1921 (Nov. 11, now Veterans Day).
In 1958, unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were interred on May 30. On May 28, 1984, the Vietnam Unknown was interred. According to homeofheroes.com, all four Unknowns were awarded the Medal of Honor. An official Army website notes that unknown Belgian, British, French, Italian, and Rumanian soldiers from World War I were also awarded the Medal of Honor.
In 1998, the Vietnam Unknown was exhumed. DNA testing later identified him as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. CNN reported that Blassie was returned to his family and buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
These days, Richard Marcinko is a business instructor, author, and motivational speaker. In his earlier years, “Demo Dick” was the United States’ premier counterterrorism operator. Marcinko enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1958 and eventually worked his way up to the rank of commander, graduated with degrees in international relations and political science, and earned 34 medals and citations, including a Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, and four Bronze Stars. But that’s just his military resume.
Even among the ranks of American special operators, Marcinko, his record, and his reputation are all exceptional — and it’s easy to see why. At 77, he is still training business executives as well as U.S. and foreign hostage rescue teams. He even worked as a consultant on the FOX television show 24. His memoir, Rogue Warrior, is a New York Times bestseller.
“I’m good at war,” Marcinko once told People Magazine. “Even in Vietnam, the system kept me from hunting and killing as many of the enemy as I would have liked.”
1. North Vietnam had a bounty on his head
As a platoon leader in Vietnam, Marcinko and his SEALs were so successful, the North Vietnamese Army took notice. His assault on Ilo Ilo Island was called the most successful SEAL operation in the Mekong Delta. During his second tour, Marcinko and SEAL Team Two teamed up with Army Special Forces during the Tet Offensive at Chau Doc. The SEALs rescued hospital personnel caught in the crossfire as an all-out urban brawl raged around them.
Because of Marcinko’s daring and success, the NVA placed a 50,000 piastre bounty on his head, payable to anyone who could prove they killed the SEAL leader. Obviously, they never paid out that bounty.
2. He was rejected by the Marine Corps
Marcinko joined the military at 18 but, surprisingly (to some), he didn’t first opt to join the Navy. His first stop was the Marine Corps, who rejected him outright because he did not graduate from high school. So Marcinko, who would leave as a Commander, enlisted in the Navy. He later became an officer after graduating from the Navy’s postgraduate school, earning his commission in 1965.
3. He designed the Navy’s counterterrorism operation
You know you’ve made it when they make a video game about your life story.
After the tragic failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the U.S. attempt to free hostages being held by students in Iran, the U.S. Navy and its special operations structure decided that they needed an overhaul. Marcinko was one of those who helped design the new system. His answer was the creation of SEAL Team Six.
4. He numbered his SEAL Team “Six” to fool the Russians
When he was creating the newest SEAL Team, the United States and Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War — and spies were everywhere. Not trusting that anyone would keep the creation of his new unit a secret, he numbered it SEAL Team Six in order fool the KGB into believing there were three more SEAL Teams they didn’t know about.
5. His job was to infiltrate bases — American bases
The Navy needed to know where their operational sensitivities were — where they were weakest. Even in the areas where security was thought tightest, the Navy was desperate to know if they could be infiltrated. So, Vice Admiral James Lyons tasked Marcinko to create another unit.
Marcinko created Naval Security Coordination Team OP-06D, also known as Red Cell, a unit of 13 men. Twelve came from SEAL Team Six and the other from Marine Force Recon. They were to break into secure areas, nuclear submarines, Navy ships, and even Air Force One. Red Cell was able to infiltrate and leave without any notice. The reason? Military personnel on duty were replaced by civilian contractor security guards.
6. He spent 15 months in jail
Toward the end of his career, he was embroiled in what the Navy termed a “kickback scandal,” alleging that Marcinko conspired with an Arizona arms dealer to receive $100,000 for securing a government contract for hand grenades. Marcinko maintained that this charge was the result of a witch hunt, blowback for exposing so many vulnerabilities and embarrassing the Navy’s highest ranking officers. He served 15 months of a 21-month sentence.
Making its debut in August of 1968, the C-9A was the U.S. Air Force’s first specially designed aeromedical evacuation aircraft. The C-9A answered the increased demand for effective aeromedical patient transport as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated. Until its retirement in 2003, the C-9A was the designated AE aircraft, making for safer and quicker transport of patients, and allowing the U.S. Air Force to provide quality care in the air.
Nicknamed the “Cadillac of medevac” by those who flew it, the C-9A boasted twin jets and a capacity to carry up to 40 patients, making it essentially a flying hospital. The C-9A was fitted with hydraulic folding ramps to easily move litter patients on and off the aircraft. The ceiling had special holders that would secure IV bottles at the appropriate height during flight. Similar to a hospital, the C-9A had a separated area for patients requiring isolation or intensive care. Additionally, the aircraft had the necessary electrical system to support cardiac monitors, respirators, incubators, and infusion pumps.
The C-9A marked significant advancements in AE speed, able to cruise at 500 mph. The C-9A’s capabilities made it possible to complete much longer AE missions while providing better care and comfort for patients.
The C-9A also had an impressive patient capacity, able to carry either ambulatory patients or those litters. In 1971, the C-9A set a new record for the number of patients flown in one day, efficiently transporting 24 litter patients and 64 ambulatory patients.
The C-9A’s speed, capacity, and effectiveness in patient transport overseas played a critical role in patient evacuations from Vietnam. In April 1973, several C-9As participated in Operation Homecoming, which provided returning prisoners of war with individual medical attention and a controlled transition from captivity back to their families. C-9As helped bring 367 American prisoners of war home to the U.S.
Its reliability in effective and safe patient transport placed the C-9A as the primary aircraft supporting the aeromedical evacuation system at the 375th Aeromedical Airlift Wing at Scott Air Force Base. The C-9A soon was being used to help civilian organizations responding to large disasters and disease outbreaks. Most notably, in 1978 during the second largest outbreak of botulism in New Mexico, the C-9A’s capabilities proved to be critical in transporting infected patients from overrun hospitals to neighboring cities for treatment. This prevented the outbreak from becoming a bigger problem.
The C-9A. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Over time, the C-9A’s capacity to safely transport patients with more serious conditions increased. In April of 1998, the 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron from Ramstein Air Base, Germany safely and successfully delivered a baby on the C-9A during a routine medical evacuation flight while they were transporting pregnant women from Sardinia to Italy. Shortly after, the C-9A was used to transfer patients from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland before Hurricane Bonnie would hit the coast. It was necessary for the aircraft to accommodate the needs of each critical patient during transport, which included altitude restrictions, intravenous fluids, oxygen, and cardiac monitoring.
On Aug. 18, 2003, the C-9A completed its last aeromedical evacuation flight in the U.S. where it transported one litter patient, and a few ambulatory patients returning home from Iraq. The C-9A flew to Fort Campbell, Ky. and Alexandria International Airport, La. before ending its last mission at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas.
As the needs of both peacetime and wartime patient transport changed, so did the need for a designated aeromedical evacuation aircraft. The C-9A was phased out in 2003 and current aeromedical evacuation systems rely on alternative aircraft on an as-needed basis. Although it is no longer in use, the C-9A made a significant impact on the advancements and capabilities of the aeromedical evacuation system.
The U.S. Army is the oldest American military branch, tracing its lineage back to when the Continental Congress stood up its first riflemen in June 1775. But in over 240 years of Army history, you’re bound to end up with some insane moments.
Here are seven of the U.S. Army’s craziest:
1. When it teamed up with Nazis and prisoners of war to defeat the SS
American tankers rushed to where high-profile prisoners of war were held in Itter Castle in Austria. As a group of drunk SS soldiers marched on the castle to kill the POWs, the Americans offered to help the Wehrmacht defend themselves so that the SS couldn’t kill the POWs and all witnesses.
So, U.S. soldiers, German soldiers, and local resistance fighters fought side-by-side and saved the lives of the prisoners. The friendly German commander was killed in the six hours of fighting before U.S. reinforcements arrived and pushed back the surviving SS members.
2. When it created an imaginary division with inflatable tanks
While the D-Day landings themselves were quite possibly the Army’s finest hour as multiple divisions landed next to its British and Canadian counterparts, the top-secret mission to mislead German intelligence during the Normandy Campaign and invasion of Germany may have been crazier.
And it worked. The ruse was used on more than 20 occasions, often causing the Germans to redeploy forces to counter the fake division, likely saving thousands of lives during World War II.
3. When it promoted a 12-year-old to sergeant after he shot the Confederate colonel attempting to capture him
John Lincoln Clem unofficially joined the Union Army at the age of 10 as a drummer boy. He fought a few times before becoming a national celebrity at the age of 12 in the Battle of Chickamagua. It was there that he was nearly captured by a Confederate colonel, but Clem used a sawed-off musket to shoot the officer and escape.
As he evaded other pursuers, his hat was reportedly hit three times by enemy fire. When he made it back to Union lines, he was promoted to sergeant and became America’s youngest-ever non-commissioned officer. He was later captured in another battle, traded in a prisoner exchange, and then was wounded twice before accepting discharge in 1864 at the age of 13.
4. When it fought America’s longest battle on its own
From September 1944 to February 1945, the Army fought the longest single battle of the nation’s history, a five-month meat grinder for control of the Hurtgen Forest during the drive into Germany.
The 9th pressed forward while suffering heavy losses, and it was reinforced with 3rd Armored Division tanks. Another nine divisions, a tank battalion, and a Ranger battalion fought on the front lines before the battle finally ended in February 1945.
5. When one of its greatest generals attempted to sell the country out to the British
Army Col. Ethan Allen, partnered with then-Col. Benedict Arnold, demands the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga. (Photo: New York Public Library Digital Library)
He had led the forces that won the Battle of Saratoga and led to diplomatic recognition and increased military assistance from the French. He also helped capture a major fort and its guns, and created America’s first purpose-built naval fleet (then sank it).
The closest modern equivalent would have been if Patton had fought his way through North Africa and half of Germany but then changed sides during the Battle of the Bulge because his new wife was German.
6. When all the Army gunners in an entire city fought off an imagined attack
The Battle of Los Angeles in 1942 saw the city’s sky lit up with searchlights and anti-aircraft fire as every gun crew in the area attempted to shoot down the Japanese planes bombing the city.
Except there was no air attack. A series of blinking lights had been spotted in the sky near the city and some unknown objects were spotted on radar, leading some military leaders to worry an air raid was coming. Skittish gun crews began firing, and the exploding shells left clouds of smoke that other gunners then fired at as they were illuminated by spotlights.
Over 1,400 rounds were fired in the one-hour “engagement.”
7. That time it rescued over 2,000 prisoners of war with a daring paratrooper raid
Filipino guerrillas worked with the U.S. troops across the Pacific during WWII. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The Imperial Japanese were famously hostile towards prisoners of war, and a concerted effort was made in 1944 and 1945 to rescue prisoners before Japanese troops could kill them. On Feb. 23, 1945, a group of Americans and Philippine guerillas launched a daring paratrooper raid to liberate over 2,000 prisoners at Los Baños, Philippines.
The raid was shockingly effective, suffering no paratroopers killed and few American and Filipino casualties while freeing 2,147 prisoners. Future-Secretary of State Colin Powell said that he doubted “that any airborne unit in the world will ever rival the Los Baños prison raid.”
The United States military’s code of conduct implores captured service members to continue to resist by any means possible. This often means reprisals from one’s captors. Therefore, surviving one stint in a POW camp can be excruciating.
To do it twice is unimaginable — except these three American servicemen did it.
1. Wendall A. Phillips
Phillips was assigned to the Air Transport Command as a radio operator on C-47 aircraft flying from bases in England.
While in Europe Phillips survived five separate crashes. During the last one, in late 1944, his aircraft was shot down. Though he walked away from the crash, he was unable to evade the Germans and was captured.
He and his fellow crewmembers were taken to a German POW camp in Belgium.
Phillips had no intention of sticking around though. After just 33 days Phillips and two other POW’s made a break for it.
Phillips simply snuck away while no guards were around. Finding a hole in the electric fence around the camp, Phillips and the other two men made good their escape and quickly found a place to hide.
Phillips travelled for three days before he linked up with the French Underground. The resistance fighters helped Phillips make it back to American lines.
After returning to American forces, Phillips was reassigned to the China-India-Burma Theater flying “the Hump” to bring supplies to forces fighting the Japanese.
Once again, Phillips’ airplane crashed and he was captured by the enemy.
According to an article in The Morning Call, Phillips endured torture at the hands of the Japanese — they even forcibly removed his fingernails trying to get information out of him.
Phillips would not escape this time but he would survive his ordeal as a POW; he was released with the Japanese surrender in 1945.
2. Felix J. McCool
When Gen. Wainwright conveyed the American surrender in the Philippines to President Roosevelt, he said, “there is a limit to human endurance, and that limit has long since been passed.” But Gen. Wainwright was certainly not speaking for one Marine sergeant, Felix J. McCool.
McCool was still recovering from wounds he had received earlier in resisting the Japanese when he, the 4th Marine Regiment, and the rest of the defenders of Corregidor were rounded up and shipped off to internment.
Just getting there was bad enough as the captives were crammed into cattle cars so tightly that when men passed out or died they could not even fall down.
But for McCool, being a Marine meant that he was not out of the fight. He did everything in his power to resist his Japanese captors.
While working as forced labor on an airfield McCool and his fellow prisoners created a tiger trap on the runway — they later watched as a Japanese airplane crashed and burned due to their handiwork.
McCool also managed to smuggle in medical supplies to help the sick and wounded.
He did this despite the constant threat of beatings and even summary execution. He carried on despite the horrendous conditions in the camp.
But there was worse to come.
McCool next endured a brutal voyage to Japan aboard a Japanese prisoner transport vessel, known as a “hell ship.” McCool survived the hellacious conditions only to be put to work in an underground coal mine. There he continued his resistance by sabotaging the work and keeping the faith with his fellow prisoners.
After thirteen months in the coal mine, McCool was freed by the ending of the war in the Pacific.
He returned to the United States and decided to stay in the Marine Corps. Then in 1950, now a Chief Warrant Officer, he found himself fighting the North Koreans.
McCool became part of the fateful Task Force Drysdale, an ad hoc, mixed-nationality unit that was attempting to fight its way toward the beleaguered Marines fighting at the Chosin Reservoir. When the task force was ambushed and separated along the roadway to Hagaru-ri, McCool was once again taken prisoner.
McCool and his fellow captives were marched far north through brutal cold with no rations. Once in their internment camp, the conditions hardly improved. Besides the brutal treatment, the men were also subjected to communist indoctrination and propaganda.
McCool’s resistance earned him the ire of his captors and they threw him in the Hole — a barely three foot square hole in the ground. But he endured.
McCool was repatriated with many other Americans during Operation Big Switch after the end of hostilities.
According to his award citations, McCool spent over six years as a prisoner of war between his two internments.
He later wrote a book about his experiences and the poetry that he wrote to keep himself going during those terrible times.
3. Richard Keirn
Richard Keirn was a young flight officer on a B-17 when he arrived in England in 1944. On Sept. 11, 1944, he took to the skies in his first mission to bomb Nazi Germany. It would also be his last.
Keirn’s B-17 was shot down that day and he became a POW for the remainder of the war. Released in May 1945 after the defeat of Germany, Keirn returned to the United States and stayed in the military. He became a part of the newly formed U.S. Air Force.
In 1965, Keirn embarked for Vietnam, flying F-4 Phantom II’s.
Civil War POW camps were some of the most terrible, squalid places of the entire war. Massachusetts’ Fort Warren was an exception, however. It was used to house Confederate political prisoners and other high-value persons. Among those held here was Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice-President, as well as Confederate diplomats and even the Confederacy’s Postmaster General.
Legend has it that Melanie Lanier, the devoted wife of a captured Confederate troop, discovered his location via a letter he mailed her from the island prison. She immediately moved from Georgia to just outside Boston, Massachusetts, in the first step of an attempt to free her husband from the fortress.
One night, she boarded a boat that would take her to George’s Island – where the infamous prison camp and fortress were located. With the boat, she took a pickaxe, a pistol, and a length of rope in order to free her husband. She sat in the boat just offshore, waiting to hear any kind of signal from her beloved. That’s when she heard a common southern song, the signal that her husband was ready for action. But tragedy would soon strike.
As she and her husband made their way off the island and back to the waiting boat, she was surprised by a Union guard. She was able to subdue the sentry at first, using her pistol. But the guard only went along with the plot for so long. He attempted to overpower the woman and snatch the pistol away. In the scuffle, the gun went off, shooting her husband and killing him. She was overcome by the sentry and captured. Sent to the gallows, she requested to die in women’s clothing. All that could be found for her was a black mourner’s dress.
Melanie Lanier died by hanging not long after the botched escape attempt. Her body is said to be buried on George’s Island with others who died there. But unlike the others, Melanie is said to still be seen around the island at times, still clad in black and mourning her husband.
While many have claimed to see Fort Warren’s “Lady in Black” over the years, some doubt she existed at all. Such an escape attempt would have certainly ended up in Northern newspapers at the time, but no evidence of Lanier could be found. Furthermore, there’s another apocryphal story that could also be just as true. After World War II, the U.S. government was selling off all of its military possessions, and Fort Warren was one of those sales. Some say that in order to keep the historic fort from falling to a developer’s bulldozer, Edward Rowe Snow made up the story of the Lady in Black to make the island seem like much less of a steal.
It was later turned over to the National Parks Service.