That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

A sub surfacing can happen pretty fast. And pretty violently.


Even at its calmest and slowest pace, that’s still almost 9,000 tons of titanium-hulled, nuclear-powered Russian sub coming at you at 8 miles per-hour.

In February 1992, the crew of the USS Baton Rouge was probably pretty surprised to find out their secret spy mission had been uncovered. How it was discovered was both surprising and entirely by accident, recounted in a paper from MIT’s Defense and Arms Control Studies Program.

The Baton Rouge was assigned to monitor the Russian Navy near the port city of Murmansk. The Soviet Union fell just a few months prior, but the U.S. Navy was still very interested in what the nascent – but still formidable – former Soviet Navy was up to.

All was going well off the coast of Murmansk as the Baton Rouge conducted its mission silently and unnoticed, until the crew was rocked by an impact from outside the boat. A Russian Sierra I-class sub, the Kostroma, collided with Baton Rouge from below as the Russian sub was trying to surface.

The American’s hull was scratched and had tears in its port ballast tank. The Kostroma’s conning tower slammed into the American sub at 8 miles per-hour as the Russian moved to surface. Its sail was crushed from the impact.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine
(Russian Navy photo)

Embarrassing? Yes. Deadly? Thankfully no. Both American and Russian subs get much bigger and much heavier the Sierra I-class Kostroma and the Los Angeles-class Baton RougeBoth can carry nuclear-capable cruise missiles, but neither were equipped with those weapons at the time.

After ensuring neither submarine required assistance both returned to port for repairs. In 1995 the U.S. Congress determined that repairing the Baton Rouge would be too costly and the boat was decommissioned.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine
The Kostroma underway (Russian Navy)

The Kostroma, however, returned to active service – with a kill marker, celebrating the defeat of the Baton Rouge

MIGHTY HISTORY

The 5 strangest military mission names from the Iraq War

If you think Operation Inherent Resolve is a mission name that makes no sense, you’re not alone. The U.S. military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria was supposed to have a different name altogether. The Pentagon initially rejected OIR and only accepted it as a placeholder. Somehow it stuck, and that’s what we’re left with.

Strange, silly and absurd names shouldn’t be the standard for military operations. Or at least so said Winston Churchill back in 1943. In a WWII memo on the subject of mission names, Churchill said, “Do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way, and do not enable some widow or some mother to say her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug’ or ‘Ballyhoo.'”

It seems that the military isn’t exactly following Churchill’s recommendation. There’s rarely a public explanation about mission names, but that doesn’t make them any more questionable. Here are a few of the most memorable mission names.

Operation All-American Tiger

Tigers are pretty amazing in their own right, but what would be more American than having an All-American tiger? That’s a question the brass asked themselves, apparently, in 2003, when they settled on this mission name during a November 2003 Iraq War mission. Operation All-American Tiger’s objective was to search and clear farms and villages around the Euphrates River in the Northern Iraqi town of Al-Qaim. Service members detained twelve people as a result, including a few who were on a “Most Wanted” list.

While it’s fun to think about what the military was considering when creating codenames for missions, this one is actually pretty easy to figure out. The nickname for the 82nd Airborne Division is “All American.” The Tiger Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cav assisted the 82nd on this mission.

Specifically, it was the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment from the 82nd who worked with the Tigers. The 504th even have their own absurd nickname – The Devils in Baggy Pants – taken from a diary entry of a Wehrmacht officer in WWII.

Operation Beastmaster

Doesn’t this sound like a mission from the 1980s? It feels decidedly vintage, but Operation Beastmaster actually took place in 2006. OB cleared three neighborhoods in the Baghdad suburb of Ghazaliya, which itself was subject to a codename, albeit one that was far easier understood. Service members in IED Alley East, as Ghazaliya was known, worked together with the Iraqi Army to uncover weapons caches and a deposit of roadside bomb-creating supplies and tools. Operation Beastmaster also captured one high-ranking (and still unnamed) official, and the Army counted it as a complete win.

Operation Grizzly Forced Entry

In the summer of 2004, U.S. service members went on a counter-insurgency raid in Najaf, Iraq, a city south of Baghdad. The forced entry part of this code name is pretty self-explanatory, as service members were tasked with entering private homes to search for high-value targets who were suspected of attacking coalition forces.

Operation Power Geyser

This counterterrorism unit included 13,000 top secret service members who served as military security to support the 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush. Taken from a video game series, the name Power Geyser refers to a character who was able to blast the ground with his fist and create a field of explosive energy around him that sent his opponents flying. In real life, these elite troops carried top of the line weaponry and lurked in the shadows around the White House and the Capitol building while the inauguration took place.

Operation Safe Neighborhood + Operation Safe Market

These 2007 missions were efforts to make residential neighborhoods, areas with lots of traffic, and marketplaces safer for Iraqis to live and work during the American involvement of the Iraq war. Service members combed these areas looking for car bombs and IEDs with a decided effort to cut down on sectarian violence in the city. The codenames were pretty easy to figure out, proof that sometimes the most basic name is the best one.

Whoever was thinking up mission names during the Iraq War was definitely trying to keep the plans top secret to ensure the missions were successful. With names like All-American Tiger and Grizzly Forced Entry, someone was trying to make sure no one knew our military’s plans.

MIGHTY HISTORY

An Army veterinarian first took down Ebola in the United States

“From a pathology point of view, it’s a fascinating virus,” says Dr. Nancy Jaax, a veterinarian and Army officer. She’s talking about the Ebola virus, a subject she knows a lot about, having prevented it from maybe spreading to the entire United States. “The opportunity to work with such a unique virus was irresistible to me.”


When Jaax came to the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in 1979, not much was known about Ebola. They knew it killed 90 percent of those infected, and that was about it. It was a Biosafety Level-4 pathogen: fatal to humans, easily transmittable (maybe even by air), with no effective treatments or vaccines. So when it showed up in a group of monkeys shipped in from the Philippines, it could have been really bad for the Reston, Va. lab where Jaax was working. Luckily, the Army has people like Col. Jaax working for it.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

Jaax joined the Army with her husband in the late 70s to pursue her veterinary residency. Right away, her work in veterinary medicine was significant, as she and her team discovered the first diagnosed coronavirus in military working dogs. But dogs getting colds were the least of the Army’s research needs. Jaax wound up at USAMRIID in the veterinary pathology program. A few years into her stint there is when the macaques from the Philippines were found to have Ebola. It was her job to actually look for the virus under the microscope.

When she looked at the tissue sample of the dead monkeys, she actually found they had two highly-lethal contagions: simian hemorrhagic fever, which is not contagious to humans, and Ebola. They had to shut down the facility – except for those exposed to the viruses.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

This was also my gut response. But luckily cooler heads prevailed.

The Reston Ebolavirus spread to all the facilities animals, who had to be put down. Unfortunately, it also infected a number of the USAMRIID workers who worked alongside Jaax. When they went to “depopulate” the facility, just under 50 people were found to have contracted the virus. The only thing was, unlike the other strands of Ebola, none of the Reston workers actually got sick or showed symptoms. In fact, their bodies didn’t respond to the virus at all. It came and went.

No one knows why. What they do know (and the reason we can all sleep soundly at night) is that the Army’s quarantine procedures worked as planned. None of the monkeys escaped into an Outbreak-like scenario. There was no worker with a small symptom who was nervous about it but decided to hide it so he could take the Metro to go to his kids birthday party. The virus stayed put, the monkeys were contained, and no one let the virus out of the facility.

That’s why we have procedures.

You can watch the story of Dr. Nancy Jaax and her experience with Ebola on NatGeo’s new miniseries The Hot Zone, a three-night special premiering Memorial Day, May 27th at 9pm on National Geographic.

Articles

This was the only underwater submarine vs. submarine kill in history

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.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine
Captured German U-boats outside a Norwegian submarine pen. (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

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.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine
Lt. Jimmy Launders during the commissioning of the Venturer in Holy Loch, Scotland (Photo Royal Navy)

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.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine
HMS Venturer in port in 1943, two years before sinking the U-864 (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

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.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These fighter pilots literally pushed their wingmen to safety

The bonds that members of the military make with their comrades during their service are unlike any other. There’s a special kind of trust and faith that you have in a person that you would risk your life for and know would do the same for you. Fighter pilots are a breed of service member that understand this bond well. In aerial combat, your wingman is someone you have to trust completely and be willing to do anything for.

These fighter pilots demonstrated this commitment with unwavering loyalty and bravery.


On September 15, 1952, Air Force Capt. James Risner was escorting a flight of F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bombers on an attack on a chemical plant along the Yalu River. Flying his F-86 Sabre fighter jet, Risner engaged an attacking enemy MiG and chased it at nearly supersonic speed at ground level. Risner pursued the MiG across the Yalu River and into Chinese airspace. He landed several solid hits on the MiG with his .50-caliber machine guns which shot off the enemy jet’s canopy and set it on fire. Risner chased the MiG over a Chinese air base where it crashed into more MiGs parked on the ground. Throughout this engagement, Risner’s wingman, 1st Lt. Joseph Logan, was flying in pursuit and covering Risner’s six.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

Risner poses in front of an F-86 (Photo by the United States Air Force)

As the flight headed for home, Logan’s Sabre was hit by enemy flak—fuel and hydraulic fluid gushed out of the wounded jet’s belly. Logan had only five minutes of fuel left; not enough to get him out of enemy territory. Refusing to abandon his wingman, Risner told Logan to shut his engine down and lined up behind him. He skillfully inched the upper lip of his Sabre’s air intake toward the tailpipe of Logan’s Sabre until they made contact. Despite fuel and hydraulic fluid obscuring his canopy and turbulence constantly separating the two aircraft, Risner persisted in his endeavor to push his wingman to safety.

After almost 60 miles of pushing, the two planes were finally over the ocean and in range of rescue swimmers. Logan called out to Risner, “I’ll see you at base tonight,” and bailed out of his stricken aircraft. Despite being a strong swimmer, Logan became tangled in his parachute shroud lines and tragically drowned off the coast of Cho Do Island. Having burned extra fuel to push his wingman, Risner’s Sabre ran out of fuel and he glided to a dead-stick landing at Kimpo Air Base. Over a decade later during the Vietnam War, two Air Force fighter jet crews would find themselves in a similar situation to Risner and Logan.

In 1967, Capt. Bob Pardo with Weapon System Officer 1st Lt. Steve Wayne and his wingman Capt. Earl Aman and his Weapon System Officer 1st Lt. Robert Houghton flew F-4 Phantom II fighter jets from Ubon Air Base in Thailand. On March 10, they were a part of a bombing run on a steel mill just north of Hanoi in North Vietnam. Heavy anti-aircraft fire cut through the skies, damaging both Phantom IIs. Aman and Houghton’s plane took a direct hit to the fuel tank and quickly lost most of their precious fuel. Without the range needed to make it to the KC-135 refueling tanker over Laos, Aman and Houghton would have to bail out over the unfriendly skies of North Vietnam. To prevent this, Pardo decided to push the stricken plane.

First, he had Aman jettison his drag chute so that he could insert his fighter’s nose into the drag chute compartment, much like Risner did with the tailpipe of Logan’s Sabre. However, the aerodynamic properties of the two aircraft created a suction that threatened to pull Pardo and Wayne up into Aman and Houghton’s plane. Pardo then had the idea to push the Phantom II from its tailhook. Originally designed for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the F-4 Phantom II was equipped with a tailhook to snag arresting cables and land on aircraft carriers.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

An F-4 Phantom II’s drag chute in its compartment (Photo by David Wallace, Jr.)

With the tailhook lowered, it provided about 4 feet of standoff distance between the two planes—just enough to prevent the deadly aerodynamic interference. Pardo then maneuvered his F-4 under and behind Aman’s until the tailhook was resting on the front of his windscreen. Aman then shut down his engines as Pardo pushed to keep his wingman airborne. The stunt worked to slow the rate of descent of Aman and Houghton’s aircraft. However, every 15 to 30 seconds, the tailhook would slide off of the windscreen and Pardo would have to line back up and re-establish connection.

Pardo and Wayne were also struggling with a fire in their port-side engine, eventually having to shut it down. After 88 miles of pushing, both aircraft reached Laotian airspace at an altitude of just 6,000 feet.

Aman and Houghton ejected safely, but Pardo and Wayne had burned so much fuel that they were forced to eject just ahead of them. All but Wayne had to evade enemy forces on the ground before they were located by friendly forces and rescued. Pardo and Wayne were initially reprimanded for losing their aircraft and putting their own lives in danger. It wasn’t until 1989 that the military re-examined “Pardo’s Push”, as it came to be known, and awarded the Silver Star to both Pardo and Wayne.

Both Risner and Pardo persisted in their commitment to their comrades in arms. During the Vietnam War, Risner was shot down over North Vietnam and was imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton for seven years, four months, and 27 days. During this time, he and Navy Commander James Stockdale led the American resistance in the prison and organized the other POWs to present maximum resistance to their captors.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

Risner answers questions at a press conference after he is released from captivity. (Photo by the United States Air Force)

After retiring from the Air Force, Pardo learned that Aman had developed Lou Gehrig’s disease and lost both his voice and mobility. He created the Earl Aman Foundation to raise money and buy his wingman a voice synthesizer, a motorized wheelchair, and a computer. The two men remained close friends until Aman’s death in 1998.

The bonds formed by these airmen in the crucible of aerial combat manifested in their refusal to abandon their wingmen and willingness to risk life and limb to save them. It is a commitment that is difficult to understand for people who have not experienced it firsthand, but Risner, Wayne and Pardo’s selfless actions help to demonstrate its power and magnitude.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The reindeer that served on a submarine for 6 weeks

A pinnacle of wartime technology, the HMS Trident was supposed to patrol the Atlantic, doing submarine things. Maybe sink a ship or two, enforce the blockade, and smuggle a reindeer from Russia to England. If that last part sounds more like the plot of a Nickelodeon cartoon than a World War II mission, then you clearly don’t understand diplomacy.


Our stage is World War II, 1941. America is the Arsenal of Democracy but is not yet formally part of the war. Russia and England are the bookends to a powerful and super-evil Nazi Germany, and Germany is busily invading the latter while trying to contain the former.

Britain and Russia were not natural allies. Britain had interceded in the Russian Civil War in 1918 on the losing side, and many veterans of that war were still kicking in 1941. Some were resentful. Some, certainly, would’ve cheered if Germany had invaded the British Isles in 1940 and conquered it.

But Hitler made strange bedfellows. And so a Russian bear cuddled up to the British crown, and much canoodling was had by all. But young romances rely on careful gestures, and one side cannot spurn the gift of another. Which brings us to the strange events of the HMS Trident in 1941.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

The Trident was sent to fight and kill Nazis in the Arctic, and its patrol took it into contact with a Russian crew. There, the crews exchanged tactics and had to play nice. A slip up on top of the world could cock up the whole alliance to the south. So, the men engaged with one another, were polite, and then the Trident crew prepared to head out for a fight with more German ships.

The Russian admiral hosted the British leaders, and British Commander Geoffrey Sladen mentioned that his wife was having trouble pushing her pram through the snow in England. The admiral had a great idea: The Brits should take one of the reindeer with them, and the reindeer could haul the pram around in England.

Again: This was the international diplomacy equivalent of a new high school romance. If the cute girl passes you a photo of her, even if it also shows her disapproving grandpa and some unsightly dental headgear, you give the photo a kiss, smile at the girl, and then tuck the photo into the door of your locker.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

For those who are curious, the reindeer equivalent is: You accept the reindeer, name it Pollyanna, and carefully get it into your submarine by opening the torpedo tube and helping it slip in. You bring a barrel of moss aboard as well, so the young reindeer will have something to eat.

And so the British set sail for another six weeks of wartime patrol. Pollyanna often slept in the captain’s cabin next to his bunk. And, according to the BBC, she would trot to the control room and wait for the hatch to open when fresh air was allowed in. The moss eventually ran out, and the crew fed Pollyanna scraps from their meals.

When the sub returned to England, it took a bit of work to get Pollyanna back out. The moss and the table scraps had taken their toll, and the young reindeer was too large to make it back out of the torpedo tube. Instead, she was winched out through the top.

Polly went to the zoo and was reportedly happy, though she did have a few quirks from her submarine service. George Malcolmson, a Royal Navy Submarine Museum Archivist, said, “It was rumoured that she never forgot her submarine career, for whenever she heard bells or a sound like a submarine tannoy, she would lower her head as though preparing for diving stations.”

Pollyanna died at the zoo five years later, the same week that the HMS Trident was sent to the breakers yard to be reduced for scrap.

MIGHTY HISTORY

10 epic ships that changed naval warfare forever

A great navy is key to any great military. It’s what allowed Brittania to rule the seas for decades, France to establish vast colonies around the world, and Japan to assert itself over European powers in Asia in the early 1900s. But navies are, obviously, made up of dozens or hundreds of individual ships, and not all of them are created equal.

So we’ve dug through the history to find out top 10 picks for ships that, either because of revolutionary designs or because their crews made a new technology work where all others had failed, changed naval combat overnight:


That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

The 64-gun warship Vasa was built in the tradition of the Mars, the first great artillery-focused naval warship.

(Jorge Lascar, CC-BY 2.0)

Mars

The Swedish warship Mars was the test platform for a bold new strategy in the 1560s: Elevate naval artillery from from a weapon used to hurt enemy ships to one that can actually sink enemy ship. The Swedish king was obsessed with the concept, and commissioned the Mars with five decks, two of them dedicated to naval artillery carrying massive cannons.

And the Mars was successful, reportedly sinking the enemy ship Longbark with concentrated artillery fire on its first day in combat. Unfortunately, the ship was so large and powerful that the opposing Lubeck fleet concentrated on it the next day, setting it on fire and causing a massive explosion and sinking the ship in 250 feet of water.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

The USS Nautilus was the first nuclear-powered vessel in history.

(U.S. Navy)

USS Nautilus

As America wrestled with the implications of nuclear power after World War II, naval planners had a question about the new-fangled reactors: Can they give our ships unlimited range? The USS Nautilus was proof that, for submarines at least, the nuclear reactor could achieve nearly infinite range.

The Nautilus set speed and range records. It even conducted an entire cruise where it surfaced only once, rising to the open air only to transit the Panama Canal. It also completed the first transit of the ship across the North Pole, conducting the crossing underwater on August 3, 1958. Now, the entire U.S. submarine fleet is nuclear-powered.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

The first-nuclear powered carrier and first nuclear-powered surface vessel in history, the USS Enterprise set range and speed records thanks to its powerful fuel source and engines.

(U.S. Navy)

USS Enterprise

The USS Enterprise of World War II was the most decorated ship of the war, and the Navy brought the name back to commission its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in 1960. That USS Enterprise would, like the USS Nautilus, set speed and range records. It also led the Navy’s first and only all-nuclear task force, sailing around the world with USS Long Beach and USS Bainbridge, a cruiser and frigate.

The ship launched planes during that cruise and also took part in the blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis, launched fighters into combat in Vietnam, and sent up jets in support of troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sinop and Chesma

Russian torpedo boats Sinop and Chesma were pretty forgettable warships except for one exchange in January 1878, when they launched the first successful self-propelled torpedo attack in naval history. The torpedo they used had been invented in England in 1866, but no navy had successfully used it in combat yet.

But 12 years later, the Russians ships were trying to take out larger and better-armed Turkish ships, and their torpedo attacks had failed repeatedly. The Sinop and Chesma went after the armed steamer Inibah, using their speed to avoid the Inibah’s fire before launching two torpedoes from less than 100 yards away. Both slammed home and sunk the enemy ship in less than a minute, proving the torpedo boat concept and leading to the torpedo’s prominence in World War I.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

HMS Cobra and Viper

Without getting too technical, there’s a difference between steam-piston engines and steam-turbine engines. Steam turbines are much more powerful, and the HMS Viper and HMS Cobra were British torpedo destroyers commissioned at the same time in order to take advantage of the additional speed turbines gave.

Both ships were capable of flying across the surface at almost 40 mph (about 34 knots for the actual sailors out there). They were over 10 percent faster than most other warships of the day, and they helped prove the steam turbine technology. Today, steam turbines powered by nuclear reactors propel the new Ford-Class carriers.

H.L. Hunley

The H.L. Hunley was named for its inventor, and it was an ill-fated but game-changing submarine of the Confederate Navy and famously was the very first submarine to sink an enemy ship. There were drawbacks to its designs, though.

It sank three times during testing, killing the crews each time and its inventor in one incident. Still, the Confederate Navy raised it one more time and sent it on its successful mission where it rammed the Union Housatonic with a mine attached to the spar in 1864. But the blast also killed the crew and sank the sub a fourth time. Obviously, submarine became a potent weapon of war, partially thanks to the Hunley, but the design was overhauled so crews would stop dying.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

The Union referred to the CSS Virginia as the Merrimack, the name originally given to her by the Union, throughout the war.

USS Monitor and CSS Virginia

At the Battle of Hampton Roads, the clash of two American ships changed naval warfare overnight. The CSS Virginia, a Confederate ship captured from the Union, attacked the northern fleet at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862, and the Union ironclad USS Monitor showed up the next day to protect the rest of the fleet.

The Virginia mounted ten guns and the Monitor had two, more advanced cannons, but neither ship could deliver a decisive blow against the other despite fighting at close range for hours, ending in a stalemate. Immediately, it was clear to naval experts that wooden ships would become obsolete as the iron behemoths were created in larger quantities and new configurations.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

Napoleon

The Napoleon was a 90-gun warship that was launched in 1850 and soon changed the way steam-powered ships operated. Prior to the Napoleon, steam was used to power paddle wheals on one side of a warship. Sails provided primary power, and the wheel helped the ship maneuver quickly during fights.

But the paddles were enormously vulnerable and blocked parts of the hull from being able to mount cannons, huge shortcoming in combat. But the Napoleon introduced screw propulsion, moving the action under the water, making it less vulnerable and more lethal. The ship fought in the Crimean War in 1852, and countries lined up to get their own screw-powered ships.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

HMS Furious

The HMS Furious was originally laid down as a battlecruiser in 1915 and slated to receive epic, 18-inch guns. Instead, it became the first aircraft carrier to conduct a successful raid, launching Sopwith Camels against German zeppelins in July 1918. The small planes successfully set a hangar ablaze and burnt two zeppelins to the ground, but most of the pilots were forced to ditch their planes at sea or in neutral Denmark.

The Furious had all sorts of shortcomings as a carrier, most notably the short flight deck that made landings extremely hazardous. It underwent multiple redesigns and refits between World War I and II, eventually becoming a full flat-top carrier.

That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

HMS Dreadnought

Any naval buffs out there saw this one coming. While there are plenty of game-changing ships on this list, as well as dozens more from history that we could have chosen, the Dreadnought was such a game-changing ship that the entire world sought to copy its design and methods of construction, leading to the “Dreadnought Era” followed soon after by the “Super Dreadnought Era.”

The behemoth could throw 3 tons of steel and explosives in a single broadside and featured armor that could survive nearly anything available when it was launched. And, it was built quickly, launching in 1906 after just a year of construction. Germany raced to keep up with Britain’s new navy, building Dreadnought copies as fast as it could.

When the German and British fleets clashed at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, 50 battleships built in the Dreadnought’s image traded blows in a 250-ship fight that is, by some metrics, still the largest naval battle ever fought.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Epic tale of Rhodesian Commandos gets a reprint

It has been 32 years ever since Chris Cocks first published his acclaimed book narrating his experiences with the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI). Now, five editions later, he is reprinting his masterpiece.

But it’s not just a reprint. Cocks has gone in and re-wrote the book to make it even better.


“Over the last three decades, the book has undergone around five editions with various publishers, some good, some not so good,” said Cocks “I decided, therefore, to re-write the book and take out a lot of fluff and waffle, and then self-publish.”

The Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1980) was a small but intense Cold War conflict. The Rhodesian government was faced by a Communist insurgency that had shrewdly sold itself in the international community as a liberation front aiming to end White-rule in the Southern African country.

Formed in 1961, the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) was an airborne all-white unit focused on direct action operations. (Most units in the Rhodesian military were mixed, usually Black soldiers led by White officers; the RLI and the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) were some of the few all-White outfits.) Three years later, in 1964, the unit was retitled to 3 Commando, The Rhodesian Light Infantry, to better reflect its Special Operations role.

The unit was broken down to four Commandos of 100 men each and a headquarters company. The majority of the RLI troopers were Rhodesian regulars or reserves. There was, however, a significant foreign presence (Americans, French, Germans, British, Australians, New Zealanders).

“As a 20-year-old lance-corporal, I found myself in command of a troop (a platoon),” he recalls. “As a junior NCO, I never lost a man in combat, but I think that was luck. But I’m still proud of that.”

The airborne capabilities of the unit paired with its lethality made the RLI the bane of the communist insurgents. It is estimated that as part of Fire Force missions, which were introduced in 1974, the RLI killed 12,000 insurgents. At some point during the Bush War, the operational tempo was so high, that RLI troopers were conducting three combat jumps a day. Rapid deployment of troops was key to the Fire Force concept. Jumps, thus, were made at 300-500 feet without reserve parachutes. Indeed, they were flying so low that as the last jumper of the stick exited the aircraft, the first hit the ground. To this day, an RLI trooper holds the world record for most operational jumps with an astounding 73.

Chris Cocks’ book provides an original account of the Rhodesian Bush War. Several pictures breathe life into the men and their feats. The illustrations on the Fire Force are elucidating. Perhaps what sets Cocks’ book apart from similar narratives is its dual nature: a lover of narrative history will gain as much as a student of military history. (I’ve personally used Cocks’ book as a primary source for a paper that was published in the West Point’s military history journal.)

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The cover of the latest edition.

Dr. Paul L. Moorcraft, a British journalist and academic who has written extensively on the Rhodesian Bush War, said that “Cocks’s work is one of the very few books which adequately describes the horrors of war in Africa … Fire Force is the best book on the Rhodesian War that I have read… it is a remarkable account that bears comparison with other classics on war … a tour de force.”

Cocks first wrote the book in the mid-1980s. He sought to understand why so many had died (over 50,000 dead on both sides) and why Zimbabwe had fallen to Communism. “Essentially, we lost not only the war, but our country,” said Cocks. “For what? I needed to record that, somehow. To be honest, I just started writing, with no particular end point in mind. It all came tumbling out.”

This is a book worth reading. You can purchase it on Amazon.

This article originally appeared on SOFREP. Follow @sofrepofficial on Twitter.


Articles

The day we saved 2,147 POWs from Los Baños Prison

By February 1945, the cruel and inhumane treatment by the Japanese against their enemies was well known. As the Allies liberated the Philippines, the decision was made to attempt a rescue effort at the Cabanatuan Prison.


This rescue, often referred to as the Great Raid, liberated over 500 prisoners from Cabanatuan on Jan. 30, 1945. These prisoners then described their horrific treatment as well as the atrocities of the Bataan Death March.

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POWs interned by the Japanese in the Philippines were malnourished and subject to brutal conditions. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

This convinced the Allied commanders to attempt more rescue operations in order to save the lives of those held by the Japanese.  

A plan was quickly drawn up, this time using paratroopers from the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

The target would be the University of the Philippines campus-turned POW camp at Los Baños. There the Japanese were holding over 2,000 Allied personnel, mostly civilians who were caught up in the Japanese onslaught of late 1941.

The plan was divided into four phases.

The first phase involved inserting the 11th Airborne’s divisional reconnaissance platoon along with Filipino guerrillas as guides.

Prior to the attack they would mark the drop zone for the paratroopers and landing beach for the incoming Amtracs. Others from the platoon would attack the sentries and guard posts of the camp in coordination with the landing of the paratroopers.

The second phase consisted of the landing and assault by the paratroopers. These men were from Company B, 1st Battalion, 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment along with the light machine gun platoon from battalion headquarters company. They were led by 1st Lt. John Ringler.

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U.S. paratroopers awaiting orders to jump. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1942)

Simultaneous to the landing of the paratroopers, Filipino guerrillas from the 45th Hunter’s ROTC Regiment would attack the prison camp itself.

Together these two groups would eliminate the Japanese within and the Americans would gather them for transport from the camp.

The third phase of the operation would bring the remainder of the 1st Battalion, 511th PIR across the Laguna de Bay in Amtracs. These would then be used to transport the prisoners to safety.

Finally, another 11th Airborne element, the 188th Glider Infantry Regiment, would make a diversionary attack along the highway leading to the camp. The intent would be to draw the Japanese attention away allowing the paratroopers to escape with the prisoners.

All of this would happen nearly simultaneously. The amount of coordination of forces was tremendous.

Everything was set to go off at 7 AM on Feb. 23, 1945.

The first to depart for the mission were the men of the division reconnaissance platoon who set out the night of Feb. 21 in small Filipino fishing boats. Once across the Laguna de Bay, they entered into the jungle and made their way to hide sites to wait for the assault to begin.

On the morning of the 23rd at 0400, the 1st Battalion minus B Company boarded the 54 Amtracs of the 672nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion and set out across the bay toward their landing beach.

At 0530 the men of B Company boarded the C-47’s for the short flight to Los Baños. By 0640 they were in the air toward their destination.

At 0700 on the morning of Feb. 23, 1945, the coordinated assault on the prison camp at Los Baños began.

Lt. John Ringler was the first man out the door of the lead C-47 coming low at 500 feet.

Having already marked the drop zone, the reconnaissance platoon and their accompanying guerrillas, spotting the incoming troop transports, sprung from their hide sites and attacked the Japanese guard post and sentries. Many were quickly overwhelmed.

At the same time, the 45th Hunter’s ROTC Regiment of Filipino guerrillas attacked three sides of the camp. As this was happening, the paratroopers were assembling on the drop zone and the lead elements were breaching the outer perimeter of the camp.

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Filipino guerrillas worked with the U.S. Marine Corps across the Pacific during WWII. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

The assault had been perfectly timed to coincide with not only a changing of the guard shift but also morning formation for both the prisoners and Japanese soldiers.

Many Japanese were caught in the open, unarmed, preparing to conduct morning physical training. They were cut down by the gunfire of the assaulting forces.

Some Japanese were able to mount a defense but many simply fled in the face of the charging Americans and Filipinos. By the time the balance of the 1st Battalion arrived at the camp in their Amtracs, the fight was all but over.

In very short order the raiding force had overwhelmed and secured the prison.

Out on the highway, the 188th GIR was making good progress against the Japanese and had successfully established blocking positions by late morning. The sound of their battles reminded the men at the camp that time was of the essence — the Japanese were still nearby.

Due to their harsh treatment, many of the prisoners were malnourished and extremely weak. Those that could walk began making their way towards the beach for evacuation. Others were loaded into the Amtracs at the camp and transported back across the lake.

It took two trips to get all the internees across the lake and a third to evacuate the last of the assault troops, but at the end of the day 2,147 prisoners were liberated from the Los Baños prison camp. The cost to the Americans and Filipinos was just a handful of casualties — no paratroopers were killed in the raid.

Among those evacuated was Frank Buckles, a World War I veteran, who would go on to be the last living veteran from the conflict.

“I doubt that any airborne unit in the world will ever be able to rival the Los Baños prison raid,” said Gen. Colin Powell. “It is the textbook airborne operation for all ages and all armies.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

OSS agents gave the Dalai Lama a Patek Phillipe watch from FDR during WWII

Even if you’re not a watch enthusiast, the brand name Patek Philippe probably rings a bell. Founded in 1839, Patek is part of the so-called Horological Holy Trinity of luxury Swiss watch brands along with Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. That’s right, there are brands above even Rolex. The top-tier status of these brands makes them popular lyrical references for hip-hop and rap artists looking to flex their superiority. Why then, does His Holiness Tenzin Gyasto, the 14th Dalai Lama own a Patek? As you’ve likely read the title of this article, he didn’t buy it himself.

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The young Dalai Lama in 1944 (Public Domain)

In 1942, the war in the Pacific looked grim. The Australian, British, and Dutch forces were suffering loss after loss against the relentless Japanese military. Much of the American Pacific Fleet was sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor, and the American garrison in the Philippines was cut off and surrounded. China, who had been fighting the Japanese since 1937, was heavily reliant on American support. However, Japan had cut the Burma road through China, forcing America to find another supply route to Chinese forces. The Office of Strategic Services was called in to find a solution.

The predecessor to the CIA, the OSS specialized in clandestine operations like intelligence gathering, sabotage, subversion, and espionage. The agency recognized the strategic potential that Tibet had in moving supplies to China. However, the idea of going through Tibet was a tricky one. It would require recognizing Tibet as an autonomous region, something China was none too pleased about. Moreover, operations in Tibet would require the blessing of the young Dalai Lama. President Roosevelt approved of the plan and the OSS dispatched two of its best agents to Tibet in late 1942.

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Captain Dolan in Tibet (Public Domain)

Captain Brooke Dolan II was a naturalist who could understand the perspectives of the Tibetan Buddhists. Besides that, he traveled extensively throughout Tibet before the war and knew their customs and courtesies. Dolan was joined by Major Ilya Tolstoy, grandson of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy of War and Peace fame. Aside from his connection to literary history, Tolstoy was an accomplished scientist who conducted extensive research at Mount McKinley in Alaska. This helped prepare him for the challenging terrain and climate he would face in Tibet.

Dolan and Tolstoy trekked in a mule caravan from India. It took them over three months to summit the Himalayas and reach the Dalai Lama, then just seven years old. The agents presented His Holiness with a handwritten letter and a gift from President Roosevelt: a Patek Philippe reference 658 timepiece. Only 15 examples of the watch were produced and it was valued at $2,800 in 1942 (over $47,000 in 2021). The young Dalai Lama gifted the agents a ceremonial scarf in return. The exchange occurred in complete silence in accordance with Tibetan custom.

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Dolan (second from the left) and Tolstoy (right) with their monk-interpreter, Kusho Yonton Singhe, near Lhasa, Tibet for their official greeting ceremony, January 1, 1943 (Public Domain)

The Dalai Lama approved of the request to transport supplies through Tibet into China. This friendly relationship allowed America to help keep China in the fight for the remainder of the war. It also allowed the CIA to support Tibetan resistance fighters when Communist China invaded in the 1950s.

The Dalai Lama continues to carry the Patek that was gifted to him by FDR through Dolan and Tolstoy. Sources report that the historical watch has been repaired at least three times since then. The Dalai Lama famously displayed it in 2016 during a meeting with the U.S. Congress. Made of 18k gold and featuring a perpetual calendar, moon phase, split-seconds chronograph and minute repeater, the watch would fetch a hefty sum today without its historical provenance. The fact that it involved so many famous figures and was featured in a crucial diplomatic agreement makes it absolutely priceless.

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His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, presents the Patek Philippe 658 gifted to him by FDR (Senator Patrick Leahy)
MIGHTY HISTORY

An astrologer may have helped end the Cold War

In May, 1988, smack in the middle of the Iran-Contra Affair, the Reagan Administration, nearing its sunset, weathered a very different kind of affair: the release of his former Chief of Staff’s book, which claimed that Nancy Reagan controlled the schedule in the White House through the use of astrology.


Donald Regan had been officially let go from his position as Chief of Staff due to his botched handling of the Iran-Contra affair. Throughout his tenure, he’d reportedly often clashed with the First Lady and couldn’t reconcile her grip on the president’s schedule.

When her astrology-based scheduling approach came to light, it threw the media into an uproar and sent news networks tracking down the San Francisco astrologer that Mrs. Reagan supposedly consulted. The White House eventually admitted that yes, the First Lady did indeed regularly speak with Joan Quigley, who was a high-profile astrologer at the time, but that her influence had been limited to non-political decisions and never touched policy.

Joan Quigley | AP Images

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Using the positions of the planets, Quigley (indirectly) chose when Air Force One took off and landed, when to give the State of the Union address, and when to hold state dinners and meetings. However, according to Quigley’s sister, Ruth, in a 2016 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, this influence did, in fact, reach public policy, including international relations.

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Throughout much of Ronald Reagan’s tenure as President, the Cold War teetered at a boiling point, and that didn’t seem likely to change. President Reagan, who had referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” in 1983, had no intention of engaging in diplomatic relations with Mikhail Gorbachev, then General Secretary of the Soviet Union. According to Ruth Quigley, sister of the famed astrologer, it was a three-hour phone conversation with Joan that convinced the First Lady to push her husband toward negotiations. Joan Quigley used the horoscopes of both President Reagan and Gorbachev as evidence that chemistry could, in fact, exist between them.

Ruth also says that her sister helped plan the Reykjavik Summit, and convinced President Reagan to remain at the summits as long as he could. Though it didn’t immediately pan out, this summit was credited with laying the foundations for the eventual 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

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The Reagans already had ties to astrology from their days in the acting industry. Carroll Righter, a high-profile astrologer with whom many Hollywood stars consulted in the 1950s and ’60s, was named in Reagan’s 1965 autobiography as a close friend, and it was reported that both Ronald and Nancy read his daily newspaper horoscopes for their respective signs (he was an Aquarius; she was a Cancer). There had also been rumors that Reagan had used astrology to pick the time of his inauguration as the governor of California: January 2nd, 1967, at ten minutes past midnight.

First-hand accounts from three different memoirs — Donald Regan’s For the Record, My Turn by Nancy Reagan, and What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years As White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan, a testimonial from Quigley herself — suggest increasingly larger roles of astrology in the Reagan White House.

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Mrs. Reagan’s account attributes her use of astrology to seeking a coping mechanism; she had claimed that she’d first turned to Quigley after the assassination attempt made on her husband. Most of her concern, she says, was for her husband’s safety, and she used the positions of the solar system to assuage her fears that he might get hurt again — and her consultations with Quigley did, in fact, include choosing the timing of a cancer surgery he underwent in 1985.

Quigley contradicts this, claiming that she’d worked for the Reagans for much longer than that, even claiming to contribute to the Reagan campaign in 1980 by choosing the time of his debate with Jimmy Carter.

While it’ll never be clear whether Mrs. Reagan was attempting to downplay her use of astrology or if Quigley wanted to boost her own importance within the administration, there is very little doubt that astrology did have some kind of influence on the Reagan White House.

Articles

These 4 Gurkha stories will make you want to forge your own kukri knife

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  Nepal, a tiny Himalayan country country bordering India and Chinese Tibet, was one of many countries invaded by the British Empire. But the British were never able to colonize tiny Nepal. The reason the largest Empire in history couldn’t completely subdue a small mountain country? Gurkhas.

Gurkhas have long been known as the world’s fiercest and most skilled warriors, earning the respect (and often fear) of friend and foe alike. Even the British, who decided that trying to fight more Gurkhas wasn’t worth the effort, wanted the Gurkhas on their team, and Nepalese warriors have been fighting for the crown ever since.

1. Afghan Ambush

The Gurkhas have been fighting with the United Kingdom for 200 years. Today’s war in Afghanistan is no exception.

In 2008, a team of Gurkha warriors were crossing an open area when they were ambushed by Taliban fighters. One of their own Yubraj Rai, was shot and wounded. Like many armies, the Gurkhas don’t leave men behind.

In the face of overwhelming enemy fire, Captain Gajendera Angdembe, Rifleman Dhan Gurung, and Manju Gurung carried their buddy across 325 feet of open ground. One of them even used a dual wield with his rifle to return enough fire for the group to get out of there.

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Rifleman Dhan Gurung returned fire using two rifles at the same time.

2. WWII Burma

In 1944, Agansing Rai, a Gurkha fighting the Japanese in Burma, came across a ridge as his platoon moved through the countryside.  The ridge was designed to be protected from any combination of armor and infantry. Leading up to the ridge was an open field and on the ridge were dug-in Japanese defenders, hiding in dense Jungle.

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Agansing Rai was award the Victoria Cross for his actions and leadership that day.

Rai led his platoon against the heavy machine guns and a number of 37mm anti-tank emplacements, knocking them all out while taking some serious casualties. A ridge designed to stop tanks and infantry couldn’t stop a small Gurkha force.

3. A Commander Joins His Gurkhas

Colonel Peter Jones was fighting in Tunisia with his Gurkha battalion in 1943. As his frenzied men charged the Nazi German-manned machine guns at Enfidaville, Jones started taking out the positions with a Bren gun.

The Gurkhas charged the Nazis with their Kukri knives and fought them in hand-to-hand combat. They killed 44 Nazis, breaking the German lines and causing them to flee before advancing further.

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Yeah, I’d flee too.

4.The Cold War Turns Hot in Borneo

Indonesia, supported by Communist China and the Soviet Union, was opposed to the creation of Malaysia by the Western powers, especially the United Kingdom. So Gurkhas patrolling the island jungles were ready for anything the Communists were willing to throw at them — especially the Gurkhas.

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Gurkha troops patrolling the dense Borneo jungles circa 1965.

Captain Rambahadur Limbu was in enemy territory when he and his unit met an enemy advance. He repelled them using only grenades, then went back into friendly territory to alert his superiors about the advance.

With one of his friends dead and the other wounded, Limbu went into the enemy-controlled area of the battlefield, back and forth across 100 yards of no man’s land — twice — to pull out the wounded and retrieve his dead friend.

Learn more about these ferocious fighters in the video at the top.

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MIGHTY HISTORY

Buried in a casino wall, a dark secret from Romania’s Communist past

BUCHAREST — When she was growing up in a small town in southern Romania, Laura Voicila was stigmatized by her father’s past.

In 1949, as the communists tightened their grip on the Eastern European country, Nicolaie Voicila, 17, was arrested and later sentenced to four years of hard labor for “plotting against the social order.”

His crime was joining a literary club at which members discussed the relatively new communist regime led by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and hoped it would disappear.


The high school student was one of the thousands the communists incarcerated in prisons and labor camps after World War II, often simply because they had fallen afoul of the communist regime.

There are no universally accepted figures, but a 2006 presidential commission established to study the communist dictatorship said more than 600,000 Romanians were sentenced for political crimes between 1945 and 1989. Thousands died from beatings, illness, exhaustion, cold, or lack of food or medicine.

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The secret note with political prisoners’ names written in charcoal that was found inside the casino wall.

Early Days Of Communism

Andrei Muraru, a historian and adviser to Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, told RFE/RL that in the early 1950s some 100,000 prisoners were sentenced to hard labor on a project called the Black Sea Canal, a 70-kilometer waterway connecting the Danube to the Black Sea. It was also known as the “Canal of Death.”

Voicila toiled there, transporting heavy loads of rock before he was sent to work restoring a casino, an architectural monument to art nouveau in the nearby port of Constanta that had been bombed by the Germans during the war.

He didn’t talk much about those experiences after his release — actually being forbidden from talking about his imprisonment — and his fear of discussing those hard times lingered even after communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted and executed during the 1989 Romanian Revolution.

But he did tell family members that political prisoners had scribbled notes and buried them in the walls of the casino.

“When I was growing up, Dad told us: When they renovate the casino, go there and find the documents,” Laura Voicila told RFE/RL.

“Under communism, we discussed things very quietly and never in public,” she said. “Dad listened to Radio Free Europe and I would say ‘Dad, what are they saying in Germany (RFE was based in Munich from 1950-1995)? I even remember the jingle [that went with the news].”

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Nicolaie Voicila in the 1960s after his release from prison.

Secret Note

At school in the town of Gorgota, Laura had top grades, but her father’s past meant she suffered discrimination.

“My teacher told me: ‘You should be the class leader, but we can’t make you one,” she said. “[My father] told me to study and to leave the country if I wanted a chance [in life].”

Laura kept the story about the hidden notes in the back of her mind, until one day in May this year.

Her mother called saying she had seen on the news that restorers had unearthed a scrap of paper hidden in a wall of the casino that was signed by political prisoners.

“When my mom heard a note had been found, she said ‘You have to go and see it.’ She was moved to tears. It was a moment of moral reparation for her [after nearly 70 years]. People saw [the note] was there and it was real,” she told RFE/RL.

In mid-May, after Romania lifted a state of emergency imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Laura went with Apollon Cristodulo — the son of Ion Cristodulo, an architect and political prisoner in charge of restoring the casino — to Constanta to see the note firsthand.

The note — a scrap of paper torn from a cement sack with the names of 17 political prisoners written in charcoal and dated December 31, 1951 — is not much in itself, were it not for the dire circumstances that it was created under and its historical importance.

“It was found rolled up in a ball by a stained-glass window restorer. He was looking for some old shards of glass in the wall and he came across the paper. He felt there was something [special] about it,” Apollon Cristodulo said on July 23.

“It was miraculous that this note was found,” he said. “I wrote about the [hidden note at the] casino many years ago, but nobody believed it; they thought it was just a story, a legend…. But now everything I’ve written has come true.”

Cristodulo’s father died in 1991 aged 66, his health damaged by the harsh years of detention.

“His heart, liver, and lungs were all shot. He died after his fourth heart attack,” Cristodulo told RFE/RL.

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Laura Voicila and Apollon Cristodulo outside the casino in Constanta on May 19.

Romania’s Political Prisons

Muraru, the former director of the governmental Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes, secured the first ever prosecutions of former prison commanders in Romania.

Alexandru Visinescu, who was in charge of the notorious Ramnicu Sarat prison, was sentenced in 2016 to 20 years in jail for the deaths of 12 prisoners at the institution. One year later, Ioan Ficior received the same term for crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of 103 prisoners at the Periprava labor camp. Both have since died serving their sentences.

Muraru said the fact that the detainees managed to write the note was remarkable.

“This is a rare piece of testimony because prisoners didn’t have access to paper or pencils, but…there was less supervision and the presence of ordinary workers and more humane figures who could provide them with something to write with, and that made it possible for this scrap of paper to be secreted away and put [in the wall],” he told RFE/RL.

“It took decades for the traumatic memory of communism to finally settle,” he added.

Alexandra Toader, the current director of the institute said: “After 70 years, we have material confirmation of what happened [at the casino].”

She said the Securitate communist secret police conducted excavations at the casino in 1986 and may have found other documents which were archived, something Cristodulo also thinks is likely.

“We have 26 kilometers of Securitate archives, a sea of documents; but I’m not sure whether they are digitized or documented,” Toader told RFE/RL.

The institute will hold an exhibition at the casino “dedicated exclusively to this episode,” she said. “Hopefully we can obtain objects they used, letters they wrote to their families, their tools.”

Researchers are investigating the estimated 100 prisoners who worked on the casino, tracking down biographical information to try to find out what happened to them.

“Most prisoners were there for the flimsiest of reasons and they were there for years on end regardless of their age,” Toader said. “It was a pretext to get rid of the so-called ‘enemies of the people.'”

Cristodulo told RFE/RL that the documents about the Black Sea Canal are still classified by the secret service.

“There were 100,000 people who carried out forced labor…the documents need to be declassified,” he said.

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Architect Radu Cornescu, Apollon Cristodulo, and Laura Voicila (left to right) at the shell wall inside the casino where the secret political prisoner note was found.

Harsh Conditions

Nicolaie Voicila, who died in 1999 at the age of 66, dreamed of becoming an architect but the communists wouldn’t let him complete his education. He managed to qualify as a sub-engineer and became the manager of a cement site, forever inspired by the work he had done with the architects on the casino.

But he was traumatized his entire life by his past as a prisoner.

“He wasn’t allowed to speak or write down what happened and he thought they’d come and get him, so he had a lack of trust,” Laura Voicila said. “He didn’t trust people. He thought maybe a neighbor would find out about his past and he’d be in trouble.”

He did tell us that when he worked on the canal, prisoners were beaten “and others [were forced] to eat feces,” she said.

“Prisoners had to transport rocks and they’d walk along a 30-40 centimeter piece of wood over the canal with a wheelbarrow full of rubble. And if a prisoner fell off, nobody bothered to rescue him,” Laura Voicila said.

“There are many human bones buried in that canal,” she said.
Muraru added that it is known as “the Romanian Siberia.”

Disappointment

The collapse of communism failed to bring the changes that Nicolaie Voicila and many others had hoped for.

“He realized the old communists had come to power and he lost hope he’d ever see real democracy,” the 42-year-old Laura Voicila, who runs a family fruit and vegetable supply business, said.

“He saw miners attacking anti-government protesters in 1990 and he said: ‘You see? People are being beaten and killed. It’s still the same old people.'”

It’s a sentiment shared by Paul Andreescu, the head of the Association of Former Political Prisoners in Constanta.

Andreescu was a political prisoner for five years because he joined a youth organization that wanted to “free Romania from the Russians and their demands, such as making Russian a mandatory language at school and learning the history of the Soviet Union,” he told RFE/RL.

“We are free, but far from what we dreamed of and what we had hoped for in 1989.”

As head of the Constanta branch, Andreescu said: “It’s very important we have this proof [of the note from the casino], even if there are just a few names. They show the ugly past of the Romanian people, when people had to perform forced labor under all kinds of conditions.”

He added: “They are witnesses, even if they are buried in a wall.”

A Warning

Toader says it’s important that Romania knows its past.

“This subject is still largely unknown in schools and books, and detainees didn’t speak of their detention; even their memoirs are truncated out of fear or an attempt to forget,” she said.

“This is very relevant for the young generation, as some are nostalgic about communism,” she said in an interview at her Bucharest office.

“Extremes can’t be allowed, neither left nor right. The rule of law must prevail.”

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

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