In 1970, CBS News embedded with an Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, in Vietnam and was there when the platoon came under fire. The infantrymen, the “Blues” of the air mobile unit, were sent in whenever the troops had a known or suspected enemy to fight.
The men were headed home from investigating a series of North Vietnamese Army bunkers when Sgt. Kregg Jorgenson made eye contact with an enemy soldier hiding in the foliage and gripping an AK-47. Jorgenson, a Ranger veteran and three-time Purple Heart recipient, started firing at the same times as the enemy.
Jorgenson was pretty sure he had hit his man, but as the firefight erupted, the body on the trail disappeared. As the cameras kept rolling, the platoon leader called in air support and a medevac while the rest of the platoon poured lead into the trees.
Tucked away in a rural corner of western New York is a survivor of D-Day. It is a C-47A Skytrain — an airplane that delivered paratroopers over drop zones around Normandy on June 6, 1944 — that has the distinction of being perhaps one of the few – if not the last – of its kind still in flying condition.
Named Whiskey 7 because of the large W7 painted on its fuselage, the Skytrain was the lead aircraft of the second invasion wave in the skies above France.
“That C-47 is one of our stars,” said Dawn Schaible, media director for the National Warplane Museum, the organization that gives Whiskey 7 a home and maintains it both for flying demonstrations and public viewing.
Skytrains have a storied history. None other than Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander in Europe, called the Douglas aircraft one of the four “Tools of Victory” that won World War II for the Allies along with the atom bomb, the Jeep, and the bazooka.
The museum is proud of the fact that the aircraft is a true C-47, not a DC-3 conversion. The twin-engine, propeller-driven aircraft was built in 1943, one of more than 10,000 produced during World War II.
Skytrains like Whiskey 7 were the standard transport aircraft of the old U.S. Army Air Corps but also saw service with the British, who called the plane the Dakota.
The statistics regarding the Skytrain are impressive. When used as a supply plane, a C-47 could carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo. It could also hold a fully assembled Jeep or 37-mm cannon.
When serving in its role as a troop transport, the C-47 carried 28 soldiers in full combat gear. As a medical airlift plane, it could accommodate 14 stretcher patients and three nurses.
On D-Day, Whiskey 7 transported paratroopers from the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.
The aircraft was actually one of the few that made it to the drop-zone assigned to the paratroopers: the town of Sainte-Mère-Église.
After D-Day, Whiskey 7 served for the balance of the war. Missions included towing gliders carrying men and equipment during Market Garden, the ill-fated airborne operation in Holland that was the largest airborne battle in history but which ended disastrously for the Allies.
After World War II, a civilian aviation company purchased the plane as surplus and converted it to an airliner. The plane then flew both passengers and cargo for decades.
Purchased by a private collector in 1993, it was eventually donated to the National Warplane Museum where it was restored to its D-Day configuration in 2005.
In 2014, Whiskey 7 participated in the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion when it flew to France so historical re-enactors could jump from the plane.
The group also included Leslie Palmer Cruise Jr., one of the paratroopers the plane carried on D-Day. According to the museum, he was the last surviving member of his unit who jumped from Whiskey 7 when it was above Normandy in 1944.
Now, Whiskey 7 helps educate visitors to the National Warplane Museum about Operation Overlord and World War II.
Located in Geneseo, N.Y., the museum is a labor of love started by a grassroots group of historic aircraft enthusiasts who fly old war birds and restore airplanes. The museum has more than 15,000 visitors a year who come to view exhibits or attend the annual air show.
“We have amazing artifacts here,” said Schaible. “We figure out how we connect those artifacts with people and help them move beyond the idea that it’s just cool stuff. It’s the men and women and the stories behind the aircraft that make them historical.”
The bald eagle is a North American national treasure and the symbol of United States. Before the ink had dried on the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress issued the order to create an official seal for the nation.
This task of creating a suitable design was entrusted to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and (in true congressional fashion), two other subsequent committees. Their work was judged and ratified by Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress at the time. A final decision wouldn’t come for years.
Thomson selected the best elements from several drafts and combined them. One draft of the seal featured a small, white eagle as designed by William Barton. Thomson switched out the small bird with the American bald eagle we know today and the result officially became our National Symbol on June 20th, 1782.
But the eagle that came to symbolize the American Dream almost died out before its time.
It was identified after World War II runoff from farms treated with pesticides were poisoning the environment. A colorless, tasteless, and almost-odorless chemical pesticide known as DDT seeped into waters and contaminated local fish. Tainting the food source of the bald eagle lead to the laying of eggs with weakened shells. The shells were so fragile that they would break if the parent attempted to incubate them.
Amendments to the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act were made protect the bald eagle from anyone possessing (dead or alive), taking, transporting, killing, harming, or even bothering one. Any interaction required a strict permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
If a freedom bird bald eagle decides to build a nest on your property, it is illegal to motivate it to move. Disturbing the nest in any capacity — even when empty — is also illegal. The only thing you’re allowed to do with a bald eagle is take a picture. That’s not a joke.
For your first offense, expect a fine of $100,000 to $200,000, a one-year imprisonment, or both. The second offense is a felony with increasing penalties.
The eagle’s astounding population recovery is a legislative success story. Over the last several decades, the bald eagle has endured challenges with determination and persevered. Here’s a short timeline:
1960: There were an estimated 400 mating pairs.
1972: The Environmental Protection Agency outlaws the use of DDT as a pesticide after studies determined it was weakening bald eagle eggshells.
1973: The bald eagle is added to the endangered species list.
1995: The bald eagle’s status is elevated from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened.’
2007: The bald eagle is removed from the list entirely and thrives.
Present day: Bald eagle population is estimated at 70,000 strong.
There you have it. The story of how the bald eagle became the national bird… and how close we came to losing it.
The 1968 World War II film “Where Eagles Dare” thrilled some viewers — and scared the bejesus out of others — with its tale of commandos storming a snow-covered mountain fortress and a scene of Richard Burton wrestling with Nazi thugs on the roof of a swaying cable car.
But for an Omaha teen named James Stejskal, seeing the movie inspired his life’s work as an Army Green Beret.
“I was always interested in that kind of life,” said Stejskal, 63, now retired from careers as a soldier and CIA agent and living in Alexandria, Virginia. “A small unit fighting against the bigger enemy (using) a combination of military and intelligence operations, not just brute force.”
Green Berets standing proud. (U.S. Army photo)
This spring, Stejskal published a book called “Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the U.S. Army’s Elite, 1956-90,” about the secret unit with which he spent nine of his 23 years in the Army. Its work was so sensitive that the Pentagon didn’t acknowledge its existence until 2014.
“That’s when we finally came in from the cold,” said Tom Merrill, 63, of Martinsburg, West Virginia, who served with Stejskal in Berlin and remains a friend.
Stejskal enlisted in the Army in 1973, a year after graduating from Central High School. Soon he became a Green Beret, serving on small special ops teams. He was a weapons sergeant and a medic, known to his buddies as “Styk.”
“He was the consummate operator — natively smart, well-educated, thought well on his feet,” said Merrill, who lived in Council Bluffs as a boy.
The Berlin unit, created in 1956, was blandly named Detachment “A.” It disbanded in 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended.
The soldiers of Detachment “A” didn’t look much like soldiers. They dressed in modish clothes, wore beards and long hair, made local friends, lived in off-base apartments. All spoke German, many of them fluently.
“Working in civilian clothes, blending in with the locals, doing cool stuff in West Berlin and the middle of (Communist) East Germany,” recalled Stejskal, who served in the unit from 1977 to 1981, and from 1984 to 1989. “It was a very ambiguous kind of duty.”
They were expert at soldierly skills like marksmanship, wilderness navigation, rappelling from helicopters, urban combat. But they also learned the tradecraft of spies, including surveillance and secret messaging.
In the event of a Soviet-led invasion of Western Europe, the detachment’s job was to melt into the population of Berlin and engage in acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. In his book, Stejskal describes it as a “Hail Mary plan to slow the (Soviet) juggernaut they expected when and if a war began.”
Each of the detachment’s six teams was to be responsible for sabotaging bridges and railroads, harassing the enemy in designated slices of East Berlin and East Germany.
The work evolved as new threats emerged in Europe, and encompassed training in guerrilla warfare, direct-action precision strikes, and counterterrorism.
As radical groups spread terror across Europe with kidnappings, mass shootings and hijackings in the 1970s, Detachment “A” practiced rescuing hostages from trains and airplanes. Pan Am let them drill using airliners stored in its hangars at Berlin’s Tegel airport.
The detachment’s highest-profile mission had little to do with the Cold War and didn’t even take place in Europe. In 1980, the detachment was tapped to help rescue 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage in Tehran by radical Iranian students.
Soon after the embassy was captured Nov. 4, 1979, the U.S. military began developing a plan to seize the hostages. Most were held in the main embassy compound, but the job of Detachment “A” was to snatch three who were being held separately at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
The first rescue attempt, Operation Eagle Claw, ended in disaster when a plane and a helicopter collided in the dark in the Iranian desert.
Operation Eagle Claw ends in failure, 1989. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
The military quietly began planning a second rescue attempt, again including members of Detachment “A.” Stejskal and Merrill, who hadn’t been part of Eagle Claw, were involved in the second, Operation Storm Cloud. It involved using Air Force transport planes to fly partly disassembled helicopters into an airfield commandeered in the desert. The helicopters would be quickly reassembled and used to assault the Foreign Ministry.
The team traveled to Florida to conduct live-fire drills and spent weeks rehearsing with helicopter crews. They honed their weapons skills with extra-long hours on the shooting range.
“We were blowing (our weapons) up, we were firing them so much,” Stejskal said.
They ran a dress rehearsal in late November 1980, but soon the word came down: The mission had been scrubbed.
“It was deflating, extremely,” Stejskal said. “It’s like preparing for a big game and then being told you can’t play.”
The hostages were released Jan. 20, 1981, the same day President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
President Reagan’s inauguration, 1981. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Stejskal soon rotated out but returned to the unit in 1984. The 1980s are remembered now as the death throes of the Soviet empire. But at the time, it wasn’t clear whether popular movements like Poland’s Solidarity might provoke a Soviet crackdown.
“No one was really sure how it would all play out,” he said.
Stejskal left Berlin in the spring of 1989, but he flew back in November when he heard that the Wall had fallen. He wanted to see the end of the Cold War icon that had shaped his life.
“In one way, it was a relief: The mission as I knew it in Berlin was over, or soon would be,” Stejskal said. “On the other hand, there was a bit of nostalgia for the way things were.”
Not that his life on the razor’s edge ended when the Wall fell. In December 1992, Stejskal was badly wounded when his car drove over a land mine in Somalia.
Stejskal suffered a serious head injury and a shattered leg.
“I basically had 3½ inches of bone that was turned to confetti,” he said.
Stejskal returned to duty a year later. But he knew he would never regain his former strength. So he retired in 1996.
Green Berets. (U.S. Army photo)
That was the same year he married Wanda Nesbitt, a State Department foreign service officer he had met five years earlier during an evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, in the country then known as Zaire.
At his first overseas posting with Nesbitt, Stejskal said, someone handed him a sticky note with a telephone number on it and said to call if he wanted a job. That led to a 13-year stint with the CIA.
In recent years, Stejskal has attended Detachment “A” reunions, where the stories flow along with the beer.
“Somebody said, ‘We need to get this down on paper. We’ve got a history. Who’s going to write it down?'” he said.
Stejskal volunteered. Merrill said the book, published in March by Casemate Publishers, has taught him a lot he didn’t know about the unit’s history.
“He gave it the respect it deserved,” Merrill said. “He was able to take his insider knowledge and transfer it to something an outsider can understand.”
Fighter aces—those pilots responsible for taking down at least five other aircrafts—are almost as old as aviation itself. Since World War I, young men have been willing to risk death to earn glory and become “knights of the air” or the “cavalry of the clouds”. There have been thousands of pilots who achieved ace status, and many who have racked up far more than five downings. None, however, have ever managed the singular feat of becoming a fighter ace on both sides in the same war.
That is, none except one…
Pierre Le Gloan was from Brittany, born in the Breton town of Kergrist-Moelou on June 1, 1913. He joined the French Armee de l’Air in 1931 as soon as he was old enough to enlist. Before his death in 1943, he achieved ace status in both the French Air Force and under the collaborationist Vichy regime after the fall of France in 1940. With 18 kills to his name and France’s fourth-highest-scoring ace of World War II, he remains the only pilot in history to become an ace on both sides of the same conflict.
When war came he was flying a Morane-Saulnier MS.406. On November 23, 1939 he claimed his first kill, a Dornier DO.17 reconnaissance aircraft. Another DO.17 fell to his guns on March 2, 1940.
All pilots in Le Gloan’s squadron were then re-equipped with the newer and better Dewoitine D.520. Le Gloan lost no time in taking full advantage of the use of a better fighter. During the Battle of France in the summer of 1940 he had a hot streak. In June he shot down four German and Italian bombers: two Heinkel 111 planes and two Fiat BR.20 bombers.
It didn’t end there. The highlight of Le Gloan’s career was to come on June 15. His squadron met a squadron of Italian CR.42 fighters. Attacking with enthusiasm, he shot down no less than three of them. Encountering another CR.42 and a BR.20 on his way back to base, Le Gloan attacked and shot down both of them.
Taking down five aircraft in one day has seldom been achieved by even the highest-scoring fighter ace, and Le Gloan was justly rewarded. His five-kill streak brought him up to 11 kills, well above the five required for ace status. He was also promoted to 2nd Lieutenant to acknowledge his remarkable feat.
On June 20, his squadron was transferred to Algeria, then a French colony. With the fall of France and the installation of Marshal Petain’s Vichy puppet government, the French forces in North Africa were under Vichy command. To Le Gloan it made no difference. He’d flown, fought and killed for France. Now, he would do the same for Vichy.
His second fighting streak came in June and July of 1941. Fighting for Vichy and taking on Britain’s Royal Air Force, Le Gloan shot down five of the RAF’s Hurricane fighters, a Gloster Gladiator and another aircraft that remains unidentified. He’d taken down 11 for France and had added another seven for Vichy. At the war’s end only Jean Demozay (21 kills), Marcel Albert (23 and two probables) and Pierre Clostermann (33 kills) ranked higher among French aces. Le Gloan’s career would not, however, last much longer.
Neither would his life.
The Allies launched Operation Torch in November 1942. With Allied forces liberating North Africa and Field-Marhsal Montgomery’s famous ‘Desert Rats’ pushing westward after the victory at El Alamein, the Vichy regime’s days were numbered. So were Pierre Le Gloan’s.
Soon all former Vichy forces were siding with the Allies including Le Gloan’s fighter squadron. Reequipped in May 1943 with the American P-39 Airacobra, a new fighter might have given the newly promoted Capitaine Le Gloan another winning streak. Might have, if not for a design feature on the Airacobra that wasn’t on the Morane-Saulnier or the Dewoitine: an external fuel tank mounted under the belly meant to be jettisoned when empty or if about to enter a dogfight.
Le Gloan had never flown a fighter with a drop tank. Over the sea on a routine patrol on September 11, 1943 he began to experience mechanical problems. As the Airacobra was not the finest fighter ever built, this wasn’t unusual for pilots who had to fly them. Comparing the Airacobra to the legendary Supermarine Spitfire or P-51 Mustang was like comparing a rent-a-wreck with a Ferrari. With smoke streaming from his aircraft, Le Gloan decided to return to base and land, forgetting to jettison the drop tank. It was a fatal mistake.
Le Gloan, in severe mechanical difficulties, might have been safer bailing out than trying to land, even if he had remembered to jettison the extra tank. As it was, he attempted to land. It would have been a difficult landing at the best of times in a malfunctioning aircraft and, his mind on other things, Le Gloan forgot to drop the tank. As he touched the ground the undercarriage collapsed.
The drop tank, still full, ruptured instantly. As the Airacobra screeched along the runway, the mixture of aviation fuel and sparks caused the plane to erupt into a fireball. Pierre Le Gloan, 18-kill ace, only pilot ever to become an ace on both sides in the same war, was burned alive.
Today, his name is largely forgotten except to history buffs, aviation enthusiasts and the townsfolk of Kergrist-Moelou. Deciding to either forget or gloss over his having flown, fought, and killed in the service of Vichy, the residents of Le Gloan’s hometown named a street after him. Even so, as time passes, fewer people who use it remember either the man or his remarkable place in military history.
The Panzerfaust had limited range, limited stopping power, and required brave troops to draw deeply into a tank’s range to kill it, but it was still one of the more effective tank weapons of the war, and they instilled fear in Allied tank crews forced to drive against it.
Panzerfaust – How Effective was it? – Military History
As World War II progressed, tanks got beefier and beefier, forcing infantrymen to find new ways to wreck panzers. They eventually turned to an idea first pioneered in the 1880s by German and American scientists.
The scientists had found that when a hollow was left in explosives, they produced a jet of hot air that did more damage than a solid block would, and the effect with high explosives was much greater than the effect by any other explosives. This knowledge was largely unexploited in World War I but many academics, especially in Germany, did research and weapons design in the 1930s.
In 1943, the first Panzerfaust was created, and the shaped-charge breakthroughs were key to its design. It was a recoilless rifle that could launch a shaped charge anywhere from 30 to 200 yards, depending on the model. When the munition hit a tank, a shaped charge at the front of the warhead detonated and sent a jet of hot metal into the tank’s cabin, usually killing the crew and potentially setting off fuel or ammo stores in the vehicle.
A soldier with a Panzerfaust from the Panzer Division Hermann Göring smiling to the camera, Russia, 1944.
(Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0)
Early Panzerfaust could penetrate 5.5 inches of steel, and Germany later upgraded it to penetrate almost 8 inches of armor. Meanwhile, a T-34 turret had 3.5 inches of armor, and the M4 Sherman had up to 3 inches. This overkill could terrorize Allied tank crews who knew that, if it was hit with a Panzerfaust, it was likely all over.
Luckily for them, the Panzerfaust did have one big shortcoming: It was an infantry weapon with a range between a few dozen yards and 200 yards, and the 200-yard variants weren’t deployed during the war. So, tank crews could slaughter Panzerfaust crews from hundreds of yards outside of the anti-tank team’s range.
But only if they could spot the anti-tank teams from out of the weapon’s range. Panzerfaust teams would hide in brush or trenches and wait for tanks to roll up, or they would sneak through buildings and hit the tanks from close range.
A soldier inspects his Panzerfaust.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Either way, the weapon was the most effective Germany had against tanks at close range, taking out about half of the Allied tanks killed at short range. And the weapon was nearly on par with dedicated anti-tank guns, requiring just a little over twice as many shots per tank killed despite having much lower logistics and training requirements.
As you may or may not know, the U.S. state of Kansas isn’t exactly a coastal state. The body of water it does have access to is the Mississippi River System and its tributaries, namely the Missouri River. It turns out the mighty river system that once provided a vital artery for American commerce is still hiding a few hidden surprises, namely steamboat shipwrecks in farm fields, far from where any ships should reasonably belong.
Anyone reading at this point is likely wondering how on Earth shipwrecked steamboats are under farmers’ fields instead of at the bottom of the Missouri River. Just outside of Kansas City lies the wreck of the steamboat Great White Arabia, a ship that sunk in the Missouri in 1856. Rumors circulated for decades that just such a ship was somewhere under Kansas City, but this was written off as local legend. The locals believed it was filled with barrels of Kentucky bourbon. The truth is the ship was still there, but instead of bourbon, it was filled with champagne.
The champagne, along with all its other cargo, furniture, and provisions, were perfectly preserved by the dirt and silt beneath which it was buried. In 1987, a team of locals from Kansas City decided to see if the rumors were true and began to research where it might be – and how it got there.
It turns out that Steamboat travel along the Mississippi River and the rivers that make up the Mighty Mississipi was incredibly dangerous. Hundreds of steamboats were sunk in its powerful waters and along with their hulls, so went the lives of passengers, crews, and whatever else the boats were carrying. The Great White Arabia was carrying 220 tons of cargo and 130 passengers when it went down. The boat was hit by an errant log in the river, the most common reason for boats sinking at the time, and went down in minutes. The passengers survived. This time.
The crew who worked on unearthing the Great White Arabia has discovered another wreck, the Malta. The reason both ships ended up at the bottom of cornfields instead of the rivers is due to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It turns out the Missouri River hasn’t always been in the same place. The Army actually altered the shape of the river at the end of the 1800s. It made the river narrower, thus speeding up the river’s current and making travel times much shorter. When it moved the river, ships that were once sunk suddenly found themselves buried.
For more information about Kansas’ farm shipwrecks, check out the Arabia Steamboat Museum, which houses the ship’s perfectly preserved cargo.
The wizards who brought you the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank have been serving the U.S. military’s needs for more than a century. In that time, General Dynamics, the multi-billion dollar defense contractor responsible for many amazing technological advances, has made history many times over, from developing the Navy’s first submarines to the Air Force’s first ICBM.
They may have even develop the flying saucer UFO.
In the late 1950s, the Air Force was looking to replace the B-52 Bomber with a nuclear-capable hypersonic upgrade. For this mission, the air service wanted the experimental XB-70 Valkyrie. The Valkyrie could fly at speeds of Mach 3 while dropping nuclear bombs on the unsuspecting or unprepared Soviet Union.
But how can the Air Force protect its bombers while they’re flying at three times the speed of sound in an unfriendly territory? The answer was to give it a defensive missile system, code named Pye Wacket, after a local Massachusetts urban legend involving a witch’s familiar who protected her master.
(U.S. Air Force)
The Valkyrie didn’t actually need defensive missiles. The Soviets didn’t have anything that could actually threaten the XB-70, but the airframe was considered a long-term solution and the Air Force wanted to ensure it had defenses should the need materialize. The missiles wouldn’t just need to hit interceptor aircraft, it would need to be capable of hitting SAM batteries and surface-to-air missiles themselves.
It also needed to be able to fly at seven times the speed of sound. So, General Dynamics engineers developed a wedge missile, in the shape of a lens – a kind of flying saucer – that could be fired from the aircraft in any direction and was capable of deft maneuvering.
Pye Wacket at the Arnold Engineering Development Center, in Tennessee.
The Air Force tested the new weapon between 1957 and 1961. The weapon was based on a saucer propulsion design from NASA’s Alan Kahlet, who wanted to use it for manned spacecraft. For the missile, designers wanted to include a small nuclear warhead, one that would neutralize the target but also be able to prevent an enemy nuclear warhead from exploding, a process called “dudding.”
Unfortunately for the future of the Pye Wacket missile, the Air Force ultimately decided that the best way to hit the Soviets with a barrage of nuclear devices was a series of rockets that used extremely unstable fuel and could be fired by any fool who knew the key combination was “000000000.”
Landing on a carrier is perhaps one of the toughest feats in all of aviation. In fact, studies have shown that pilots are more anxious about a night-time carrier landing than they are about combat. Today, there are a number of systems in place to help a pilot get down safely, but during World War II, it was a lot harder.
Just like today, there was a landing signals officer (LSO) responsible for the safe recovery of carrier aircraft, but they didn’t have the modern tools available now. No, this guy had to use paddles and hand gestures to get a planes, like the F6F Hellcat or SBD Dauntless, back on the boat safely. The carriers back then didn’t have angled decks, either. Nope, they were as flat-topped as Essex-class amphibious assault ships.
The 13 signals used by LSOs in World War II.
The gestures outlined above were how the LSO communicated with the pilot. They didn’t have modern radios like the ones we enjoy on Super Hornets today. In fact, the radios back then were primitive. The rear gunners on the SBD Dauntless, for example, often doubled as radiomen, but the radios were only able to send Morse code. Sending code isn’t very conducive to getting urgent messages to pilots quickly and clearly.
Instead, the LSO stood in a very exposed position and used a pair of paddles to send the pilot signals and guide them into a safe landing. During World War II, the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps trained tens of thousands of pilots to make those carrier landings guided only by hand signals.
The lack of technology in World War II forced LSOs, like Lt. Tripp in this photo, to use the paddles to guide pilots back to safety.
The training film below was made in 1949, the year before the Korean War broke out and when most planes operating off of carriers were propeller-driven. Like other Navy efforts to avoid accidents, the video used humor to get the points across.
Fair warning: This film probably would not win any awards for cultural sensitivity these days. We’ve come a long way in the last 70 years.
“Fore!” is what a golfer typically yells to warn other golfers in the area of an incoming slice. In the midst of World War II there were no drives, chips, or putts at the Congressional Country Club located in Bethesda, Maryland, about 12 miles from Washington. Instead, the 400-acre golf course was leased by the US government for the training of commandos, saboteurs, and spies from the then-secret Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA.
The driving range was transformed into a firing range. The sandy bunkers were used for grenade practice. The water hazards or nearby creeks tested the trainees’ aptitude for imaginative innovation. They would be tasked with building a stone bridge to safely cross, then instructed on the best ways to destroy it with plastic explosives. The greens were ideal targets for mortar practice, the fairways on the 17th and 18th holes simulated minefields, and the wooded areas between holes had commandos sneaking through them on nighttime exercises. On more than one occasion, the milkman was a target for a snatch-and-grab raid.
“It was malice in wonderland,” recalled OSS veteran Alex MacDonald. “It was the 10 Commandments in reverse: lie and steal, kill, maim, spy.”
The soldiers and civilians recruited into the OSS trained in groups of 200 to 400 between 1943 and 1945, and more than 2,500 OSS recruits would go through the program at the Congressional Country Club. The officers lived in the clubhouse, the ballroom became a classroom, and the dining room served as the mess hall. They were taught tactics, espionage, demolitions, sabotage, parachuting, and weapons handling. Some of the residents came to the Congressional only to complete a three-day crash course before being posted on an overseas assignment. This was the case for Betty McIntosh, who later ran black propaganda operations in China during the war.
“It was serious work, but I had fun,” McIntosh remembered. “We fired guns. We burrowed into sand traps for cover. I learned to throw grenades on one of the fairways.”
Following World War II, the Congressional returned to its traditional self, swapping out the rifles and bullets for golf clubs and golf balls. Beginning in 2005, the OSS Society hosted OSS veterans and their families at their old training ground. While they reminisced and shared stories about their wartime service, OSS Society president Charles Pinck was quick to remind them not to blow anything up.
“Back then, it would have been hard just finding the greens,” said Al Johnson, an OSS veteran who served in North Africa, France, and China. “And we left some divots that no golfer could have gotten out of in less than three shots.”
Kate Warne, who died in 1868, left behind a thrilling legacy that remains shrouded in mystery. A master of assumed identities, no official photograph of the trailblazing figure exists—fitting for a person whose profession required hiding in plain sight.
Little is known of Warne’s early years. She was born in the year of 1833 in Erin, New York. By 1856, at the age of 23, Warne’s husband passed away, leaving her a widow. Finding herself at loose ends–likely with no way to support herself–she decided on a rather unorthodox course of action. She walked into Allan Pinkerton’s office and asked for a job as a detective.
Although Pinkerton had many women working for him as clerks and secretaries, he had never hired a female detective, claiming it was not the “custom” to do so. Despite his initial skepticism, Pinkerton was soon charmed by Warne’s manner. She offered up the many potential merits of a female detective, from her ability to manipulate targets into believing that she was on their side in a way men could not.
Won over, Pinkerton hired her. American law enforcement, such as it was in the 1860s, didn’t have uniformed female officers or detectives. It would be many years before women were allowed into front-line policing. Pinkerton, however, decided to take on Warne’s services.
Two years after she was hired, Warne scored her first major case. She was sent to investigate reports of embezzlement within an important client’s staff. Adams Express Company (still operating today as an equity fund company) was a freight carrier, running throughout the north and south in the mid-1800s. The Pinkerton Agency had first worked with the company to solve a robbery in 1866. Now, they called upon the Pinkertons to find out who in their own ranks was stealing from the company’s bankrolls.
Upon her arrival, Warne befriended Mrs. Maroney, the wife of an expressman believed to be the culprit. Soon, Mrs. Maroney trusted her new friend Kate and confided in her–so much so that Warne was not only able to prove Nathan Maroney’s guilt, but also track down almost ,000 of ,000 that had been stolen.
By 1860, it became obvious to Pinkerton that not only was Kate Warne immeasurably valuable to him, but that more female operatives, as he preferred to term his detectives, would be as well. He opened a Female Detective Bureau–and put Warne in charge.
Of course, by this time, talk of slavery, abolition, and secession had begun to dominate the country. The election of Abraham Lincoln in November did little to defuse tensions. Pinkerton, who had long been an abolitionist, dispatched Warne and four other agents to investigate secessionist threats and activities against the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. Comparing their field reports, Pinkerton believed his agents were close to finding something far bigger than simple agitation. President-elect Lincoln was to be assassinated in Baltimore en route to his inauguration.
Warne, using various aliases including Mrs. Cherry and Mrs. Barley, posed as a secessionist sympathizer and wealthy southerner. To her marks, she seemed a typical “rich Southern lady with a thick Southern accent”.
Warne first confirmed the Baltimore plot existed. She also uncovered its details. Lincoln was to be ambushed at Baltimore’s Calvert Street railroad station. While a mock brawl distracted police officers and railroad guards, Lincoln would be left at the mercy of a conveniently placed secessionist mob.
Pinkerton now had to arrange Lincoln’s safe passage to Washington, which would not be as easy it sounded. Lincoln had three engagements in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that he refused to cancel. Being the tall and distinct man that he was, Lincoln stood out in a crowd. So they hatched a plan: Once finished with his Harrisburg engagements, Pinkerton, Warne, and Ward Hill Lamon (the President-elect’s self-appointed bodyguard) disguised Lincoln as an invalid. Warne played the role of the invalid’s sister. To conceal changes in Lincoln’s itinerary, Pinkerton arranged a temporary telegraph fault, forestalling any warning to the conspirators.
From Harrisburg a special train took them to Philadelphia. Another special train took them to the very heart of the plot, Baltimore. And from Maryland, to the fury of the plotters, Lincoln safely reached Washington. The Baltimore plot had come to nothing.
Warne foiled an assassination attempt on President-elect Lincoln en route to his inauguration.
Warne was central to uncovering and defeating the conspiracy, with her travel arrangements seeing Lincoln safely to his destination. It was said that she never rested during the entire journey, constantly watching over Lincoln and supposedly inspiring the Pinkerton Agency’s now-legendary motto: “We Never Sleep.”
Warne’s work didn’t end with the start of the Civil War in 1861, although its tenor shifted. Alongside George Bangs and English-born spy Timothy Webster, she was sent to establish a forward intelligence base in Cincinnati. Using a dozen or more aliases, she worked as a spy and also continued her work as Pinkerton’s Superintendent of Female Detectives when she wasn’t down south doing her southern belle act. She was lucky, but Webster wasn’t. Unmasked as a Union agent Webster was hanged in Richmond on April 29, 1862.
After the surrender at Appomattox in 1865, Warne continued as one of Pinkerton’s most senior employees. She solved the murder of bank teller George Gordon, killed by colleague Alexander Drysdale for 0,000. She took on the case of Captain Sumner and Mrs. Pattmore, both of whom were convinced their spouses were trying to murder them. While investigating the Sumner case she still spent time out of the field coordinating Pinkerton’s bureau of female agents.
Before hiring them on, Pinkerton would tell female applicants, “In my service, you will serve your country better than on the field. I have several female operatives. If you agree to come aboard you will go in training with the head of my female detectives Kate Warne. She has never let me down.”
Given a new title, Supervisor of Female Agents, Warne was set for a long, high-flying career with Pinkerton. Already America’s first female detective, she’d also saved a President-elect from assassination. She had become a senior private detective years before women were allowed to join a police force in uniform, never mind as detectives. She was a trailblazer and, sadly, a shooting star that burned out all too quickly.
In January of 1868, Kate Warne contracted a lung infection, possibly pneumonia. Unable to combat its spread, and with antibiotics not yet available, she died on January 28. She was just 34 or 35 years old. Today, she rests in the famed Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, although her last name remains misspelled as “Warn.” Despite this indignity, Warne was a deeply memorable woman whom Pinkerton named as one of his best five detectives of all time.
For World War I pilots, the most terrifying song that relates to their experience may not be Seven Nation Army but 99 Luftballoons, because going against barrage and observation balloons in the Great War was terrifying.
Barrage balloons over London in World War II.
Pilots with the balls and skill to attack these balloons were known as balloon busters, and ones that had shot down more than five of the balloons were known as balloon aces. And yes, shooting down a balloon counted as a “kill,” same as shooting down a piloted enemy plane.
But what made them so hard to shoot down? After all, they were just a bunch of floating bags of air. Pop ’em with a needle and get on with your day, right?
First, military balloons weren’t made of cheap Mylar or latex. Many in World War I were made of tightly woven fabric, though vulcanized rubber and Thiokol rubber were prominent in World War II. All of these materials could take plenty of hits without splitting, meaning bullets that passed through them caused them to leak instead of to pop.
A row of spherical barrage balloons used for suspending aerial nets
(Australian War Memorial)
So they couldn’t simply be popped, and it often took a lot of rounds to bring one down. But if a fighter did manage to slay the beast, he wasn’t out of danger yet. While American balloons in World War II were sometimes filled with helium, none of the early Great War combatants had access to that gas, and hydrogen was the preferred gas for barrage balloons anyway.
Why? Well, for the same reason it was bad for the Hindenburg. Observation balloons had people in them, people who would’ve loved helium instead of hydrogen over their heads. But barrage balloons were empty, and filling them with hydrogen meant that, when destroyed, the balloons had a tendency to go out in massive fireballs. This was a huge threat to the fighters attacking it.
It also meant that fighters had one advantage though: Incendiary rounds were very effective against the balloons. But in World War I, pretty much only the British had incendiary rounds in planes. Everyone else was slinging cold metal. And incendiary rounds didn’t stay hot forever, generally traveling only 300 to 400 yards while still burning. You did not want to be 300 yards from an exploding balloon and still flying towards it as you would have to be to effectively shoot at it.
Barrage balloons and their crews in World War II.
(Royal Air Force)
Fine, fine, fine. The balloons were hard to shoot down and, when shot down, might explode in a big fireball and kill the attacking fighter. Fine. Just fly around them, right? Let the Germans have their balloons over their lines, maybe bring in some air defense artillery to shoot at it. But let the fighters avoid them.
Nope. For two reasons. First, those observation balloons were an enduring threat from the moment they went up until the moment they went down. Artillery observers sat in them and reported troops positions and movements to their friendly artillery for hours, allowing German crews to hit English, French, and U.S. positions all day. They had to be killed.
American pilot Frank Luke poses with his 13th confirmed kill.
So observation balloons and barrage balloons were lethal, terrifying, and absolutely had to be destroyed, and some of America, England, and France’s top aces proved their mettle by flying at the things, especially in World War I. In fact, some of the top decorated fighter pilots of World War I had few wins against human-piloted planes, but a dozen or more against balloons.
Will Coppens, a Belgian pilot, personally awarded a medal by King Albert I had only shot down two enemy planes in his career, but he had taken down an astounding 35 enemy balloons. The next highest scoring pilot after him was Frenchman Leon Bourjade with 27. So, yeah, Coppens earned that medal from his king.
America’s top balloon buster was Frank Luke, a mouthy pilot who was looked down upon by his peers when he arrived in France. He claimed his first fighter kill in August 1918, but no one else had witnessed the feat, and he was written off as a blowhard. So, after hearing how hard balloons were to take down, he attacked one on September 12 and, after three passes, destroyed it right before it reached the safety of the ground where the observers could clamber out.
German observation balloons allowed for intelligence gathering and highly accurate artillery fire, and barrage balloons created persistent threats to enemy fighters.
(State Library of New South Wales)
Luke bagged another two balloons two days later. His wingman that day, 1st Lt. Joseph Wehner, formed a team with him that specialized in balloon busting and turned the whole thing into a traveling show, sending invitations to VIPs to witness German balloons blowing up at set times and places. But it was too bold to last, and Wehner was shot down on September 18 while taking down his fifth balloon, giving him balloon ace status in death.
Distraught, Luke went off the deep end, taking more and more risks in flight to the point that his superiors grounded the already famous pilot who, by that point, had 11 victories against balloons and four against fighters, making him America’s ace of aces. On September 29, he stole a plane and dropped a note to the ground that told observers to watch German balloons over the Meuse.
Luke flew into the teeth of the enemy, dodging ground fire and eight enemy fighters as he took down one balloon after the others, destroying all three in the area before he was shot down. He survived the wreck and pulled his pistol, fending off a German patrol and killing multiple members of it until a German round drilled him in the chest.
He was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses and the Medal of Honor for his heroics in September 1918, going to his grave as America’s best-ever balloon buster with 14 kills against balloons and four against fighters.
The Civil Irregular Defense Group compound at Loc Ninh. The airstrip is to the right of the photo.
The small town and airbase were important for two reasons. First, the airbase was a logistical hub for military and espionage operations conducted by the U.S.; something communist forces were keen to excise. But the town was also the district capital. With a new president awaiting inauguration in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese wanted to embarrass him before he took office.
And North Vietnam was looking for a tasty target. A new commander and staff needed to try out the 9th Division in the field and build up its combat proficiency ahead of larger, corps-level offensives. So, in late 1967, North Vietnamese Senior Col. Hoang Cam, gave orders to get his regiments in position and supplied for an attack on the base at Loc Ninh.
One of his key units ran into an immediate problem, though. U.S. forces were working to secure a hey highway and clear out communist forces that could threaten it, and they swept through an area where Cam’s top regiment was hiding. That regiment was able to set an ambush just in time and killed 56 Americans, but they also suffered heavy losses and fled to Cambodia.
So Cam was down a regiment before the battle started. Still, his men were facing 11 Special Forces soldiers, 400 Civilian Irregular Defense Group soldiers, and about 200 South Vietnamese regulars. The largest weapons on the base were a few mortars and machine guns.
But the North Vietnamese forces failed to hide their buildup. South Vietnamese and U.S. forces intercepted radio traffic, discovered a field hospital under construction, and discovered elements of a specific unit typically employed in major offensives, the 84A Artillery Regiment.
U.S. Gen. William Westmoreland was too savvy to overlook all this evidence of a coming attack. He suspended some operations and ordered his subordinate to plan for a major defensive operation in that part of Vietnam, especially the district capitals at Loc Ninh and Song Be.
U.S. Special Forces soldiers and South Vietnamese troops in September 1968.
On Oct. 27, 1967, just five days after Westmoreland issued his warning to subordinates, Cam launched the North Vietnamese attack on Song Be. His division attacked a South Korean division but was rebuffed, partially thanks to American artillery and air power. Before South Vietnamese Rangers and American infantry joined the fight the next day, Cam pulled his men back.
As the Rangers looked for the enemy near Song Be, Cam launched a new attack. This time, he struck at Loc Ninh and fully committed to the fight.
Rockets and mortars flew into the base with no warning. The town itself caught on fire, and the South Vietnamese soldiers, with their Special Forces allies, rushed to send their own mortar rounds out.
Before reinforcements could arrive, North Vietnamese sappers blew through a wire obstacle and forced the defenders into the southern part of the compound. With the American and South Vietnamese defense collapsing, the Army rushed in UH-1Bs with machine guns mounted, and the Air Force sent in an AC-47 Spooky gunship that rained metal into the jungle.
The helicopters were able to put some fire on the attackers within the compound, but the AC-47 couldn’t strike there without threatening the defenders. Eventually, that became beside the point, though, as the South Vietnamese called artillery strikes onto the compound. He specifically called for proximity fuses, detonating the rounds a little above the surface to maximize shrapnel damage.
That’s the call you make to shred humans behind light cover. Many of the defenders were in bunkers that would hold back the shrapnel, but the Viet Cong in the open were shredded. The Viet Cong in the jungle finally withdrew under aerial bombing, but attackers remained in the conquered bunkers of the northern part of the compound.
The South Vietnamese were forced to clear these bunkers one-by-one with LAWs, light anti-tank weapons.
The allies found 135 North Vietnamese bodies. They had suffered eight dead and 33 wounded.
But the U.S. knew it had nearly lost the district that night, and it wasn’t willing to go round two with the same setup. So it not only watched the South Vietnamese clear those bunkers, it flew in two artillery batteries and another infantry battalion. Those infantrymen dug into the jungle and established light bunkers.
The U.S. and South Vietnamese alliance struck hard, rooting out platoons in the rubber plantations. In one case, an impatient South Vietnamese soldier grabbed a U.S. officer’s pistol from him and used it to attack a North Vietnamese machine gunner. When he couldn’t chamber a round in the pistol, he used it to pistol-whip the machine gunner instead.
This back and forth continued for days. On Oct. 30, the North Vietnamese sent additional forces to threaten other cities and positions, potentially trying to draw away some of the American defenders. But the allies knew the fight for Loc Ninh wasn’t over and sent other forces to protect Song Be and other locations.
Just after midnight on Oct. 31, another rain of mortars and rockets flew into Loc Ninh. But this time, the fire was more accurate, and North Vietnamese forces used anti-aircraft fire the moment the helicopters and AC-47 showed up. But proximity fuses were again used to slaughter North Vietnamese attackers.
At least 110 North Vietnamese were killed while the allies lost nine killed and 59 wounded.
The next night, artillery and machine gun fire rained onto the air base, but then the main thrust came at the new infantry base in the jungle. Observers posted in the jungle detonated claymores to blunt the attack but then had to melt away as the attackers continued their assault. The U.S. infantry pushed the attack back in just 30 minutes of concentrated machine gun fire and claymore use.
One U.S. soldier had been killed and eight wounded. Over 260 bodies were found, and there were signs that even more had been lost.
Additional forces were flown in, and the U.S. commanders were finally able to go on the attack. The attacks did not go perfectly, however. On Nov. 7, a U.S. battalion moving down a dirt road moved into the jungle and came under a furious assault. An RPG took out most of the U.S. battalion command team, including the commander.
One soldier in that fight was Spc. Robert Stryker who stopped one attack with a well-aimed M79 grenade launcher shot, but then died after diving on a grenade to save others. He’s one of the two Medal of Honor recipients for whom the Stryker vehicle is named.
But the 9th Division finally withdrew, ending the Battle of Loc Ninh. The U.S. had lost 50 dead and hundreds wounded, but the North Vietnamese lost somewhere over 850 dead and failed in its objectives to take either Loc Ninh or Song Be. But the Tet Offensive was on the horizon.
(Most of the information for this article came from an official Army history from the Center of Military History, Combat Operations: Staying the Course, October 1967 to September 1968 by Erik B. Villard. It is available here.)