There was a time when duels 'downsized' the officer ranks - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

In 1814 the War of 1812 was rising in intensity and the young American nation found itself struggling to mount a serious defense against the British juggernaut. Compounding America’s problems of short-manning and a limited supply of weapons was the fact that officers kept killing each other in duels over matters of honor, Donald R. Hickey said in his book, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.


 

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Duelists fighting to the death over perceived insults. Painting: Public Domain

 

“One in twelve American navy officers who died on active duty before 1815 were killed in duels, eighteen in all,” Stephen Budiansky wrote in Perilous Fight; “easily twice that number had fought a duel, and every officer lived with the knowledge that his reputation for courage was always liable to be tested on the field of honor.

A Smithsonian.com article noted an even grimmer statistic saying, “Between 1798 and the Civil War, the Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did to more than 60 years of combat at sea.”

One spot of ground near Washington, D.C. was popular for both duelists and journalists. At least 26 duels, many of them between military officers, were fought there. In one duel in 1820, Commodore Stephen Decatur, a decorated naval officer, was killed by Commodore James Barron over a years-old disagreement.

The disagreement stemmed from the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair and was the root cause of 8 other duels as well. Officers fought each other to the death to determine who should be blamed for the USS Chesapeake‘s surrender to the HMS Leopard in a skirmish in 1807.

Gen. Andrew Jackson was nearly killed in a duel in 1806 when he dueled attorney Charles Dickinson and was shot within inches of his heart. Jackson plugged the wound with a handkerchief before killing Dickinson.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Andrew Jackson wins the Battle of New Orleans two weeks after the War of 1812 ended. Not photographed: The hole in his chest from the nearly fatal dueling wound he shrugged off. Painting: Public Domain.

It got so bad that in 1814 the War Department threatened to discharge duelists in a failed attempt to bring the practice to an end.

This would have been a direct reversal of common military culture at the time. In 1813, a regimental commander refused a duel from one of the doctors in his unit. The doctor was later convicted of insubordination but immediately pardoned.

Other officers from the same camp had convinced the commanding general that it was a greater injustice that a duel had been refused than that a doctor had posted insubordinate notices. When the war was over, the Army kept the insubordinate doctor but released the colonel from service.

Abraham Lincoln, before he was president, nearly cut down Army officer James Shields. Lincoln had ridiculed Shields in the press and Shields demanded the chance to defend his honor. Lincoln chose broadswords as the weapon and, on the dueling ground, used his much larger arms to cut down a branch that was over Shields’ head.

With the encouragement of the crowd, the men called off the duel. During the Civil War, then-Brig. Gen. Shields defeated Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Kernstown, an important victory for the Union.

Although generally frowned upon, duels still happened until after the Civil War.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This flight nurse was the first woman to receive the Air Medal

Women have played a part in war and the military ever since the birth of our nation, whether it be disguising themselves as men to secretly join the Army during the Civil War, tending to the wounded on the battlefield as nurses in WWII, or, more recently, taking up arms alongside their brothers in combat positions.

Elsie Ott, for example, made a name for herself in the world of flight nursing. Ott was born in 1913 in Smithtown, New York, and attended nursing school at Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing in New York City right after high school.

It was 1941 when Ott joined the Army Nurse Corps, and she became a true trailblazer for women in the military. She was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. and stationed in Louisiana and Virginia before flying on a mission that would make history.


Take Elsie Ott, for example, who was one such woman that made a name for herself in the world of flight nursing. Ott was born in 1913 in Smithtown, New York, and attended nursing school at Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing in New York City right after high school.

It was 1941 when Ott joined the Army Nurse Corps, and she became a true trailblazer for women in the military. She was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. and stationed in Louisiana and Virginia before flying on a mission that would make history.

During WWII air evacuation of casualties was in its infancy and procedures, as well as training of flight nurses, was not perfected. Before aeromedical evacuation, the injured would have to wait weeks and often months, to be sent back home to the U.S.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

The Army Air Corps started to spin up a program for flight nurses in 1941 in order to aeromedically evacuate patients from the field.

Ott had never even been on an airplane, nor had training on the aircraft when she was assigned to fly a week-long mission. On Jan. 17, 1943 the flight originated in Karachi, India, and was to fly to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Five patients were assigned to the flight and Ott was only given a simple first aid kit to care for all of them.

It was a week later when Ott reached Walter Reed with the patients, all of them alive and well. She made sure to take detailed notes throughout her journey to improve the procedures and training for future flight nurses. Some of the suggestions she noted included, oxygen bottles, blankets, more medical supplies, and a change of uniform from skirts to pants.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

Above, Army nurses tend to patients on aircraft.

Ott’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed and were used to improve aeromedical evacuation processes, to this day. Two months after her groundbreaking first flight she was awarded the U.S. Air Medal. She was the first woman in U.S. Army history to obtain such and honor.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

Brigadier General Fred Borum presents the Air Medal to 2nd Lieutenant Elsie Ott

(Photo by the U.S. Air Force).

Due to Elsie Ott’s unwavering persistence while caring for her patients and individual contributions, flight nurses today can give their patients the highest level of care in the air while returning them safely home.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Asian-Americans have served in the Coast Guard for 165 years

Asian-American men and women have participated in the U.S. Coast Guard for over 165 years, playing an important role in the history of the service and its predecessor services.

Cultural contact with Asian peoples came only as the nation’s borders expanded to the Pacific Rim. The first documented case of an Asian man serving aboard a Coast Guard asset took place in 1853, when the San Francisco-based cutter Argus rescued the lone survivor of the dismasted junk Yatha Maru, fed and clothed him, and enlisted him into the crew. The cutter’s commanding officer, Lt. William Pease, phonetically spelled this first Asian recruit’s name as “Dee-Yee-Noskee.”


Cutter muster roles tell the rest of the story of Asian participation in the 19th century. Ethnically Asian names begin to appear on cutter muster rolls just after the Civil War. Expanded revenue cutter operations in the Pacific and the purchase of Alaska in 1867 presented an opportunity for more Chinese, Japanese and Filipino men to enter the rolls on West Coast cutters. As with other minorities, these men initially filled positions in food service or non-ranking enlisted rates. By the end of the century, virtually every Pacific-based cutter employed Asian crew members.

Two notable Asian service members defied the West Coast pattern and enlisted on the East Coast. Chiaio-shung Soong emigrated from China to Boston as a teenager to work in his uncle’s teashop. Dissatisfied with this work, Soong enlisted aboard the cutter Schuyler Colfax in 1879 and transferred to the North Carolina-based cutter Gallatin a year later. After his brief career in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, Soong attended Duke and Vanderbilt universities before returning to China as a missionary. He became a wealthy and influential power broker in Chinese politics and his children were among early 20th century China’s most powerful military, political and economic leaders. In addition, April 1904 saw 37-year-old F. Miguchi, of Kobe, Japan, enlist as a cook aboard the cutter Gresham. Before he left the service in December 1905, he had advanced in rate from ship’s cook to wardroom steward; saved the life of a drowning cutterman; and received the first Silver Lifesaving Medal awarded to a minority Coast Guardsman. Little else is known about Miguchi and even his first name remains a mystery to this day.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Photo of Chiaio-shung Soong during his years in the United States. This image was taken at his church in Wilmington, N.C.
(Courtesy of the 5th Avenue Methodist Church, Wilmington)

Wars in the Pacific had a major influence on Asian-American service in the Coast Guard. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Asian recruits continued to serve mainly on cutters based out of the West Coast. However, the 1898 Spanish-American War altered the service’s recruiting and the early 1900s saw countless Asian enlistments from captured territory, primarily the Philippines. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Japanese-Americans were excluded from participating in the Coast Guard bringing to a temporary close an 85-year record of ethnically Japanese service members. That policy was later rescinded and Japanese-Americans returned to the service.

During World War II, Filipinos comprised the largest Asian group to serve in the Coast Guard. Most of these men were American citizens, but many native Filipino military men transferred to the Coast Guard after the Japanese captured their homeland in 1942. The exiled president of the Philippines even transferred the patrol boat Bataan and its crew to the Coast Guard for the duration of the war. Native Filipino Florence Finch worked for Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence office before the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. After the fall of the island nation, she smuggled supplies to American prisoners-of-war and Filipino guerrillas. The Japanese arrested Finch, but American forces freed her in early 1945 and she boarded a Coast Guard-manned transport bound for the U.S. She next enlisted in the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, or SPARs, becoming the first Asian-American woman to don a Coast Guard uniform.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Florence Smith Finch supplied food and medicine to American prisoners of war in the Philippines then became a Coast Guard SPAR late in World War II.
(Coast Guard Collection)

Asian-Americans were also the first minority graduates of the Coast Guard Academy. In 1949, Chinese-American Jack Ngum Jones became the first minority officer to graduate from the Academy. Native Chinese Kwang-Ping Hsu graduated from the Academy in 1962. He was the first foreign-born Academy graduate and one of the Coast Guard’s first minority Coast Guard aviators, flying missions primarily in the Arctic and Antarctic. Harry Toshiyuki Suzuki graduated in 1963. In 1979, Filipino Wilfredo Tamayo completed the Academy’s International Cadet Program. He was one of the first graduates of the program and he later became the 22nd commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard. The year 1980 saw Japanese-American Moynee Smith become the first minority female graduate of the Academy and, in 1982, Jeanien Yee became the second Asian-American graduate. In 1986, Hung Nguyen became the first Vietnamese-American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Kwang-Ping Hsu, born in mainland China was one of the service’s first minority aviators and became known for polar aviation missions.
(Coast Guard Collection)

Recent decades have seen Asian-American service members enter senior officer and enlisted levels in all branches of the service. For example, 1958 saw Manuel Tubella transfer from the Marine Corps to become the service’s second minority aviator and advanced to the rank of captain. In 2013, Rear Adm. Joseph Vojvodich became the Coast Guard’s first Asian-American flag officer and, in 2016, Rear Adm. Andrew Tiongson became the service’s second Asian-American flag officer.

For over 165 years, thousands of ethnically Asian men and women have served with distinction in the U.S. Coast Guard. They have been diligent members of the long blue line and they will play an important role in shaping the service in the 21st century.

This article originally appeared on the United States Coast Guard. Follow @uscg on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Vietnam vet worked to bring home missing troops for 40 years

Johnie Webb’s corner office is full of memories from a grim but fulfilling mission.

As the Army veteran leans over his desk — strewn with gifts given to him over the course of a 40-year career — he grabs a wooden box and pulls out a modest bracelet. Engraved on stainless steel reads the name of a staff sergeant killed in the Vietnam War.


When he begins to share the story of how he received it, his light blue eyes well up with tears.

“I keep it on my desk, because this is what we’re all about,” said Webb, deputy of outreach and communications for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Since 1975, Webb has traveled dozens of times to former combat zones as a Soldier and later as a civilian for the joint agency or one of its predecessors. The agency is responsible for locating the remains of the more than 82,000 Americans who are still missing from past conflicts.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
upper right, deputy of outreach and communications for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, sits with team members during a recovery mission in Papua New Guinea in 1978.

While much of his time had been in search of those fallen service members, Webb, 72, is now an advocate for their families who continue to wait for updates.

“I’m not going to say closure, because I’m not sure if there ever is closure when you lose a loved one. But at least [we can] provide them answers and give that loved one back,” he said. “That’s extremely important and I’m honored to play a small part.”

Vietnam veteran

Early in his Army career, Webb, a retired lieutenant colonel, led convoys as a logistics officer all over Vietnam to ensure bases had fuel for operations during the war.

Under the constant threat of roadside bombs and ambushes, he briefed his Soldiers to move their vehicle out of the road if it were ever hit so other vehicles could escape.

“If you block the road, then we’re all done,” he recalled saying.

During one of those missions, a Soldier did just that after a rocket-propelled grenade struck the cab of his 5-ton vehicle and left him with severe burns.

His sacrifice was something Webb never forgot.

“Unfortunately, he didn’t survive,” he said. “But he probably saved the rest of us by doing what we were trained to do and that was to get his truck off the road.”

A few years after his tour, the Army assigned Webb to the Central Identification Laboratory-Thailand, which was later moved to Hawaii and consolidated into DPAA.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Johnie Webb holds a stainless steel bracelet given to him by the father of a Soldier whose remains were found by the agency.

The role of the new unit was to find the remains of Americans from the Vietnam War.

At first, he was confused, he said, since he knew nothing about the organization or its mission. In the Army’s eyes, though, he was qualified for the job because as a young lieutenant he once took a course on graves registration.

It would eventually come full circle for Webb in 1985, when he was chosen to lead the first recovery team into Vietnam only a decade after the end of the war.

“It became very personal for me,” he said, regarding the sacrifices made by fallen comrades. “We couldn’t let them be forgotten.”

Being back in Vietnam was initially “unnerving,” he said. After all, he had once fought an enemy there and it was uncertain how his team would be treated.

The mission was to search for human remains from a B-52 bomber crash site near Hanoi. But the team’s visit to Vietnam was also an opportunity to rebuild the diplomatic relationship between the former warring nations.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Johnie Webb points to a photo of him published in a book on U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations after the war inside his office at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 13, 2018.


The Vietnamese still distrusted Americans then, he said, and even photographed his team with cameras that were crudely hidden in briefcases.

Now, more than 30 years after that first mission, Vietnamese officials work closely with the DPAA teams that rotate in and out of the country each year. The agency is even permitted to permanently base one of its detachments in Hanoi to support teams as they search for roughly 1,600 Americans missing from that war.

“We were there before we had diplomatic relations. We were there before an embassy was ever established,” Webb said. “A lot of groundbreaking effort went into getting us to where we are today.”

North Korea

While the agency’s mission started with the work to account for those lost in Vietnam, it grew to include sites from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and other conflicts.

Webb was again behind another pioneering effort, but this time in North Korea. He and others took several trips to the country and helped negotiate with the North Koreans so teams could conduct missions at former battle sites from 1996 to 2005.

They even traveled from the capital, Pyongyang, to the Chosin Reservoir, where a decisive battle had taken place in the winter of 1950. As they were driven through the country, Webb recalled seeing how desperate the North Koreans had lived.

“It was very interesting times,” he said, “but it made sure you were really appreciative of being an American.”

As U.S. and North Korean governments currently aim to thaw relations between each other, Webb hopes it will lead the reclusive country to reopen its borders to the agency’s teams.

About 7,700 Americans are still unaccounted for from the Korean War, with the majority believed to be in North Korea.

“If we want to get answers to the families, and we definitely want to get them answers, we’re going to have to get access back into North Korea,” he said.

With the days of digging at excavation sites now behind him, Webb maintains a pivotal role in keeping families, distinguished visitors and veterans service organizations apprised of agency efforts.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Johnie Webb stands next to then-President Bill Clinton during his visit to an excavation site.


“I couldn’t say enough good things about Johnie Webb and the fact that he is literally one of the staunchest contributors to this mission,” said Kelly McKeague, the agency’s director.

McKeague, a former Air Force major general, credits Webb’s “Texas roots” for his compassion and calm demeanor. There is no better person, McKeague said, to speak with families struggling with loss.

“Johnie has a sense about him to be able to communicate with them, to be empathetic to them, and to literally not just be their friend but be their confidant,” he said. “They have so much confidence in him.”

Family advocate

Whether in a foreign country or back at the headquarters in Hawaii, Webb said the younger troops at the agency have always impressed him.

“Most of them weren’t even born when the guy who they are trying to recover was lost,” he said. “Still, they feel that kinship to that military buddy who wore the uniform for them.”

The “grunt work” these troops — many of whom are Soldiers — do at an excavation site can take months to years to find remains, if there are any. Once recovered, it can take even longer to identify them by lab staff.

While the long process sometimes leaves families irritated, the agency wants to ensure human remains are properly excavated and identified.

“Not only is it frustrating to the families, it gets frustrating for us as well because we want to provide those answers,” Webb said. “We want to return that loved one, but we want to do it right.”

When the answers do come, some family members do not want to believe them.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Johnie Webb consoles a grieving family member.


Inside a wooden box on his desk, the engraved bracelet reminds Webb of one such family member.

The father of the staff sergeant whose name is on the bracelet often spoke to Webb about his missing son before he was found. He had hoped his son was still alive and pleaded to Webb to bring him back.

A team then discovered remains from a site of a crashed helicopter, which the staff sergeant was on. Shortly after, Webb advised the father to prepare to receive his son’s remains so he could honor his life.

“It was clear that he was not wanting to hear that,” Webb remembered.

Webb asked other families who knew the grief-stricken father and had also lost loved ones to talk to him so he could come to terms with the news. He finally did.

When his son’s remains were returned to the family, there was a huge outpouring of public support. The funeral had full military honors and even dignitaries showed up to it.

“It was a day of celebration for this young man to come back home,” Webb said. “I was happy that he had honored his son the way he should have been honored.”

A few weeks later, a brown envelope addressed to Johnie Webb came in the mail. In it, there was a “thank you” note along with the bracelet, which the father always wore.

“I’m giving to you the POW bracelet that I have worn since my son was lost,” Webb said, recalling what the father wrote. “I finally took it off when he came back home. I want you to have it as a token of my appreciation.”

This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @usarmy on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This D-Day vet hit the beach strapped to a barrage balloon

As World War II raged overseas, men and women responded to the call of duty in the fight for what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the “four freedoms” – freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear. By the time the United States entered the war, more than 2.5 million African American men had signed up for the draft. In a separate-but-not-equal military at the time, the irony was not lost as the fight for these freedoms continued at home.


“[T]he sky in the distance lit up with searchlights, tracers from ack-acks and the sound of bombs,” Cpl. Waverly B. Woodson, a medic attached to the primarily African American 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, once wrote in testimony to Congress regarding what he witnessed on D-Day.

Also read: One man dumped most of the combat footage of D-Day into the English Channel

War raged in every corner of sky, sea, and land within sight as dawn broke on the morning of June 6, 1944. The 320th was the only African-American amphibious assault unit the U.S. First Army used in Normandy. According to Woodson, they were dispersed among various landing craft for protection of unit members.

“The military personnel on our landing craft looked in awe at the spectacle in the distance and wondered, ‘What next?'” he wrote. Woodson, along with several seamen and soldiers on a Landing Craft Tank, was part of the first wave heading toward Omaha Beach.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Army 1st Infantry Division troops land on Omaha Beach on D-Day. (Photo by U.S. Navy Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent)

The water was choppy and the noise deafening. As the landing craft neared the French coastline, it hit a submerged mine, which took out the motors. Within minutes, it hit another mine and endured several German 88mm artillery shells. The Germans continued to rake the ship with machine gun fire and mortar shells, preventing any nearby ship from coming to the rescue, Woodson said.

One mortar shell landed on the steel deck of the craft and exploded. Before Woodson had a chance to move, shrapnel took out the soldier next to him and more shrapnel lodged into his own thigh. After another medic dressed his injury, Woodson tended to the wounded and dead onboard. Of the 34 service members on board Woodson’s craft, only 11 survived by the time the ship hit the beach.

Related: This battleship went from Pearl Harbor to D-Day to nuclear tests

“D-Day was the most emotional and dangerous day in my life,” Woodson wrote. “As a young soldier far from home … the assault units waited patiently to begin their mission… Everyone knew the first 23 hours would be critical to the course of the war.”

Once Woodson reached the beach, he tended to the wounded and consoled the frightened. He dressed wounds, administered pain medication, and conducted amputations for the next 30 hours. He later saved and resuscitated four drowning soldiers before collapsing from exhaustion and injury. Woodson spent three days recovering in a hospital ship and then asked to be taken back to the beach to continue working.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
The Seabees land at Omaha Beach on D-Day. (US Navy photo)

A note from the assistant director in the Office of War Information to a White House aide states Woodson’s commanding officer had recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross. This was upgraded to the Medal of Honor by the office of Gen. John C.H. Lee in Great Britain. At home, the press called him the “No. 1 Invasion Hero.”

Woodson never received the Distinguished Service Cross or Medal of Honor. After the war, he was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his actions on D-Day.

Nearly one million African American service members served in World War II. In the segregated military, most African American service members were assigned to the Army for service- or combat-support roles. A small percentage held positions in combat arms.

Retired Cpl. William Dabney, now 93, is one of two surviving members of the 320th. In 1942, he was in his second year of high school when he enlisted in the Army – and only after convincing his great-aunt to sign a document granting him permission to serve. He soon found himself training to use hydrogen-filled barrage balloons, which had thin metal cables with bombs attached that would detonate if triggered by low-flying enemy planes.

More: This is the first African American to earn the Medal of Honor

On June 6, Dabney made his way to Omaha Beach with the first wave with a barrage balloon strapped to him.

“I was dodging bullets mostly,” said Dabney with a laugh. His mission was to protect the advancing soldiers. As Dabney approached Omaha Beach, his balloon caught fire from being hit by gunfire.

“It happened just as I hit the beach, so I couldn’t move,” said Dabney. “I wasn’t equipped to do anything else because that was my job. The only thing I could do then was unstrap the cables from myself and take cover under the dead bodies so I wouldn’t get shot.”

By the end of the day, the mission of the 320th had been accomplished successfully. Dabney was awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest military honor, on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. His proudest moment from that day: getting a hug and a kiss from First Lady Michelle Obama, who recognized him before he could introduce himself.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
(Defense Department photo/Linda Hosek)

“Allowing my dad to share his experiences with others helps spread the information about the accomplishments and contributions of black men throughout history – specifically throughout World War II,” said Vinney, Dabney’s eldest son.

Segregation in the Armed Forces remained an official policy until 1948. The heroic actions of many African American service members went unacknowledged – due to their race – entire units, such as the 320th, were left unmentioned in history. While prejudice took a backseat during D-Day, the years ahead would see a different story, said Woodson.

Woodson spent the remainder of his career serving the medical community at then-Walter Reed Army Hospital and then-National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. He spent 38 years working in clinical pathology at the National Institutes of Health before retiring. He passed away in 2005.

More reading: First African-American Marines finally get their own monument

In 1997, after a study commissioned by the U.S. Army investigated racial discrimination in awarding medals, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to seven African American World War II veterans. But to the dismay of family and friends who knew Woodson, he remained missing from the list.

Many of Woodson’s military records were lost in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri. With the help of U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, his family has since started a petition to award him the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day.

“Black History Month recognizes that there are lots of Black heroes largely uncelebrated because their stories aren’t being told,” said Dabney. “I’d like people to not just remember the 320th. I would like for all African Americans that were fighting in this war to be recognized. They did a job, too, and there was quite a few of us out there.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time American POWs refused a CIA rescue mission in Vietnam

Mental torture, starvation, and daily physical beatings were just a few of the dreadful aspects American POWs had to endure on a daily basis during their stay at the “Hanoi Hilton.”


Although prisoner leadership secretly spoke of escape between one another, the odds of a successful attempt was near impossible. But what the prisoners didn’t know was that the CIA had already approved a plan to have a sub-transport take SEAL Team One to an island off the coast of North Vietnam to intercept them upon escape.

Related: 3 heroes who became POWs twice

After sending a coded message to Washington, the Hanoi prisoners asked for “an unmistakable signal from the heavens” to show President Nixon supported the mission.

So on May 2nd, 1972, three S-71s delivered that message. As they approached the Hanoi prison, they flew so close to the sound barrier that the ensuing roar alerted the prisoners of their presence, and the message was received.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Prisoners were paraded before angry crowds in Hanoi, where loudspeakers blared insults and encouraged the crowd’s added abuse. Many from the crowd did attack the near defenseless POWs. (Source: National Museum)

Some of the Hanoi prisoners never thought the rescue mission would get approved, which caused conflict among them as they questioned whether they should take the chance.

For the next three days, the SEAL Team would monitor the coast, awaiting their American brothers.

After several intense discussions, the prisoners came to a final decision whether they should embark on the daring escape: they voted no — and with good reason.

If the attempt failed, the remaining prisoners might face even harsher punishment, and they couldn’t allow that. They made the right decision.

Also Read: Clint Eastwood once helped fund a Vietnam POW rescue mission

Towards the end of the war, Nixon ordered a bombing run to force the enemy to accept the peace terms. After the aerial attack had ceased, the North claimed the Hanoi POWs had all been killed, but with a smuggled transmitter, the brave prisoners sent out a coded message that reached the White House which read:

“Vietnamese lie, we’re okay.”

The incoming message sparked Nixon to continue the bombing raids. Then, in early 1973, the North accepted Nixon’s terms, ending the Vietnam war and the strong-willed Hanoi prisoners finally came home safely.

Watch the Smithsonian Channel‘s video below to witness the heroic story unfold for yourself.

(Smithsonian Channel, YouTube)

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how WWII, G.I. Joe and a decorated U.S. Marine shaped Transformers

Today, the Transformers IP has a world-wide presence in toys, comic books, video games, TV shows, movies and even amusement park rides. Just hearing the name cues the iconic jingle or robotic transforming noise in the heads of even the most casual fans. It’s incredible to think that this franchise that dominates the globe owes its existence to the Second World War, G.I. Joe action figures and one very special Marine.


There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

Transformers is still going strong with a new Netflix original series (Netflix)

Following the end of WWII, American troops occupied the Japanese islands as the nation entered into the process of reconstruction. A key element in reviving the Japanese economy was its once prominent toy industry. However, with few raw materials available after the war, toy makers were forced to resort to unconventional sources.

American GIs occupying Japan were fed heavily with canned rations. It was the metal from these cans that was recycled and used to craft Japanese robot toys. To highlight Japanese craftsmanship, these toys were often motorized with clock mechanisms that allowed them to walk and roll.

The popularity of Japanese robot toys increased through the 1960s and 1970s. With the expansion of television, the robot toys were paired with manga comics and anime cartoons that engaged children and promoted toy sales. Japanese robot-based entertainment like Astroboy, Ultraman, Shogun Warriors and Gigantor became increasingly popular in America.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

Robot shows like Gigantor were also successful in Australia (Eiken/TCJ)

However, even the robots from the east couldn’t compete with “A Real American Hero” like G.I. Joe. High sales of the action figure in the states were enough to convince Japanese toy maker Takara to license G.I. Joe for the Japanese market.

Having gained respect in the Japanese toy world for their toy dolls, Takara wanted to branch out and make a toy line for boys. However, G.I. Joe’s iconic scar and grimacing expression were a bit too harsh and aggressive for post-war Japan. To market the toy to Japanese boys, Takara decided to make G.I. Joe into a superhero with superpowers. When the designers realized that G.I. Joe’s body wasn’t conducive to a superhero build, they resorted to type and made him into a robot. With a clear plastic body displaying his metal computer-like internals, G.I. Joe became Henshin Cyborg. Henshin meaning “transformation”, this was the first step towards what we know today as Transformers.

Following the 1973 oil crisis, the 11.5″ tall toy and all of its accessories became prohibitively expensive to produce. Like G.I. Joe in the states, Takara introduced the 3.75″ tall Microman. A mini version of Henshin Cyborg, the Microman toy line focused even more on transforming toys with robots that could change into sci-fi spaceships. Microman was so popular that it was marketed in the US under the name Micronauts.

By the 1980s, robot toys that transformed into exotic spaceships were losing popularity. To rejuvenate the robot toy concept, Takara introduced the Diaclone Car Robo and Microman Micro Change lines. Diaclone toys transformed from robots into 1:60 scale vehicles like cars and trucks while Microman toys transformed into 1:1 replicas of household items like cameras, cassette players and toy guns.

At the Tokyo Toy Show, Hasbro executives took notice of Diaclone, Microman Micro Change and the plethora of other Japanese transforming robot toys and wanted to develop their own toy line. A deal was struck with Takara and Hasbro lifted almost every one of their toy lines for the US market, including Diaclone and Microman Micro Change.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

Diaclone transforming robot truck Battle Convoy (Takara)

To review, Hasbro licensed G.I. Joe to Takara in the 1970s. Takara turned G.I. Joe into Henshin Cyborg. Henshin Cyborg was shrunk down to Microman. Microman evolved into Diaclone and Microman Micro Change, both of which were licensed back to Hasbro. Things had really come full circle.

With all of these transforming robot toys, Hasbro turned to Marvel Comics to develop a backstory for the new toy line. Over a weekend, Marvel writers came up with the names and backstories for the first 26 Transformers as well as the plot for the first comic book issue.

Diaclone and Microman Micro Change robots were renamed and became Transformers as we know them today. Micro Car became Bumblebee, Cassette Man became Shockwave, Gun Robo became Megatron, Battle Convoy became Optimus Prime and the War for Cybertron between the just Autobots and the oppressive Decepticons was born. The first commercial for the Transformers toys introduced the now iconic jingle and the phrases, “Robots in disguise” and, “More than meets the eye.”

The 1984 release of Transformers was a huge success netting Hasbro 5 million in sales. The popularity of the franchise was due in large part to the Transformers cartoon, the star of which was the venerable Optimus Prime.

Peter Cullen, the original voice of Optimus Prime, became so iconic that he was brought back to reprise the role of the Autobot leader in the 2007 Transformers film and its many sequels. Cullen, also known for voicing Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh franchise, crafted the voice of Optimus Prime with inspiration from his older brother.

Marine Captain Henry Laurence Cullen, Jr., known as Larry, was a decorated veteran of the war in Vietnam. While serving with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Capt. Cullen was awarded a Bronze Star with a V device as well as two Purple Hearts for his actions during Operation Hastings in June 1966.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

Capt. Cullen was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery (Cullen family)

When his younger brother told him he was going to audition for the role of a hero in a cartoon series, Capt. Cullen said, “Peter, if you’re gonna be a hero, be a real hero. Don’t be one of those Hollywood heroes pretending they’re tough guys when they’re not. Just be strong and real. Tell the truth. Be strong enough to be gentle.”

With his older brother’s words echoing in his mind, Peter Cullen delivered the strong yet gentle voice performance that Transformers fans today will always hail as the one, true Optimus.

“He had a lot of influence on me, you know, and especially coming back from Vietnam. I noticed somebody different,” Cullen remembered of his older brother. “Going into that audition, Larry was with me. I mean, he was right there beside me. When I read the script, Larry’s voice just came out. He was my hero.”

From recycled ration cans, to a classic American action figure and an inspirational leader of Marines, the Transformers franchise has had a lot of American military influence to get to where it is today.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Coastie and World War I vet flew in a zeppelin over the Arctic

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Iceberg” Smith was the only American military officer invited on a bold, new expedition in the late 1920s: An 8,000-mile journey over the Arctic in the Graf Zeppelin, one of the premier airships at the time.


There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Iceberg” Smith, an Arctic expert, World War I veteran, and Coast Guardsman invited to take part in the 1931 Aeroarctic Expedition.

(U.S. Coast Guard Compass)

Smith was one of the top experts on icebergs at the time, an interest he discovered after his service in World War I. The young Coast Guard officer had been assigned to convoy duties during the war, but was assigned to the international ice patrol soon after.

His research into sea ice, especially the iceberg-forming area near Greenland, led to him receiving the first doctorate degree ever bestowed on a Coast Guardsman. It came from Harvard in 1930.

This scientific zeal drew the attention of Arctic explorers planning in the late 1920s to fly an airship to the North Pole while a submarine simultaneously made the same journey under the ice. The submarine would then bore its way to the surface, and the two crews would meet for handshakes and an exchange of mail before departing.

The trip went through a number of redesigns as the death of its leader, mechanical problems with the submarine, and funding issues all challenged elements of the plan.

But, in 1931, the plans were finalized for the Graf Zeppelin to meet up with a Russian icebreaker near the North Pole and exchange mail before collecting a large amount of scientific data and returning to Berlin — all within a single week. As Smith wrote in his notes following the trip, earlier expeditions along a similar route, conducted on foot, had taken almost a year to go one direction.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

The Graf Zeppelin in Berlin.

(U.S. Coast Guard Compass)

The zeppelin took off on July 24, 1931, and proceeded to Berlin and then Leningrad for additional fuel and hydrogen before setting off north for the Pole. They crossed into the Arctic Circle at 7 p.m., July 26.

While the trip was certainly easier than a traditional Arctic expedition, it was still very dangerous. The men on board had limited emergency gear and food if the zeppelin was forced down by bad weather or mechanical failure. But, as long as the ship held up, it was reported as actually being quite pleasant despite how cold it was.

The Arctic ice sheets that proved treacherous for explorers on foot were quite beautiful from the sky by all accounts. And Russians, excited about their men meeting up with the zeppelin in the historic journey, had sent the airborne expedition off with crates of prime caviar.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

A photo of the Arctic ice fields in 1931. The shadow on the ice is from the Graf Zeppelin.

(U.S. Coast Guard Compass)

The zeppelin usually flew between 200 and 500 meters off the surface, and scientists, including Smith, took measurements of the temperature, wind speeds, and other data while photographing areas about which little was previously known.

On July 27, the crew made radio contact with the Soviet icebreaker Malygin and was able to meetup with it a few hours later. The zeppelin was sent down to hover just over the surface of the sea with anchors fashioned from canvas buckets — and the icebreaker had been specially decorated for the occasion.

Despite the festive air, the exchange of mail was conducted quickly because floating ice packs were drifting dangerously close to the zeppelin and leaders were worried the engines could be damaged.

During the night of July 28th, the men dropped packages of mail and potatoes down to a Soviet station on the route before continuing north. This was the zeppelin’s last mail mission during the trip — all that was left was collecting additional scientific observations as it finished its loop back to Berlin.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

The Graf Zeppelin’s 8,000-mile route through the Arctic Circle to the North Pole and back.

(U.S. Coast Guard Compass)

Smith helped capture the exact geography of the area over which the airship transited, and he published his findings later that year in an article titled “The Aeroarctic Expedition,” in The Geographical Review.

His notes called into doubt the existence of previously observed islands and confirmed that one island was, in fact, just a peninsula of a larger one.

The men of the expedition were greeted as heroes in Berlin, and crowds thronged to hear tales of their dangerous exploits. But, since they had suffered none of the mechanical failures of previous airship attempts, they had nothing to report except for 8,000 miles of beautiful views and dutifully collected scientific data.

The Graf Zeppelin was returned to its normal transatlantic route until the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 nearly ended zeppelin travel. For the next few decades, the only real zeppelin program to speak of was managed by the Goodyear Company as only America had the required helium reserves to conduct lighter-than-air travel safely.

American zeppelins would go on to serve in World War II, but not under the care of Coast Guard officers like Smith. Instead, they belonged to the Navy and were used primarily for anti-submarine duties.

All photos are courtesy of the Coast Guard Compass which published an article and accompanying photos about Smith and the Aeroarctic Expedition in 2015. To learn more about Smith and the Coast Guard’s role in exploration, you can read their article here.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Coast Guard joined the fight in Vietnam 50 years ago

“I want to make sure that the Coast Guard people in Vietnam know that I am hearing about them often and that I am pleased with what I hear.”
–General Wallace Greene, Jr., commandant, U.S. Marine Corps, 1967

As indicated in the quote above, the Coast Guard played a vital role in the Vietnam War, but the service’s combat operations in South East Asia remain unknown to most Americans.


On April 29, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed a “Memorandum for the President” that required “U.S. Coast Guard operating forces assist U.S. Naval Forces in preventing sea infiltration by the communists into South Vietnam” stating “…that the U.S. Coast Guard has operating forces which are well-suited to the mission…” The same day Johnson signed his memorandum, the service announced formation of Coast Guard Squadron One (RONONE). The squadron consisted of 26 “Point”-class 82-foot patrol boats. In five years, RONONE patrol boats cruised over four million miles and inspected over 280,000 vessels. The 82-footers, which were designed for search-and-rescue and law enforcement, were operational approximately 80 percent of their time in theater.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Fireman Heriberto Hernandez, who was killed in action, posthumously received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals, and is the namesake for one of the service’s Fast Response Cutters.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

In early 1967, the Navy requested that the Coast Guard provide five high-endurance cutters for duty with the Navy’s Coastal Surveillance Forces. On April 24, Coast Guard Squadron Three (RONTHREE) was formed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and, in May, the high-endurance cutter Barataria fired the first RONTHREE naval gunfire support mission of the war. In February 1968, cutters Winona and Androscoggin engaged enemy trawlers and destroyed them with the aid of Coast Guard and Navy patrol boats while cutter Minnetonka drove off another. This action was the largest naval engagement of the Vietnam War.

Coast Guard cutters made a vital contribution to the Navy’s effort to limit coastal infiltration, forcing the communists to use the Ho Chi Minh Trail to sustain the insurgency in the South. Wartime statistics show that Coast Guard cutters boarded a quarter of a million junks and sampans and participated in 6,000 naval gunfire support missions causing extensive damage to the enemy. Of the 56 cutters that served in Vietnam, 30 were turned over to South Vietnam and Coast Guardsmen trained their Vietnamese crews to operate the vessels. Former cutters and the Vietnamese who crewed them formed the nucleus of the South Vietnamese Navy for the remainder of the war.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Coast Guard pilots Jack Rittichier and Lonnie Mixon received medals for their role in flying helicopter rescue missions in Vietnam.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Port Security and Waterways Details and Explosives Loading Detachments (ELDs) also proved important to the war effort. On Aug. 4, 1965, the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam requested a Coast Guard Port Security Officer for the Port of Saigon and two Coast Guard ELDs. The Coast Guard sent the officer to Saigon and two ELDs, assigning one to Nha Be and the second to Cam Ranh Bay. These ELDs were highly trained in explosives handling, firefighting, port security, and small boat operations and maintenance. The ELDs were authorized to do anything necessary to enforce regulations. ELD personnel also taught U.S. Army and Vietnamese personnel in small boat operation, port firefighting, pier inspection, and proper cargo handling and storage.

In 1966, the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam requested a Coast Guard buoy tender to install, maintain and service aids-to-navigation (ATON) in South Vietnam. Soon, a buoy tender arrived to set petroleum buoys for offloading fuel. In all, five buoy tenders marked South Vietnamese channels and maintained lighthouses along the South Vietnamese coast. Buoy tender duties included marking newly-dredged channels and coral reefs, positioning mooring buoys, and training the Vietnamese in ATON duties. Vietnamese lighthouse service personnel were assigned to temporary duty aboard Coast Guard buoy tenders that reactivated and automated all South Vietnamese lighthouses.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
An aerial photograph of the LORAN station located at Tan My in Vietnam.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The service built and manned Long Range Aids to Navigation (LORAN) stations allowing mariners and aviators to accurately fix their positions. LORAN’s original purpose was to provide electronic aids to mariners and aviators in areas where surface aids were nonexistent, waters relatively uncharted, or skies frequently overcast. Under Operation “Tight Reign,” LORAN stations were established at Con Son Island and Tan My in Vietnam; and at Lampang, Sattahip and Udorn in Thailand. Tight Reign continued until April 29, 1975, a day before the fall of South Vietnam, when the station at Con Son Island discontinued operations.

The escalation of the Vietnam War meant that supplies had to be transported by ship, which increased the need for merchant vessels under Military Sealift Command (MSTS) contracts. Merchant officers and shipping companies complained about the lack of a Coast Guard Merchant Marine Detail and, in August 1966, MSTS requested a Merchant Marine Detail. By December, a marine inspection officer was assigned to Saigon. Merchant Marine Detail personnel kept merchant vessels in theater moving by providing diplomatic, investigative and judicial services. Coast Guard officers assigned to Merchant Marine Details had the authority to remove sailors from ships, order violations corrected, or stop a ship from sailing.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
A Coast Guard aids-to-navigation expert works on a range marker for ship navigation in Vietnam.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Coast Guard aviators participated in the Coast Guard-Air Force Aviator Exchange Program. Two Coast Guard C-130 pilots took part in the program, but the rest of the aviators were HH-3 helicopter pilots. In the spring of 1968, the service assigned the first of many Coast Guard helicopter pilots to the Air Force’s 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Da Nang. The resulting honors and awards presented to Coast Guard aviators included four Silver Star Medals, 15 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 86 Air Medals.

Today, over 50 years after the service joined the fight in Vietnam, we commemorate the Coast Guardsmen who went in harm’s way, several of whom paid with their lives in a land far from home shores. In all, 8,000 Coast Guardsmen served in Vietnam. Their efforts curtailed maritime smuggling and enemy infiltration, saved hundreds of lives, and proved vital to the war effort in Vietnam.

This article originally appeared on the United States Coast Guard. Follow @USCG on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Iranian fanatics tried to spark a war with the US during Desert Storm

In 1991, the United States and its coalition allies scored a decisive victory over Iraq, pushing the invading army out of Kuwait after a 40-day air war and 100-hour ground assault. The coalition was almost universally recognized, only Jordan, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, and Tunisia opposed to action. Also in support was Iran, enemy to both Iraq and the United States. But deep within the most fanatical ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, a plot was hatched to hit U.S. troops.


During the buildup to Desert Storm in the waning days of 1990, the United States was sending thousands of troops, vehicles, ships, and aircraft into the region. They were building a force that could rival Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army, prevent it from moving further than Kuwait (namely, from invading neighboring Saudi Arabia), and have enough troops to push it out of Kuwait.

What a tempting target such a buildup would be to any foe. That’s exactly what a faction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards thought. The United States wouldn’t even expect an attack from Iran. It would have been easy.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
But not “Re-Enlisting on the Backs of Your Fallen Enemy” Easy.

The whole purpose of the Revolutionary Guards is to deter foreign threats to the Islamic Republic, whether those threats come from outside Iran or are fomented within its borders. They are a sort of internal security service mixed with a paramilitary organization that can operate both in and outside their home country. They are the Islamic Republic’s most fervent defenders, believers in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s vision of a nation founded on the principles of Shia Islam.

In practice, their ideological zeal has given IRGC units the green light to do whatever it takes to keep Iran and its Islamic government safe from those who would dismantle it. This includes violence, terrorism, and even all-out war alongside Iranian allies. It was the IRGC that helped Iran fight technologically superior Iraq to a draw in the Iran-Iraq War. That war also led to the emergence of the IRGC as a major military and political force in Iran. So, when the United States launched Desert Shield, the IRGC took notice.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
It was kinda hard to miss.

As the tens of thousands of U.S.-led coalition troops massed in Saudi Arabia, units of a rebellious faction of the Revolutionary Guards, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, attempted to launch missile attacks from Iran on the troops deploying to Saudi Arabia. The goal, according to a 2008 paper by IRGC expert Ali Alfoneh in Middle East Quarterly, was to start a war between the United States and Iran on the eve of Desert Storm.

Loyalist Guardsmen and regular Iranian Army units under the command of then-IRGC Chief Mohsen Rezai got wind of the plan. It was to be launched from Khorramshahr, an Iranian city on the Iraqi border near Kuwait. Khorramshahr was the site of a particularly bloody battle of the Iran-Iraq War, a fight hard won by Iranian forces. It was also the site of an IRGC-controlled missile battery – which was quickly captured by the loyalist Iranian regime forces.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
“Khorramshahr” is also the name of one of Iran’s newest long-range ballistic missiles.

Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, but his legacy protected his mutinous son. Ahmad Khomeini, considered his father’s right hand man, was relieved of his Revolutionary Guards command and was sent to live in isolation until his death in 1995. The 49-year-old cleric died of a mysterious heart disease while still living an isolated life.

The United States went on to victory over Iran’s former adversary, humiliating Saddam Hussein and forcing the Iraqi regime to accept harsh economic sanctions and military limitations until the U.S. came back to topple it in 2003. Iran’s patience paid off with the recent instability in Iraq allowing the Islamic Republic to project power across the Middle East.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here’s what US Army soldiers said in a WWII uncensored survey

In September 1940, World War II was a year old. The US was still a noncombatant, but it was preparing for a fight.

That month, the US introduced the Selective Training and Service Act — the first peacetime draft in US history. Mobilizing the millions of troops was a monumental task and essential to deploying “the arsenal of democracy” that President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on Americans to provide.

Inducting millions of civilians and turning them into effective troops — and keeping them happy, healthy, supplied, and fighting — was also a daunting challenge.


In order to find the best way to do that, the War Department mounted an opinion survey, polling nearly a half-million soldiers stationed all around the world throughout the war. Their uncensored responses, given as the war was being fought, are an unprecedented window into how those troops felt about the war, the military, and their role in both.

“Entirely too much boot-licking going on,” one soldier wrote. “Some sort of a merit system should be instituted.”

“Spam, Spam, Spam. All I dream about is Spam,” wrote another.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

(National Archives photo)

In an email interview, Edward Gitre, a history professor at Virginia Tech whose project, The American Soldier in World War II, has compiled tens of thousands of responses to those surveys, explained why the Army sought the unvarnished opinions of its soldiers and what those opinions revealed.

Christopher Woody: Why did the War Department conduct these surveys? What did it want to find out about US troops and how did it want to use that information?

Gitre: Henry Stimson, the aged Secretary of War, outright barred the polling of US troops when one of the nation’s leading pollsters, Elmo Roper, first pitched the idea in spring 1941. The War Department was not in the habit of soliciting the “opinions” of foot soldiers.

Yet an old friend of the Roosevelt family, Frederick Osborn—who had already helped to institute the country’s first peacetime draft in 1940—quietly but effectively made the case.

Chiefly, he convinced Stimson and other leery officers that surveys would be for their benefit. Surveys would provide them information for planning and policymaking purposes. Allowing and encouraging GIs to openly air their “gripes” was not part of Osborn’s original pitch.

When George C. Marshall became chief of staff in 1939, he compared the US Army to that of a third-rate power.

With the passage of the draft in 1940, the War Department would face the monumental challenge of rapidly inducting hundreds of thousands, then after Pearl Harbor millions of civilians. Most lacked prior military experience. But this new crop was also better educated than previous generations of draftees, and they came with higher expectations of the organization.

The surveys, then, would help address a host of “personnel” issues, such as placement, training, furloughs, ratings, so on and so forth.

The civilian experts the Army brought in to run this novel research program were embedded in what was known as the Morale Branch. This outfit, as the name suggests, was tasked with shoring up morale. These social and behavioral scientists had to figure out, first, how to define morale, and, second, how to measure it.

Some old Army hands insisted that morale was purely a matter of command, that it was the byproduct of discipline and leadership. But reporting indicated pretty clearly that morale correlated to what soldiers were provided during off-duty hours as well, in terms of recreation and entertainment.

To address the latter, the War Department created an educational, recreational, welfare, and entertainment operation that spanned the globe. The numbers of candy bars and packages of cigarettes shipped and sold were accounted for not in the millions but billions.

If you were coordinating the monthly global placement of, say, two million books from best-sellers’ lists, wouldn’t you want to know something about soldier and sailor preferences? A whole class of survey questions were directed at marketing research.

Woody: What topics did the questions cover, and what kind of feedback and complaints did the troops give in response?

Gitre: The surveys administered by the Army’s Research Branch cover myriads of topics, from the individual food items placed in various rations, to the specific material used in seasonal uniforms, to the educational courses offered through the Armed Forces Institute.

A soldier might be asked a hundred or more multiple-choice and short-answer questions in any one survey. They would be asked to record more their behaviors, insights, and experiences related to service directly. They were asked about their civilian lives as well, including their previous occupation, family background, regional identity, religion, and education. This information could be then correlated with other military and government records to provide a more holistic picture of the average American GI.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

One of this research outfit’s most reliable “clients” was the Army’s Office of Surgeon General. The quality and effectiveness of medical and psychiatric care had wide implications, not least in terms of combat readiness. The Surgeon General’s office was interested in more than the care it provided. Soldiers were asked about their most intimate of experiences—their sexual habits and hygiene among them.

Administered in August 1945, Survey #233 asked men stationed in Italy if they were having sex with Italian women, and, if so, how frequently; did they pay for sex, how did they pay, did they “shack” up, use a condom and if not why not, drink beforehand, and did they know how to identify the symptoms of an STI? The battle against venereal diseases knew no lines of propriety.

The Research Branch surveyed or interviewed a half-million service members during the war. The answers they received were as varied as one can imagine, though there were of course common “gripes,” which the old Army hands could have easily ticked off without the aid of a cross-sectional scientific survey.

Yet the scope WWII military operations and the influx of so many educated civilians did create innumerable challenges that were often novel.

But from the soldier’s perspective, it should not come as a shock that so many of them might have taken to heart the premise of the US’s involvement in the war, that the US was committed to defending democracy, and alone if necessary.

Respondent after survey respondent demanded, then, that the US military live up to the principles of democracy for which they were being called to sacrifice. And so, they savaged expressions of the old Regular Army’s hierarchical “caste” culture wherever they saw it, but especially when it frustrated their own hopes and ambitions.

They wanted, in the parlance of the day, “fair play” and a “square deal.” They wanted to be respected as a human being, and not treated like a “dog.”

Woody: The US military drew from a wide swath of the population during WWII. How do you think that affected troops’ perception of the war, of military and civilian leadership, and of what the troops themselves wanted out of their service?

Gitre: The WWII US Army is known as a “citizen soldier” army (as opposed to a professional or “standing” army). It was also at the time described as a “peacetime army.” Compulsory service was passed by Congress in September 1940, roughly 15 months prior to Pearl Harbor. Military conscription was from its inception a civil process.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack.

(U.S. Navy photo)

That year-plus gap had a deep and lasting impact on how the War Department approached the rapid expansion of US forces. Just the same, it also shaped the expectations of Americans who were called to serve—as well as of their family members and loved ones, and the wider public.

The success of the Selective Service System would depend on the state in which the Army returned soldiers back to civil life. They would need to feel that they had gained something from the military, in the form of skill training or more education.

“In a larger sense [compulsory military training] provides an opportunity to popularize the Army with our people which is essential for an efficient fighting force,” the secretary of war said. “Maintenance of a high military morale is one of the most important contributing factors to good public morale,” he continued.

This view filtered down into the ranks. Sailors and soldiers expected to receive useful training and additional education. They also believed the military would put the skills, experiences, and practical know-how they already possessed as civilians to good use.

Woody: Was there anything in the troops’ responses that surprised you?

Gitre: What has surprised me most, I think, are the many remarks not about command and leadership but race.

We know that leaders of and activists in the black community pressed the War Department and Roosevelt administration to confront the nation’s “original sin” and strike down legal segregation. How otherwise could the US claim to be a champion of democracy while systematically denying the rights of a population that was liable, as free white citizens were, to compulsory service?

Black leaders embraced the V-shaped hand signal that was flashed so often to signify allied Victory, and they made it their own, calling for “Double V” or double victory: that is, victory abroad, and victory at home.

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks

Participants in the Double V campaign, 1942.

(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Surveys from black soldiers demonstrate in rather stark terms how pervasively this message took hold among the rank and file. African Americans were especially well attuned to and critical of the military’s caste culture and to its reinforcement of white supremacy.

It is especially jarring, then, to read commentaries from soldiers defending the continuation of white male supremacy. Not only did some of these respondents opine on the virtues of segregation and the inferiority of blacks. A whole host of them objected likewise to women in uniform.

But undoubtedly the most shocking responses are those that espouse naked anti-Semitism. These cut against the grain of our collective memory of the American GI as liberator of the German death and concentration camps. Statements of these sort are rare. Yet they exist.

Woody: What’s your biggest takeaway from these surveys about troops’ feelings about the war and their attitudes toward the military?

Gitre: When I first encountered these open-ended responses, I was almost immediately captivated by how similarly white and black soldiers wrote about equity in the military. These two populations sometimes used the same exact phrasing.

For so many black soldiers, military service presented itself as an opportunity to break the shackles of structural inequality. They pleaded for merit-based assignments, postings, and promotions. You can flip over to surveys written by white enlisted men and you can see them wrestling with the same involuntary constraints arising from their own submission. They vigorously protested being treated like a “dog,” or a “slave.”

The leveling effect of military service was profound — and not simply for the individual soldier, psychologically. The survey research Osborn’s team conducted on race, merit, and morale demonstrated that not only were black soldiers just as effective in combat, but that the proximity of black and white troops in combat situations improved race relations, instead of destroying morale, as had long been feared. This research fed the 1947 Executive Order 9981 desegregating the US armed forces.

That brings us back to that 1940 peacetime decision to make military service compulsory as a civic duty. You can’t overestimate its significance. This isn’t a plea for compulsory military service. Yet as I continue to read these troop surveys, I am confronted daily by the prospect that we are losing the hard-won insights and lessons of a generation that is passing into its final twilight.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why this World War II veteran was the saltiest sailor in American history

There are many outstanding sailors who could lay claim to the title of the U.S. Navy’s saltiest, but since the term is synonymous with “experienced,” there’s one who stands above all others: Nathan E. Cook. 

Many people haven’t heard of Nathan Cook. He wasn’t a Medal of Honor recipient and he didn’t save hundreds of lives in a single day, but what distinguished Cook from other American sailors is his 44 years of service to the Navy, through some of its most disruptive changes – and his long life. 

Cook was born during Grover Cleveland’s presidency in 1885 and two years before he died, he received a letter from President George H.W. Bush congratulating him on his 104th birthday. When he was 15 years old, he was working in a Kansas City meat packing plant when he came upon a poster that read “Join the Navy and See the World.”

“I thought that was a good idea,” Cook said to the Department of Veterans Affairs when he became a centenarian. “One of the Navy boys came out to see us, and said ‘You boys want to get in the Navy?’ I said ‘I sure do.’”

So he did. In 1901, he lied about his age and enlisted, soon finding himself aboard the screw steamer USS Pensacola, a Civil War-era training ship in California, where he learned to sail, operate the coal steamer, and most importantly, swim. 

His first real assignment was aboard the USS Adams, another screw steamer, headed to fight the Boxer Rebellion in China. The Boxers surrendered soon after he arrived, so he was soon back at sea, headed for the Philippines. Although Cook was too late to see service in the Spanish-American War, he was just in time for the Philippine Insurrection.

The people of the Philippines had helped the Americans take the island nation during the Spanish-American War, but once the war was over and Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, the Filipinos realized the U.S. had no interest in granting them independence, so they decided to fight for it. 

After serving in and around the Philippines, he was transferred to the protected cruiser USS Columbia and sailed around the world, his first of four circumnavigations, bound for New York, where he met his first wife in 1905. He soon found himself aboard the USS Kansas, a pre-dreadnought battleship and part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, and making his second trip around the world. 

A chief petty officer by then, he befriended two ensigns aboard the Kansas, Chester Nimitz and William Halsey. 

Cook later injured himself off the coast of Gibraltar and was kept in the sickbay until he returned to New York. He learned his appendix had burst while underway but it had dried up and he had no complications.

Cook sailed into Veracruz with the Atlantic fleet aboard Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher’s flagship, the dreadnought battleship, USS Florida. 

By the time the United States entered World War I, Cook had been temporarily commissioned as a lieutenant. He was placed in command of a submarine chaser that sunk two U-boats and was later in command of a seagoing tug, the USS Favorite, in Brest, France. While on a rescue mission, towing a ship back to France, the Favorite was attacked by another U-boat. 

As they towed the damaged ship, two torpedoes were headed in the Favorite’s direction. Cook ordered a hard right rudder and they missed entirely. Cook returned fire with the tug’s 3-inch gun and sank the attacker. He was soon sailing the tug back to New York, where he returned to his permanent rank of boatswain.  

When World War II began, Cook was in the Caribbean operating out of Haiti and Panama. It was in Panama that he experienced his proudest moments of his naval career. 

There was a time when duels ‘downsized’ the officer ranks
Nathan E. Cook in his later years.

“I was the acting commanding officer,” he said. “The Canal insisted that every ship have a pilot aboard to take all the ships through the canal. Everyone else took a pilot except me. I was the only one to take command whenever I got orders to go through the canal. I was the only Naval officer allowed that duty, that’s a fact!” 

Later, he was transferred to the USS Falcon, a minesweeper that was converted into a submarine rescue ship. He retired in 1942, but the Navy promoted him to the permanent rank of lieutenant in recognition of his World War I service. 

Although he was not a Spanish-American War veteran, he was a member of the United Spanish War Veterans, which was open to members who served during that era, even if they didn’t serve in the war itself. 

Nathan Cook would live another 50 years after retiring from the Navy at age 56, dying in 1992 of what the Department of Veterans Affairs says was just old age. His secret to longevity was keeping fit and avoiding the vices of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Jim Webb killed a guy who threw a grenade at him

A few years back in the first Democratic Primary debate of 2015, former Senator Jim Webb, a Marine who served in Vietnam, was asked about the enemies he made in his political career of whom he’s most proud. Webb alluded to a Vietnamese solider who threw a grenade at him. Webb doesn’t say it explicitly, but that guy is probably dead.


Webb wasn’t kidding. He was awarded the Navy Cross for that action. His citation is up on the Military Times’ Hall of Valor.

“The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant James H. Webb, Jr. (MCSN: 0-106180), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as a Platoon Commander with Company D, First Battalion, Fifth Marines, FIRST Marine Division (Reinforced), Fleet Marine Force, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 10 July 1969, while participating in a company-sized search and destroy operation deep in hostile territory, First Lieutenant Webb’s platoon discovered a well-camouflaged bunker complex which appeared to be unoccupied. Deploying his men into defensive positions, First Lieutenant Webb was advancing to the first bunker when three enemy soldiers armed with hand grenades jumped out. Reacting instantly, he grabbed the closest man and, brandishing his .45 caliber pistol at the others, apprehended all three of the soldiers. Accompanied by one of his men, he then approached the second bunker and called for the enemy to surrender. When the hostile soldiers failed to answer him and threw a grenade which detonated dangerously close to him, First Lieutenant Webb detonated a claymore mine in the bunker aperture, accounting for two enemy casualties and disclosing the entrance to a tunnel. Despite the smoke and debris from the explosion and the possibility of enemy soldiers hiding in the tunnel, he then conducted a thorough search which yielded several items of equipment and numerous documents containing valuable intelligence data. Continuing the assault, he approached a third bunker and was preparing to fire into it when the enemy threw another grenade. Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body. Although sustaining painful fragmentation wounds from the explosion, he managed to throw a grenade into the aperture and completely destroy the remaining bunker. By his courage, aggressive leadership, and selfless devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Webb upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.”

The former senator from Virginia is a understandably a longtime supporter of the military-veteran community. He attempted to run for President in 2016, but unfortunately didn’t get much traction. Even so, he leaves an impressive legacy behind; He was the chief architect of what would become known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

NOW: This US Army general was rescued from Vietnam as a young boy

OR: 17 Wild facts about the Vietnam War

Do Not Sell My Personal Information