In the early years of the U.S. Military Academy’s history, the “Father of West Point,” Col. Sylvanus Thayer, was trying to whip the future officers of the U.S. military into shape. He began by outlawing alcohol on the academy grounds. The cadets were also not permitted to leave the academy.
Egg nog was pretty different back in 1826. Today, it’s more of a sweet, dessert drink and the addition of rum or brandy isn’t as popular as it once was. Back then, nog — like life — was a lot more intense.
Before the alcohol ban, an egg nog night was part of West Point’s Christmas tradition, and the cadets weren’t about to let the tradition die because of one guy’s teetotaling. So, a young cadet named Jefferson Davis and a group of others decided to sneak some booze into the eggnog party.
They snuck in a few gallons of whiskey under Thayer’s nose (with the help, of course, an enlisted man). On Christmas Day, officers of the day Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lt. William A. Thorton tried to monitor the cadets, but they could only do so much. They were woken in the middle of the night by a drunken party in the barracks. They dispersed it, but the revelers sought revenge.
Partying cadets raged on a different floor and the officers moved to break that one up. Thorton was knocked to the floor with a piece of wood while another took a shot at Hitchcock with a pistol. He called a runner to get the Commandant, but that request was misinterpreted as a summons for artillery troops stationed on the grounds.
The cadets reinforced the windows and entrances to the barracks to prevent the artillerymen from gaining entry. The interiors and windows of the building were smashed and damaged. They literally drummed up the cadets from their beds to prepare for bombardment.
On Sunday morning, Nov. 4, 1979, 3,000 university students, many armed, stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. Two weeks prior, President Jimmy Carter had allowed former Iranian head of state Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to enter the US for cancer treatment. The radical protesters took more than 90 hostages, including 63 Americans, planning a nonviolent three-day revolt using the hostages as leverage to demand the Shah’s return for trial. But what unfolded was a 444-day saga that became known as the Iranian hostage crisis. Only two days after the US Embassy was seized, the US military was tasked with the rescue efforts code-named Operation Eagle Claw.
Staff Sgt. Mike Vining, 29, was participating in winter warfare training in Breckenridge, Colorado, when his squadron was alerted to immediately return to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Vining had been a plank owner or founding member of the Army’s then-brand-new counterterrorism team established by Army Special Forces legend Col. Charles Beckwith, based on the British SAS. The unit collected the best the Army had to offer, and Beckwith valued those with combat experience or unique skill sets. Vining had both, previously serving as an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist in Vietnam for a 12-month tour, where his composite team was responsible for the destruction of the largest enemy weapons cache in the war.
Operation Rice Bowl
When Vining and other members of B Squadron returned to their unit’s compound, they were briefed on the situation and put into isolation to begin planning. The planning stages were dubbed Operation Rice Bowl. The name was picked to suggest, in the event their mission brought scrutiny, that something was going on in Southeast Asia away from the Middle East.
“We were really fearful of any satellites picking up any indication of what we were trying to do,” Vining told Coffee or Die Magazine in a recent interview. “The Russian satellites and so forth. We were worried that the Russians would alert the Iranians.”
The assault teams moved to Camp Peary in Virginia, home to “The Farm,” where CIA operations officers are trained to perform covert missions. The site was transformed to create a mock replica of the US Embassy in Tehran. The CIA even built a 3D model similar to the one used in preparation for the Son Tay Raid in Vietnam, where one could take the roof off and see the interior within.
“When you do military operations and stuff like that you create what’s called a sand table,” Vining said. “The Rangers do that in Ranger School. You draw in the sand what the objective looks like, points that you need to know about. And so it’s just like a sand table, but very elaborate, very sophisticated. It was a great model.”
In Iran, the 27-acre US Embassy compound housed 50 hostages guarded by some 500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards, while three additional hostages were kept in the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs building 16 blocks away. Throughout the crisis, several hostages were released early, and a secret operation dubbed Canadian Caper helped others escape to a safe house and use Canadian passports to leave the country. This operation was later chronicled in the Hollywood movie Argo.
The planned assault on the embassy was the easy part. It was getting there that was the challenge and that would spiral out of control for the ill-equipped joint-military operation.
The elaborate plan
Beckwith initially proposed a parachute infiltration, but that was quickly scrapped once predictions estimated the ground rescue force would likely suffer a 7% casualty rate right at the start. Instead, planners came up with a helicopter raid, and the training resumed at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.
The Navy’s helicopter pilots lacked tactical expertise. They were not used to flying at nap-of-the-Earth altitude under night vision goggles, nor were they equipped to transition from desert flying to urban flying. The Marine Corps pilots had no prior experience working with the Navy pilots. Moreover, both the Navy and Marine models of the Sikorsky H-53 helicopters were old and worn out, with frequent mechanical problems. In the end, Marine aircrews were selected to fly Navy helicopters, the first of several decisions to pair up mismatched equipment and personnel that would haunt the mission.
Weeks before the pilots or assaulters were set to launch on the operation, Beckwith enlisted Maj. John Carney, an Air Force Combat Controller (CCT), to install a hidden airstrip with lights that were only visible under night vision goggles. The site was called Desert One, about 200 miles from Tehran, and would be the operation’s initial rally point and refueling site. Next came a small advanced force that would infiltrate Tehran and secure a warehouse containing five Ford trucks and two Mazda vans. The vehicles had facade compartments that would conceal the assaulters as they went through Iranian checkpoints to reach the embassy.
“We had with us people that spoke Farsi really well,” Vining said, adding some of the members included former Iranian generals. “They were going to be our drivers on the vehicles.”
The plan was elaborate. Eight US Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters would fly from the USS Nimitz in the Arabian sea to Desert One. There they would meet the assault force, which would reach Desert One on Air Force C-130s. The helicopters would refuel, and the assaulters would then board the helicopters to fly to a site 50 miles outside of Tehran, called Desert Two. During daylight hours, Vining and the assaulters would stay in a warehouse, while the helicopters hid at Desert Two. The raid would come on the second night.
The escape was even more audacious: The assault teams would move the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium, where helicopters would fly in to pick them up. Meanwhile, a Ranger element would secure a nearby air base. The helicopters would ferry the raiders and the hostages to the air base, where Air Force C-141s would arrive to fly the whole force home.
If anything went wrong, the teams had contingencies to escape.
“We had maps and everybody was carrying money,” he said. “I had $10,000. I had $5,000 in American money and I had $5,000 in Iranian money to help drive our way out. We had stuff to jump-start vehicles if we had to steal a vehicle and get out of Tehran. Then our E&E (Escape and Evasion) plan, we’d head up into the mountains and work our way across the mountains towards Turkey, hopefully running into some Iranians that were friendly, and would help us.”
The plan, however, never made it past Desert One.
Operation Eagle Claw
On April 20, 1980, the complex plan was set into motion. The rescue ground force was flown to Germany, then to Egypt, before the flight to Desert One.
“But as soon as we landed, we see headlights come in, and there was a bus coming down the road,” Vining said. “So Beckwith hollered, ‘Stop that bus!’ So one of the Rangers fired a 40 mm round at the front of the bus. And the bus came to a stop and we boarded the bus.”
Two more vehicles came down the road, a fuel truck and a pickup, who the raiders believed were likely gas smugglers. A Ranger fired a rocket at the fuel truck and it caught fire. “That tanker blew up because it had been sitting there on fire and lit up the sky with a giant fireball,” he said. “It was like, we are really announcing here we are.”
That was only the beginning.
The helicopters were late. Among the eight Sea Stallion helicopters scheduled to land at Desert One, only six arrived, one of which was immediately declared out of service for mechanical issues. Five was the bare minimum the plan allowed to continue the rescue mission.
Vining and his assault team sat inside the EC-130 that had brought them to Desert One. They would board the Sea Stallions after the helicopters took on the fuel that the EC-130 had brought for them. In the center of the EC-130, the large communications pod normally on board the aircraft had been swapped with a bladder of 5,000 gallons of fuel.
On the improvised airstrip, the Air Force CCTs told two of the waiting helicopters to move away from the sandblast of the EC-130’s propellers. One of the helicopters couldn’t taxi on the ground because it had suffered a hard landing and flattened its tires.
“He had to actually lift up off the ground to reposition,” said Vining. “He lifted up, kicked up some sand, [the pilot] got vertigo, and he turned and he twisted. Next thing I know you feel this movement of our aircraft and then the rotors of the helicopter actually cutting into the top of the fuselage.”
The left front cockpit door blew in and behind it was nothing but fire and flames. As the Sea Stallion crashed into the EC-130, its fuel tanks exploded. “The people that witnessed this from the outside said our two aircraft completely disappeared,” he said, “disappeared into a fireball. They thought that both aircraft were at that instant gone.”
Eight Americans died in the initial fireball. Inside the doomed plane, next to a gas tank, Vining thought for sure he was going to as well.
“I really didn’t believe I could make it from my position to that door,” Vining recalled. “I thought I was going to die that day. I was surprised when I actually made it to the door and jumped out. I came out and did a somersault, landed on some hot metal, came to my feet, and just ran.”
As Vining sprinted to safety, he started to hear grenades and small-arms ammunition cook off in the fireball. Then came six Redeye missiles shooting out into the air and into the desert. In the chaos, all of the other helicopter aircrews left their helicopters and ran to fixed-wing planes.
There would be no rescue mission. The task force piled onto the remaining helicopters and planes and returned to a US base in Oman.
“Contrary to what you ever heard, there was no head count taken at Desert One,” he said. “We didn’t know who we had or who we didn’t have until we got to Oman. Then we figured out that we lost eight people, three Marines and five Air Force crewmen that were in the front of the cockpit.”
Operation Eagle Claw was later cast as the “Desert One Debacle.” The Iranians split up the hostages so that they were no longer all in one spot. Still, a second hostage rescue mission was planned, but it never came to fruition. In June 1980, the Iranians released an American hostage with multiple sclerosis. The rest of the hostages were released in January 1981.
Although Eagle Claw wasn’t a success, its failure kick-started the buildup of US special operations forces and capabilities. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Joint Special Operations Command, and the rest of the US special operations forces can all trace their beginnings to Desert One.
During World War II, more than 425,000 German prisoners of war were held in some 700 camps across the United States. Some of them did their duty to try and escape, but most spent the remainder of their war in these camps, entertaining themselves however possible.
For many POWs, this included the latest in Hollywood cinema, which was, of course, so much propaganda at the time. The Germans enjoyed them anyway. But when the Americans began to show them footage of the Holocaust, the good time suddenly stopped.
German prisoners, those who surrendered to the British or Americans, were shipped back to the U.S. on Liberty Ships. Most went quietly, thankful to not be killed – and avoiding capture by the Red Army. The United States followed the Geneva Conventions to the letter, paying Germans for labor and constructing camps equivalent to their own military quarters. For some, their lives as prisoners were better than their lives as civilians back in Germany. This was especially true in passing the time.
The prisoners worked, maintained their own discipline, were provided art supplies and letter writing materials. Many camps even had film projectors, and showed movies provided by the Americans. The U.S. was happy to oblige, as Hollywood films of the era could be a good way to de-program the captured soldiers from the effects of Nazi propaganda. Even War Department films such as Why We Fight were popular.
The movie nights were really popular among many of the camps, no matter what the marquee was showing. It was a great morale booster for many imprisoned so far away. Until one day, it wasn’t. After the Allies began liberating concentration camps, they began showing the footage of those camps to Nazi POWs. The films sparked rage and disbelief among many of them, including one instance where the camp detainees burned their German uniforms.
In a few extreme cases, some POWs held in the United States called on Germany to surrender. But the most stirring moment was a plan devised to create units of German troops who volunteered to fight against their onetime Axis ally, Japan, in the Pacific War.
By war’s end, only the most hardcore Nazi POWs were still against the United States. Many POWs met their wives in the U.S. and settled in the unspoiled land of plenty that had become their new home. While there were many, many resisters throughout the war, there were few incidents of escape or chaos created by the prisoners.
Walk onto any Marine Corps base and you’ll hear all sorts of celebratory grunts. These almost words coming from the mouths of new Marines and seasoned NCOs sound like Errrr and Yut. Echoing across the well-trimmed grounds, humming through the DFAC, in the hallowed halls of Marine history, one grunt stands out. Oo-rah is the tried and true, battle-tested and history provided Marine call that defines the service.
It’s no secret the military has way too many slang words and acronyms to count. Most are impossible for the civilian ear to understand. But there are some that translate just fine. One of those is the Marine battle cry, “oo-rah.” Anyone who’s heard it knows it has only one meaning.
Used as a motivational tool to push recruits and Marines beyond their limit, the classic grunt actually stems from another traditional sound.
The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex. It houses treasures of American history like Rockwell illustrations, Lincoln’s top hat and even an Apollo 11 moon rock. However, despite the institute’s best efforts, one piece of iconic American history does not reside at the Smithsonian.
Nearly every American schoolchild has seen the painting of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. The image has graced the pages of American history textbooks for generations. The original 9’x12′ canvas is not at the Smithsonian, though. It doesn’t even belong to the Smithsonian. Rather, the painting belongs to the Galena Historical Society in Galena, Illinois and is on display at their Galena & U.S. Grant Museum.
On April 9, 1895, “Peace in Union” (no, it’s not called “Surrender at Appomattox”) was finished and signed by artist Thomas Nast. Nast was commissioned by Chicago newspaperman and former Galena resident Herman Kohlsaat to paint the historical event.
Nast was a German-born caricaturist and editorial cartoonist. He has been called the “Father of the American Cartoon” for creating the modern version of Santa Claus and the political symbol of the elephant for the Republican Party. His work also popularized the images of Uncle Sam, Columbia and the donkey of the Democratic Party.
Upon his commissioning, Nast began two years of intense research on the surrender and the people who were present. He read up on Grant’s generals to portray them as accurately as possible in his painting, and it shows. Some show relief in their tired faces for the end of the long and bloody war. Others show reverence for Grant and his leadership that brought the conflict to a close. Still others show contempt for Lee and his confederacy of rebels and traitors.
Of course, the focus of the painting is the exchange between Lee and Grant. Per his reputation, Lee changed into his best uniform for the surrender at the courthouse. Grant, fittingly, had on a worn jacket and scuffed boots straight from the battlefield. Aside from the significance of the event portrayed, details like these make “Peace in Union” one of the greatest works of art in American history.
Representatives from the Smithsonian have tried at least three times to convince the Galena Historical Society to sell the oil painting to them. Every visit to the small Illinois town has been unsuccessful though. No amount of money will allow the people of Galena to part with “Peace in Union.” Although Grant and his family lived in Galena for only a year before the start of the Civil War, he would consider it home for the remainder of his life and the town of Galena is extremely proud of that fact.
Along with this national treasure, the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum hosts other artifacts of American history. Another article from the Civil War, the museum houses the first Union flag raised over the courthouse of Vicksburg, Mississippi when the siege ended on July 4, 1863. Grant gave the honor of raising the flag to the men of the 45th Illinois who brought the flag home to Galena as a souvenir. Another flag in the museum is said to have been saved from the USS Lawrence at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. It was reportedly given to Hezekiah Gear for his service in the war and brought to Galena when he moved there later in his life. To see these pieces alone, a trip to Galena is well worth your time.
Kamikaze attacks — known as “special attacks” by Japan — were an infamous tactic designed to not only destroy American ships but also strike fear in the Allied navies.
But two months before the first kamikaze attacks were carried out at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in Oct. 1944, a Japanese transport pilot pitched the idea of a kamikaze super weapon, the Oka “Cherry Blossom” Type 11 plane.
While the Oka was technically a plane, it was more like a pilot-guided missile. It was a 4,700-pound aircraft that contained 2,600 pounds of high explosives. That left only 2,100 pounds for the body, armor-piercing nose cone, and three rocket engines.
Hitting the enemy ship at up to 576 mph, it punched right through most armor and detonated its 2,600-pound payload inside the ship.
While those 2,600 pounds of explosives gave the kamikaze a big boom when it hit its target, the small control surfaces and extreme speed made it very hard to aim.
The Oka’s commonly made it past enemy defenses and outran pursuing fighters, but they sometimes missed their target entirely.
Also, the bombers carrying the Oka were susceptible to attack. While carrying the massive weapon, the planes lost maneuverability, range, and speed. The first thing a Betty with an Oka was supposed to do if it came under attack was drop the Oka and attempt to evade the fighters.
This led to another problem for the Oka pilots. When the bomber crews felt a route was too dangerous, they’d often order the Oka pilot into the suicide plane early and launch it.
The pilot would be left sitting in the cockpit, piloting his coffin into the ocean with no chance at destroying a target.
In the end, the more than 850 Oka 11s produced sank only one ship and damaged six others. Longer range variants were produced that could fly up to 81 miles. They would have been a serious threat to Navy ships during an invasion, but none ever saw combat.
Hiroo Onoda was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer who refused to believe that World War II had ended. He spent nearly 30 years holding out in the Philippine jungle waiting to be officially relieved.
According to his memoir, Onoda – just an apprentice officer at the time – received direct orders from the division commander to lead the Lubang Garrison in guerilla warfare. His men were to destroy the airfield and harbor installations to stop the advance of American forces.
Before carrying out his orders, he got a pep talk from Lieutenant General Akira Muto, Chief of Staff of the Fourteenth Area Army who dropped in unexpectedly:
You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily.
To put it in perspective, that was the equivalent of having an O-8 and an O-9 giving orders to an O-1. On top of that, he believed the emperor was a deity and that the war was a sacred mission. Onoda was deeply honored and impressed; he took these orders more literally and seriously than any trooper could have.
A few months later, the Imperial Japanese forces surrendered, leaving thousands of soldiers scattered across the South Pacific and Asia. Many of these stragglers were captured and sent home while others went into hiding, committed suicide, or died of starvation and sickness. The remaining stragglers – including Onoda – took leaflets and radio announcements of Japan’s surrender as enemy propaganda and trickery.
On Lubang, Onoda’s men and several other groups retreated into the jungle when the allied forces overran the island. They continued to fight, but after several attacks the groups dwindled into cells of less than five men each. There was four in Onoda’s cell: Cpl. Shoichi Shimada, Pvt. Kinshichi Kozuka, Pvt. Akatsu, and Onoda.
Thinking that they were still at war, they survived by eating coconuts and wild fruits, stealing from locals, and occasionally killing their livestock for meat. They evaded Filipino search parties and killed 30 people who they believed were enemies. In 1950, one of the enlisted men surrendered and the other two were later shot dead by the local police in 1954 and 1972.
In 1974, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese college dropout, found Onoda shortly after arriving in the Philippines. According to Onoda’s memoir, “when Suzuki left Japan, he told his friends that he was going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”
Onoda didn’t budge with Suzuki’s request to return to Japan because he still considered himself to be under orders. Suzuki took photos with Onoda and returned to Japan to show the government that the World War II vet was still alive. The Japanese government sent Onoda’s former commanding officer to formally relieve him of his duty.
Onoda came home to a hero’s welcome filled with parades and speeches by public officials. He was the pride of Japan, the loyal soldier, who some believed could claim victory because he never surrendered.
But we can go back even further to learn how pandemics have shaped society and the outcomes of conflict.
So, let’s go back over 2400 years ago….
Pericles had the perfect plan! The Athenians moved behind the walls of the city, letting the Spartans attack across land. They would wait them out in a Fabian Strategy. Food would not be an issue because Athens could rely on its maritime imports to keep them fed. Money wasn’t a problem, because they had plenty in the bank. Meanwhile, their fleet projected combat power into Spartan territory, raiding coastal cities and shaming the Spartans. Not only would Pericles avoid fighting the Spartans on their terms, he would also sew doubt of Spartan superiority among the Peloponnesian League by attacking the “home front.” As Athens and Sparta finished the campaigning season in the first year of the war, Athens believed their strategy was working as evidenced by Pericles’ Funeral Oration.
As the second year of the war began, disease struck in Athens. The plague caught everyone by surprise, and as Thucydides points out, “there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head…” The plague swept through Athens killing men, women, and children, and with it came devastating effects on society. Thucydides wrote that lawlessness broke out as men watched others die and private property came up for grabs. The unforeseen disease affected Athenian will; they questioned the value of Pericles’ strategy and the war itself, ultimately sending envoys to Sparta to seek peace.
The Athenian experience with the plague should remind us of the power of the unseen. Disease can reshape society. It can influence the outcome of war. And although we have not experienced the devastating effects of contagion on a mass scale in modern times, we may only be standing in the proverbial eye of the storm.
One can argue that microscopic parasites could be placed on equal footing with geography, war, and migration in shaping the world that we know today. In Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill, the author traces the history of mankind, pointing out how disease proved a major factor in the trajectory of our species. First, he points out that disease served to break down communities of people, enabling them to be absorbed by larger groups. He writes that,
“Such human material could then be incorporated into the tissues of the enlarged civilization itself, either as individuals or families and small village groupings… The way in which digestion regularly breaks down the larger chemical structures of our food in order to permit molecules and atoms to enter into our own bodily structures seems closely parallel to this historical process.”
He observes that the plague led to changes in European society in the 14 and 15 centuries. In England, the Black Death of 1348-1350 led to changes in the social fabric of society, increasing wages and quality of life for serfs. McNeil even suggests that diseases in Europe created enough social upheaval that it successfully set the conditions for Martin Luther’s Reformation.
He further argues that disease set the conditions for European expansion into the New World. For example, Hernando Cortez, who had less than 600 soldiers, was able to conquer an Aztec empire of millions in the early 1500s with the help of contagion. Within fifty years of his landing, the population of central Mexico shrank to a tenth of its size. This catastrophic drop in population levels had significant impacts on religion, defense, and their society in general, paving the way for European growth in the region.
McNeill is not alone in his argument. In Bacteria and Bayonets: The Impact of Disease in the American Military History, David R. Petriello argues that contagion played a major factor in the successful colonization of North America and the American experience with war. Smallpox and other illnesses depopulated the regions surrounding the colonies, giving the settlers the space to grow.
Most Americans have heard the story of how an Indian named Squanto helped save the Plymouth settlers by teaching them planting techniques and guiding them through the peace process with surrounding tribes. However, it was disease more so than goodwill that saved the Pilgrims. The author writes, “When Squanto wandered into the Pilgrim’s’ world he did so as an exile. Had it not been for the epidemic visited his tribe…Squanto himself would not have been seeking out kindred human company.”
While the U.S. military responds to the threat of the Coronavirus, this isn’t the first time it’s battled contagions. Long ago, before we stood in lines to get way too many shots before deployments, commanders dealt with smallpox, influenza, dysentery, and venereal disease, as it affected 30% of armies up through World War I. These outbreaks, more than likely, had an impact on the outcome of key campaigns.
In the Revolutionary and Civil War, disease took important leaders out of important battles the eve of engagements. And it caused commanders to hold off on taking advantage of fleeting opportunities in both conflicts, as they had to wait for replacements to arrive. It has only been in recent history, that we have brought disease’s impact on war under control.
Vaccinations didn’t become common practice until World War II. As Petriello observes, “Whereas there were 102,000 cases of measles in World War I with 2,370 deaths, there were only 60,809 cases in World War II with only 33 deaths reported.”
Thanks to technological advances in medicine, it has been almost a hundred years since disease sat in the front row of a national security conversation. However, things are changing. We’ve seen how the Coronavirus is affecting markets, diplomacy and even troops serving abroad. Maybe it’s time we reexamined our preparedness for these outbreaks.
In the end, Pericles succumbed to the plague, and Athens lost an important leader. Those who came after him chose a different strategic path for the city, which ultimately proved costly for the Delian League. This incident during the Peloponnesian War is worth making us pause and think about the role of contagions in human history and conflict. It has wiped out cultures and set the conditions for the successful expansion of others. It has served as a significant factor in wars of the past. Finally, it may yet play a major role in world affairs again.
Come April 1st, it’s time to keep your ears opened and your eyes peeled, ready for whatever mischief might come your way. It’s a day where folks of all cultures plan and perform their best tricks, service members from all branches included. From physical pranks, to things that are somehow out of place, to flat-out destructive jokes, April Fools’ Day is known for mischief. There are even historical events, including elaborate and heart-stopping examples of how soldiers took advantage of this day of lighthearted fun.
Take a look at these fun pranks among the military community for a good laugh and possibly some ideas for weeks to come.
German Camp, 1915
On this day in 1915, the Geneva Tribune reported a French plane dropped a large object over a German camp. From a distance, the object appeared to be a huge bomb. Upon seeing it, soldiers ran for cover, though no explosion took place. Eventually, they approached the object, which was actually a giant football. On it was a tag that read, “April fool!”
Europe, 1943, the 30-Day Furlough
In a newspaper article in Stars and Stripes, a European publication for overseas soldiers, readers learned of a 30-day furlough available for overseas service members. They were said to be brought home by the newly refurbished ship, Normanie, which would be manned by Women’s Army Corps. What’s more is it stated on-ship entertainment provided by Gypsy Rose Lee and Betty Grable, two big names at the time.
Did you know that Irish bearskin helmets grow hair, so much so that it became a problem wherein they needed trimming? Specially requested by the staff of Buckingham Palace. That was the subject of an April Fools’ article in Soldier, a British magazine published in 1980. They even included scientific evidence on how the hair was able to grow once removed from the animal.
While members on the USS Kennedy suspected nothing more than a delivery of mail during a six month deployment in the Mediterranean, jokesters had other intentions. Navy members planned a surprise drop off on April Fools’ Day in 1986. The helicopter landed and released three greased piglets — each painted red, white and blue — who ran across the deck. The event was even filmed for future generations to see!
Old Guard Virginia, 2013
There are working dogs in the military, so why not working cats? Back in 2013 an announcement was made via the U.S. Army that they were launching a trained cat program, wherein felines would help the military moving forward. Specifically, their duties were to help Military Police track narcotics and catch criminals in their tracks.
Okinawa, Japan 2019
In perhaps one of the most widespread pranks in history, on April Fools’ Day, 2019, the Marine Corps base in Okinawa announced via social media that service members could grow facial hair openly … and have pets in their barracks rooms. Putting safety first, the post even mentioned that pets would need to wear reflective belts to ensure their visibility, likely during early morning hours of PT. Funny enough, right? The problem is people believed it! Some went as far as to throw out razors or take on pets, not realizing the whole announcement was a joke.
Traditionally, April Fools’ Day has been a time to bring in jokes and laughter, often with creative pranks. It’s a look back at how military members still saw the bright side of things, whether in time of war, deployment or simply in everyday situations.
Do you have a favorite military-related April Fools’ Day prank? Let us know about it!
Time and again, the oft-repeated military adage is proven right: if it’s stupid and it works, it isn’t stupid. This old saying might be the military’s version of necessity being the mother of invention. Except in the military, necessity could mean the difference between life and death. This was certainly true of U.S. doughboys on the battlefields of World War I, where a single battle could cost up to 10,000 American lives or more.
Americans were used to overcoming long odds in combat. Our country was founded on long odds. But in the Great War, U.S. troops had to contend with a weapon from which they couldn’t recover: poison gas.
Many different gas masks were used on the Western Front, but one was more improvised than others.
Throughout American involvement in the First World War, poison gas attacks killed and maimed some 2,000 American troops and countless more allies who had been fighting for years before the doughboys arrived. As a result, all the Allied and Central Powers developed anti-gas countermeasures to try and give their troops a fighting chance in a chemical environment. But gas was introduced as a weapon very early in the fighting, long before the belligerents knew they’d need protection.
But they did need protection. Gas on the battlefield was first administered by releasing the gas from canisters while downwind – a method that could go awry at anytime, causing the wind to shift toward friendly forces. Later on, it would be used in artillery shells that would keep the gas in the enemy’s trench – at least, until the friendly troops advanced to take that trench.
German soldiers ignite chlorine gas canisters during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium on April 22, 1915.
But early gases weren’t as terrifying as chemical weapons developed in the course of the war. The first uses of gas attacks involved tear gas and chlorine gas. While tear gas is irritating, it’s relatively harmless. Even the first uses of tear gas on the Eastern Front saw the chemical freeze rather than deploy when fired. Chlorine gas, on the other hand, could be incredibly fatal but was not effective as an instrument of death. Chlorine gas had a telltale smell and green color. Troops knew instantly that the gas had been deployed.
To safeguard against it, allied troops used rags or towels covered in urine to protect their lungs from the gas. The thought was that the ammonia in urea was somehow neutralizing the chlorine to keep it from killing them. That wasn’t it at all. Chlorine just dissolves in water, so no chlorine would ever pass through the wet pieces of cloth on their face. They could have used coffee, and the trick would have still worked.
Water (or urine) wasn’t effective against what was to come.
Troops burned by mustard gas in the First World War.
More than half a million men were injured or killed by poison gas during World War I. The terrifying, disfiguring effects of gases like colorless phosgene gas that caused lungs to fill with fluid, drowning men in their beds over a period of days. Then there was mustard gas, a blistering agent that could soak into their uniforms, covering their entire bodies with painful, burning blisters.
Small wonder it was banned by the Geneva Protocol in 1925.
Not too often do you find something good in a pawn shop. It’s usually cheap crap that was probably stolen or someone couldn’t get out of hock. Occasionally, you find something perfect or useful. But it’s rare you’d ever expect to find a legendary sword.
Sometimes though, fate has its way of showing up. Every now and then someone finds the jackpot item — such as the legendary Mameluke sword of Lt. Gen. Homer L. Litzenberg Jr., Commander of the 7th Marine Regiment during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Lt. Gen. Homer L. Litzenberg Jr. led his men from the Battle of Inchon to Yalu and through 17 of the most brutal days of combat during at the “Frozen Chosin.” He led alongside Marine Corps legend Lt. Gen. “Chesty” Puller who commanded the 1st Marine Regiment.
Chris Anderson, Anne Arundel County police officer and prior service Marine, and his fellow Marines were about to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday at an Annapolis saloon. Anderson noted that they were missing the traditional Mameluke sword of a Marine Corps officer to cut the cake. He did what every Marine would do: he looked for one on eBay.
Searching for a sword on eBay
He found one but it was inscribed with the name “Homer L. Litzenberg Jr.” on the blade. He knew that this blade couldn’t go to some private collector, so he snagged the sword at $255 because of wear and tear. The authenticity hasn’t been determined yet, since the pawnshop can’t disclose prior owner information. However, the pawnshop did say that with its proximity to Aberdeen Proving Ground, it’s extremely common for them to receive military items so this might just be the legendary sword after all.
Check out this blade
Anderson has since made it his personal crusade to get the sword verified and put into the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
Since the introduction of the Medal of Honor at the beginning of the Civil War, only 19 men have received it twice.
Five received both the Army and Navy version for the same action. Four Navy sailors received two for actions during peacetime. Before the 20th Century, a number of Medals of Honor were bestowed for any valorous action – because it was the only medal at the time.
However, there are still 3 men who earned the Medal of Honor as we’ve come to know it – by gallantry in the face of the enemy – twice.
Those three men were John McCloy, U.S. Navy, and Daniel Daly, and Smedley Butler, both U.S. Marines .
The three men’s paths would cross during the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Caribbean campaigns, and World War I.
The Boxer Rebellion
In early 1900, the United States and seven other nations dispatched forces to China to quell the Boxer Rebellion and to protect their national interests.
During the fighting, McCloy and Daly both earned their first Medals of Honor while Butler, an officer (who was ineligible for the Medal of Honor at the time), received a Brevet promotion – an award for officers who had displayed gallantry in action – in lieu of the Medal of Honor. Butler rushed out of a trench in the face of withering enemy fire to rescue a wounded Marine officer before being wounded himself.
John McCloy earned the Medal of Honor for his actions during four battles throughout the month of June 1900. At that time, Navy seamen called “Bluejackets” left the ship with Marines to fight as infantry. McCloy was one of those Bluejackets.
Dan Daly found himself alone on a wall outside the American Legation in Peking after his commanding officer left to get reinforcements. From his position, he single-handedly held off attacks by Chinese snipers. He also fought off an attempt to storm the wall holding his position, alone, through the night until reinforcements arrived. His actions earned him his first Medal of Honor.
The Occupation of Veracruz
Over a decade later, the three men found themselves fighting in the Caribbean during the Banana Wars and the Occupation of Veracruz.
During the tumultuous Mexican Revolution in 1914, the United States received word of a weapons shipment inbound to the port of Veracruz. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the port captured and the weapons seized. He dispatched several warships and Marine contingents for the mission.
During the initial battle, John McCloy, now a Chief Boatswain, commanded three picket boats unloading men and supplies in the port. When his force came under fire from a nearby building, he drove his force into harm’s way and fired a volley from the boats’ one-inch guns.
The Mexicans fired in response, revealing their positions which were then silenced by the USS Prairie. During the fighting, McCloy was shot in the thigh but remained at his post as beachmaster for 48 hours before being forced to evacuate by the brigade surgeon. McCloy’s was awarded his second Medal of Honor for this.
Meanwhile, then-Maj. Smedley Butler was leading his battalion of Marines through the streets of Veracruz. For conspicuous gallantry while leading his forces against the enemy on April 22, Butler received his first Medal of Honor. Butler attempted to return this Medal of Honor because he didn’t feel he adequately earned it. He was rebuffed and told to wear it well.
Daniel Daly was with the Marines at Veracruz but (in an uncharacteristic move for Daly) earned no medals for bravery during the action.
The U.S. Occupation of Haiti
While McCloy was employed elsewhere, Maj. Butler and Gunnery Sgt. Daly embarked with the 2nd Marine Regiment for duty in Haiti in 1915. While fighting the Caco rebels, both men received their second Medals of Honor.
On October 24, 1915, Maj. Butler was leading a reconnaissance patrol of the 15th Company of Marines, which included Gunnery Sgt. Daly. That evening, the patrol was ambushed by 400 Cacos. The Americans lost their machine gun and were forced to retreat to high ground.
That night, Daly ventured out to retrieve the machine gun. He killed three Cacos with his knife in the process. The next morning, Butler ordered the patrol to organize into three sections to attack and disperse the rebels. Daly led one section. They drove the Cacos into Fort Dipitie before the Marines assaulted and captured it. This action earned Daly his second Medal of Honor.
Less than a month later, Butler led a group of 100 Marines and sailors against Caco rebels holed up in Fort Rivière. Under heavy cover fire, Butler and 26 of his men entered the fort through an opening in the wall. Once inside, they dispersed the rebels, killing 51 with only one Marine wounded. This is how Butler earned his second Medal of Honor.
World War I
Although by the time the U.S. entered World War I, the three gallant men already wore two Medals of Honor each. But their bravery was not finished. Brig. Gen. Butler would sit out the war in command of a depot, Dan Daly further cemented his place in Marine Corps lore at Belleau Wood – where he shouted his famous “do you want to live forever?” quote.
He earned the Navy Cross during the battle, reportedly because having a third Medal of Honor would have simply been ridiculous.
McCloy commanded the minesweeper USS Curlew during the Great War. He received a Navy Cross for his part in clearing the North Sea mine barrage after the war.