The fascinating history behind the US President's nuclear football - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

The “nuclear football” is guarded by a senior military aide-de-camp and kept in close proximity to the US president whenever he is away from the White House. Following World War II, nuclear weapons were a new reality of the world’s superpowers, and when the US and Soviet Union squared off in the Cold War these superweapons were strategic methods for deterrence. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President John F. Kennedy questioned whether there was a need for a doomsday weapon capability that could allow its operator to order a nuclear strike from anywhere in the world.

“What would I say to the Joint War Room to launch an immediate nuclear strike?” he asked, according to declassified reports. “How would the person who received my instructions verify them?”

The solution was a 45-pound aluminum-framed black leather briefcase, officially called the Presidential Emergency Satchel. It became more commonly known as the nuclear football because the nuclear plan was code-named Operation Dropkick — it needed a “football” to complete the sequence. The most common misconception about the nuclear football is that the president flips a switch or hits a big red button and the world ends moments later. If that were the case, the world should be very concerned. Fortunately, it verifies the identity of the president and connects him to the Pentagon, which is responsible for carrying out the military strike. 

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
White House military aide Gen. Chester Clifton carrying the football, with President John F. Kennedy and David Powers, approaching the “cottage” at Hyannis Port, May 10, 1963, where Kennedy was about to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson. Photo courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

In 1980, Bill Gulley, the former director of the White House Military Office, wrote a tell-all book, Breaking Cover, describing the shady money deals under four different administrations — those of Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. The Washington Post gave Gulley, who even disclosed the different components of the nuclear football, the unflattering title of the “mercenary snitch.” 

“There are four things in the Football,” Gulley writes. “The Black Book containing the retaliatory options, a book listing classified site locations, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System, and a three-by-five inch card with authentication codes [which the president usually carries separately from the football].”

Carter later found these retaliatory options super complicated, so he started the process of simplifying the nuclear codes, or “the biscuit.” Air Force Col. Robert “Buzz” Patterson, a senior military aide-de-camp responsible for President Bill Clinton’s nuclear football, explained the refined codes were similar to a “Denny’s breakfast menu” because “it’s like picking one out of Column A and two out of Column B.” On the day when the Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal hit the national press, the president forgot where he had put the nuclear football.

“I was floored — and so was the Pentagon,” Patterson recalled. “It had never happened before.”

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
Football carrier Lt. Cmdr. T. Stephen Todd, a naval aide, with President Gerald Ford leaving the White House, May 5, 1975. Photo courtesy of A4417—13A, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

Although Clinton once lost the nuclear football and then left it behind at a NATO meeting on another occasion, he wasn’t the only president guilty of misplacing the highly sensitive and secret world-ending capability. Carter lost the biscuit when he left the card in his suit and it was sent to the dry cleaners. When President Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981, his biscuit was thrown away in a trash can in the George Washington University Hospital. 

The most recent ordeal involving the nuclear football came in 2017 when President Donald Trump visited China. A scuffle between Chinese security officials and the US Secret Service ensued after the nuclear football wasn’t allowed inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. 

“Then there was a commotion,” Axios reported in 2018. “A Chinese security official grabbed [Chief of Staff John] Kelly, and Kelly shoved the man’s hand off of his body. Then a U.S. Secret Service agent grabbed the Chinese security official and tackled him to the ground.”

Since the nuclear football was first photographed on May 10, 1963, it has become the focus of the media, a concern for foreign governments, and a token of strength and military might for the US government. It was even replicated by the Soviet Union, which created its own version called the Cheget.

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A look at one of the most inspiring speeches in history

Throughout World War II, Winston Churchill gave a number of speeches that galvanized the British public in the face of extreme hardship and convinced them to keep fighting that good fight against Adolf and his cronies.

Perhaps the most famous speech Churchill ever gave was the one he spent the longest time agonising over — “This was their finest hour,” where he stated in part,


What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

The speech was delivered just a month after Churchill became Prime Minister and at a time when the UK was reeling from the news that France had fallen (effectively leaving the British Empire to fight the Nazi war machine alone, until Hitler turned on the Soviet Union in 1941 and the Yanks joined in about six months after that). The speech had to somehow rally the entire country during what Churchill would eventually come to call “The Darkest Hour.” This is a goal the speech is generally accepted as having accomplished and then some, with Churchill’s words deeply resonating with the British public. In particular, Churchill’s sentiments about the British Isles standing strong in the face of what appeared to be impossible odds.

THEIR FINEST HOUR speech by Winston Churchill [BEST SOUND]

www.youtube.com

The speech, which lasted around 36 minutes, was first given in private to Parliament on June 18, 1940, and later to the British public via radio and it’s noted that Churchill was making revisions to it until quite literally the last possible moment. For example, when the Churchill Archives Centre dug up the very same copy of the speech Churchill used when he addressed Parliament, they found that it was covered in random annotations, some of which appear to have been made leading right up to just before he gave the speech.

Impressively, some of these literal last minutes additions ended up being amongst the most memorable lines from it. For example, the line “All shall be restored” which was noted as inspiring many a Britain to do their bit for the greater good of Europe, was a line Churchill scribbled in the margins of the speech when he sat on a bench in the House of Commons waiting to be called to speak.

It’s also noted that Churchill simply winged it at some points, making up some of the lines in the speech on the fly. This was something that was facilitated by Churchill’s insistence on printing the speech in blank verse format, which some experts believe allowed Churchill to read and visualise the speech as a piece of poetry, allowing him to better improvise and more comfortably find a natural rhythm when speaking.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

Winston Churchill

Of course, no matter how good something is, even in the days before internet comments there’s always someone to criticize and, despite “This was their finest hour” being considered one of the finest oratory performances ever given, Churchill’s own secretary, Sir Jock Colville, was wildly unimpressed. Among other things, he noted in his diary that the speech was too long and that Churchill sounded tired when he read it. Given that the speech is often ranked alongside things like the Gettysburg Address, Sir Colville’s opinion evidently wasn’t one shared by many others, however.

Finally, because we kind of have to mention this, when Churchill delivered the speech to the British public via radio, he reportedly did so while smoking a comically large cigar which he kept burning in his mouth for virtually the entire time he was speaking…

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

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MIGHTY HISTORY

4 battles brought to you by booze

Alcohol is, like, super awesome. All the cool kids are drinking (unless you’re underage, then none of the cool kids are drinking it, you delinquent), it can lower peoples’ inhibitions, and it’s actually super easy to make and distribute.

So, it’s probably no surprise that the military likes alcohol or that many warriors throughout time have loved the sauce. Here are four times that drinking (or even the rumor of drinking, in one case) helped lead to a battle:


The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

The Schloss Itter Castle was the site of one of history’s strangest battles, in which American and German troops teamed up to protect political prisoners from other German troops.

(Steve J. Morgan, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Waffen SS soldiers got drunk to attack a Nazi-American super team defending POWs

It’s been dubbed World War II’s “strangest battle,” that time German and American soldiers teamed up to defend political prisoners from an attacking SS battalion at Castle Itter. If you haven’t heard about it, this article from Paul Szoldra is worth a read.

What he doesn’t mention is that the Waffen SS soldiers attacking the castle in an attempt to kill the political prisoners had to stockpile some courage first, and they decided to steal the castle’s booze, drink it up, and finally kill the prisoners. Unfortunately for them, they took too long, giving the American and Wehrmacht defenders time to team up and occupy the castle. The attack failed, the prisoners survived, and 100 SS members were captured.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

Washington inspecting the captured colors after the Battle of Trenton.

(Library of Congress)

Rumored Hessian partying paved the way for Washington’s post-Christmas victory

Gen. George Washington’s Christmas Day victory over the Hessians is an example of tactical surprise and mobility. It was a daring raid against a superior force that resulted in a strategic coup for the Colonialists, finally convincing France to formally enter the war on the side of independence.

And it never would’ve happened if Washington’s staff officers hadn’t known that Hessians liked to get drunk on Christmas and that they would (hopefully) still be buzzed or hungover the following morning. Surprisingly though, none of the Hessians captured were found to be drunk after the battle. Alcohol gave Washington’s men the courage to get the job done, but it turns out the chance for victory was inside them all along.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

Viking ships attack and besiege Paris in 845.

Nearly all Viking raids were preceded by drunken debates

When Vikings needed to make major decisions, like about whether to launch new raids or engage in a new war, they did it in a stereotypically Norse way: By getting drunk and debating the decision with no emotional walls between them. Then, they sobered up to finish the debate.

But, once they decided to do battle, they were much more likely to be sober. The Vikings were professional warriors who left the village for the sole purpose of raiding, and they took their work seriously. So, the decision to do battle was aided by alcohol, but the actual fighting succeeded thanks to discipline.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

Celts fought the British at the Battle of Culloden, probably mostly sober. But the Celts, historically, liked to imbibe before a fight.

The Celts would get plastered before battles on beer or imported Roman wines

Celts loved their alcohol, and anyone with the money went for jar after jar of red wine from Italy. For warriors heading into battle the next day, the drinking was a way to mentally prepare, to bond, and to get one last night of partying on the books in case you didn’t make it through.

Of course, most Celtic warriors weren’t financial elites, so they were much more likely to be berserking their way through battle drunk on beer and mead than on imported wines.

Want more cases of alcohol playing a role in war? Check out 7 times drunks decided the course of battle.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These are the punishments for convicted War Criminals

The Hague and international community have little remorse for convicted war criminals. Generally, there are only two sentences: death and prison. This has been the case since 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was established. The Treaty distinguishes war crimes (acts committed under the guise of military necessity) from crimes against humanity (acts committed against the civilian population) and manages the overlap between the two.


Let’s take a look at how the international community punishes war criminals for their transgressions against humanity:

House Arrest

The most lenient of the punishments is never issued by The Hague, but is enforced by the country of the criminal to prevent the issue from going higher. The guilty are confined to their home instead of a traditional prison. If they are allowed outside communication or travel, it’s strictly monitored.

Notable Criminal: Pol Pot (1997 until death in 1998)

Although he was accused or directly responsible for the deaths of between 1 and 3 million people in Cambodia (which only had a population of 8 million people), Saloth Sar, later known as Pol Pot, was only ever tried for the execution of his right-hand man, Son Sen. Around 10 months into his sentence, he died of a lethal combination of Valium and chloroquine. It’s unknown if it was intentional suicide, accidental, or even murder.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

Lengthy prison sentences

For most war criminals, lengthy prison sentences are the norm. Unless you’re found to be only an accessory to war crimes, sentences are typically twenty years and more. With such long imprisonments, life after release is still hell.

Notable Criminal: Charles Taylor (sentenced to 50 years in 2012)

Taylor was the deposed President of Liberia and one of the most prominent warlords in Africa. He rose to power during the First Liberian Civil War and was heavily involved in the Sierra Leone Civil War along with the Second Liberian Civil War. The presiding judge at The Hague, Richard Lussick, said at his sentencing, “The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
To contextualize his actions, he (standing) was the inspiration for Andre Baptiste Sr. in the 2005 film Lord of War (Image via UN)

Life in prison

For the top echelon of war criminals — those too vile even for the sweet release of death — a life sentence is the punishment of choice.

Notable Criminal: Philippe Pétain (1945 until death in 1951)

Pétain was once a beloved General, the Lion of Verdun, hero of France — that was until the fall of France in 1940. He was immediately appointed Prime Minister of France and turned the Third French Republic into Vichy France, the puppet state of Nazi Germany. He willingly sided with Hitler’s agenda (including antisemitism, censorship, and the “felony of opinion”) while squashing the French Resistance.

After the fall of the Axis Powers, Pétain was was tried for treason and aiding the Nazi Regime. He was convicted of all charges and sentenced to death. Charles De Gaulle, the new President of France, commuted his sentence to life in prison because of his age and military service during WWI. He was stripped of all military ranks and honors except for the distinction of Marshal of France.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
You can also blame him for all of the coward jokes against the actually bad-ass French military. (Image via Wikicommons)

Execution

Surprisingly enough, the highest possible punishment for war crimes is also the most issued. A large percentage of those tried at the Nuremberg Trials received the death penalty — more specifically, death by hanging. The added benefit effect of death by hangings as opposed to use of firing squad is that it took an agonizing 12 to 28 minutes for war criminals to die.

Notable Criminals: Saddam Hussein (Dec. 30, 2006)

Numerous genocides, ethnic cleansings, invasions of foreign states, countless human rights abuses, and the responsibility for the deaths of up to 182,000 civilians, Saddam Hussein was, at one point, the world’s foremost war criminal. Captured by U.S.-led forces near Tikrit, Iraq in 2003, he was later handed to the Iraqi people for a lengthy trial process before he was eventually executed.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
Capture of Saddam Hussein (Image via Wikicommons)

MIGHTY HISTORY

These are the 5 best snipers in modern history

The sniper is more than an expert marksman and being a sniper is about more than one good shot. Snipers are highly-trained in stealth movement, allowing them to slowly infiltrate enemy positions and observe their movements. Taking out a high-ranking official is just one of the benefits of a sniper team.

Once behind enemy lines, they provide crucial intelligence information and reconnaissance on enemy movements not to mention the size, strength and equipment of the enemy.


The lethality of the sniper can provide overwatch for regular forces on the ground and strike fear into the heart of an enemy encampment. When a sniper does take that well-placed shot, it can change history. These are the 5 best snipers in modern history:

5. Unknown Canadian Special Forces Sniper

No one knows the name of this Canadian sniper because he’s still out there, giving terrorists a reason to consider giving up on terrorism altogether – lest they get a bullet they won’t even see coming.

This special operator from the great north took down a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan from more than two miles away. Using a McMillan TAC-50 sniper rifle from an elevated position, he fired the shot from nearly twice as far as the weapon’s maximum range. In 10 seconds, it was all over.

To make that shot takes more than crosshairs. The sniper’s spotter was likely using a telescope to make its target. The sniper then has to account for gauge wind speeds, distances, terrain, heat and even the curvature of the earth to hit its mark.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

4. Red Army Capt. Vasily Zaytsev

It’s one thing to be a successful sniper when the world around you is quiet. It’s a whole other beast to do it in the stadium of death that was the World War II siege of Stalingrad. Vasily Zaytsev grew up in the Russian wilderness, learning to shoot by necessity, hunting food for his family.

It was just as necessary when he was transferred from the Russian Navy into the Red Army following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a gig he volunteered for. He took down 255 Nazis at Stalingrad, creating a new method for snipers in fixed areas, called the “sixes.” He was briefly wounded but returned to the front eventually ending the war in Germany with around 400 total kills – often using a standard issue rifle.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

3. Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle

“The Deadliest Sniper in U.S. Military History,” this Navy SEAL’s exploits were known to both the Marines he protected as well as the enemy. The Marines called him “The Legend.” Insurgents called him “The Devil.” They also put an ,000 bounty on his head.

Kyle learned to shoot from the tender age of 8 years old, and joined the Naval Special Warfare Command in 2001. He would do a total of four tours in Iraq, racking up so many confirmed and unconfirmed kills even he lost track of them all. To Kyle, however, it was all to protect his Marines. And the Marines loved him for it.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

2. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock

Moving on from “The Legend” to a legend even among other snipers, comes Gunny Hathcock. Hell hath no fury like Carlos Hathcock when the lives of his fellow Americans are on the line.

“If I didn’t get the enemy, they were going to kill the kids over there,” he once said.

His exploits in Vietnam are each worth a Hollywood blockbuster, from the time he low-crawled for miles to take out a North Vietnamese general, to his showdown with “The Apache,” a female sniper who tortured American GIs to make Hathcock come out and fight.

He did. He called the shot that killed The Apache, “The best shot I ever made.”

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

1. Finnish Army 2nd Lt. Simo Häyhä

No sniper’s record can compare to that of Lt. Simo Häyhä. When the USSR invaded Finland in 1939, Häyhä set out to kill as many Red Army soldiers as possible. It earned him the nickname “White Death” and a record that still stands.

The final tally on that promise turned out to be a lot: 505 kills in fewer than 100 days. That means the old farmer from Rautajävi killed at least five people a day on average, all with just the iron sights on his rifle.

Every countersniper the Russians sent to kill the White Death never returned. Even when the Red Army tried to use artillery to kill him, they weren’t successful. One Russian marksman got lucky enough to hit Häyhä in his left cheek with an explosive bullet, but the old man stood up with half his face blown off and killed his would-be assassin. He lived to the ripe old age of 96.

When you come at the king, you best not miss.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is what it took to be an executioner in medieval times

Mary A. asks: How did someone get the job of an executioner in medieval times?

Few occupations from history are as maligned as that of Medieval-era executioner. Popularly painted as gleeful dispensers of death and torture, the truth seems to be that many executioners throughout this period usually treated the occupation with a certain reverence and exhibited an extreme dedication to duty. Beyond trying to minimize the suffering of those slated to be executed, this was, among other reasons we’ll get into, because it would often mean the life of the executioner if they ever botched an execution or otherwise weren’t extremely professional in carrying out their job.


So, moving beyond any Hollywood depictions, what was it actually like to be an executioner in the ballpark of Medieval times and how did someone get the job in the first place?

A thing to note before we continue is that the duties expected of and performed by executioners, as well as what life was like for specific executioners, has varied wildly across time and regions. For example, as we’ve talked before, those condemned to death in the Ottoman empire during the 18th century could potentially get off scot-free by challenging the executioner to a footrace. In this case, in addition to doling out lethal justice with their bare hands, executioners also worked as both bodyguards and gardeners.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

That caveat out of the way, how did one become an executioner in the first place? It turns out that many European Medieval executioners were former criminals themselves. You see, for reasons we’ll get into shortly, the role of executioner was so unpopular that finding someone to do the job often required either forcing someone into the profession or offering the gig to someone who was slated to be executed themselves.

Scandinavian countries were known to make extensive use of this novel hiring practice, with a little twist thrown in- they’d maim executioners by cutting off one or both of their ears so that they could be easily identified by the public. It also wasn’t uncommon for people made executioners in this way to be branded somewhere on their head, once again for the purpose of their new profession being, in this case literally, written all over their face. For example, as noted in Hugo Mathiessen’s Boddel og Galgefugl,

“In the year 1470, a poor thief stood at the foot of the gallows in the Swedish town Arboga and was waiting to be hanged. The public attending the spectacle had pity on the sinner and when he, to save his neck, offered to become executioner in the town, it was agreed. He was pardoned and the red-hot iron was used to brand his body with both thief and executioner mark.”

In Germany, on the other hand, as author Joel Harrington notes in a discussion of his book, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, while “standing executioners on salary were the norm” throughout Germany during the 1600s, for many centuries prior to this it was commonplace to thrust role of executioner upon a victim’s oldest male relative.

This all brings us around to why so many avoided the profession like the plague. To begin with, the general consensus among most was that in taking such a job, one was then sure to be damned in the afterlife. This was despite the fact that in some regions, such as France, executioners were by official church decree absolved of the sins committed while performing their duties.

This still didn’t stop the general public from considering executioners unclean, leading to the more practical problem with the job- nearly being completely ostracized from society. Coming back to those condemned to die instead becoming an executioner, people seem to have been perfectly fine with this as the criminal’s life would still be forfeit, just in a more metaphorical sense.

For example, throughout Medieval Europe executioners were often forced to live in houses outside of the city or town they plied their trade in. In cases where this wasn’t possible, they tended to live near things like public latrines, lepertoriums, or brothels. Executioners were similarly often denied citizenship to the towns and cities they served (and thus had few rights in the town) and were largely barred from holding office or even entering churches, pubs, bathhouses, etc- basically most public establishments were off limits to the executioner.

Thus, despite executioners being deemed critical for a society to remain civilised, they were paradoxically generally forced to live apart from that civilised society.

In fact, some places across Europe went as far to institute laws specifically targeting executioners and what they could and could not do in their day to day lives. For example, the Bavarian town of Memmingen enacted an ordinance in 1528 that forbade members of the general public dining with an executioner.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

Such laws and just general attitudes effectively limited the people an executioner could interact with in their day to day lives to their own family and those from the criminal underworld who simply didn’t care that the executioner was unclean. On top of this, an executioner’s children and spouse were likewise similarly shunned by anyone but the underbelly of society.

This, combined with the fact that the children of executioners could usually only find mates with children of other executioners, understandably led to the role of executioner becoming a macabre family trade that resulted in executioner dynasties that spanned centuries.

Beyond being ostrosised and damning your progeny to a similar life, as well as an afterlife full of hellfire, while there were potentially ways for an executioner to make a killing within the profession, it turns out for most there simply weren’t enough executions themselves to make ends meet. Alternate work was limited to jobs nobody else wanted. This included all manner of things, from disposal of corpses (animal and human), emptying cesspools, collecting taxes from the diseased and prostitutes, etc.

Oddly, at least from a modern perspective, another common profession for a well trained executioner was that of a doctor and surgeon. You see, beyond executing people, another thing executioners were often called to do was torture people for various reasons. These two things, combined with the close-knit community of executioners sharing their knowledge amongst themselves, resulted in lifelong executioners generally having exceptional knowledge of human anatomy, and thus they were commonly called on to treat various medical maladies.

In fact, one rather famous 17th century German executioner, Frantz Schmidt, noted in his journal that over the course of his near five decade career he had over 15,000 people he treated as a doctor, while executing only 394 and disfiguring or otherwise torturing or flogging roughly the same number- meaning most of the time he functioned as a doctor, despite society at the time considering him an executioner.

Schmidt was one of those thrust into the profession as his father was strong-armed into becoming an executioner, condemning Schmidt to the same life once he came of age, though Schmidt’s story has something of a happy ending.

Like many executioners, Schmidt was given a wide berth by the public in his day-to-day life, but the incredible professionalism with which he conducted his grisly duties earned him the begrudging respect of both the general public and those in power. In his later years, Schmidt was able to parlay this into a meeting with Nuremberg authorities and then was able to appeal to Emperor Ferdinand II himself, with the goal of restoring his family honor.

Swayed by not just Schmidt’s words, but also letters from city council members and other notable people extolling Schmidt’s character and dedication to his duty, the then 70 year old executioner was granted both Nuremberg citizenship and had his family name cleared, allowing his progeny to escape the bloody spectre of his work.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

Of course, being ultra-professional with the profession was something of a necessity for Schmidt as, at the time in Germany, there was a law stipulating that any executioner tasked with doling out death by the sword (a form of execution largely reserved for especially important individuals) who took more than three swings to behead a victim would be condemned to die themselves.

Even where such laws didn’t exist, the job of an executioner was extremely dangerous as executioners were also at risk of being killed either by vengeful relatives or the crowd witnessing an execution. In regards to the latter, if an executioner was especially cruel in their meting out of punishment, simply incompetent to the point that they caused undue suffering, or just otherwise acted in an unprofessional manner in performing their duties, it wasn’t unheard of for a crowd to retaliate by killing the executioner on the spot, generally with no consequence to anyone in the mob.

This constant danger of the job was something Schmidt himself talked about several times in his journal, though he only notes one instance where the crowd turned into a mob. This occurred during a flogging he was performing, with the person being beaten ultimately stoned to death by the crowd.

As you might imagine from this, in cases like Schmidt who was trained from childhood to take over the job from his father, a rather lengthy apprenticeship was called for, including a robust education from one’s parent, followed by assisting in executions and torture from a young age. Schmidt also notes that he practiced executions extensively on various animals before being allowed to actually execute a human himself. The end goal of all of this was to make sure he wouldn’t screw up, as raucous mobs didn’t really care if it was someone’s first day on the job or not.

Now, although being an executioner came with some massive downsides, it wasn’t all bad. Enterprising executioners could actually earn a fairly decent living doling out torture and capital punishment on command if they were smart about it. For example, especially skilled executioners who didn’t mind traveling could take advantage of the scarcity of people willing to do their job by plying their trade across whichever country they happened to live in, rather than just staying local.

Executioners also frequently earned extra money in the form of bribes from the condemned or their families, invariably given in the hopes that the executioner would ensure death was as swift and painless as possible, or otherwise allow the condemned extra comforts leading up to the execution. This might include, for example, slipping them extra alcohol or the like to make the execution a little easier to handle.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

On top of this, throughout much of Medieval Europe a perk of being an executioner is that it was customary for whatever property was worn at the time of death to be granted to the executioner.

Additionally, executioners in Germany were frequently tasked with things like arbitrating disputes between prostitutes and driving lepers out of town, among other such jobs, all of which they could charge a premium for because nobody else was willing to do the job.

Executioners were also sometimes not just given the job of disposing of animal carcasses, but also in some regions the explicit right to all stray animal carcasses found in a town. Depending on the animal, this could mean the rights to valuable hides, teeth, etc.

An even greater benefit for certain executioners, this time in France, was the idea of droit de havage. In a nutshell, because executioners were so ostracized and couldn’t in some regions, for example, just go down to the market and shop freely, under droit de havage, executioners were more or less allowed to tax those who sold various food and drink items. This came in the form of being able to demand goods for free.

Finally, there’s the money an executioner would be paid for performing an execution, flogging, or the like. Although it’s hard to say exactly how much an executioner could earn per hanging or beheading in today’s currency due to the inherent difficulty of gauging the value of historic currencies, it’s evident that it was a good amount, at least relative to the generally low social standing of executioners.

For example, according to information gleaned from an old statute dated to a small German town in 1276 an executioner could earn the equivalent of 5 shillings per execution. This is an amount roughly equal to the amount of money a skilled tradesmen could earn in about 25 days at the time. Likewise, an executioner operating in England some two centuries later in the 1400s could reportedly earn a fee of 10 shillings per execution, or roughly 16 times the amount a skilled tradesmen could earn in a single day.

Granted, as you might have deduced from the aforementioned case of Frantz Schmidt only executing about 400 people and flogging a similar number in his near five decades on the job, nobody was getting rich doing this by itself, it at least wasn’t bad pay per hour of work.

Finally, we’d be remiss in any discussion of Medieval executioners to not point out that the idea of executioners wearing masks to hide who they were does not appear to have actually been much of a thing. Beyond, as mentioned, in many regions being literally branded as executioners, even large cities for much of history weren’t actually that large; so people knew who the executioner in a given region was, if not directly, by being marked such. Thus, wearing a mask would have been pointless.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

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This fake amphibious assault saved hundreds of lives in Desert Storm

Deep into night on Feb. 23, 1991, the U.S. military and its coalition partners launched the long-anticipated invasion of Iraq with a three-pronged attack that crippled Iraqi command and control, isolated and devastated enemy units, and resulted in one of the fastest land wars in military history as the U.S. secured victory in 100 hours.


But the three-pronged attack consisted of two real prongs — an infantry assault as well as the famous “left hook” of tanks cutting through the Kuwaiti and Iraqi deserts — and one ruse attack. The ruse was an amphibious assault of Marines hitting the beaches of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and pushing west towards Baghdad.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
The USS Wisconsin fires a Tomahawk cruise missile during Desert Storm. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

If the ruse was successful, the Iraqi units would continue to look east, orienting defenses and their attentions towards a fake amphibious assault as light infantrymen and paratroopers secured positions to their rear and one of history’s greatest armored thrusts smacked them right in the capital.

The Navy called on two of its greatest weapons to ensure that the Iraqis looked east, the USS Wisconsin and the USS Missouri, massive battleships taken out of retirement in the early 1980s by Ronald Reagan.

The two Iowa-class battleships bristled with guns and had already seen heavy fighting in the mine-laden waters off the coast of Iraq and Kuwait. They took part in the initial Tomahawk cruise missile attacks that January. They also provided naval artillery support to American and coalition troops on the ground by hurling shells of up to 2,700 pounds against Iraqi artillery and bunkers.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
The USS Missouri fires during Operation Desert Storm. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Dillon)

In the weeks leading up to the invasion, U.S. commanders kept everyone’s eyes on the big ships, calling in shots from the battleships throughout the fighting and getting the effects of those 16-inch guns onto the front pages of newspapers like The New York Times.

The NYT even reported on the likelihood that America would invade by sea, saying in the second paragraph of an article on February 4:

Powerful guns aboard the battleship Missouri lobbed 2,700-pound shells against Iraqi command bunkers near the Kuwaiti coastline, military command officials said, describing the shore bombardment as a further indication that an American-led amphibious assault on occupied Kuwait might be drawing near.

On Feb. 23, the battleships cleared their throats once again. A targeting drone from the Wisconsin was flying over the coast as the shells ripped into Iraqi positions once again, softening up the coast and sowing panic into the defenders.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
The Pioneer drone is moved on the USS Wisconsin during Desert Storm. The small aerial vehicle was used to observe naval artillery and its effects during the war. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate John Kristoffersen)

The bombardment was so effective that, when the drone flew back over the target, Iraqi troops attempted to surrender to it by waving small white flags.

But the U.S. wasn’t done.

Just a few hours later, the ground offensive began. The British Special Air Service was the first military unit to cross into Iraqi territory, but multiple troops poured over the border by the thousands throughout the morning.

Throughout the day on Feb. 24, coalition forces hit ground target after ground target and American tanks began tanking out bunkers in the armored thrust that would stun the world.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
USS Wisconsin fires her main battery during Desert Storm. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

But America still wanted Iraqi commanders too scared to pull their forces back from the coast to counter the growing threat of armor and infantry. And so the battleships were called up once again.

On Feb. 25, the Missouri once again fired into Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. And this time, the Marine Corps sent in 10 helicopters to simulate a landing force. The Iraqis launched anti-ship missiles at the Missouri, but a British ship shot down the only one that actually threatened the battleship. Coalition planes quickly found the launch site and destroyed the missiles based there.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
Abrams tanks and a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle move out during Operation Desert Storm. (Photo: U.S. Navy D. W. Holmes II)

The Iraqis near the coast stayed put even as coalition armor was slamming into their best units. On Feb. 26, then-Cpt. H.R. McMaster fought the famous Battle of 73 Easting that saw one armored cavalry troop of Abrams and Bradleys wipe out 44 enemy tanks and armored vehicles with no losses.

A ceasefire was declared on Feb. 28, halting the fighting until Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein accepted the terms of the peace deal. The coalition forces lost 300 troops in the fighting, much fewer than they would have lost if the Iraqi forces had been able to concentrate on the real threat.

The Iraqi forces lost an estimated 8,000-10,000 killed.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This monstrosity was probably Germany’s worst plane

I would write an intro about how, in the end days of World War II, Germany was short on manpower, territory, and resources, but nearly every article about Germany’s failed super weapons starts that way. So, just, you know, remember that Germany was desperate at the end of World War II because Hitler was high on drugs and horrible at planning ahead when he invaded his neighbors.


Natter Assault! Germany’s Vertical Launch Fighter

youtu.be

So, on the list of harebrained schemes that the Nazis turned to in order to stave off their inevitable defeat, the Natter has to be one of the craziest. Basically, because they were low on metal and airstrips and they thought rockets seemed awesome, the Nazis made a single-use, vertically launched, rocket-powered plane that only fired rockets. These were supposed to be “grass snakes” that rose from the forests of Germany and slaughtered Allied bombers.

Oddly enough, the Germans were also critically short of the C-Stoff fuel for the more conventional Me-163 rocket fighter, but they went ahead and used the same fuel for the Natter anyway, leading General of Fighters Adolf Galland to tell a colonel that:

…because of a special SS initiative, a defensive surface-to-air rocket aircraft is supposed to be forced into production. And they will be propelled by C-Agent as well. That is the height of stupidity, but it’s also fact.
The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

“Eh, needs more rockets.”

(Anagoria, CC BY 3.0)

Oh, and, worst of all, the planes couldn’t land without breaking apart.

The Natter, officially designated the Ba-349, was made primarily of wood. It would be strapped to a tree or, in its test flights, a special but cheaply built tower. They would then fire four solid boosters to get the aircraft into the sky before the main rocket motor could kick in.

Assuming everything didn’t go to hell during that not-at-all-dangerous process, the pilot could then maneuver onto incoming bombers and fire up to 24 rockets at them. Since the Natter flew at over twice the speed of a B-17’s max, the pilots really needed to fire their rockets accurately and quickly before they overshot their target.

Once they were out of ammo, the pilot would release the nose and deploy the parachutes. The nose would fall separately from the rest of the plane and, hopefully, the parts would land safely. The parts and the pilot would be recovered and ready for another round.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

“This will save the war.”

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

It, uh, did not work properly. On the second unmanned test flight, the flight components hit the ground with fuel remaining. That fuel blew up, destroying the plane. But because the blast wouldn’t have—necessarily—killed the pilot, they went ahead with a manned flight.

That flight went worse. No offense to the Nazi test pilot. On March 1, 1945, Lothar Sieber took off in a Ba-349, but it immediately started flying inverted and climbed into cloud cover. It emerged from the clouds a few minutes later and crashed into the ground, miles away.

The pilot was dead, either from the shock of takeoff, the canopy flying off in flight, or the crash. The plane was destroyed. And everyone finally gave up on the idea of the Natter.

Not that it would have changed much if it had been controllable. The western Allies crossed into Germany about two weeks later, and a few rocket-powered fighters wouldn’t have stopped the advance. But, hey, “Grass Snake” at least looks cool on a T-shirt.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These fighter pilots literally pushed their wingmen to safety

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

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


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

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

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

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

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

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

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

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

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

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

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

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

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

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

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

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

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

No, NASA didn’t waste millions making the space pen

Look, this whole article is basically a rant written because we’re getting tired of seeing comments about this every time we talk about NASA and/or Roscosmos. Somewhere in the comments on those articles, on our videos, or really anywhere across the internet as a whole, you’ll see someone sharing that same stupid story of NASA investing millions in space pens while Russia sensibly used pencils instead.

Nearly all of that story is complete and utter nonsense.


The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

NASA astronaut and former Air Force test pilot Col. Gordon Fullerton, wearing communications kit assembly mini headset, watches a free-floating pen during checklist procedures on the aft-deck of Space Shuttle Columbia during the third shuttle mission, STS-3, in 1982.

(NASA)

A few quick things: First, neither NASA nor Roscosmos spent a single dime developing the space pen. NASA and Roscosmos both gave their spacefarers pencils and both of them hated to do so because floating graphite flakes can cause fires in sensitive electronics in zero gravity.

NASA, to cut down on the chance of a fire destroying their multi-million dollar spacecraft and killing their priceless astronauts, invested in insanely expensive mechanical pencils. The pencils were 8.89 each, or a grand total of ,382.26 for 34.

Man, imagine having to go to the supply sergeant for a box of those every time the major loses a few.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

Astronaut Walter Cunningham writes with a space pen during the Apollo 7 mission in 1968.

(NASA)

Taxpayers, predictably, freaked out. They felt like pencils shouldn’t cost over 0 — fair enough.

So, NASA went back to cheaper pencils, but remained worried about their spacecraft and astronauts. Russia, in a similar vein, was worried about their cosmonauts.

Then, the Fischer Pen Company came to them with an offer to sell “anti-gravity” pens that could write upside down, under water, and in any temperature that humans could survive. It was the uber pen.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

A photo of an Apollo astronaut taking notes in space.

(Project Apollo Archive)

NASA paid a grand total of .39 per pen for 400 of them — a total of 6. Russia also bought the pen for the same price per unit (Well, Scientific American thought the cost was .39 each. A NASA historian citing old media reports pegged the number at per — still, not millions in either case).

Thus concludes NASA’s total sunk costs for the first delivery of pens. They paid in development or research costs. None.

Now, the Fischer Pen Company did spend a lot of money developing the pens — about id=”listicle-2608414142″ million, but they’re a private company counting on future sales to make up for the development costs.

And that was a sound bet. After all, lots of industries and the military need pens that can write in any situation. Miners, loggers, divers, soldiers, and a ton of other people in other professions need to be able to write in wet environments. So, Fischer would earn their research money back regardless.

So, please, when you want to make fun of the military or the government for wasting money, point to something else. The multi-million dollar space pen is and has always been bupkis.

Maybe point to the anti-aircraft weapon that attacked toilets or the slew of awesome weapons the military investigated but was unable to bring to fruition.

MIGHTY HISTORY

4 mind-boggling facts about the Cold War

The United States and the Soviet Union fought together during World War II, but quickly turned against one another in the years that followed. The Cold War was a period marked with tension — this is well-known, but the complexities of the relationship between capitalism and communism are less so.

“To put it bluntly, America feared that the commies… would take over the world.”

That fear not only brought the world to a nuclear stand-off, it led to some of the most vicious war-fighting in history.

So, what did it look like as we shifted from friends to enemies to frenemies?


Let’s look at some surprising Cold War facts:

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

(Photo by National Archives Records Administration)

1. There’s a reason Nixon acted crazily

In what has become known as The Madman Theory, it’s said that Americans deliberately portrayed President Richard Nixon as crazy — and a crazy person is capable of anything, even launching a nuclear attack. The intent here was to intimidate the enemy into backing down from a fight.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

(Photo by wikipedia user Queery-54)

2. One man saved the world from nuclear war

In 1983, Stanislav Petrov was the commanding officer on duty at a nuclear early warning facility when his system reported that the United States had launched missiles towards Moscow. His training and protocol demanded an immediate retaliatory strike, but Petrov just couldn’t believe it was true. He chose to disregard the warnings as a false alarm.

Petrov’s instincts were correct. Had he launched “retaliatory” missiles at the U.S., he would have actually fired a salvo to begin a war. The U.S. would have then returned fire and only alternate universes know how that could have escalated…

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

Close up of one of two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs in a North Carolina field after falling from a disintegrating B-52 bomber in an incident known as the “1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash.”

(Photo by U.S. Air Force)

3. In the 60s, U.S. planes carried nuclear bombs “just in case” — and sometimes they lost them

We weren’t only in danger from Soviet weapons — in the dawning of the nuclear age, we were barely able to contain our own devices.

The Defense Department recently disclosed 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980. In one such incident, two nuclear bombs crashed in North Carolina. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated that it was “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.”

Had those bombs detonated, it could have caused more damage than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

4. The CIA took codes and super-secret squirrelly spy sh** seriously

A training manual instructed agents on the use of many deceptions — one includes tying shoelaces to communicate in code. There were shoelace patterns for “I have information” and “follow me.”

This is yet another example of how seriously they took the threat of KGB spies (which did give us The Americans, so that’s at least something to be grateful for).

There are 50 crazy facts about the Cold War in the video below. (Number 19 is about how the U.S. paid million for a cat that could spy on the Soviets. That actually happened.)

Check out the video to get facts you never knew you needed about a pivotal moment in history that is still shaking the U.S. today:

www.youtube.com

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That time a bugler led the charge by scaling the walls of Peking

At the turn of the 20th Century, all of the great powers had converged on China seeking to curry favor and carve up the country for trade. This led a secret Chinese organization, the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (known as the Boxers to the foreigners), to rise up in rebellion.


At the end of 1899, the Boxers rose up against the foreigners and Christians they felt were invading their country. Coming from the countryside, they met in Peking (now Beijing) with the intention of turning the Chinese imperial government to their cause and destroying the foreign presence.

As the situation deteriorated, foreign nationals and Chinese Christians sought refuge in the Legation Quarter of Peking. The increased presence of the Boxers led the international community to send a force of 435 men to guard their respective legations.

The American contingent joined the Marines already stationed there, including one Pvt. Dan Daly.

Throughout the spring, the Boxers gained strength and were actively burning churches, killing Christians, and intimidating Chinese officials who opposed them.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
Russian cannons firing at Beijing gates during the night. August, 14, 1900.

As the international community stepped up efforts to maintain their positions in China, they put the Imperial Chinese government and Empress Dowager Cixi in a bind. The Empress was being pressured to take the side of the Boxers by officials who felt exploited by foreign nations.

Finally, in June 1900, the Empress’ hand was forced by international attacks on Chinese forts as well as the presence of the Seymour Expedition sent to reinforce the Legation Quarter.

On June 19, she sent word for the international community to leave. The next day the Chinese military, along with Boxer supporters, laid siege to the Legation Quarter.

As the situation was deteriorating, America began planning its response.

Also read: This Marine’s actions against the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion remain the stuff of legend

Known as the China Relief Expedition the force that assembled in China consisted of the 9th Infantry Regiment, 14th Infantry Regiment, 6th Cavalry Regiment, and Battery F, 5th Field Artillery Regiment totaling some 2,500 men.

After brief fighting at Tientsin, in which Col. Liscum, commanding the 9th Infantry, was killed, the force marched on Peking to relieve the besieged Legation Quarter.

The pressure on the Legation Quarter had been steadily increasing. Through the night of Aug. 13 and into the morning of Aug. 14, Dan Daly was single-handedly holding off a determined assault by the Boxers. When Daly’s relief finally arrived, he inquired about the meaning of “Quon fay,” something the Chinese had been yelling at him all night.

He was amused to learn that it meant “very bad devil.”

For his actions that night Daly was awarded his first Medal of Honor.

Later in the day on Aug. 14, the first units of the Eight-nation Alliance reached the outer walls of Peking.

Leading the American units was the 14th Infantry Regiment.

When they arrived at their assigned gate, they found it already under attack by a Russian unit which was pinned down and taking heavy casualties.

The Americans moved south looking for an opening. The best they found was a lightly defended section of the Tartar Wall. The wall was some 30 feet high, and with no scaling ladders or grappling hooks, Col. Daggett, the regimental commander, asked for a volunteer to climb the wall.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
I’ll try, Sir,

Cpl. Calvin Pearl Titus, a bugler from Company E, stepped forward and said, “I’ll try, sir.”

With a rope slung over his shoulder Titus began to climb the wall. He grasped to the slightest of holds and he made his way up, undetected by the Chinese defenders.

“All below is breathless silence. The strain is intense.” Daggett would later write, “Will that embrasure blaze with fire as he attempts to enter it? Or will the butts of rifles smash his skull?” 

As Titus cleared the wall, he found it undefended. He called down to his comrades, “The coast is clear! Come on up!”

Following Titus’ lead and using the rope he threw down, more soldiers followed. As the number of Americans on the wall increased, they were finally discovered by the Chinese.

The Chinese opened fire but it was too late — the Americans held the wall.

Shortly after 11am, the 14th Infantry planted the American flag atop the wall.

They then fought their way back to the gate to relieve the beleaguered Russians.

With the Chinese driven back, the American artillery arrived and blasted down the inner gate leading to the Legation.

The Americans then cleared the way to the Legation Quarter only to find that the British had beat them to it. Thanks to the confusion caused by the Russians and Americans, British Indian soldiers had snuck through a water gate and directly into the Legation relieving the siege.

The Americans consolidated their position while the rest of the relief force conducted mopping up operations throughout Peking.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football
Calvin P. Titus, 1905.(Library of Congress photo)

For his heroism in breaking the siege, Cpl. Titus was awarded an appointment to West Point where, during his second semester in the spring of 1902, he was presented the Medal of Honor by president Theodore Roosevelt.

A fellow cadet approached Titus after he received his award exclaiming, “Mister, that’s something!” That cadet was Douglas MacArthur, who would receive his own Medal of Honor during World War II.

Titus went on to serve 32 years in the Army, rejoining his old unit, the 14th Infantry, before seeing action against Pancho Villa in 1916 and occupying Germany after WWI.

He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1930.

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4 things you may not know about USS Constitution

The sailing frigate USS Constitution (ex-IX 21) was re-floated on July 23 in an event overshadowed by the commissioning of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78).


The ship has been around for 220 years. But here are a few things you may not have known about this ship.

1. Paul Revere provided some crucial materials for the ship’s construction

According to the Copper Development Association, Paul Revere, best known for his midnight ride prior to the Battles of Lexington and Concord, provided a number of copper bolts and a copper bell for USS Constitution.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

2. The Constitution had a hull number

In 1941, the Constitution was given the hull number IX 21, along with a number of other vessels. According to Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, the list included the prize USS Reina Mercedes (IX 25), the sloop USS Constellation (IX 20), the cruiser USS Olympia (IX 40), and the training carriers USS Wolverine (IX 64) and USS Sable (IX 81).

The hull number was rescinded in 1975 at the suggestion of the ship’s commanding officer, Tyrone G. Martin, who instituted a number of traditions that carry on to this day.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

3. She is the only survivor of her class

Of the first six frigates, the Constitution is the only survivor. Sister ship USS Constellation was thought to have been converted to a sloop and preserved in Baltimore, but later research determined the Navy had scrapped the original vessel. The frigates USS Chesapeake and USS President were captured by the British. USS United States was captured by the Confederates, but eventually scuttled and scrapped.

USS Congress was scrapped in 1834.

The fascinating history behind the US President’s nuclear football

4. She was the battlecruiser of her era

The Constitution and her sisters were designed to be able to outgun enemy frigates and to out-run enemy ships of the line. She had a mix of 24-pound cannons and 32-pound cannons, compared to the 18-pound cannons used on the British Leda-class frigates, built around the same time as Constitution and her sisters.

In fact, late in the war of 1812, British frigate captains were ordered to avoid combat with the Constitution and her sisters.