The people who live through the world’s most historic events are the best connection to our past. Today, as we lament the growing losses of veterans who fought in World War II and the Korean War, it can still be a surprise that we are so close in time to the wars of the 19th Century. Just 34 years ago, we lost our only connection to the “Rough Riders,” the volunteer cavalry regiment that famously stormed San Juan Hill with Col. Theodore Roosevelt.
Ralph Waldo Taylor, who enlisted at age 16, wasn’t the last veteran of the Spanish American War, but he was an important connection to its memory.
The Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 after the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, which was then occupied by Spain. Tensions had been mounting between the United States and Spain for decades between the two countries, inflamed by the “muckraker” journalism popular at the time.
Sensational stories, not all of them exactly true, filled newspapers as each competed for bigger and bigger circulation. Finally the powder keg blew (literally) when the Maine was destroyed. The newspapers claimed the ship struck a Spanish mine in the harbor and President McKinley was pressured to ask Congress for a declaration of war.
Among the most excited to see action was Theodore Roosevelt, who resigned from his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to help raise a regiment of volunteers. The unit he formed was the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. Originally under Col. Leonard Wood, Roosevelt soon found himself in command.
The Rough Riders, as they were called after Roosevelt assumed command, was made up of Western frontiersmen, Ivy League athletes and Native American tribesmen, among others. One of its volunteers was a young, 16-year-old named Ralph Waldo Taylor.
The young man deployed with the Rough Riders to Cuba in 1898 and though it was supposed to be a cavalry unit, its horses were not deployed with them. The 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry was in reality fighting like an infantry unit.
Teenage Taylor was with Roosevelt and the Rough Riders when they marched to the base of San Juan Hill, a heavily-defended high ground that seemed impregnable from their vantage point. They took cover at the base of nearby Kettle Hill to avoid sniper and artillery fire, but quickly found themselves pinned down.
After the attack began, the unit’s orders forced them to hold their position, even under heavy enemy fire. Roosevelt grew frustrated with the situation and, disregarding orders, led a charge up San Juan Hill. Within 20 minutes the hill belonged to the Americans.
Taylor lied about his age to enlist in the New York National Guard. He eventually told his wife, Bessie, about what happened that day.
“They charged up the hill in waves, trying to knock out the Spaniards in a blockhouse at the top,” she told UPI in 1987. “Ralph was in the second or third wave and he used to tell how some members of his company were killed as they ran up the hill beside him.”
For Roosevelt, the victory meant election to the governor’s mansion in New York and eventually being named Vice-President of the United States. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he assumed the office of President. For Taylor, life carried on the way it does for many war veterans: he took a job.
In 1986, Taylor was informed by the U.S. government that he was one of a few surviving combat veterans of the era, and that he was the only survivor of San Juan Hill still living.
“He could visualize all the thousands who fought with him and it overwhelmed him that he was the only one left,” she said.
In November 1978, 909 members of a fanatical cult died — killing themselves and their children using a cyanide and Valium-laced grape drink — to make a political statement: they would die on their own terms in a “revolutionary suicide.” It would be the largest single loss of civilian life until the September 11th terror attacks.
The People’s Temple, as the cult was called, was founded by Jim Jones, a former monkey salesman and self-ordained minister in 1950s Indianapolis. He later moved the church to California. There, the size of the cult grew to around 20,000.
With that growth, Jones became a public figure and fled to the South American country of Guyana to escape the negative press surrounding the People’s Temple. Jones faced accusations of financial fraud and child abuse and sought to escape what he thought was the persecution from U.S. intelligence agencies.
More than 1,000 members went with him.
Jones and his cult founded Jonestown, an agricultural cooperative on 4,000 acres of poor soil and limited access to fresh water. Temple members worked long days and were punished for disobeying Jones’ orders. They were allowed limited contact with friends and family. Jones even confiscated their passports.
Toward the end of the Jonestown experiment, Jones became inceasingly paranoid as his mental state broke down. Congressman Leo Ryan came to Jonestown to investigate allegations that his contituents’ loved ones were actually hostages there. People’s Temple members asked to return home with the Congressman, who took them back to his plane.
That’s when tragedy struck.
After arriving at the airstrip that took Congressman Ryan to the People’s Temple collective, Jones’ armed thugs gunned down the contingent, along with members of the press and some of the defectors. At the same time, Jones was distributing the poisoned punch (which was actually Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid, as the saying goes) to the cult members.
An aerial view of the bodies of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. U.S. Army personnel from Fort Bragg, North Carolina (NC), are placing the remains into body bags. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Nov. 20, 1978.)
There is evidence that those who didn’t want to imbibe were forced to drink the punch. Jones himself was found dead with a bullet in his head, among the other 900+ bodies.
Within hours of learning about Congressman Ryan’s death, the U.S. State Department received assistance from the 437th Military Airlift Wing at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. Charleston C-141 Starlifters led what would be “the most unusual airlift operation since the Berlin Airlift.”
Col. Bruce M. Durvine, vice commander of the 39th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing, and members of the 55th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron carry boxes of plastic body bags to an HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter for use in the evacuation of bodies from Jonestown. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Jonestown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
Air Force Combat Controllers were the first American forces on the ground, securing the airstrip area, providing security, and operating the airspace. The Starlifters had to be staged more than 150 miles away from the dirt airstrip where Ryan’s body was found because they were too large for the field.
The military Aeromedical Evacuation Team repatriated eight wounded survivors from the area. It wasn’t until November 20th that Guyanan Defense Forces could reach the Jonestown Compound. The small contingent was overwhelmed by what they found there and asked the Americans to take over.
A U.S. Air Force HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter from the 55th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron stands by to assist in the removal of the remains of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Georgetown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
Jonestown victims’ bodies were to be airlifted to Dover Air Force Base, but first they had to be moved by three HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopters to the Starlifter staging area. There were so many bodies, the Air Force ran out of remains transfer cases.
U.S. Army UH-1 Iroquois helicopters are loaded aboard a C-141 Starlifter aircraft for transport back to their home base in the Canal Zone. The helicopters were used during humanitarian relief efforts following the Jonestown tragedy. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Georgetown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
“Stacked like cordwood,” the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition. It took 30 helicopter sorties carrying 30 bodies each to get the remains to the Starlifters for transport. Each C-141 could handle 81 remains cases — as long as they were stacked on pallets.
The stench of death in the helicopters was so bad, they were deemed medically unsafe. Task Force personnel who handled the bodies burned their clothing on the runway at the end of the mission.
U.S. military personnel place a body bag containing the remains of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy in a coffin for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Pedro J. Gonzalez, Georgetown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
Jeff Brailey, the Army medic who entered Jonestown, wrote a book about his experience, “The Ghosts of November.”
Here’s something you might not know. The Frontier Wars in Maine lasted for almost 100 years. These intermittent wars began in 1675 and were a conflict between Anglo, French, and Native populations. Many people believe the independent spirit and abundant wilderness of Maine exist as a result of these wars.
It didn’t take long for the tension to begin between Anglo settlers in southern New England and the Native Americans. Land disputes often led to violence. Metacom, who the Anglos nicknamed King Phillip, was the leader of Natives in the region. He started a war intended to stop the Anglos from taking over their land: King Phillip’s War.
No Food, No Peace
That war, which began in Massachusetts, eventually spread up to Maine. This was thanks to Massachusetts officials insisting that the Maine Natives be disarmed, even though everything was still peaceful up there at the time. Disarming the Natives left them without a way to hunt and eat. Therefore, going to war against the Anglo colonists was their only option for survival. Their first point of attack was Arrowsic Island, the largest trading post in eastern Maine.
King Phillip’s War lasted from 1675 to 1678, leaving most of Maine in ruins. The Natives who once lived there moved north or east, where the French took them in as refugees. The settlers in Maine also had to leave. They took refuge in Massachusetts. This bloody conflict was a big turning point in history. It sadly destroyed any hope of peace between the English and the Native Americans.
War Is Never Pretty
Five other wars in Maine followed over the next century. So much violence occurred in Maine in particular for one reason: European powers were fighting for as much territory as they could get, and Maine was their bargaining chip.
An especially tragic aspect of the wars had to do with how friendly the Anglo colonists had once been with the Natives. To suddenly watch people you knew well destroying your property was devastating both practically and spiritually. And property wasn’t the only thing taken. Many were brutally killed or taken hostage, including women and children. What a terrible thing to witness.
Why Maine Is What it Is Today
Once the French-Native alliance deteriorated in the early-1700s, the conflict between the English and the Natives mainly turned into ineffective raids. Then in 1759, the British forces defeated the French in Quebec. That ended the English-French rivalry over control of the North American territories. It also ended any support the French could give to the Natives, leaving them without a hope of defeating the British. As a result, Maine was finally a safe place for Anglos to settle by the late 1700s.
While the Frontier Wars were ugly and brutal, Maine was left unsettled for nearly 100 years because of it. All the while, the rest of New England was advancing and growing. If there’s one positive thing to take out of the bloody Frontier Wars, it’s all the pristine wilderness that still remains in Maine today.
A Rasmussen poll released at the end of June 2018 revealed a fear among voters that political violence is on the rise, with one in three concerned a second US Civil War is on the horizon. The poll was conducted among likely American voters who were asked via telephone and online survey how likely that war would be.
The poll also revealed that 59 percent of voters are fearful that those opposed to President Trump will resort to violence to advance their cause and another 33 percent were very concerned. A similar poll was conducted in the second year of Barack Obama’s presidency that revealed similar fears in similar numbers.
The difference this time around lies in the recent public confrontations of Trump Administration officials, something neither Obama nor Bush officials faced during their Presidents’ tenures. Media outlets posture that the public pressure is backlash from this administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy that pulled migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
By no means did civility rule the day for Obama officials. By this time in President Obama’s presidency, South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson interrupted the President’s speech to a joint session of Congress with a shout of, “You lie!” The heretofore unheard of interruption earned him a public rebuke in the House, and also led to his constituents chanting the same at him less than a decade later.
Obama’s first two years as President dealt largely with the global financial crisis of 2008, automaker bailouts, and financial regulations. As the Brookings Institution points out, no one in power thrives when the economy suffers and the Democrats lost their Congressional majority in the 2010 midterms.
A Second American Civil War would not be as clean cut as the pro-slavery vs. anti-slavery arguments or the federal authority vs. states’ rights arguments of the actual Civil War. The United States is now almost three times the size it was in the 1860s and belief systems and population are very different than they were back then. The issues facing the country are also much different, separated by more than 150 years.
The solution to this is to simply let your vote speak for your beliefs instead of your fists, or worse, a weapon. The peaceful transition of power ensures American democracy will endure, no matter who wins in 2020. The only Civil War sequel America needs is another Captain America movie.
When American military units are established or disestablished, it’s usually done on American soil. There are exceptions, but, for the most part, it is done in the United States. But one Marine division has the distinction of never setting foot in the United States for the duration its service.
During World War II, the Marine Corps underwent a massive expansion. The 1st Marine Division was established in February of 1941. Eventually, the Marines grew to six infantry divisions (today, there are four – three active and one reserve). Five were formed in the United States, but the 6th Marine Division was formed on the Pacific island where Marine legends, like John Basilone, made their mark on history – Guadalcanal – on September 7, 1944, a little over two years after the invasion of that island.
The division trained until it was sent to help take the island of Okinawa from Japan. The Japanese troops on that island didn’t give up easily. The battle spanned almost three months, leaving 12,520 Americans dead, including Lieutenant General Simon Buckner. Over 110,000 Japanese troops and at least 40,000 civilians were killed during the fighting.
During the fight for Okinawa, five Marines and one sailor with the 6th Marine Division were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions. The entire division was recognized with the Presidential Unit Citation. After Okinawa, the division was pulled back to Guam in order to prepare for the invasion of Japan — on an American territory, but not in the United States. Soon thereafter, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and forced Japan’s surrender. The division was instead sent to Tsingtao, China, where it was disestablished in 1946.
Today, the 6th Marine Division remains inactive. To learn more about what their courageous actions on Okinawa, watch the video below.
A bit of far off Irish-American-Mexican history brings to light a lesser-known chapter of Irish military service – the time that 265 Irish service members defected.
Some called them heroes; others called them traitors. The Irish immigrants who joined the Army in the 1840s decided when the war broke out between the US and Mexico that they wanted none of it.
Right after the US annexed Texas in 1845, both Mexico and America sent military members to the newly created and shared border.
1845 America was a tumultuous place – Florida was admitted as a state, the Great Fire of Pittsburg destroyed much of the city, and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published.
Thoreau embarked on his two-year experiment to live in the woods at Walden Pond, a huge fire destroyed lots of New York, and the US Naval Academy officially opened its doors. Johnny Appleseed died in 1845, and Edmonia Lewis died.
A lot was going on, no more so evident than within the US Army. In 1845, the Army was a hodgepodge of service personnel, with diverse backgrounds, much like it is today. Service members were from all over the world, especially from western European countries, all of which had distinct and robust Catholic population groups. Many immigrant service members were blatantly disrespected and discriminated against by “native-born Americans,” which led to widespread unrest and low morale. Adding to that was most of the immigrant soldiers were Catholic, outliers in the very protestant America of the time.
So back to the Irish battalion. No one is quite sure exactly how it happened. Still, most historians agree that the widespread abuse of immigrant personnel coupled with the very low troop commitment levels led to a huge percentage of the Army feeling invisible, disenfranchised, and without appropriate ways to voice their frustrations.
Much of the American public felt that the annexation of Texas was useless – an expansionist war was nothing the young country needed. One of the most vocal about the uselessness of the expansion was Abraham Lincoln, who was quoted as not surprised that the Army saw so many deserters during this time.
While the Army was struggling to hold rank, the Mexican military saw an opportunity to infiltrate and spread propaganda, which is exactly what they did.
Several Mexican Army generals sent messages targeted toward immigrant personnel stationed at the Texas border. These messages crossed the Rio Grande River. All held one core focus – that immigrant service members should abandon their American Army posts and join their Catholic brothers in arms in the Mexican military. The messages offered Mexican citizenship and huge land grants – as much as 320 acres for privates.
More than 5,000 US soldiers would desert their posts throughout the war, and more than 40,000 simply disappeared in Mexico.
The Irish defectors were known as the St. Patrick’s Battalion, and their Mexican brothers-in-arms called them “The Red Company” because so many of them had red hair and ruddy complexions.
The battalion’s flag showed a winged harp, three-leaf clovers, and the motto, “Irish till the end of time,” written in Gaelic. The battalion fought alongside the Mexican Army as part of a rolling rearguard that worked to defend against as the US military advanced further into Mexico.
In the final days of the final battle, over 60 deserters were captured, and fifty of them were executed. The Mexican Army pleaded for mercy and leniency, but only a handful of the Irish deserters were actually pardoned.
But, of those who were pardoned, it wasn’t as easy as just walking away. The men had to receive 50 lashes on their backs while being tied to trees in the plaza at Churubusco, and their faces were branded with “D” for deserter. To this day, the Irish battalion is honored every year in festivals throughout Mexico and Ireland.
The fight for the Hurtgen Forest was one of the most devastating battles of all World War II Europe and one of few the U.S. Army lost after landing at Normandy on D-Day. The relatively quick advance through France gave Allied commanders the drive to race to enter Germany. The pace was so fast, they outran their supply lines and had to take a pause – a pause that would result in the longest land battle in U.S. military history.
Having to wait for the Allied supply lines to catch up to the front gave the beleaguered Nazis the chance to regroup and settle down in one of Europe’s most dense and dark forests. It was a place the Army should never have entered.
American troops man a machine gun in a captured German position during the 1944 Battle of Hurtgen Forest.
To put it mildly, the forest was the ideal place to defend. As the summer was turning to fall, which would soon see winter, the dense wood would see snow and rain that would churn the dirt to mud. Dense forests, deep ravines, and steep hills also gave the German defenders the advantage in the forest. To top it all off, there were also abandoned and overgrown concrete bunkers, part of the old Siegfried Line of defensive fortifications throughout the forest – and that’s exactly what drove the Americans into the bunker.
So after they gave the Germans time to roll out the barbed wire, booby traps, and minefields, the Americans decided to assault the forest head-on in an attempt to be the first to fight and take the vaunted Siegfried Line and thus be the first to enter Germany.
Not my first choice of target, but okay.
The forest itself was 70 square miles and was situated between Aachen, a city under siege that would not surrender, and the Ruhr Dam along the Rhine, one the Allies were afraid the Nazis would just destroy in an attempt to flood the Allied advance. The Americans decided they would assault the forest directly, and swiftly neutralize the threat to the dam while ensuring the fall of Aachen. That did not happen.
American tanks and airpower were ineffective while fighting in the forest and the machine gun – which the Wehrmacht had in spades – was the most effective weapon, especially considering the difficulty seeing for any kind of distance, along with the hills and ravines throughout the forest. The Germans zeroed in their mortars before the Americans ever arrived. The Americans should never have engaged the forest at all.
Even Ernest Hemingway, who feared nothing and no one, opted not to stay at Hurtgen Forest. No joke.
The U.S. Army didn’t have to go into the woods. The Siegfried Line was being assaulted all along its perimeter. The debacle at Hurtgen cost anywhere from 30,000-50,000 casualties at a cost of just 28,000 German casualties. To make matters worse, the months slowdown in advancement allowed the Germans to break out in a winter offensive, an advance that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Public speaking is the name of the game for activists and politicians, but few speak with such power that the message of their words echoes for generations. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech were some of the most influential and inspiring words ever spoken. While the black and white photos in textbooks make it seem like ancient history, the speech was given on August 28th, 1963 — a mere 57 years ago.
Just this month on the anniversary of the March on Washington, MLK’s granddaughter gave a moving speech of her very own…and she’s not even a teenager yet! The history books don’t always tell the full story, so keep reading for some of the most interesting facts you never knew about Dr. King’s most famous speech.
1. MLK’s speech almost left out his “dream”
His “Dream” speech wasn’t a new concept. He used it frequently in previous speeches, so his advisor, Rv. Wyatt Tee Walker, suggested he leave it out, calling it “hackneyed and trite.” The new speech was supposed to be called “Normalcy Never Again,” but when King got up on stage as the final speaker of the day, the audience had other plans. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled out of the crowd, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” Going against his advisor’s suggestion, King paused and said, “I still have a dream.” It was a bold move, but even his advisor later admitted it was the right one.
2. King didn’t write the speech alone
While some of his speech was improvised, he had help with the first draft. It was originally written by Stanley Levison and Clarence Jones, with plenty more heads coming together to create the final version.
3. The March was originally planned to leave out female speakers
Despite the innumerable women who contributed to the Civil Rights Movement, none were included in the original speaking schedule. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, the only woman who was on the national planning committee at the time, pushed for acknowledgment of their achievements. A “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” was added to the docket, but it was only after additional pressure that a woman was invited to lead it.
Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, took the stage, saying, “We will walk until we are free, until we can walk to any school and take our children to any school in the United States. And we will sit-in and we will kneel-in and we will lie-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge to the women of America.”
Josephine Baker, a famous American entertainer, also spoke, telling the crowd, “You know I have always taken the rocky path. I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path, and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had. But I do not want you to have to run away to get it.”
4. The March was organized by an openly gay man
Ever heard of Bayard Rustin? Most people haven’t, but he was an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. He strongly encouraged King to avoid violence, fundraised for the Montgomery bus boycott, and organized the March on Washington in only two months. Despite his dedication, he remained behind the scenes for a reason. He was worried that his sexual orientation would be used as an attempt to discredit the civil rights movement, so he worked virtually unseen. President Obama recognized his work posthumously, however, awarding him The Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
5. Hollywood stars attended the March to draw attention
Harry Belafonte already planned to attend the March himself when he reached out to other stars to encourage their participation. He asked Hollywood studio managers to give the actors the day off so they could attend, which they did. Many A-listers attended, including Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr, Lena Horne and Burt Lancaster. The celebrity presence had two purposes; to boost media coverage, and to ease concerns about violence. The participation of so many high-profile celebrities toned down the widespread anxiety and increased support from President John F. Kennedy.
6. Wiretapping was a real concern
Speeches and marches don’t plan themselves, and the planning continues right up until the event starts. The day before King gave his most famous speech, he got together with his advisors to discuss the final version. They were worried that King’s hotel suite at the Willard Hotel wasn’t secure enough and could easily be wiretapped, however, so they met in the lobby instead, to discuss the speech.
7. Dr. King’s bodyguard was a college basketball player
George Raveling was in the audience when event organizers asked if he would step on stage to act as King’s bodyguard. As he was standing next to King, he asked if he could keep the paper copy of the speech. Raveling, now a retired basketball coach, still owns the original, typewritten speech.
8. The media didn’t care about the speeches
Today, King’s speech is celebrated and studied as one of the best speeches in all of history. Right after it happened, however, many reporters overlooked the speech almost entirely. Instead of covering the speeches given, newspapers (including Dr. King’s) focused on the size and scope of the March itself. The speech wasn’t given much attention during King’s lifetime, resurfacing in the public eye years later.
9. ‘I Have a Dream’ was rated a better speech than JFK’s ‘Ask not what you can do’ speech
In 1999, a panel of over 130 scholars rated Dr. King’s speech as the best of the 20th century. Even Kennedy himself knew what a pivotal speech it was, commending King by saying, either “He’s damned good” or “That guy is really good,” depending on who you hear it from.
Either way, we can all agree the speech was awe-inspiring and revolutionary. You can read or listen to the full speech here!
Medal of Honor recipient Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams, an infantry rifleman corporal with 3rd Marine Division, 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, Charlie Company during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, is having a United States naval ship commissioned in his honor on March 7, 2020 in Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia.
Williams received a Medal of Honor from President Truman for his efforts as special weapons unit in a flamethrower demolition group in advancing US forces on Feb. 23, 1945.
Williams was born in 1923 in Fairmont, West Virginia. He decided to join the Marine Corps in May 1943. During his time in the armed forces, Williams fought the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. Marine Corps history, and Williams was a pivotal component in The United States’ victory.
“When we arrived on shore it was really chaotic because the Marines of the 4th Division had been pinned to that area for days; two days at least,” said Williams. “Many of them had been wounded and evacuated so there were packs and rifles and jeeps blowing up and tanks stuck in the sand.”
Williams shared how the Marines would “belly out” and the tracks would turn but couldn’t get any traction because the sand was so loose. He recalls how when he first arrived from the Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP), or Higgins Boat, Marines that had been killed were rolled in their ponchos.
The goal was to destroy as many of the enemy’s pill boxes, or strategic bunkers that housed weaponry and allow protection from enemy forces. Williams used a flamethrower to take down the Japanese pillboxes for hours.
Upon his return home in 1945 he received a Medal of Honor award for his bravery by President Truman.
“From that day on, I took on a new life.” said Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams, Medal of Honor Recipient and World War II Veteran. “I became a public figure that I had no plan whatsoever to be.”
He retired after twenty years in the Marine Corps Reserve and became the Commandant of the Veterans Nursing Home in Barboursville, West Virginia for almost 10 years. “It’s almost like a dream,” said Williams. “It’s something that I dreamed would never happened.”
Williams discussed how a Marine saw a ship with a Medal of Honor recipients name on it 20 years ago and he wanted to have a ship named after Williams as well.
Williams was told that that there would be a petition to have a ship named in his honor, and for several years there were petitions and paperwork to vouch for Williams having a ship named after him. Williams did not believe that a ship could be named after a corporal, and believed that was something reserved only for presidents and generals.
“I never dreamed it would happen,” said Williams. “I never thought it was possible.”
The Department of the Navy called Williams and told him that the petition would be approved. Upon approval, Williams needed to find a sponsor for the ship.
In naval history, the sponsor is traditionally one woman, usually the wife of the person having the ship named after him. This tradition was broken because Williams did not want to choose between his two daughters, so the Navy allowed both of his daughters to be the sponsors of his ship because his wife is deceased.
After picking a sponsor, Williams was required to pick a motto for the ship. The ships motto will be: peace we seek, peace we keep.
“I fought for quite some time; I could not come up with anything,” said Williams. “One morning, at about two o’clock in the morning I woke up and there it was. I jumped up and wrote it down before I lost it.”
Williams describes how he never dreamed that the Navy would actually use those words. He concluded the interview by sharing the principles that he chooses to live by.
“Serving others gives you a satisfaction that you cannot get anywhere else.” said Williams.
Staff Sgt. Eugene Leonard served in the Marine Corps during World War II and was wounded in action. But he never lost a love for aviation, also serving in the Air Force and as an airplane mechanic in his civilian life.
Staff Sgt. Eugene Leonard (Youtube screenshot)
So, for his 99th birthday, one friend decided to pick up the former Marine’s spirits after Leonard became a widower and moved to the Phoenix area, Fox10Phoenix.com reported.
What was selected for that task was another World War II veteran — a restored B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.
In a day and age where we lose 492 World War II veterans a day, according to the National World War II Museum, those few remaining are a link to the heroic history of that conflict.
The same can be said for the planes. In this case, one World War II vet was able to give another one a brief pick-me up.
Here is Fox10Phoenix’s report on Staff Sgt. Leonard’s flight:
Although we commemorate Memorial Day each year, the holiday’s origins are rarely discussed. Many countries, especially those that were involved in World War II, have their own iteration of the monument to the soldiers who dedicated their lives to their country’s cause. From its earliest version as Decoration Day, Memorial Day has been a part of an important, reflective moment in the United States. Trace the history of the holiday from its earliest incarnation to the major occasion it is today with these little-known Memorial Day facts.
1. Memorial Day began as a day honoring Union soldiers killed during the Civil War.
After the end of the Civil War, General John A. Logan became the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union veterans. Logan issued a General Order declaring May 30 as Memorial Day for fallen Union soldiers. For the first years of celebration, Memorial Day and Decoration Day were used interchangeably to refer to the day.
2. Some Southern states still have a separate day of remembrance for Confederate soldiers.
Not long after the Grand Army of the Republic established Memorial Day, Confederate groups organized to create their own commemorative holiday. Although a number of women’s groups, primarily the Ladies Memorial Association, had started to organize day outings to tidy graves and leave flowers, a larger movement began in 1868. By 1890, there was a specific focus on commemorating the Confederacy as well as the soldiers lost. Today, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina continue to celebrate a separate day for the fallen soldiers of the Confederacy.
3. The original date of ‘Decoration Day’ was May 30, chosen because it was not associated with any particular battle.
General Logan chose the date of the original Memorial Day with great care. May 30 was chosen precisely because no major battle occurred on that day. Afraid that choosing a date associated with a major battle like Gettysburg would be perceived as casting soldiers in that battle as more important than other comrades, May 30 was a neutral date that would honor all soldiers equally.
4. The tradition of red poppies honoring fallen soldiers comes from a Canadian poem written during WWI.
Although the wearing of red poppies to honor fallen soldiers is more popular in the United Kingdom and throughout the former British empire, poppies are also associated with Memorial Day in the United States. This tradition was started after Moina Michael, a young poet, was inspired by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. The opening lines read, “In Flanders field the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row”. The imagery moved Moina, and she decided to wear a red poppy as a symbol of her continued remembrance of those who fought in World War I.
5. The Vietnam War was responsible for Memorial Day becoming a national holiday.
Memorial Day was celebrated regularly across the United States from the mid-1800s on—while it nearly ceased in the early 20th century, the world wars made its commemoration important once more. Yet Memorial Day was not federally recognized until the height of the Vietnam War. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved a number of holidays to a Monday rather than their original day, including Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Veterans Day. In 1971, the Act took effect, making each holiday federally recognized and giving workers additional three-day weekend—in part thanks to the lobbying efforts of the travel industry.
6. Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit that brings attention to prisoners of war and those who remain missing in action, holds a rally every Memorial Day.
In 1987, a group of veterans visited the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. While there, they realized just how pervasive the issue of missing Vietnam soldiers was. The status of over 1,000 soldiers remains unknown to this day. In the ’80s, as many as 2,700 soldiers’ fates were unknown. The men decided to organize a motorcycle rally the day before Memorial Day, hoping to create enough noise—both literal and figurative—that political groups would be forced to pay attention. Since the outset of their rally, an additional 1,100 unknown soldiers have been identified or discovered.
7. Although many towns claim to have been the birthplace of Memorial Day, Waterloo, New York is officially recognized as the first to commemorate the day.
General Logan may have made the first call for a national Memorial Day, but, as discussed earlier, it was far from the only day of remembrance. As early as 1866, people throughout the North and South gathered to memorialize fallen soldiers. Waterloo, New York was one of many towns to have a city-wide commemoration of those lost in the war. And while over two dozen towns and cities claim to be the first to have celebrated this day of remembrance, in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, New York the official birthplace of Memorial Day—in part because it was the only town to have consistently memorialized the day since its inception.
The U.S. Coast Guard was officially formed in 1915, but it traces its history to 1790 through the Lifesaving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. Formerly part of the Treasury Department and now under the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard is generally the butt of jokes from military branches under the Department of Defense.
Despite the comments about the ‘puddle pirates,’ Coast Guard history is filled with shocking exploits.
1. The Coast Guard conducted a World War II raid nearly three months before Pearl Harbor attack
The Coast Guard cutter USCG Northland was patrolling near Greenland under a defensive treaty between Greenland and the U.S. on Sep. 12, 1941, when it received a tip that a suspicious ship had put ashore a landing party in a nearby fjord. The Northland found the vessel, the Norwegian fishing boat SS Buskoe. The Northland crew boarded the ship and took the ship master to the Northland for questioning. The boarding party continued to search the Buskoe and found two sets of radio equipment, an indicator that the ship was handling communications for Nazi radio stations.
The Coast Guard conducted an interrogation of the ship master and learned the location of the landing party the ship had previously dropped off. Coast Guardsmen landed on the shore and conducted a nighttime raid against a radio station established by the enemy landing party. They captured three Norwegians, at least one acting under German orders. They also found German radio equipment, code words, and military instructions. Since the U.S. and Germany were not yet at war, the Norwegians were arrested as illegal immigrants.
2. Revenue cutters captured 18 ships during a quasi-war with France
America owed a significant amount of money to France when the French crown was overthrown during the French Revolution in 1794. The U.S. told the French Republic that they would not be repaying the debt since the money was owed to the crown.
Backlash from France resulted in the Quasi War from 1798-1799. Though neither nation declared war, naval battles became common with the French seizing American merchant ships by the hundreds. The Navy, which had been disbanded after the war of 1812, was re-instituted. While the Navy was standing up, eight Revenue Cutter Service ships were pressed into service against the French Navy.
3. A Coast Guard lieutenant commanded an Army company in combat
In 1855, Revenue Cutter 2nd Lt. James E. Harrison was ordered to accompany a U.S. Army company in the American-Indian Wars. In the Puget Sound area of Washington, the Army camp was ambushed by a group of Native Americans on December 3. The Army commander, Lt. W. A. Slaughter, was killed the next day in the fighting. Harrison assumed command of the company and beat off the attackers in a fierce firefight. He then led the company back to Fort Steilacoom, Washington on December 21.
4. The USRC Hudson rescued a Navy vessel while under heavy fire from Spanish artillery
On May 11, 1898, the USRC Hudson was part of the Navy fleet blockading Cuba during the Spanish-American War. A group of Spanish ships had attacked the blockade the day before and were now in harbor in Cardenas, a fortified port. Navy Cmdr. John Merry ordered the Hudson and the USS Winslow to enter the port and sink the ships.
The Winslow was faster and entered the port first, but was soon damaged due to fierce fire from shore batteries. The Hudson rushed to the defense of the damaged torpedo boat, laying down thick covering fire and attempting to secure a tow cable to the Navy vessel. After more than a half hour, the Winslow crew was finally able to secure the tow cable and the Hudson pulled her out of the port. The vessels sank two Spanish ships during the attack, but the Winslow suffered the deaths of an officer and multiple crewmen.
5. The Surveyor crew bravely fought back against a boarding party over three times its size
During the War of 1812, a boarding party of 50 British sailors from the HMS Narcissus used muffled oars to sneak up on the USRC Surveyor. The 15-man crew of the Surveyor saw the British approaching but could not bring the guns to bear due to the angle of approach of the boarding party.
Capt. Samuel Travis ordered his men to take two muskets each and wait quietly for the British to get within pistol range. The British were hampered by the surprise volley but kept coming, so the crew of the surveyor fought across the decks to retain control of the ship. The British were eventually able take the ship, but they suffered three dead and seven wounded to the Americans’ five wounded. The cutter’s defense was so fierce despite the numerical advantage of the British that British Capt. John Crerie returned the American captain’s sword the next morning with the following note.
“Your gallant and desperate attempt to defend your vessel against more than double your number excited such admiration on the part of your opponents as I have seldom witnessed, and induced me to return you the sword you had so ably used, in testimony of mine.
Our poor fellows have severely suffered, occasioned chiefly, if not solely, by the precaution you had taken to prevent surprise. In short, I am at a loss which to admire most-the previous arrangement on board the Surveyor, or the determined manner in which the deck was disputed inch by inch. You have my most sincere wishes for the immediate parole and speedy exchange of yourself and brave crew.”
6. A future commandant of the Coast Guard herded reindeer 1600 miles across Alaskan Arctic
The service accepted volunteers for the mission dubbed “The Overland Expedition” which departed Dec. 16, 1897. The men made their way through the Alaskan wilderness with dog and reindeer teams pulling sleds of supplies and mail. The amount of supplies needed and the scarcity of sleds and dogs meant the men had to run alongside the sleds for most of the 1600-mile trek in temperatures as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit.
The expedition purchased reindeer and drove them north through the nearly complete darkness of the Alaskan winter. The men arrived at Point Barrow March 29, 1898 with 382 reindeer. Though many of the whalers had become sick or emaciated before the arrival of the rescue party, only three died and the rescue was a success. When the summer thaw completed, four of the ships were able to sail south. Four had been destroyed by the ice and their crews were transported south by the USRC Bear to San Francisco. The second-in-command of the operation, 2nd Lt. Ellsworth Berthoff, would go on to become the first commandant of the Coast Guard when the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lifesaving Service were combined in 1915.
7. A beached crew fired the enemy’s own cannonballs back at them
When the USRC Eagle found itself outmatched by the British HMS Dispatch during the War of 1812, the crew didn’t give up. They intentionally ran the cutter aground on Long Island and dragged some of its guns to a high bluff. From there, they teamed up with local militia and began firing on the British.
By mid-afternoon, they were out of shot. They reportedly began using sheets from their logbook as wadding and fired the enemy’s own cannonballs back at them. The enemy fire was so fierce, the cutter’s flag was shot off three times. The British eventually captured the Eagle.
8. Coast Guardsman destroyed a major pirate fort
Cape Breton Island in modern day Nova Scotia, Canada was a haven for pirates such as Captain Kidd for much of the 17th and 18th centuries. During operations in 1820, the USRC Alabama and USRC Louisianaattacked the pirate fort at Breton Island. Louisiana went on to capture five pirate vessels as part of a Caribbean task force with the British and U.S. navies.
9. The Coast Guard conducted more than 1,300 search and rescue missions during the Mariel Boatlift
On April 22, 1980, Cuban President Fidel Castro opened the Port of Mariel to Cubans who wished to emigrate from Cuba. Within hours, ships were headed from Miami to pick up the refugees. Over the next 45 days, an estimated 5,000 vessels pulled more than 100,000 Cubans from the island. The vessels were usually packed over capacity and had insufficient flotation devices. Over half of the vessels needed some sort of assistance from the Coast Guard.
The Coat Guard shifted many of its active duty assets to the Straits of Florida and called up its reserves. Many vessels began running 24-hour operations just to tow damaged ships or search for lost ones. The call for Coast Guard cutters became so dire that some ships stopped being able to maintain their logs. Still, the Coast Guard logged 1,300 search and rescue missions during the operation with an unknown number not being recorded.
During World War II, American troops dreaded hitting the beach in the Pacific Theater. They knew full-well that they would be in for a fierce fight when going up against Japanese troops, who fought fanatically, either with furious banzai charges or from well-built fortifications. But in one invasion, troops caught a break — the enemy wasn’t there.
On Guadalcanal, Marines manged to hold down a heavily supply line — a task that famously marked by vicious battles. When American troops went on to reclaim the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, they expected a similar fight.
Almost immediately after Japan seized Attu and Kiska, American air strikes rained death and destruction.
The islands had been taken by Japanese troops in June, 1942, as part of an effort to divert American attention from Midway. While Japan did assume control over the islands, the distraction didn’t work, largely due to a brilliant piece of work by Jasper Holmes.
The occupation was not pleasant for Japanese garrisons. From almost the very moment those islands were seized, American air and naval forces constantly pounded the islands with air strikes and bombardments. In March, 1943, an outnumbered and outgunned U.S. Navy task force drove away a heavily-escorted Japanese convoy in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands.
USS Pennsylvania (BB 38) opens fire on Japanese positions on Kiska.
Two months later, American forces stormed the beaches of Attu. After 18 days of fighting, which culminated in a banzai charge on May 29, 1943, the Japanese garrison was wiped out. 580 American troops and well over 2,000 Japanese troops were killed in action.
Three more months of air raids and naval bombardment followed for Kiska. But when the invasion force arrived, the island was empty. Japanese forces had managed to evacuate this garrison. Still, between accidents, disease, friendly fire, and frostbite, American and Canadian forces suffered over 300 casualties, which shows that even a lucky break can be costly.