During Women’s History Month, it’s important that we remember the women who have paved the way for others and accomplished great feats in times where women were considered less-than-equal. It might be shocking to hear, but the Medal of Honor has only been awarded to one woman out of 3,517 recipients. That’s right. To this day, only one woman has earned the citation.
The Medal of Honor is the most prestigious military award given to those that exhibit exemplary courage in combat, dedication to country, and unquestionable valor during wartime. The Medal of Honor was created in 1862 after President Abraham Lincoln approved provisions for the Navy Medal of Valor.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was one of those honored with the highly coveted medal. She came from a family of abolitionists who believed in equal pay and equal rights for all. Education was first and foremost in her life, and she became a teacher to pay her way through her schooling at Syracuse Medical College in New York. Her aim was to help mankind — and she didn’t let her sex get in the way of accomplishments.
Walker graduated, with honors, in 1855 and was the only woman in her class. When the Civil War broke out, she decided to try and sign up for the Union Army as a commissioned medical officer. Unfortunately, she was denied because of her sex. However, this did not dissuade her convictions. Instead, she worked as an unpaid volunteer and nurse in the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Later, she was able to secure a position as a field surgeon on the front lines. Walker worked for the Union for two years, performing surgery and tending to the casualties of war. It wasn’t until 1863 that she was awarded a commission as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian).”
Surprisingly, Walker was allowed to wear the officer’s uniform and was known to carry two pistols on her hip, just in case. On April 10, 1864, Walker accidentally crossed enemy lines and was captured by Rebel soldiers and held captive in Richmond, VA. After four months of captivity, she was traded back to the Union, man-for-man, for a Confederate officer.
She continued to serve as a surgeon in Louisville, KY until the end of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson presented Walker with the Medal of Honor in 1865 for her selfless service. In 1917, when the eligibility requirements were changed to include “actual combat,” Walker’s medal was rescinded.
U.S. Attorney George E. Q. Johnson of Chicago, Illinois, was personally tasked by President Hoover to orchestrate the takedown of Al Capone, the gangster of the Windy City who had the law in his pocket. Capone had transformed Chicago into a hive of organized crime in defiance of prohibition. However, how can the law be enforced if those in charge of gathering evidence accepted bribes? You bring in a man who cannot be bought.
Eliot Ness was a Prohibition agent who attacked the distribution pipeline of alcohol while the U.S. Treasury Department simultaneously collected evidence on Al Capone’s tax-related crimes. Ness marshaled a small team of experts to track empty barrels from saloons en route to Capone’s distilleries to be refilled with the illegal substance. Whenever there was to be a raid on these operations, Ness notified the press so they could be on the scene. It was his way of sending a message to the public: There was a new sheriff in town.
However, there was a lot more to this moral crusader than met the eye.
The face of a man who just watched years of his collected evidence get tossed to the wayside.
The Prohibition case was not used against Al Capone
In June, 1931, Al Capone was indicted on charges of tax evasion and one count of conspiracy to violate Prohibition. Unfortunately, the chances of convicting the crime lord for his violating Prohibition required city-level action, and to betray Capone was as deadly as suicide. So, the only charges that would stick were federal tax crimes.
While Eliot Ness is credited as the agent who took down Al Capone, it wasn’t his thwarting of the bootlegging operation that did it.
Hello darkness my old friend
He had a drinking problem
Eliot Ness decompressed after a long day of busting bootleggers by pouring himself a drink and reading the headlines made from his crackdowns. That’s like a DEA agent going home to do a celebratory line of coke while watching the news praise yet another successful raid on a cartel. He pieced together a scrapbook of his victories to chronicle his own legacy.
Maybe there’s some truth to the saying, “never meet your heroes…”
He failed to catch a serial killer in Cleveland
Later in his career, Ness took his fight against organized crime to Cleveland, and he successfully turned it from the deadliest city in America to the safest. Then, in what seems like a deliberate challenge to the man who turned a city around, a serial killer preyed on the homeless, killing them and severing their limbs in brutal fashion.
After 12 bodies were found in succession, Ness brought the police to where the homeless lived in makeshift huts and burned them to the ground. Ness reasoned that if there were no more homeless to fall victim, there would be no murders.
It seems crazy, but it worked. The homeless were relocated to the Salvation Army, and the death toll stopped climbing.
He wrote the book that was turned into a movie
The 1987 hit gangster film, The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma, was based on Eliot Ness’ book by the same name. It recounts a sensationalized version of the hunt for Al Capone that puts him at the center of the investigation as the principal figure who took down the gangster.
Most of the embellishments can be credited to the co-author, Oscar Fraley. An abundance of self-celebration aside, a good story is a good story.
In 2001, Mark Giaconia was a Green Beret patrolling the border areas between Kosovo and Serbia. His counterparts were Russian troops, many of which were airborne. Their mission was to disrupt the movements of Albanian UCPMB rebels in the area. For six months, he and his Russian allies worked side-by-side, in the forests and mountains around Kosovo.
Then one day, his coworkers put on what they called a “Spetsnaz Show” – and Giaconia realized who his tactical buddies really were.
To be clear, the “Spetsnaz” aren’t any single part of the Russian military apparatus. They are any special operations unit of the Russian military, including the Russian Navy, Airborne troops, and FSB (formerly the KGB). Most often, when westerners refer to the Spetsnaz, they’re referring to the special operations section of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.
Giaconia’s experience with the Russians was his first – and it was the first time American Specials Forces and Russian special operators worked together. The height of their mission in Kosovo was rolling on a rebel base that had killed one of the Russians’ soldiers. The team captured a young rebel while on a patrol and extracted the location of the rebels’ base of operations.
American and Russian Special Forces troops in Kosovo alongside Swedish Jaegers, 2001.
Giaconia describes his time in Kosovo with his ODA in his book, One Green Beret: Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and beyond: 15 Extraordinary years in the life – 1996-2011. He describes the joint US-Russian Special Forces outfit arriving in an area called Velja Glava, where the rebel camp was supposed to be. After dispatching the sentries, the joint team dismounted from their armored vehicles and moved through the forest to assault the camp. The Russians deftly traversed through the vegetation while Giaconia laid the forest bare with a Mk 19 grenade launcher.
The Russians captured the Albanian rebels that were still able to be captured, and the UCPMB camp was taken out of action permanently. When it came to the performance of the Spetsnaz in combat, Giaconia says they were keen on tactics and had great intuition and instinct. They could shoot well, took care of their weapons and equipment, and were in great shape, and were very well-disciplined.
In short, he says he had a lot of respect for these “badasses in spirit.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran was America’s original nemesis in the Middle East before Saddam’s Iraq stole the spotlight from 1990-2003. (Saddam and the Iranians, by the way, fought a bloody 8-year war against each other in the 1980s.) A casual observer might assume that the Islamic Republic of Iran must be best buddies with the infamous Islamic State (ISIS)…but no, they share a mutual hatred of each other.
Yeah, it’s all a bit complicated and messy, so strap in, and we’ll clear things up a bit.
Iran is a theocracy, meaning the country is governed by religious law. Rather than a single strongman dictator, Iran is ruled by a group of religious clerics who control the country’s “elected” leaders like former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (remember him?) Iran became the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 after religious fundamentalists overthrew the secular government of Shah Reza Pahlevi.
The Shah was a dictator, albeit one less brutal than the current regime, who came to power in 1954 with the help of the American CIA. It was a bad look for Uncle Sam, and many Iranians never forgot it.
American hostages in Iran following the Islamist takeover of 1979.
(Source: Associated Press)
The Iranians are not Arabs like their neighbors to the west. Rather, they are Persians. Instead of Arabic, they speak a dialect of Persian called Farsi. The Iranians are predominantly Shia Muslims, whereas most Arabs are Sunni Muslims.
Theologically, Shias and Sunnis are akin to Protestants and Catholics in the Western world. 85-90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunni and, while the world’s Shia are concentrated in Iran, there are Shia minorities throughout the Arab world. Iraq is unique because it has both an Arab majority and a Shia majority, giving Iran a prime opportunity for heavy influence there (check the news…)
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are Sunni jihadist groups, whereas Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and many of the large militias in Iraq are Shia.
(Source: Pew Research Center)
So the Iranians are Persians and not Arabs, and their leaders are fundamentalist Muslims but from the opposite branch of Islam than bin Laden and the Islamic State.
So what’s Iran’s game plan? In a nutshell, Iran wants to preserve and spread its “Islamic revolution” by boxing out the Sunni Arabs and supporting Shia groups across the Middle East (they also work with certain Sunni groups like Hamas.)
To dominate the Middle East, Iran’s leaders want to exploit the “Shia Crescent,” a network of Shia populations stretching from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon. Iran’s message to these Shia populations is “Big Brother Iran is here to save you from the Sunnis, the Israelis, and the Americans.”
(Source: Geographic Intelligence Services)
You can think of the fight against ISIS as World War II, with ISIS filling the role of Nazi Germany. During WWII, the Western Allies and the Soviet Union set aside their rivalries to defeat a common threat. The Defeat-ISIS campaign was similar in that Iran’s Shia coalition shared a mutual enemy with the American/Sunni alliance, even though the two sides weren’t officially partners.
But now, like in 1945, the old rivalries are back in play once again. On one side, Iran leads Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and other Shia factions in the region. Opposing them are the Sunni Arab countries aligned with the United States.
Fear and mistrust of Iran runs deep in countries like Saudi Arabia- so deep, in fact, that Saudi Arabia has reportedly made secret arrangements with Israel to counter the Iranian threat (that’s, uh, a plot twist…to put it mildly.) Iraq, with its Shia majority but close and complicated relationship with the United States, remains stuck in a tug-of-war between the rival coalitions.
Alleged secret plan for Israeli aircraft to use Saudi airspace to strike Iran. Saudi Arabia publicly denies this.
(Source: Rick Francona)
Iran was once the great ancient empire of Persia, and there is more to modern Iran than its leaders’ ambitions. Iran has a population of over 80 million, and resentment toward the regime is widespread. Strict religious tyranny and a weak economy cause frequent protests which the Iranian regime suppresses with ruthless violence. It’s unclear if this unrest will eventually put the regime’s power in serious jeopardy.
Iran’s economic problems are driven in part by economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe. These sanctions, in turn, are imposed partly as a result of Iran’s nuclear program- a program which, the regime insists, is strictly for domestic energy production. Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons is concerning because an atomic Iran could lead its Sunni rivals to pursue their own nuclear weapons.
Iranian protesters in 2009.
(Source: Getty Images)
Further Iranian vs. American bloodshed seems to have been averted in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, but violence between the two countries is nothing new.
The infamous 1983 Beirut bombing, which killed 241 U.S. servicemen, was perpetrated by an Iranian suicide bomber and 1988’s “Operation Praying Mantis” pitted the U.S. Navy against the Iranian Navy in the largest American naval combat operation since WWII. The whole region remains a Game of Thrones-tier snake pit of conflicting loyalties, religious conflict, and political scheming.
Hopefully now, however, you better understand what led to the U.S. government ordering a drone strike on that guy who looked like Sean Connery.
Iranian Quds Force general Qasem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. drone strike in January 2020.
In the lead up to American involvement of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt committed his administration to a “Germany-First” policy if the U.S. entered the war. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it shook his commitment, but he stuck to it. Although, in his rush to take the pressure off the U.K. and the Soviet Union, he almost pressed American forces into a doomed invasion.
Workers assemble fighter aircraft at Wheatfield, New York.
The American war machine had to shake itself awake at the start of 1942. While the industrial base had achieved some militarization during Lend-Lease and other programs, it would need a lot more time to produce even the tools necessary to make all the vehicles, uniforms, and even food necessary to help the troops succeed in battle.
And those troops needed to be trained, but almost as importantly, many of the military leaders needed to get seasoned in combat. There were generals with limited experience from World War I and plenty of mid-career officers and NCOs who had never fought in actual battle.
But there was limited time to ramp up. England was barely staving off defeat, beating back German attack after attack in the air to keep them from crossing the English Channel. And the Soviet Union was facing 225 German divisions on the Eastern Front. According to Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn:
If Soviet resistance collapsed, Hitler would gain access to limitless oil reserves in the Caucasus and Middle East, and scores of Wehrmacht divisions now fighting in the east could be shifted to reinforce the west. The war could last a decade, War Department analysts believed, and the United States would have to field at least 200 divisions….
Russian anti-tank infantrymen in the important Battle of Kursk. Soviet troops were reliant on American arms for much of World War II, but there sacrifice in blood inflicted the lion share of casualties against Nazi Germany.
(Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0)
To get the pressure off the Soviet Union and ensure it survived, thereby keeping hundreds of German divisions tied up, Roosevelt committed U.S. forces to a 1942 invasion. And his top officers, especially the new Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, Adm. Ernest J. King, told Roosevelt that the American invasion had to be made at France.
And this made some sense. While Great Britain was lobbying for help in North Africa in order to keep Italy from taking the oil fields there, invading North Africa would pull few or no troops from the Eastern Front. And while the oil fields in North Africa were important, the Italian military hammering there was less of a threat than the German attacks on the Soviet Union.
And attacks into Europe could be driven home straight into Berlin. A landing in France or Denmark would be about 500 miles or less from Hitler’s capital as soon as it landed, a serious threat to Germany. But a landing in Africa would be 1,000 miles or more away and would require multiple amphibious landings to get into Africa and then on to Europe.
King and other senior leaders like Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George C. Marshall thought it would be a waste of time and resources.
And so planning went into effect for Operation Sledgehammer, the 1942 Allied invasion of France. But the British officers immediately started to campaign against the attack. They had already been pushed off the continent, and they knew they didn’t have the forces, and that America didn’t have the forces, to take and hold the ground.
Germany had over 24 divisions in France. For comparison, the actual D-Day landings and follow-on assault in 1944 were made with only nine divisions with additional smaller units. And that was after the military was able to procure thousands of landing craft and planes to deliver those troops. In 1942, many of those tools weren’t ready.
And, the timeline forced planners to look for a Fall landing. The Atlantic and the English Channel in the Fall are susceptible to some of the worst storms a landing could face. High winds and surging seas could swamp landing craft and destabilize the naval artillery needed to support landings.
Worse for Britain: a failed landing across the channel in 1942 would result in bodies floating in that body of water by the thousands or tens of thousands. And if Germany successfully bottled the landing up and then slaughtered the Allied troops day by day, then those bodies could have been visible on the English coast for days and weeks.
Americans with the 45th Infantry Division prepare equipment in Sicily for movement to Salerno.
(U.S. National Archives)
So Britain renewed its lobbying for an invasion of Africa, instead. Churchill led the campaign, pointing out that German troops there could be bottled up and potentially even captured, the Suez Canal would be re-opened, and Americans could get combat experience in a theater where it would have a balance of forces in its favor rather than fighting where it could be overwhelmed before it could learn valuable lessons.
And so Operation Sledgehammer was shelved in favor of Operation Torch, the November 1942 invasion that landed on multiple beachheads across the northern coast of Africa. America would learn tough lessons there, but was ultimately successful.
Unfortunately, that hope of isolating and capturing the German force would be partially prevented by a German escape at Messina where many Nazi troops made it across to Sicily. But the Allies took the oil fields in Africa, took Sicily, and landed in Italy, building the experience needed to land in France in 1944.
Meanwhile, America sent as much industrial support to the Soviet Union as it could to keep it from falling, and it was successful, largely thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the Communist troops who turned back the Axis troops at Stalingrad, Kursk, and other battles.
The first woman to lead a military op might not meet your stereotype. Instead, envision the Civil War, and a woman who has been working as a spy for the Union Army. She has been gathering valuable information to help the Union turn the tide in the war. She has come to be relied on by generals for the information that she supplies. And with that, she is given the opportunity to lead a military operation called the Combahee Ferry Raid.
Do you have the woman pictured in your mind?
Her name is Harriet Tubman and you might have learned her story as one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad. Even referred to as the “Moses of her people,” but being a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad is just part of her story.
Harriet was born into slavery between 1820 and 1825. In 1844, even though it wasn’t allowed, she married a free, Black man named John Tubman. She was ready to escape slavery in 1849, but her husband did not want to leave Maryland. She left anyway and eventually he remarried in 1851. It was after she was freed from slavery that she began to go back countless times to help other slaves find their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She is remembered in history for never being caught or losing a passenger on the road to freedom.
But this is only the beginning of her story.
Because of her extensive knowledge of the South due to the Underground Railroad, Tubman became a key informant for the North (Union Army). She knew the towns and transportation routes of the South and long before GPS or reliable maps, this made her insight an invaluable tool. Not only would she dress up as an aging woman and wander Confederate streets and talk to enslaved people and gather information such as troop movement/placement and supply lines, but her work made her a respected guerrilla operative. So much so that in 1963 she began to plan a military operation under the command of Colonel James Montgomery.
The Union officers knew that the people of the South didn’t trust them, but did trust Harriet. Her demeanor and way with people were just part of the asset she provided to the military. Although she was illiterate, she was able to capture intelligence with her memory. To make the Combahee Ferry Raid a success, they traveled upriver in three boats: the John Adams, Sentinel and Harriet A Weed. They relied on Harriet’s memory where the slaves were at strategic points to collect the fleeing slaves while also using those points as places; they could destroy Confederate property. She also helped them navigate around known torpedoes.
At around 2:30 AM on June 2, they were down to two ships as the Sentinel had run aground early on in the mission. The two remaining ships split up to conduct different raids. Harriet Tubman led 150 men on the John Adams toward the fugitives. Once the signal was given, there was chaos. Slaves running everywhere. Angry slave owners and rebels tried to chase down the slaves, even firing their guns on them. As the escaped slaves ran to the shore, black troops waited in rowboats to transfer them to the ships. In the chaos, Tubman broke out into popular songs from the abolitionist movement to help calm everyone down. That night, more than 700 slaves escaped. The troops also disembarked near Field’s Point, torching plantations, fields, mills, warehouses, and mansions. Overall, it was a huge success and caused a humiliating defeat for the Confederacy.
The first story written by a Wisconsin State Journal noted Harriet as the “She Moses,” but didn’t actually include her name. A month later Franklin Sanborn, the editor of Boston’s Commonwealth newspaper picked up the story and named Harriet Tubman, a friend of his, as the heroine.
Even with the mission’s success, Harriet was not paid for her contribution. She petitioned the government many times and was denied because she was a woman.
After the war, she dedicated her life to helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly. She also continued to petition for recognition from the military with a military pension. She also remarried a Black Union soldier, Nelson Davis. And eventually, Tubman received military compensation after his death. Although she often found herself in financial constraints, she was always giving her time and money.
If you would like to learn more about Harriet Tubman you can check out these resources and books:
Aside from stories about U-Boats and how German Admiral Karl Donitz took over for Hitler when the dictator killed himself, you don’t really hear much about the German Navy in World War II. There are a lot of reasons for this, and like most problems with the Nazis, much of it is due to incompetence of leadership.
One of the Kriegsmarine’s earliest adventures in the war was Operation Wikinger. The operation was a response to sightings of British submarines in the North Sea. If the British were out there, they reasoned, the best response would be to go after them and clear the seas.
This turned out to be a terrible idea.
The German Navy’s issues were manyfold, and much of it happened right from the start of the Nazi regime.
Hitler had high hopes of building a Navy that could go toe-to-toe with the British but didn’t really guide his military leadership from there. Karl Donitz said he would need 1,000 submarines to take on the Royal Navy. He got 57.
To top it all off, the rest of the world powers had realized that the age of big battleships was over and that naval air power would be the deciding factor at sea. Meanwhile, Germany was finishing the world’s largest battleship, the Bismarck.
Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering is equally to blame for Germany’s ptificul naval forces during the war. Unwilling to cede any command of the air from the Luftwaffe, he wouldn’t divert resources to create a naval air force. It was also Goering’ Luftwaffe that put the nail in the coffin of Operation Wikinger.
When Wikinger was finally launched in February of 1940, the task force consisted of six destroyers with two land-based Luftwaffe bomber squadrons in support. This should have been fine for such a small and nearby area of operations like the North Sea, but exchanging information between two services meant information had to go all the way down the chain of one command, all the way up another, and back again.
So when a lone German bomber flew over the six destroyers without indicating whether it was friend or foe, the ships opened fire on it. The bomber returned fire, but the Luftwaffe had more experience. It scored a direct hit on one of the destroyers, cutting it in two. The rest of the ships returned to help the crew as the bomber flew home.
That’s how another destroyer suddenly hit an undersea mine. At this point, no one in the task force knew what was happening, who was attacking them, or how they were being attacked. One of the ships, believing it was being attacked by a submarine, dropped its depth charges, damaging its own rudder in the process.
By the time the ships were finally ready to go home, the German Navy had lost two destroyers and 578 sailors. Poor communication was to blame. The Kriegsmarine knew the bombers would be in the area, but they failed to inform the ships. The Luftwaffe bomber didn’t even know there were German ships in the North Sea.
The whole debacle took 30 minutes. To this day, no one knows if the mine that struck one of the destroyers was German or British. Not a single officer was disciplined for the losses.
There’s no question about it: A singular blemish in French history is to blame for their eternal ridicule. The moment Marshal Philippe Petain surrendered (kind of) to the Germans after being the main target of the blitzkrieg was the moment people started associating “s’il vous plaît” with “surrender.”
Ridicule against Vichy France, the German puppet state, isn’t without merit — we get it. But to overlook the storied nation’s thousands of years of badassery is laughably incorrect. Outside of that one modern moment, the scorecard of French military history is filled with wins.
Author’s Note: It’s a fool’s errand to try and rank these by historical significance or how they each demonstrate French military might, so they’re listed in chronological order:
Battle of Hastings
If you want to get technical, this battle happened before the formation of France proper. Still, it’s generally agreed that France began with the Franks. Sorry, Gauls. Their legacy of military might includes (successfully) fighting off vikings, Iberians, and, occasionally, the Holy Roman Empire.
But the single landmark victory for the Franks came when Duke William the Bastard of Normandy pressed his claim over the English crown in 1066. At the Battle of Hastings, outnumbered Normans fought English forces, led by King Herald Godwinson. The Normans, led by William, pushed through English shield walls to take out the crown. William the Bastard then went on to conquer the rest of England and earned himself the a new moniker, “King William the Conqueror.”
Siege of Orleans
At the the height of English might, during the Hundred Years’ War, they finally made an effort to end the French once and for all. The city of Orleans was put under siege — and the throne was thrust into dire circumstances. All the English had to do was starve city. That was, until a young peasant girl arrived: Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc successfully sneaked a relief convoy of food, aid, and arms into the city, right under the noses of the English. This bolstered the strength of the defenders. With food in bellies and morale on the rise, the besieged made a stand and finally pushed the English out of France.
Battle of Yorktown
This is the battle that won the Americans the Revolutionary War, so it’s most often seen as a major victory for the Americans. But the victory would have never been if it weren’t for massive support from the French.
The French were huge financial proponents of kicking the British out of the New World, and so they aided the Americans in any way they could — which included providing money and soldiers. Everything came to a head at Yorktown, Virginia when Lord Cornwallis went up against General George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. It was an effort of equal parts — both Washington and Rochambeau flanked Cornwallis on each side, forcing his surrender and officially relinquishing British control over the Colonies.
Most of the Napoleonic Wars
It’s kind of hard to single out one shining example of the sheer strength of the French during the Napoleonic Wars because Napoleon was such a great military leader. If you break down his win/loss ratio down into baseball statistics, like these guys have, he outshines every general in history —from Alexander the Great to modern generals.
Let’s look at the Battle of Ligny. Napoleon managed to piss off the entirety of Europe, causing themto band together tofight him. He was cornered in Prussia andhis enemies were closing in. In a last-ditch effort, he took a sizable chunk out of the Prussian military and forced them to retreat. This all happened while the English, the Russians, the Austrians, and the Germans were trying to intervene.
Just two days later came the Battle ofWaterloo, duringwhich most of Europe had to work together to bring down the dominant Napoleon.
The Battle of Verdun
Let’s go back to Philippe Petain, the guy who gave up France to the Germans, for a second. Today, many see him as a traitor, a coward, and a weakling — but these insults can’t be made with putting a huge asterisk next to them. In World War I, he was known as the “Lion of Verdun” after he oversaw and won what is known as the longest and single bloodiest battle in human history.
For almost the entirety of the year 1916, the Germans pushed everything they had into a single forest on the French/German border. It was clear within the first six days that after the Germans spent 2 million rounds, 2 million artillery shells, and deployed chemical warfare for the first time, that the French would not budge. 303 days later, the Germans finally realize that the French wouldn’t give in and gave up.
In the opening paragraph, there was a “(kind of)” next to mention of French surrender during WWII. Well, that’s because not all of France gave in — just parts of it. France was split into three: Vichy France (a powerless puppet state), the French Protectorates (which were mostly released back to their home rule), and the resistance fighters of Free France.
The Free French resistance fighters were widespread across the French territory, but were mostly centralized in the South. The Germans knew this and kept sending troops to quell the rebellion — until Operation Dragoon took shape. Aided by Allied air power, French resistance fighters were able to repel the Germans out of Free France in only four weeks and give the Allies the strong foothold they needed in the Mediterranean until the fall of fascist Italy.
French Marines were manning observation posts on either side of the Vrbanja Bridge. They were UN peacekeepers, the first to arrive in the decimated city of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in May 1995. But their day was to begin in humiliation and end in bloodshed as their mission to hold the observation posts quickly escalated into the first UN combat mission of the war.
When they first began their occupation of the bridge, one side was overtaken by Bosnian Serb commandos. Dressed in French uniforms and donning French weapons, the commandos took one side of the bridge without firing a shot. They even pulled up to the post in a stolen French armored personnel carrier. For many of the Serbs, it was the last thing they would ever do.
At gunpoint, the 10 French marines were disarmed and taken captive, and driven to another location. The other two were to be used on the bridge as human shields. The other side of the bridge didn’t even know their comrades had been overrun and captured. When the other unit didn’t check in with headquarters, their platoon commander came to check in on the Marines – he then sounded the alarm. When their fellow marines discovered their friends had been taken captive, they decided to move quickly on the Serb commandos.
“When the Serbs took our soldiers under their control by threat, by dirty tricks, they began to act as terrorists, you cannot support this,” Said Col. Erik Sandahl, commander of the 4th French Battalion. “You must react. The moment comes when you have to stop it. Full stop. And we did.”
When French President Jacques Chirac found out about the captured French marines, he went around the UN and ordered his troops to retake the bridge and find the missing men. The French sent 30 more Marines, 13 APCs, and 70 French Army soldiers to the bridge. But they couldn’t just blow up the observation post or do a regular infantry assault on the position. There were still hostages inside. They were going to have to do it the old fashioned way.
The French marines mounted their first bayonet charge since the Korean War.
After the bayonet charge, a 32-minute firefight ensued that saw one of the French hostages shot by a Bosnian sniper, the other hostage escaped, three Frenchmen killed in action and another ten wounded, along with four Serbs killed, three wounded and another four taken prisoner. The 10 French hostages were later released. The Serbs soldiers captured were treated as prisoners of war and held by the UN peacekeeping force.
It was the last time the French Army ever launched a bayonet charge, but for the rest of the time the French were participating as UN Peacekeepers in Bosnia, the Serbian forces kept a clear, noticeable distance from them.
Johnie Webb’s corner office is full of memories from a grim but fulfilling mission.
As the Army veteran leans over his desk — strewn with gifts given to him over the course of a 40-year career — he grabs a wooden box and pulls out a modest bracelet. Engraved on stainless steel reads the name of a staff sergeant killed in the Vietnam War.
When he begins to share the story of how he received it, his light blue eyes well up with tears.
“I keep it on my desk, because this is what we’re all about,” said Webb, deputy of outreach and communications for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Since 1975, Webb has traveled dozens of times to former combat zones as a Soldier and later as a civilian for the joint agency or one of its predecessors. The agency is responsible for locating the remains of the more than 82,000 Americans who are still missing from past conflicts.
While much of his time had been in search of those fallen service members, Webb, 72, is now an advocate for their families who continue to wait for updates.
“I’m not going to say closure, because I’m not sure if there ever is closure when you lose a loved one. But at least [we can] provide them answers and give that loved one back,” he said. “That’s extremely important and I’m honored to play a small part.”
Early in his Army career, Webb, a retired lieutenant colonel, led convoys as a logistics officer all over Vietnam to ensure bases had fuel for operations during the war.
Under the constant threat of roadside bombs and ambushes, he briefed his Soldiers to move their vehicle out of the road if it were ever hit so other vehicles could escape.
“If you block the road, then we’re all done,” he recalled saying.
During one of those missions, a Soldier did just that after a rocket-propelled grenade struck the cab of his 5-ton vehicle and left him with severe burns.
His sacrifice was something Webb never forgot.
“Unfortunately, he didn’t survive,” he said. “But he probably saved the rest of us by doing what we were trained to do and that was to get his truck off the road.”
A few years after his tour, the Army assigned Webb to the Central Identification Laboratory-Thailand, which was later moved to Hawaii and consolidated into DPAA.
The role of the new unit was to find the remains of Americans from the Vietnam War.
At first, he was confused, he said, since he knew nothing about the organization or its mission. In the Army’s eyes, though, he was qualified for the job because as a young lieutenant he once took a course on graves registration.
It would eventually come full circle for Webb in 1985, when he was chosen to lead the first recovery team into Vietnam only a decade after the end of the war.
“It became very personal for me,” he said, regarding the sacrifices made by fallen comrades. “We couldn’t let them be forgotten.”
Being back in Vietnam was initially “unnerving,” he said. After all, he had once fought an enemy there and it was uncertain how his team would be treated.
The mission was to search for human remains from a B-52 bomber crash site near Hanoi. But the team’s visit to Vietnam was also an opportunity to rebuild the diplomatic relationship between the former warring nations.
The Vietnamese still distrusted Americans then, he said, and even photographed his team with cameras that were crudely hidden in briefcases.
Now, more than 30 years after that first mission, Vietnamese officials work closely with the DPAA teams that rotate in and out of the country each year. The agency is even permitted to permanently base one of its detachments in Hanoi to support teams as they search for roughly 1,600 Americans missing from that war.
“We were there before we had diplomatic relations. We were there before an embassy was ever established,” Webb said. “A lot of groundbreaking effort went into getting us to where we are today.”
While the agency’s mission started with the work to account for those lost in Vietnam, it grew to include sites from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and other conflicts.
Webb was again behind another pioneering effort, but this time in North Korea. He and others took several trips to the country and helped negotiate with the North Koreans so teams could conduct missions at former battle sites from 1996 to 2005.
They even traveled from the capital, Pyongyang, to the Chosin Reservoir, where a decisive battle had taken place in the winter of 1950. As they were driven through the country, Webb recalled seeing how desperate the North Koreans had lived.
“It was very interesting times,” he said, “but it made sure you were really appreciative of being an American.”
As U.S. and North Korean governments currently aim to thaw relations between each other, Webb hopes it will lead the reclusive country to reopen its borders to the agency’s teams.
About 7,700 Americans are still unaccounted for from the Korean War, with the majority believed to be in North Korea.
“If we want to get answers to the families, and we definitely want to get them answers, we’re going to have to get access back into North Korea,” he said.
With the days of digging at excavation sites now behind him, Webb maintains a pivotal role in keeping families, distinguished visitors and veterans service organizations apprised of agency efforts.
“I couldn’t say enough good things about Johnie Webb and the fact that he is literally one of the staunchest contributors to this mission,” said Kelly McKeague, the agency’s director.
McKeague, a former Air Force major general, credits Webb’s “Texas roots” for his compassion and calm demeanor. There is no better person, McKeague said, to speak with families struggling with loss.
“Johnie has a sense about him to be able to communicate with them, to be empathetic to them, and to literally not just be their friend but be their confidant,” he said. “They have so much confidence in him.”
Whether in a foreign country or back at the headquarters in Hawaii, Webb said the younger troops at the agency have always impressed him.
“Most of them weren’t even born when the guy who they are trying to recover was lost,” he said. “Still, they feel that kinship to that military buddy who wore the uniform for them.”
The “grunt work” these troops — many of whom are Soldiers — do at an excavation site can take months to years to find remains, if there are any. Once recovered, it can take even longer to identify them by lab staff.
While the long process sometimes leaves families irritated, the agency wants to ensure human remains are properly excavated and identified.
“Not only is it frustrating to the families, it gets frustrating for us as well because we want to provide those answers,” Webb said. “We want to return that loved one, but we want to do it right.”
When the answers do come, some family members do not want to believe them.
Inside a wooden box on his desk, the engraved bracelet reminds Webb of one such family member.
The father of the staff sergeant whose name is on the bracelet often spoke to Webb about his missing son before he was found. He had hoped his son was still alive and pleaded to Webb to bring him back.
A team then discovered remains from a site of a crashed helicopter, which the staff sergeant was on. Shortly after, Webb advised the father to prepare to receive his son’s remains so he could honor his life.
“It was clear that he was not wanting to hear that,” Webb remembered.
Webb asked other families who knew the grief-stricken father and had also lost loved ones to talk to him so he could come to terms with the news. He finally did.
When his son’s remains were returned to the family, there was a huge outpouring of public support. The funeral had full military honors and even dignitaries showed up to it.
“It was a day of celebration for this young man to come back home,” Webb said. “I was happy that he had honored his son the way he should have been honored.”
A few weeks later, a brown envelope addressed to Johnie Webb came in the mail. In it, there was a “thank you” note along with the bracelet, which the father always wore.
“I’m giving to you the POW bracelet that I have worn since my son was lost,” Webb said, recalling what the father wrote. “I finally took it off when he came back home. I want you to have it as a token of my appreciation.”
During World War II, the U.S. and Russia fought together as allies against Hitler and his massive German army. That “friendship,” however, quickly soured after the elimination of their common enemy. The relationship was fraught with trust issues.
The U.S. started to get nervous, thinking the Soviet Union would one-day attack American soil with chemical weapons. So, to prepare for that awful possibility, the government needed to test gas masks (even on children) to ensure safety from chemical agents. To do so, the United States Chemical Corps developed a mask strictly for civilian use that looks like something out of Star Wars.
It’s easy to look back at the U.S. and see paranoia, but this video suggests that the U.S.S.R. did, in fact, have a stockpile of chemical weapons.
The masks’ manufacturers put filter pads inside to screen out radioactive dust and particles. In theory, the idea was sound but, like anything, the apparatus needed some practical testing.
The kids who would take part in the tests were fitted via with masks after a series of measurements of their faces were taken. Once each test subject — *cough* I mean child — was equipped with a masks, government workers escorted them into a chamber. The door was sealed behind them.
Then, the testing chamber was filled with a “fine” aerosol spray as the children read books and fun magazines to stay occupied. During the 10-minute period of exposure, the small room was filled with a large quantity of organisms.
The United States Army has a little-known fleet of fixed-wing cargo planes. Currently, the major player in that fleet is the C-23 Sherpa, but throughout the years, there have been some other planes that proved very capable of handing the Army’s needs. One such plane was the C-7 Caribou.
Like the C-23, the C-7 Caribou filled a vital niche for the Army. Instead of providing that support in the deserts of the Middle East, however, it proved to be a valuable cargo asset in the jungles of Vietnam. The C-7 could carry four tons of cargo or 32 troops, had a top speed of 216 miles per hour, and could go 1,308 miles.
The Army had taken a look at the Air Force’s C-123 Provider and C-130 Hercules and quickly realized that there was a big gap in cargo-delivering capabilities between these massive planes and the small loads carried by helicopters of the time (the famous UH-1 Huey had flown in 1956, but was trickling into service). So, they sought a small transport plane to fill that gap.
A Canadian company, de Havilland Canada, ended up fielding a design that would fit the bill for the Army. It was unique in that it could take off and land given just 1,000 feet. It could pull this off despite the fact that it had less horsepower in its two engines than in a single R-2800, the engine that powered World War II planes, like the F6F Hellcat and the P-47 Thunderbolt.
The Army bought 173 C-7s and used them in Vietnam until 1967, when the Air Force took these planes on in exchange for dropping performance restrictions of Army helicopters. The C-7s continued to serve until 1985, when the C-23 replaced them. Some C-7 stayed in service with Australia until as late as 2009!
Learn more about this impressive cargo plane in the video below.
It was arguably worse than any 37 minutes of any other U.S. Navy defeat, including Pearl Harbor. At the Battle of Savo Island, Japan sank three American ships and killed over 1,000 U.S. sailors in addition to dooming an Australian ship and killing 84 Australian sailors while suffering 129 killed of their own.
The Australian HMAS Canberra burns off Guadalcanal after the Battle of Savo Island.
(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
While more people, 2,403, were killed in the Pearl Harbor attack, those losses were inflicted over about 2 hours and 27 minutes. And three ships were permanently lost at Pearl Harbor while four would be lost as a result of Savo Island. It would later earn the battle and the area the nickname “Ironbottom Sound.”
On Aug. 7, 1942, the U.S. fleet was guarding landing forces at Guadalcanal. Australian Coastwatchers spotted Japanese planes bearing down on the landing forces, and the Navy redeployed its screening ships and carrier aircraft to meet the Japanese threat. The landings were saved, and U.S. Adm. William Halsey later said, “The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”
The next day, August 8, Japanese ships hid near Bougainville Island and launched reconnaissance planes which quickly spotted the American fleet at the Solomons. The American fleet was split into three locations, and the Japanese commander, Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa, was hopeful that he could destroy one group before the other two could assist it. He targeted the ships at Savo Island.
Now, it should be said that the American fleet had received some warning that Japanese ships were still in the area. A submarine and reconnaissance planes caught sight of the Japanese fleet, but their warnings came late and were misunderstood in the larger intelligence picture. Worse, when the commander of the screening force took his ship to report to his boss, he didn’t leave anyone officially in charge in his stead.
The fleet was ill-positioned to respond to an attack, and it was bearing down on them.
The USS Quincy is illuminated by Japanese searchlights during the Battle of Savo Island on August 9, 1942.
(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
The Japanese attack began at 1:42 a.m. The lookouts in the Japanese masts had already found and fixed a number of ships and fed the data to their fire control stations. Just as the first Japanese flares were about to burst into light, the American destroyer Patterson spotted them and sounded the alarm, “Warning! Warning! Strange ships entering harbor.” The Patterson pursued the Japanese column, getting some hits but failing to launch its torpedoes.
But the Japanese guns were already trained on their targets, and the fleet had made it past the outer pickets, allowing it to attack from vectors and spots America hadn’t anticipated. Japanese ships pumped rounds into American vessels from just a few thousand yards. They dropped torpedoes in the water, hitting American and Australian ships before the ships’ crews could even make it to their guns.
The captain of the Australian HMS Canberra was killed in this first salvo, and his ship was rendered dead in the water.
The USS Chicago was hit with a torpedo, losing nearly its entire bow while the gunners continued to send disciplined fire at two targets in the dark, one of which might have been a Japanese ship.
The Japanese ships began to pull away from this fight at 1:44, just two minutes after they had opened fire. They had suffered no serious hits or damage and had crippled two cruisers and damaged a destroyer. The fight so far had been hidden from the rest of the American fleet, and Japan turned itself toward the Northern Force.
The turn was ill-managed, and the rest of the fleet now knew a fight was happening, if not the details. So Japan could not count on the same success it had managed in the opening five minutes. But the Northern Force still didn’t know the details of the fight, and had no idea that the Japanese were now in two columns about to attack.
The USS Vincennes charged bravely into the Battle of Savo Island, but it was quickly targeted by Japanese forces and pummeled by two columns of assailants.
(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
The disorganized Japanese turn still left them well-positioned to launch their torpedoes and fire their guns.
The USS Vincennes, a heavy cruiser, sailed into the fray looking for a fight, finding it about 1:50. Remember, this is still only eight minutes after Japan fired its first rounds and torpedoes. And it did not go well for the Vincennes. It was still hard to tell which ships were friendly and which were foe. A gun team asked permission to fire on a Japanese searchlight, but the brass thought it might be an American ship.
Japanese cruisers slammed the Vincennes‘ port side with shells, breaking through the hull, setting an aircraft on fire, and creating fires belowdecks that interrupted firefighting equipment and threatened to set off the ship’s supply of depth charges, bombs, and other ordnance. More shells hit the bridge and main ship, and then torpedoes ripped through the port side followed just minutes later by a hit to starboard.
By 2:03, the ship was in flames and going down. The crew fled to the sea.
Around the same time Vincennes was bravely entering the fray, the cruiser USS Astoria spotted a Japanese ship and ordered its men to general quarters. But the first Japanese shells were already flying toward it, exploding as the men were still rushing to stations.
The Astoria commander made it to the bridge and was worried that his men were in an accidental fight with friendly forces. He ordered his ship to cease firing for vital minutes. It didn’t resume firing until 1:54.
The Japanese heavy cruiser Chokai kept sending rounds at the Astoria until the fifth salvo hit home, piercing the Astoria’s superstructure, midships, and then the bridge itself. The Astoria would hit the Chokai once before it was too damaged to keep fighting.
Meanwhile, the heavy cruiser USS Quincy was also under fire and would get the worst of it. Its commander also worried that it was suffering friendly fire, and the commander ordered his guns silent, and the ship lit up to identify itself. Japanese shells tore through an aircraft hanger and set a plane on fire. It was too hot for the crew to push overboard, and Japanese ships leaped on the chance to fire on a lit up target.
The Japanese heavy cruiser Kako in 1926. It was the only Japanese ship lost as a result of the raid on Savo Island, sank on August 10 as the Japanese fleet left the engagement area.
(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
Shells landed just short of the Quincy, then just long, and then began raining down on it. Japanese torpedoes set off the forward magazine. The ship’s captain, Capt. Samuel Moore, ordered the surviving gunners to “Give ’em Hell,” just moments before the bridge was hit by an exploding shell. As he lay dying, Moore ordered the ship beached, but another officer realized it was already lost and ordered it abandoned.
As the Quincy, Vincennes, and Astoria began sinking, the Japanese fleet called off the attack, beginning its withdrawal at 2:15. It had suffered no serious damage, could see that at least three U.S. ships were sinking, had rendered the Australian ship Canberra dead in the water (it would be scuttled the next morning), and had ensured the deaths of just over 1,000 American and Australian sailors.
America did achieve on a parting shot, though. While the Japanese fleet was able to avoid the air screen sent to find it August 9-10, the U.S. submarine S-38 spotted them on August 10, and managed to bring down the Japanese Kako with a torpedo.