These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

The American Civil War was a bloody affair, where many battles were fought with infantry tactics that had been around for 100 years. But some weapons designers pushed the envelope of technology during the violent conflict and developed arms that would revolutionize the way militaries fight for centuries.


1. The Repeating Rifle

Although the primary weapon on both sides of the war was the rifled musket, the repeating rifle made its combat debut during the Civil War. The introduction of the percussion cap and the cartridge allowed for the creation of breech-loading rifles, far superior in reloading speed than muzzle-loaders. The weapon truly came into its own though in the form of the Spencer repeating rifle. The rifle fired seven .56 caliber bullets from a tube magazine in the buttstock. A lever-action discharged and loaded the rounds.

 

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
President Lincoln is said to have tested the Spencer Rifle himself on the White House grounds.

The real revolution from the weapon came from a change in infantry tactics. The cartridge and ability to fire multiple rounds in quick secession meant soldiers no longer had to stand massed against each other. Instead, they could maneuver more and even take advantage of cover and concealment by kneeling and lying down while still being able to fire. Unfortunately, the generals of the time were worried that troops would waste too much ammunition so the rifles only saw limited use.

2. The Gatling Gun

Before John Gatling’s invention, there was no way to provide sustained high rates of fire. Although not a true automatic weapon, the hand-cranked, multi-barreled weapon could deliver rounds down range at upwards of 450 per minute. With no links or feed belts, the weapon was gravity fed. The use of multiple barrels limited overheating and allowed for longer sustained rates of fire.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
An 1865 Gatling in the British Imperial Artillery Museum.

The introduction of rapid fire weapons quickly changed the nature of warfare. No longer could mass infantry formations be used – they would be mowed down by the higher rates of fire. This was a lesson that would not be sufficiently learned until the brutal combat of World War I.

During the Civil War, Gatling guns saw limited action because, once again, the war department feared a waste of ammunition. Most guns used in combat were purchased personally by generals. The rotating barrels of the Gatling gun would later come to prominence in automatic weapons like the GAU-17 minigun and Vulcan 20mm cannon.

3. Ironclads

At the outbreak of the Civil War, warship design was just beginning to incorporate steam power. Most vessels were still wooden and powered by sail, but the British and French started to add armor-plating the sides of existing ship designs. From the beginning of the war, both the Union and the Confederacy sought to acquire ironclad warships. Their homegrown designs first met at the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
The Monitor fighting the CSS Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads. (National Archives)

The Confederate CSS Virginia, a casemate ironclad, defeated three Union ships before encountering the Union’s USS Monitor. Though the battle ended in a draw with neither ship able to defeat the other, naval warfare was forever changed. In particular, the Monitor gave its name to a new type of warship.

These were low to the waterline and used rotating turrets to house their armament rather than the typical broadsides of a sailing ship. After news of the battle traveled abroad, many nations ceased production of wooden warships in favor of the new monitor-type. The turret has been a prominent design feature of warships ever since.

4. The Submarine

Though it was the Union that had superior industrial capabilities it was the Confederacy that launched the only submarine of the war. That submarine, the H.L. Hunley would be the first such ship to successfully attack and sink an enemy ship.

With a length of just 40 feet and a crew of eight using a hand-cranked shaft to propel her through the water, the Hunley was a far cry from the submarines that would appear in the early 20th century.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
The Hunley after being pulled up from the bottom of Charleston Harbor. The sub now sits in the H.L. Hunley Museum in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Hunley was armed with just a single spar torpedo – an explosive charge attached to the end of a wooden pole –  that was used to successfully sink the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864.

Unfortunately, the Hunley was lost with all hands shortly after her attack but she opened the way for the future of underwater warfare.

5. The Hand grenade

While grenades were not a new invention to the American Civil War, improvements to their design and function radically changed the way they could be used. Prior to this time, grenades had fuses that had to be lit before being thrown and so were only used by special troops known as grenadiers. Other times grenades were closer to Molotov Cocktails than what would commonly be called a grenade.

William Ketchum designed a new grenade that would detonate on impact.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

His design consisted of a metal cylinder with a plunger on the nose that would cause the explosives inside to detonate when it landed. To ensure that it landed nose down, he attached a wooden tailpiece with four fins to stabilize the grenade. With this type of fuse, individual soldiers of any type could carry the grenades.

This meant infantry assaulting trenches and other enemy positions could carry grenades while still carrying their rifles. By the 20th century, all major militaries adopted the hand grenade for standard infantry use.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The intriguing history of the term special operator

Operator – someone who operates.

In the civilian world, that could be someone operating an excavator, a wheeled tractor, and other similar heavy equipment. Historically, the term applied to people who worked in the old-school telephone centers and operated the manual telephone switchboards that were necessary in order for someone to call another number.

In the military, conversely, the term operator has come to be associated with troops serving in Special Operations Forces (SOF). A Navy SEAL operator, a Special Forces operator, a Marine Raider operator has become standard nomenclature, even in official communique and statements.

But what’s the actual origin of the term? For many in the spec ops community, an operator is someone who is serving or has served in one of the Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) Special Mission Units (SMU). This would apply to members of the Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, also known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), 24th Special Tactics Squadron (24th STS), Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), or one of the other smaller, blacker SMUs.

The office of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) historian, however, posits that the term originated from within the Green Beret community. In support of this claim, there is a document from the late 1950s. Dated April 2, 1959, the document’s headline reads: “The Code For the Special Forces Operator.” It includes 10 provisions to which a Green Beret must abide by. They range from the volunteer and highly dangerous nature of Special Forces – during the Cold War, Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas (SFODAs) were designed to remain behind enemy lines once the Soviet mechanized onslaught had been unleashed on Western Europe; their role, as it is today, was to organize, train, and lead indigenous forces in waging an Unconventional Warfare (UW) campaign against the Communists – to superb physical fitness, soldiership, and professionalism, among other things.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

“I realize,” the document’s sixth provision states, “it is my responsibility as a Special Forces Operator to undergo more intense and more rugged training than is required of the average soldier of the United States Army.”Read Next: Three SOF Phrases That I Hate

The document was signed by Captain Albert Clement, 1st Company, 77th Special Forces Group (SFG), and witnessed by John Hanretty. The 77th  is one of the original Special Forces Groups and the predecessor of the modern-day 7th SFG.

So, there it is. According to the existing historical evidence, it is the Green Berets who have the claim over the term “Operator.” Does a title matter, though? Not to those who operate.

This article was originally published on July 30, 2020 on SOFREP. Follow @sofrepofficial on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This train thief earned the first Medal of Honor

Army Pvt. Jacob Parrott was only 19 when a civilian spy and contraband smuggler proposed a daring plan, asking for volunteers: A small group of men was to sneak across Confederate lines, steal a train, and then use it as a mobile base to destroy Confederate supply and communications lines while the Union Army advanced on Chattanooga.


These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

It was for this raid that the Army would first award a newly authorized medal, the Medal of Honor. Jacob Parrott received the very first one.

The military and political situation in April, 1862, was bad for the Union. European capitals were considering recognizing the Confederacy as its own state, and the Democrats were putting together a campaign platform for the 1862 mid-terms that would turn them into a referendum on the war.

Meanwhile, many in the country thought that the Army was losing too many troops for too little ground.

It was against this backdrop that Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel heard James J. Andrews’ proposal to ease Mitchel’s campaign against Chattanooga with a train raid. Mitchel approved the mission and Andrews slipped through Confederate lines with his volunteers on April 7, 1862.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

An illustration for The Penn publishing company depicting the theft of the “General” locomotive by Andrews’ Raiders.

(Illustration by William Pittenger, Library of Congress)

The men made their way to the rail station at Chattanooga and rode from there to Marietta, Georgia, a city in the northern part of the state. En route, two men were arrested. Another two overslept on the morning of April 12 and missed the move from Marietta to Big Shanty, a small depot.

Big Shanty was chosen for the site of the train hijacking because it lacked a telegraph station with which to relay news of the theft. The theory was that, as long as the raiders stayed ahead of anyone from Big Shanty, they could continue cutting wires and destroying track all the way to Chattanooga without being caught.

At Big Shanty, the crew and passengers of the train pulled by the locomotive “The General” got off to eat, and Andrews’ Raiders, as they would later be known, took over the train and drove it north as fast as they could. Three men from the railroad gave chase, led by either Anthony Murphy or William Fuller. Both men would later claim credit for the pursuit. Either way, “The Great Locomotive Chase” was on.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

An illustration for The Penn publishing company shows Andrews’ Raiders conducting sabotage.

(Illustration by William Pittenger, Library of Congress)

For the next seven hours and 87 miles, the Raiders destroyed short sections of track and cut telegraph wires while racing to stay ahead of Fuller, Murphy, and the men who helped them along the way. The Raiders were never able to open a significant lead on the Confederates and were forced to cut short their acquisition of water and wood at Tilton, Georgia.

This led to “The General” running out of steam just a little later. The Raiders had achieved some success, but had failed to properly destroy any bridges, and the damage to the telegraph wires and tracks proved relatively quick to repair.

Mitchel, meanwhile, had decided to move only on Huntsville that day and delayed his advance on Chattanooga. All damage from the raid would be repaired before it could make a strategic difference.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

An illustration for The Penn publishing company depicting the Ohio tribute to Andrews’ Raiders.

(Illustration by William Pittenger, Library of Congress)

The Raiders, though, attempted to flee the stopped train but were quickly rounded up. Eight of them, including Andrews, were executed as spies in Atlanta. Many of the others, including Parrott, were subjected to some level of physical mistreatment, but were left alive.

Parrott and some of the other soldiers were returned in a prisoner exchange in March, 1863. Despite its small impact on the war, the raid was big news in the North and the men were received as heroes. Parrott was awarded the Medal of Honor that month, the first man to receive it. Five other Raiders would later receive the medal as well.

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“The General” went on an odd tour after the war, serving as a rallying symbol for both Union and Confederate sympathizers. “The General” was displayed at the Ohio Monument to the Andrews’ Raiders in 1891. The following year, it was sent to Chattanooga for the reunion of the Army of the Cumberland.

In 1962, it reprised its most famous moments in a reenactment of the raid to commemorate the centennial of the Medal of Honor. It now sits in the Southern Museum of Civil War Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia, the same spot from which it was stolen and the chase began.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Celebrate freedom with a real Revolutionary War cocktail

One of the reasons Prohibition failed in America is probably because America was founded on and was fueled by booze from the get-go. The Pilgrims stopped at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer. The U.S. Marine Corps was founded in a bar. There just isn’t a lot Americans won’t do to keep the party going a little longer. The best example of this is the legendary Revolutionary War leader Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys.


These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

That face when you decide to take a British fort just because you can.

Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys were the first to deliver a crushing defeat to the British during the American Revolution. They captured the guns at Fort Ticonderoga, along with two other forts in the area. Ticonderoga was the key to Lake Champlain, which denied the British entry from that point and became the staging area for patriot incursions into Canada. More importantly, the cannons seized at the fort were moved to Boston, where the British occupied much of the city since April 1775. Despite inflicting heavy casualties on the redcoats at places like the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Army needed the help.

In November 1775, Ethan Allen and his Vermonters moved the forts supplies and guns overland to Boston, where General George Washington and his artillery commander Henry Knox used them to force the British to withdraw from Boston after holding it for almost a full year.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

This is the fort they wanted to take.

What prompts a gaggle of armed good-ol’ boys from Vermont to take on a heavily armed and fortified position of professional soldiers in the world’s largest, best-equipped, and seasoned army of veterans? Alcohol, of course. The night before Allen and the boys seized the fort, they all met at Remington’s Tavern in Castleton, Vermont. There, they sat down with Benedict Arnold who was sent by the Continental Congress to capture the fort and its guns. The Green Mountain Boys were there because they were going to take the fort anyway, sanctioned or not – so Arnold and his regulars might as well join in.

The liquid courage being poured at the tavern was what was common for the area during that time period: hard cider. Colonists planted apples in the new world primarily for the purpose of drinking it. The crop thrived here and kept people healthy, as it was often safer than the drinking water. In fact, cider was pretty much used as currency. But back then, drinking men needed more of a kick, so they added shots of rum to their cider, two shot of it to every pint of cider. They called the drink a “stone fence” because it felt like you were running down a hill into one.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

For America.

After the ragtag group downed enough bravery, the two commanders led the crossing of Lake Champlain in the early morning hours, with 83 of the Green Mountain Boys. But dawn was coming fast, and Allen and Arnold worried that if they waited for the whole force, they might lose the element of surprise. So with just 83 Vermonters, they stormed Fort Ticonderoga, catching the garrison completely by surprise, capturing the guns for use elsewhere in the Revolution.

If they hadn’t captured them, the rebellion might have died in its cradle by diminishing hopes and expectations for the Continental Army’s chances. So down a few of these spiked ciders for Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, who might have just saved the future U.S., fueled by liquid courage.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This was the average day for an ancient Roman soldier

Today, the modern soldier wakes up, eats chow, goes through a day of training with his or her squad before resting up. They follow this schedule every day from Monday to Friday. If the troop is on a deployment, they could work anywhere from 12 to 18 hours (if not more) per day, seven days a week, for nearly a year.

It’s a tough lifestyle.

Once a troop fulfills their service commitment, they can be honorably discharged or reenlist — the choice is theirs.

Now, let’s rewind time to around 15 C.E. The Roman Empire is thriving and you’re an infantryman serving in the Imperial Roman army under Emperor Tiberius. In many ways, life was quite different for the average sword-wielding soldier when compared to today’s modern troop. In other ways, however, things were very much the same.


These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
A Roman soldier proudly stands in front of his men.

Many young Romans joined the army at the age of 18. Of them, most were poor men with little-to-no life prospects due to being born into a family of low standing. Once they became soldiers, Roman troops had to overcome 36 kilometer (22 miles) marches in full battle rattle.

For these ancient troops, a full loadout consisted of body armor, a gladius (sword), a scutum (shield), and two pilum (spears). This gear weighed upwards of 44 pounds. To add to that weight, troops carried a scarina (backpack), which contained rations and any other tools needed to serve the Roman officers.

At the end of each grueling march, soldiers set up camp to get some rest. Men were assigned to stand watch and look over the others, the gear, and the animals hauling the heavy equipment. Being ambushed in the middle of the night was a constant possibility.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
These Roman troops stand in a defensive position awaitng the enemy to strike.

Like most troops, they feared the unknown. At any given moment, they could encounter a fierce battle, contract sickness from other soldiers or the environment, or be left to endure the elements. It was a consist struggle to survive in a cutthroat world that was all about expanding the Roman Empire.

In their downtime, most men would gamble, play instruments, or talk about future plans. If the soldiers served for their full 25-year commitment, they would receive several acres of land on which to retire — but surviving to the end was considered a longshot.

So, in many ways, the typical Roman infantryman was a lot like the ground pounders of today — only they were stuck in the suck for longer.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Nope, ‘God & The 3 Mistakes’ is not what happened after Pearl Harbor

I’m known among my friends as a bit of a heartless cynic (#NotPopularAtParties #PleaseStopInvitingMe #HowManyOfTheseDoIHaveToRuinToBeLeftAlone). Maybe that’s why We Are The Mighty’s president and CMO, U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Harper, sent me this heartwarming story about Admiral Nimitz arriving at Pearl Harbor after the attack.

But then, I ruined it.


These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, a bold and brave man too busy being optimistic for your “history facts” or his own notes.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

The story is entitled God and the 3 Mistakes, and it makes the rounds on the internet every once in a while. Here’s a version of it from armchairgeneral.com:

Tour boats ferry people out to the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii every thirty minutes. We just missed a ferry and had to wait thirty minutes. I went into a small gift shop to kill time. In the gift shop, I purchased a small book entitled, “Reflections on Pearl Harbor” by Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington D.C. He was paged and told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the phone. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Admiral Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume command of the Pacific Fleet. He landed at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1941. There was such a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat–you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. On Christmas Day, 1941, Adm. Nimitz was given a boat tour of the destruction wrought on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Big sunken battleships and navy vessels cluttered the waters every where you looked.

As the tour boat returned to dock, the young helmsman of the boat asked, “Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?” Admiral Nimitz’s reply shocked everyone within the sound of his voice. Admiral Nimitz said, “The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?”

Shocked and surprised, the young helmsman asked, “What do mean by saying the Japanese made the three biggest mistakes an attack force ever made?” Nimitz explained:

Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk–we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

Mistake number two: when the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.

Mistake number three: every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply. That’s why I say the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make or God was taking care of America.

I’ve never forgotten what I read in that little book. It is still an inspiration as I reflect upon it. In jest, I might suggest that because Admiral Nimitz was a Texan, born and raised in Fredricksburg, Texas –he was a born optimist. But anyway you look at it–Admiral Nimitz was able to see a silver lining in a situation and circumstance where everyone else saw only despair and defeatism.

President Roosevelt had chosen the right man for the right job. We desperately needed a leader that could see silver linings in the midst of the clouds of dejection, despair and defeat.

There is a reason that our national motto is, IN GOD WE TRUST.
These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

Look, an optimistic photo of a re-floated battleship. Let’s all go get coffee and not read the rest of this.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

Stop here to remain happy. No? Alrighty, then.

Was that heartwarming and satisfying for you? Good. Stop reading. Go away. Be happy. Don’t let my factual poison into your soul. Ignore the holes and historical discrepancies and return to the world as a satisfied human being.

Or, let’s go through this together and destroy joy.

(Author’s note: For some of the debunking done here, we’re turning directly to Adm. Nimitz’ notes from December, 1941, compiled in his “gray book,” which the Navy put on the internet in 2014. Citations to that document will be made with a parenthetical hyperlink that will give the PDF page, not the printed page number. So, “(p. 71)” refers to his December 17 “Running Summary of Situation” that is page 71 of the PDF, but has the page numbers 9 and 67 printed on the bottom.)

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Navy Adm. Chester W. Nimitz.

(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

That phone call on December 7 didn’t happen

First: “Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was … told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Nope. At the time, no one knew exactly what had happened or who to blame, and Adm. Husband E. Kimmel was still very much in charge. How screwed up would it have been if Roosevelt’s first action, while the fuel dumps were still burning and sailors were still choking to death on oil, was to fire the guy in command on the ground rather than shifting supplies and men to the problem or, you know, investigating what happened?

The bulk of the losses at Pearl weren’t even announced until December 15 (p. 51) because no one, even at Pearl, could be sure of the extent of the damage while the attack was ongoing.

In reality, Nimitz wasn’t ordered to Hawaii until December 17, the same day that Kimmel was told he would be relieved (p. 71).

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

National ensign flies from the USS West Virginia during the Pearl Harbor attack.

(U.S. Navy)

No, it wouldn’t have been worse if the Japanese had lured the ships to sea

The single most non-sensical claim in this story is that Nimitz was glad Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack.

Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk–we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

What? Nimitz thought he would’ve lost more men if the Japanese had lured them into a fight near the island? Does anyone believe that he had that little belief in the skills of his men?

If the Japanese had tried to lure the American ships to sea, we would’ve only sent the ones ready to fight, with full ammo loads and readied guns with crews. We would’ve tried to recall the carriers conducting exercises at sea. Yes, losing 38,000 sailors is worse than 3,800, but we’ve never lost 3,800 in a fair fight.

At the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the U.S. took combined losses of about 1,000 killed while inflicting losses against Japan of about 4,000. At the Battle of Savo Island, “the worst defeat ever inflicted on the United States Navy in a fair fight,” according to Samuel Morison, the U.S. lost 1,100 sailors.

Meanwhile, at Pearl, the U.S. lost over 2,000 killed while inflicting less than 100 enemy deaths. Who the hell would be glad it was a surprise attack?

In his notes on Samoa dated December 17, Nimitz specifically cites Japan’s use of surprise as to why it had been so successful (p. 64).

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

The largest fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor did survive the attack, but they weren’t enough.

(U.S. Navy)

Yes, Japan did ravage America’s fuel dumps and hit drydocks

Nimitz, when he got the actual call on December 17, quickly tied up his duties in Washington, D.C., and reported to Pearl Harbor. (He arrived Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve.)

There, he found an island still burning and heavily damaged. The Japanese planes absolutely did hit fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor. They hit drydocks as well, heavily damaging three destroyers that were in the docks at the time.

Luckily, Pearl Harbor didn’t have “every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war” in December 1941 as the story says, but the other dumps were under attack as Nimitz was supposedly giving this pep talk. Fuel dumps on the Philippines and Wake Island were destroyed or isolated by the Japanese attack in the days and weeks following December 7.

(Seriously, how would you even run a Pacific fleet if your only gas station was in Hawaii? That would mean ships patrolling around the Philippines and Australia would need to travel 10,000 miles and over three weeks out of their way every time they needed to refuel.)

It is true, though, that Japan failed to hit the largest and most important fuel tank farms on Pearl and didn’t destroy the doors to the drydocks. That was a major strategic error on the part of the Japanese.

But, what damage was done to these facilities was important, changing the strategic calculation for America at every turn.

On December 17, Nimitz wrote a plan to reinforce Samoa that specifically cited the lack of appropriate fuel dumps being ready or filled at Pearl or Samoa (p. 63 and 70). It even mentioned how bad it was to shift a single oiler from replenishing Pearl to getting ships to Samoa. The fuel situation was dire, and Nimitz knew it.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

Two heavily damaged U.S. destroyers sit in a flooded drydock. Both destroyers were scrapped and the drydock was damaged, but it did return to service by February 1942.

(U.S. Navy)

The ship repair situation was worse

If the fuel situation was bad, the repair situation was worse. Drydocks were attacked during the battle. Two ships were destroyed in Drydock number one, and Floating Drydock number 2 was sunk after sustaining damage. Both were back in operation by February 1942.

Other drydocks were safe or only lightly damaged and were up and running by the time Nimitz arrived at Pearl. Yes, that’s a big deal logistically. But that still left too few drydocks for the sheer number of ships heavily damaged in the attack.

But the number of drydocks wasn’t the biggest factor in whether a ship could be repaired at Pearl, because there weren’t nearly enough supplies and skilled laborers in and around the harbor, anyways. Capt. Homer N. Wallin, the head of the salvage effort from January 1942 onward, lamented shortages of firefighting equipment, lumber, fastenings, welders, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, and pumps for the duration of salvage.

That’s why three battleships left Pearl Harbor for repairs on the West Coast on December 20, and ships were heading back to the continent for repairs as late as the end of 1942, nearly a year after the attack, because drydocks had insufficient space or supplies to repair them on site.

In fact, in his history written in 1968, Wallin specifically remembers Nimitz touring the wrecks on Dec. 31, 1941, and being pessimistic about repairs, especially the viability of the USS Nevada. The Nevada was back in combat less than a year later, despite Nimitz’ pessimism.

But the worst problem facing Pearl Harbor was invasion

But the most naive claim of this entire story is that Nimitz was optimistic as to the situation in December 1941. His actual notes from the period paint a much grimmer picture of his mind.

In the wee hours of December 17, hours before Nimitz was ordered to replace Kimmel, Nimitz sent Kimmel a message on behalf of himself and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Kimmel was ordered to “reconsider” his beliefs that Pearl Harbor was safe from further attack (p. 74).

Knox and Nimitz wanted Kimmel to keep ships out of the harbor as much as possible, to reinforce defensive positions. Most importantly:

Every possible means should be devised and executed which will contribute to security against aircraft or torpedo or gun attack of ships, aircraft and shore facilities [on Hawaii];

Given that Nimitz was actively cautioning about how vulnerable Pearl Harbor was on December 17, it would be odd for him to feel cocky and optimistic on December 25 (the earliest he could have actually taken this supposed boat tour).

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller at Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942.

(Library of Congress)

But he was still a great leader

The fact is, Nimitz was not some famed optimist. He was a realist. And he was in command of a fleet crippled by a sneak attack but backed by the most industrialized nation in the world in the 1940s. American industrial might was so strong that, by the end of the war, the U.S. was producing half of all industrial goods and weapons in the world. And the Japanese had failed to hit the submarines, something that did give Nimitz hope.

While it took most of 1942 and 1943 to fully ramp up America’s wartime production, the seeds were all in place in 1941 thanks to Roosevelt’s Cash-and-Carry and Lend-Lease policies. Nimitz was no fool. He knew he could win, even though the challenge facing him on Christmas 1941 was still daunting.

We can honor him, the sailors lost at Pearl Harbor, and the stunning achievements of the greatest generation without sharing suspect anecdotes about a Christmas Eve boat ride.

(As an added side note: The book this story supposedly came from wasn’t actually by Nimitz, it’s an “oral history” by William H. Ewing. And it was published five years after Nimitz died. Maybe it is a faithful account of Nimitz’ words at some point, but it doesn’t match his notes or the tactical situation in 1941.)

MIGHTY HISTORY

How Native Americans ended up fighting for the Confederacy

Even after Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrendered in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, one Confederate army refused to acknowledge defeat and for months stubbornly fought on.

It was led not by one of the wealthy white southerners who made up much of the Confederacy’s officer class — but by a Native American chief called Stand Watie.

So how did a leader of a people facing systematic persecution come to fight for a cause founded on racism and the right to own slaves?

The story illustrates how in the Civil War, the presence of a common enemy caused unexpected alliances to be formed, including an alliance Paul Chaat Smith, a curator at the National Museum of the Native American, has characterized as a “mangy, snarling dog standing between you and a crowd-pleasing narrative.”


Watie was himself a plantation holder and slave owner, and had settled in Oklahoma after playing a central role in events that resulted in the eviction of thousands of Native Americans from their land in what is now Georgia.

He was born in 1806 in Cherokee country near what is now Rome, Georgia, and was given the Cherokee name Degataga, meaning “stand firm.”

His father — also a slave owner – was baptized, giving his son the Christian name Isaac S Uwatie. Dropping the ‘U’ and combining it with his Cherokee name, his son took the name Stand Watie.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

General Stand Watie, leader of a Native American army which fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

(National Archives Catalogue)

In 1835, Watie was one of the Cherokee leaders to sign the treaty of New Echota handing over Cherokee ancestral territory to the federal government. In exchange they were granted land to resettle the nation west, in Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma.

Some refused to leave and were forcibly removed by the government. It is believed that nearly 4,000 Cherokee died attempting to make the journey to Indian Territory after 1838 in what has become known as the Trail of Tears.

Four years after the treaty, the Cherokee turned against those who had signed away their land, assassinating three of them. Watie survived.

Cherokee chief John Ross, who opposed the treaty, became an adamant enemy of Watie.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

John Ross, Cherokee Chief, Protested Treaty of New Echota, 1835, and Subsequent Forcible Removal of Cherokees to the West During Winter of 1838-39.

In 1861, Georgia ceded from the Union, becoming one of the original seven states that formed the slave-owning Confederacy.

That same year, Watie raised a force of Native Americans to fight for the Confederacy as North and South went to war.

It was the federal government, responsible for robbing Cherokee of their ancestral land, which Watie — in common with many of his people — saw as his main enemy, not the Confederacy.

And shockingly, many Cherokee were themselves slave owners, with some taking their slaves with them to Indian Territory after the forced resettlements west.

Smith has described the Cherokee as “deeply committed to slavery.”

He told the Smithsonian Magazine they “established their own racialized black codes, immediately reestablished slavery when they arrived in Indian territory, rebuilt their nations with slave labor, crushed slave rebellions, and enthusiastically sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War.”

Watie’s force earned a fearsome reputation, performing audacious raids behind enemies lines and attacking Native American settlements loyal to the Union.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

The surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865.

Even as the majority of Cherokee repudiated the alliance with the Confederacy in 1862, Watie remained loyal. So successful was he as a military commander that in 1865 Waite was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, one of only two native Americans to achieve the rank in the conflict.

In wasn’t until June 23, 1865 — 154 years ago — that Watie surrendered to Union forces in Doaksville, Oklahoma. In doing so, he became the last Confederate general to lay down his arms in the Civil War.

His force at the time comprised Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, and Osage Indians.

Watie led a delegation of his Cherokee faction in Washington DC in 1866 to negotiate a new treaty with US government. Their loyalty to the Confederacy meant the old treaties had been torn up.

The new treaty signed by Watie granted former slaves tribal citizenship.

After the war, Watie spent the rest of his life as a businessman and plantation owner, and collecting his people’s folk tales and legends. He died in 1871.

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

Articles

The US military cleaned up victims of modern history’s largest mass suicide

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.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
Yep, this guy was their savior.

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.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
Houses in Jonestown.

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.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
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.”

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
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.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
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.)

According to San Diego State University’s exhaustive study of the Jonestown cult and its aftermath, Army Medic Jeff Brailey was one of the first Americans to enter the compound. He described carrying the poison’s antidote among a sea of bodies, “something he’d never forget.” Army Graves Registration Units tried to identify all the bodies, as they would bodies of soldiers killed in combat.

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.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
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.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
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.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

50 WWII ships sank during the battle for Guadalcanal

In August 1942, the Allies and Japanese would meet in the pivotal battle for Guadalcanal.


With the Americans precariously holding Henderson Field, the Japanese desperately sought to reinforce the island and to drive the Americans back into the sea.

To accomplish this, the Japanese would run warships with troops and supplies down “the Slot” (New Georgia Sound) at night to avoid the Cactus Air Force operating out of Henderson Field.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
Map of the location of World War II shipwrecks in Ironbottom Sound in the Solomon Islands. Some wreck positions are not exactly known. (Photo by Wikipedia user Vvulto)

The quick, nocturnal nature of the trip led the Japanese to call it Rat Transportation. To the Americans, it was the Tokyo Express.

The New Georgia Sound ended at Savo Sound, just off Guadalcanal where the American fleet was stationed to protect the Marines on Guadalcanal.

After a number of brutal, pitched naval battles, this place would earn a new name: Ironbottom Sound.

The first night, after the landings on Guadalcanal, a small Japanese naval force of seven cruisers and a destroyer surprised a larger American force and decisively defeated them at the Battle of Savo Island.

The Allied contingent, eight cruisers and fifteen destroyers, paid dearly. The Americans lost three heavy cruisers while the Australians were forced to scuttle another.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
USS New Orleans, after surviving Guadalcanal, lost her bow in a battle in December 1942. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The USS Chicago left its bow on the bottom as well.

The American and Japanese navies would meet again in October 1942, in what became known as the Battle of Cape Esperance. This time the Americans had a surprise of their own for the Japanese thanks to a bad radio call between American commanders.

Despite the confusion, Rear Adm. Norman Scott deftly commanded his ships in a ferocious night time engagement.

The American ships hit the unsuspecting Japanese with everything they had. In a quick, violent action at close range the American ships sent a Japanese cruiser and destroyer to the bottom, heavily damaged another cruiser, and killed the Japanese commander.

The engagement cost the Americans one of their destroyers with damage to two other ships.

Undeterred, the Tokyo Express continued down the Slot and into the carnage of Ironbottom Sound.

A month after the action at Cape Esperance, the Japanese and Americans would square off once again. Often called the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the incident was actually two separate battles on back-to-back nights.

The first night of the battle, November 13, 1942, saw an inferior American force intercept a larger Japanese force intent on shelling Henderson Field.

Leading the American force was Rear Adm. Daniel Callaghan. His second-in-command was Rear Adm. Scott who, a month earlier, had turned back the Japanese at the Battle of Cape Esperance.

In the confusion of the night, the two forces nearly ran right into each other. When Callaghan realized he was surrounded by the enemy, he gave a simple order to his column: “Odd ships fire to starboard, even ships fire to port!”

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
Real Admiral Norman Scott. (U.S. Navy)

Despite being outgunned and mismatched, the American ships unleashed a maelstrom of fire on the Japanese.

The situation quickly deteriorated and turned into the naval equivalent of knife-fight in an alleyway at night. Ships fired on one another with virtually flat trajectories. The battleship Hiei blew two American destroyers out of the water before being incapacitated herself.

After 40 minutes of intense fighting, the two sides broke contact. The engagement had cost the Japanese one battleship and one destroyer, along with damage to nearly every other ship. The Americans had once again paid dearly.

Two cruisers and four destroyers joined their sisters at the bottom of the sound. Both Admirals Callaghan and Scott had also been killed. Both were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, along with three other sailors in the battle.

Most importantly though, the Americans had saved Henderson Field.

Also read: The reason Japanese battle ships dwarfed American ships during WWII

The Japanese weren’t done though and on the night of Nov. 14 once again sent a force to attack Henderson Field. They sent a battleship, four cruisers, and nine destroyers and this time were accompanied by troop transports intent on landing men and materiel on the island to retake the airfield.

Running low on serviceable ships, Adm. Halsey dispatched two battleships and four destroyers from his carrier’s escort. Most of the ships had never operated together as a unit. Their saving grace was their commander, Rear Adm. Willis Lee, an adept seaman and master of radar.

As the Americans intercepted the Japanese, the four destroyers were badly mauled. The battleship South Dakota was quickly pounced on as well and endured a terrific shelling. However, Lee, aboard the battleship Washington, had managed to maneuver around the Japanese undetected.

At near point-blank range, he opened fire with his ships’ 16-inch guns. In one of the few battleship-on-battleship fights of the Pacific, the Washington achieved a quick, decisive victory and sent the Kirishima to a watery grave.

Though the Japanese landed their transports, they were quickly destroyed by American aircraft sinking desperately needed supplies.

With the situation on Guadalcanal becoming dire, on Nov. 30 the Japanese made plans to reinvigorate the Tokyo Express in a last ditch effort to hold onto the island.

Alerted to the plan by intelligence, a superior American force moved in to intercept. American destroyers spotted the Japanese first and, after a command order delay, fired a spread of torpedoes that all missed their mark — the Battle of Tassafaronga was on.

The Japanese destroyers were prepared for American interference and, according to plan, unleashed a torrent of torpedoes of their own at the American ships.

As the American cruisers pounded one of the destroyers, the torpedoes found their marks.

The cruiser Minneapolis had her bow collapsed in front of the number one turret. New Orleans took a torpedo strike in her forward magazine and lost a full 125 feet of hull, including the forward turret, but remained afloat.

The cruisers Pensacola and Northampton also took torpedo hits, sending Northampton down.

Though the Americans had paid a high price, their efforts began to convince the Japanese to abandon Guadalcanal.

By the time the fight for Guadalcanal was over, Ironbottom Sound had become the final resting place to some 50 ships and thousands of sailors from both sides.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time two Navy legends fought a duel with Marines

In 1818, two of the Navy’s most famous names, Oliver Hazard Perry and Stephen Decatur, were involved, one as a participant and the other as his second, in a duel that was the culmination of a two-year-long dispute about Navy discipline and the limits of a commander’s powers.


It was an era when dueling was all too common.

“In the United States, dueling’s heyday began at around the time of the Revolution and lasted the better part of a century,” wrote author and researcher Ross Drake for Washington’s Smithsonian Institute. “This was especially true in the Navy, where boredom, drink, and a mix of spirited young men in close quarters on shipboard produced a host of petty irritations ending in gunfire.”

In the late summer of 1816, the USS Javawhich Perry commanded, was stopped at Messina, Sicily, when Perry became displeased with what he considered the unsatisfactory appearance and attitude of the ship’s Marines. Capt. John Heath, the Marine commander, added to the problem by responding — at least in Perry’s opinion — with what Perry later called, “marked insolence.”

The incident escalated to the point that the two men had words. Perry allegedly shouted that Heath was a “damned rascal and scoundrel” and had “not acted as a gentleman.” Perry then summoned 2nd Lt. Parke G. Howle, the Marine detachment’s second in command, and relieved Heath. In a rash and thoughtless act, Perry, who was known for is short and violent temper, then slapped Heath.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
Oliver Hazard Perry standing at the front of a small boat after abandoning his flagship, the Lawrence at the Battle of Lake Erie. (Library of Congress)

Lieutenant Howle stepped between the men and no further blows were exchanged — but the damage had been done.

According to a Midshipman Mackenzie, who was aboard the Java at the time, the “following day was a gloomy one on board the Java. The officers and crew had the most profound respect for their commander, [Perry], and were strongly attached to his person; the victim of uncontrolled passion, he became an object of their pity; he was himself overcome with shame and mortification.” Perry meanwhile, realizing he had acted in anger, had a fellow officer write to Heath saying that Perry regretted what had happened and was in “readiness to make an honorable and personal apology.” 

It was, however, not enough for Heath or the other Marine officer on the Java, who thought Perry’s actions had insulted the entire Corps.

Related: This fight proves Stephen Decatur is the most intense sailor ever

On Dec. 31, 1816, a court-martial was convened to hear the charges that had been placed against Heath, namely disrespectful and insolent conduct towards a superior officer, neglect of duty, and disobeying orders, which involved what Perry considered an unacceptable delay in going after deserting Marines. Heath was found guilty of all but the last charge and was sentenced to receive a verbal reprimand from the Commodore of the squadron. Perry was also found by the court to have himself used “disrespectful language” toward a fellow officer and to have slapped him.

The incident became a major controversy in the Navy, gave birth to front page newspaper stories, and even ignited calls — that were ignored — for a Congressional investigation.

In the summer of 1817, Heath, who had then been dismissed from the service, published a pamphlet about the incident in which he referred to Perry, among other things, as “the slave of the most violent and vindictive passions” who could “descend to acts of revenge and cruelty.”  Perry was also, Heath wrote, filled with “the most consummate arrogance” and “a spirit of the rankest malevolence.”

A duel between the men became inevitable.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
Pistol duels, like the one depicted above, were all too common at the time.

As preparations for the meeting began, Perry, who had always opposed dueling, wrote to Decatur saying that he would meet Heath and stand in the duel, but he would not fire. He also asked Decatur to serve as his second, and Decatur traveled to New York to oblige. The two men finally met near Hoboken, New Jersey in October 1818, more than two years after the original incident. Heath and Perry stood back to back, marched five paces each, and wheeled. Heath fired missing Perry who, true to his word, handed his unfired pistol to Decatur.

Decatur then approached Heath, told him that Perry had all along intended not to fire and asked if Heath’s honor was not satisfied. Heath said it was.

It was over.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here’s the gear an average soldier carried in the Civil War

In the chaotic days of the American Civil War, troops from both the sides used to storm the battlefield and go head-to-head in a ruthless campaign to destroy the opposition — an opposition filled with those they once called fellow countrymen. The multi-year war was the deadliest to ever take place on American soil. Approximately 620,000 people were killed during the war, leaving several Southern states in ruin.

To fight a ground war, troops need supplies. But back in the mid-19th century, the way we outfitted our troops was very different from today. Budgets and technologies were limited.

Outside of itchy and hot uniforms, the gear each man carried was very similar on both sides.


These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
The North and South duke it out while fighting in the Civil War.

There was a small variety of weapons to choose from. Most ground troops took up either a Lorenz, Springfield, or a Colt revolving rifle. In order to fire those weapons, they needed ammo, percussion caps, and black powder. All these items were usually stored in a cartridge box, typically mounted on a troop’s belt for easy access.

In the event that the enemy was quickly approaching and there wasn’t any time to reload, troops always kept a sharp bayonet close by. Swords and sabers were commonly used by officers and NCOs to cut through the enemy. When these blades weren’t tearing through blue or grey uniforms, they were used for directing troops.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever
Two civil War troops are loaded up ready for combat.

It’s reported that many ground troops had to purchase their own mess kits, which usually contained a metal plate and cup. They would often store around three days’ worth of food in their haversacks. Tobacco, fruit, and some soap could also be found in their pouches.

Outside of food and ammo, troops often carried a copy of the Bible, a mirror, a sewing kit, and some playing cards. They didn’t have the weapon systems we have today, but modern infantrymen still carry virtually the same types of gear today — but our versions have seen some upgrades.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This trek through Iraq was the longest escape and evasion by any soldier ever

In January 1991, a British Special Air Service (SAS) team was helicoptered into Iraq by Chinook helicopter. In just a few days, U.S. and coalition forces would launch Operation Desert Storm’s air war to devastate Saddam Hussein’s army as it occupied Kuwait. 

Eight men from the SAS detachment, code-named Bravo Two Zero, were to insert into Iraq and set up an observation post to monitor Iraq’s main supply route into Kuwait. The men of Bravo Two Zero proceeded on foot 1.2 miles from their landing zone.

Right away, things began to go wrong. To escape capture, torture and an uncertain fate, one of the British special operators would have to walk out of there toward Syria – 190 miles away.

The first thing that went wrong for the SAS was their communications. While their home base was receiving their transmissions, nothing was coming back from the British headquarters. The men pressed on.

But they never made it to the would-be observation post. On the way, the team was discovered by a shepherd and, believing they had been seen, the team ditched much of their gear and hightailed it out of the area. 

As they moved, they began to hear the telltale rumble of treads on the ground. Believing they were encountering an Iraqi tank, the SAS prepared for an ambush. Only it wasn’t a tank, it was an Iraqi construction bulldozer – and the driver was as shocked as the SAS was. 

When the driver left, the British knew the jig was up but the next time they encountered heavy vehicles, it was no construction crew. Iraqi armored vehicles had caught up to them and were in such close pursuit that the British soldiers had to fire at their pursuers to slow them down. 

Iraq troops soon joined the APCs in their pursuit of the British as they humped it back to their original entry point, hoping a helicopter would soon find them. But the helicopter never came. By Jan. 24th, 1991, the group was on its way to the emergency exfiltration route… north to Syria. 

Since the British were looking for the soldiers to be headed south toward Saudi Arabia, the SAS were never going to be seen by coalition aircraft unless it was by accident. Even after the group got split up during a dark night, they pressed onward and northward. 

Chris Ryan

Along the way, the men tried to hijack a vehicle but Iraqi Army checkpoints hampered their progress and the walk continued. Eventually, two of the men would die of exposure in the Iraqi desert. Another was shot and killed by Iraqi civilians. Five were captured, interrogated and tortured before being released to the International Red Cross. One of the men. Colin Armstrong, kept walking. 

He walked through Iraq until he reached the Syrian border, where Syria – then a coalition ally – took him into custody and released him to the United Kingdom. After his long trek through the dry desert, he had lost 36 pounds and suffered radiation poisoning after drinking contaminated water. He was awarded the Military Medal for his escape.

Armstrong would later chronicle his desert journey under the pen name Chris Ryan, along with a number of other books. The story of Bravo Two Zero was later made into a TV movie starring Sean Bean (who survives).

MIGHTY HISTORY

This World War II battlefield will disappear forever

The 1943 Battle of Tarawa was the first of the Central Pacific Campaign. There, 18,000 Marines fought a bloody, 76-hour battle to seize the heavily fortified Tarawa Atoll from 4,500 Japanese defenders, wading through hundreds of yards of surf and scrambling for cover on the nearly flat islands.


These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

Marines take cover on the beaches of Tarawa while planning their next move forward. Conquering Tarawa would take 76 hours and cost thousands of lives.

(U.S. Marine Corps)

Now, the nation of Kiribati, as the former British territory is known today, is expected to be completely underwater within a few decades, including all the territory of its capital, Tarawa.

Importantly for Marine Corps historians, that means that one of World War II’s most bloody and important battlefields will disappear under the waves — with Marine remains and artifacts still on it.

The 1943 battle for the island began with a massive naval artillery bombardment that failed to dislodge most of the pillboxes, obstacles, and defenders on the island. When troops landed on November 20, underwater obstacles in the form of coral reefs, sandbars, and other barriers caused landing craft to get stuck out at sea.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

The assault on Tarawa was a nightmare. Shallow waters led to gently sloping beaches and hundreds of yards of obstacles — all factors that favored the Japanese defenders.

(U.S. Marine Corps)

Those who could rode their boats all the way to shore, but men who were stuck eventually waded through chest-deep water for hundreds of yards while under machine gun fire. When the Marines finally reached the beach, they struggled to find good cover on an island where the highest elevation was about 10 feet above sealevel.

Undeterred, the Marines fought through barbed wire and Japanese attackers. On the second day, they were able to land tanks and artillery and punch out from the beach, starting their campaign across the tiny island.

At the end of the three-day battle, the Marines had suffered almost 3,000 casualties, including many men marked missing in action who were either washed out to sea or lost in the sand dunes and vegetation. Of the 4,500 Japanese defenders, there were only 17 survivors left. Most fought to the death as there was no way to escape the island.

Four men earned Medals of Honor during the fighting.

After the war, the Kiribati Islands reverted to British control and then became a sovereign country in 1979. The U.S. signed a treaty of friendship later that year and then established full diplomatic relations in 1980. Since then, the relationship has been friendly if not exactly close.

The State Department says that they actively cooperate with Kiribati to repatriate the remains of Marines when discovered on Tarawa or on any other island within the nation.

These 5 innovative Civil War weapons changed combat forever

Marine Corps 1st Lt. Alexander Bonneyman, Jr., thought to be fourth from the right, and his men attack a Japanese position on Tarawa. Bonneyman posthumously received the Medal of Honor and his remains were recovered from Tarawa in 2015.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Obie Newcomb)

The remains of 139 service members were discovered and repatriated in 2015. One of those repatriated was 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions on the island.

In 2017, another 24 remains were discovered and returned.

500 American service members were thought lost on the island, meaning that the remains of hundreds may still be hidden there.

Unfortunately, much of Kiribati rises in elevation no more than 10 feet, meaning that it will be one of the first nations wiped out by rising seas.

Another island nation and World War II battle site under threat is the Marshall Islands, where 400 Americans died seizing the strategic islets from Japanese defenders.

Luckily, these were well-documented battles. Historians have recovered many documents and interviewed survivors of each, and With the Marines at Tarawa was an Academy Award-winning documentary produced during the invasion. So, future generations will still see evidence of the Marine Corps’ sacrifice.

But any historians who need additional evidence from the islands better get to work soon. Time is ticking.

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