This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Paul A. Yost, Jr., later a Commandant of the Coast Guard, was leading a group of 13 swift boats during the insertion of Navy Underwater Demolition Team-13 and some Vietnamese marines when his column came under attack from a Viet Cong ambush that managed to heavily damage multiple boats, kill American and Vietnamese troops, and isolate the last boat.


 

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
(Photo: Naval War College Museum)

When Yost found out that his last boat was trapped in the kill zone and his other ships weren’t in shape to recover it, he took his command boat and one other back into the kill zone to rescue the sailors who were still under attack.

The 13-boat movement was part of Operation Silver Mace II, which was put into action to break up Viet Cong operations in that section of Vietnam. The boats were to drop off the ground forces and then provide support from the river. The first five boats reached the insertion points for their marines and completed their mission without incident.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
(Photo: Naval War College Museum)

The other eight boats continued upriver. When they went to drop off their marines, a U.S. Marine major assigned as an advisor went to Yost and asked that the Vietnamese marines be dropped another mile upriver because the going was hard and no Viet Cong activity had been spotted. Yost agreed.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
Riverine craft make their way up a narrow river in Vietnam. PCF-23 was one of the craft involved in Operation Silver Mace II. (Photo: Naval War College Museum)

Just to be safe, Yost ordered the two Seawolf attack helicopters assigned to him be launched. They were based on a ship 15 minutes away, meaning they would arrive as the boats got to the more dangerous parts of the river.

But Yost’s superior, Navy Capt. Roy Hoffman, ordered the helicopters to sit tight, possibly to ensure that they wouldn’t run out of fuel before they were needed. Yost wasn’t told of the change.

A short time later, everything went sideways. The eight boats were proceeding upriver when PCF-5, the lead boat, was suddenly hit with a claymore mine from the riverbank. More claymores, rockets, and machine gun fire rained down on the boats.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
(Photo: Naval War College Museum)

Yost was in the second boat and ordered it to push through the kill zone, and the rest of the column followed.

The rear boat, PCF-43, was the slowest and needed maintenance, according to then-Lt. j.g. Virgil A. Erwin III — a boat commander during the operations. In addition to its maintenance issues, it was weighed down with 800 pounds of explosives, 10 UDTs, and all of their gear.

That boat was unable to keep up with the rest of the column as they pushed through the kill zone, and it was left as the sole target for a few fatal seconds during the ambush. The corpsman on board was hit with a rocket and killed just before another rocket struck the cabin, killing the boat commander and severely wounding the two others in the cabin.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
(Photo: Naval War College Museum)

The boat ran out of control and beached itself, hard, on a mudbank. It hit so hard that it slid most of the way out of the water, leaving the engine’s water intake above the waterline and making it impossible for the boat to propel itself back off.

As the engine overheated, the UDT members jumped from the boat and established a defensive perimeter behind it, using the wreck as cover from the Viet Cong fire coming from a mere 20 feet away.

The closest boat, PCF-38, attempted to assist PCF-43, but their steering gear was damaged and they were forced to head back upriver. Once they reached the lead perimeter, they alerted Yost to the state of PCF-43.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
(Photo: Naval War College Museum)

Yost took his craft, PCF-31, and the former lead boat, PCF-5, back downriver. Once they reached the ambush site, 5 and 31 began pouring .50-cal. rounds into the jungle and forced the Viet Cong fighters to take cover. As 5 kept the fire up, Yost and 31 pulled up to the stricken 43 and began evacuating the wounded and dead.

The two crafts escaped with 15 survivors and the bodies of the two men killed in action.

Just a few hours later, PCF-43 exploded. The most likely cause was that the engines, which typically were cooled by water flowing through the engine for propulsion, had overheated and set fire to the leaking fuel. The fuel ignited the explosives and the whole thing burned hot until the boat itself exploded.

Yost was later awarded the Silver Star for his part in the fight. In 1986, he became the 18th Commandant of the Coast Guard.

MIGHTY HISTORY

‘Gold Ancient Mariner’ is the Coast Guard officer with the most sea time

Cmdr. Stephen Matadobra holds the distinction of being one of the Coast Guard’s first officers in the service to have earned the permanent cutterman status (earned in 1987), and he will soon hold the title of the Coast Guard’s 15th Gold Ancient Mariner in May 2018.

The Gold Ancient Mariner title dates back to 1978 in which the Coast Guard recognizes the officer with the most sea time, an honorary position that serves as a reminder of the call to duty on the high seas.


In September 2018, Matadobra will celebrate 41 years of Coast Guard service, in which time he climbed the enlisted ranks from a seaman to a boatswain’s mate before becoming a chief warrant officer. From there he climbed the officer ranks to captain.

Hailing from the seaside Brooklyn neighborhood of Coney Island, New York, Matadobra joined the Coast Guard at 17 because of his interest in marine biology. Once assigned to his first cutter however, he struck boatswain’s mate and never looked back.

“Every cutter was unique,” said Matadobra.

As a junior enlisted member, Matadobra was involved in law enforcement and search and rescue operations during the mass migrations of the Cuban Mariel Boatlift of 1980. Later assigned to an 82-foot patrol boat out of Florida, Matadobra took part in the salvage operation immediately following the collision and sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn in 1980 in Tampa Bay. Twenty-three Coast Guard members perished that day – the service’s worst peacetime loss of life.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
The U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender USCGC Blackthorn.

In his 41 years of service, Matadobra has experienced peaks and valleys of our organization that have helped shape his leadership style.

When asked about mentors throughout his career, Matadobra wistfully recalled a few master chief petty officers and chief warrant officers who gave him “swift kicks in the butt,” but ultimately pointed to his peers as the trusted pillars upon which he leans, specifically citing Capt. Doug Fears, with whom he served on the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton.

Having advanced from seaman to commander, Matadobra has embodied each station’s specific operational responsibilities and perspectives. When asked about his biggest impressions from having transitioned from enlisted member to officer, he described a concept that he’s coined as “Big Coast Guard” – that is, the big picture frameworks in which the commissioned among us must navigate. If the enlisted world has more to do with the: who, what, when and where aspects, then the officer’s world is more dominated by the why’s.

Matadobra recalled a story Master Chief Petty Officer Kevin Isherwood once told him about a new fireman aboard a cutter who was instructed by his supervisor to go down below at a certain time every afternoon to open a particular valve. The fireman did as he was told, albeit without understanding why. As such, it was easy for him to do it begrudgingly – seen as a chore, primarily. Only after months of this repetitive chore did his supervisor tell him that the valve he opened every night was one that allowed the cooks to prepare dinner with hot water, as well as route hot water to the showers for the rest of the crew. In this new-found understanding of “why” the fireman’s entire perspective shifted and he operated under a renewed sense of duty and purpose.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
The USCGC Hamilton.

“Leaders help their middle and junior folks understand ‘why,’ and understand their role in ‘Big Coast Guard,'” said Matadobra.

Professionalism and proficiency is also at the forefront of his agenda.

“As an advocate for the cutterman community, and the Coast Guard at large, I continue to preach the obligations of professionalism and proficiency,” said Matadobra. “Our platforms are so much more technically complex than they used to be, and it takes smart people to run them and to maintain proficiency.”

In fact, Matadobra will appropriately be assuming responsibilities at the Enlisted Personnel Management division in his next assignment, helping to further shape the future of our enlisted workforce.

This article originally appeared on the United States Coast Guard. Follow @USCG on Twitter.

Articles

To understand Chinese expansionism, look to the Opium Wars

In 1839, England went to war with China because it was upset that Chinese officials had shut down its drug trafficking racket and confiscated its dope.


Stating the historical record so plainly is shocking — but it’s true, and the consequences of that act are still being felt today.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
British iron steamship ‘Nemesis’ destroys a Chinese junk at the Second Battle of Chuenpi. | Edward Duncan painting

The Qing Dynasty, founded by Manchurian clans in 1644, expanded China’s borders to their farthest reach, conquering Tibet, Taiwan and the Uighur Empire. However, the Qing then turned inward and isolationist, refusing to accept Western ambassadors because they were unwilling to proclaim the Qing Dynasty as supreme above their own heads of state.

Foreigners — even on trade ships — were prohibited entry into Chinese territory.

The exception to the rule was in Canton, the southeastern region centered on modern-day Guangdong Province, which adjoins Hong Kong and Macao. Foreigners were allowed to trade in the Thirteen Factories district in the city of Guangzhou, with payments made exclusively in silver.

The British gave the East India Company a monopoly on trade with China, and soon ships based in colonial India were vigorously exchanging silver for tea and porcelain. But the British had a limited supply of silver.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
European factories in Canton. | William Daniell painting

Opium war

Starting in in the mid-1700s, the British began trading opium grown in India in exchange for silver from Chinese merchants. Opium — an addictive drug that today is refined into heroin — was illegal in England, but was used in Chinese traditional medicine.

However, recreational use was illegal and not widespread. That changed as the British began shipping in tons of the drug using a combination of commercial loopholes and outright smuggling to get around the ban.

Chinese officials taking their own cut abetted the practice. American ships carrying Turkish-grown opium joined in the narcotics bonanza in the early 1800s. Consumption of opium in China skyrocketed, as did profits.

The Daoguang Emperor became alarmed by the millions of drug addicts — and the flow of silver leaving China. As is often the case, the actions of a stubborn idealist brought the conflict to a head. In 1839 the newly appointed Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu instituted laws banning opium throughout China.

He arrested 1,700 dealers, and seized the crates of the drug already in Chinese harbors and even on ships at sea. He then had them all destroyed. That amounted to 2.6 million pounds of opium thrown into the ocean. Lin even wrote a poem apologizing to the sea gods for the pollution.

Angry British traders got the British government to promise compensation for the lost drugs, but the treasury couldn’t afford it. War would resolve the debt.

But the first shots were fired when the Chinese objected to the British attacking one of their own merchant ships.

Chinese authorities had indicated they would allow trade to resume in non-opium goods. Lin Zexu even sent a letter to Queen Victoria pointing out that as England had a ban on the opium trade, they were justified in instituting one too.

It never reached her, but eventually did appear in the Sunday Times.

Instead, the Royal Navy established a blockade around Pearl Bay to protest the restriction of free trade … in drugs. Two British ships carrying cotton sought to run the blockade in November 1839. When the Royal Navy fired a warning shot at the second, The Royal Saxon, the Chinese sent a squadron of war junks and fire-rafts to escort the merchant.

HMS Volage‘s Captain, unwilling to tolerate the Chinese “intimidation,” fired a broadside at the Chinese ships. HMS Hyacinth joined in. One of the Chinese ships exploded and three more were sunk. Their return fire wounded one British sailor.

Seven months later, a full-scale expeditionary force of 44 British ships launched an invasion of Canton. The British had steam ships, heavy cannon, Congreve rockets and infantry equipped with rifles capable of accurate long range fire. Chinese state troops — “bannermen” — were still equipped with matchlocks accurate only up to 50 yards and a rate of fire of one round per minute.

Antiquated Chinese warships were swiftly destroyed by the Royal Navy. British ships sailed up the Zhujiang and Yangtze rivers, occupying Shanghai along the way and seizing tax-collection barges, strangling the Qing government’s finances. Chinese armies suffered defeat after defeat.

When the Qing sued for peace in 1842, the British could set their own terms. The Treaty of Nanjing stipulated that Hong Kong would become a British territory, and that China would be forced to establish five treaty ports in which British traders could trade anything they wanted with anybody they wanted to. A later treaty forced the Chinese to formally recognize the British as equals and grant their traders favored status.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
An 1858 drawing by Thomas Allom from ‘The Chinese Empire Illustrated’

More war, more opium

Imperialism was on the upswing by the mid-1800s. France muscled into the treaty port business as well in 1843. The British soon wanted even more concessions from China — unrestricted trade at any port, embassies in Beijing and an end to bans on selling opium in the Chinese mainland.

One tactic the British used to further their influence was registering the ships of Chinese traders they dealt with as British ships.

The pretext for the second Opium War is comical in its absurdity. In October 1856, Chinese authorities seized a former pirate ship, the Arrow, with a Chinese crew and with an expired British registration. The captain told British authorities that the Chinese police had taken down the flag of a British ship.

The British demanded the Chinese governor release the crew. When only nine of the 14 returned, the British began a bombardment of the Chinese forts around Canton and eventually blasted open the city walls.

British Liberals, under William Gladstone, were upset at the rapid escalation and protested fighting a new war for the sake of the opium trade in parliament. However, they lost seats in an election to the Tories under Lord Palmerston. He secured the support needed to prosecute the war.

China was in no position to fight back, as it was then embroiled in the devastating Taiping Rebellion, a peasant uprising led by a failed civil-service examinee claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ. The rebels had nearly seized Beijing and still controlled much of the country.

Once again, the Royal Navy demolished its Chinese opponents, sinking 23 junks in the opening engagement near Hong Kong and seizing Guangzhou. Over the next three years, British ships worked their way up the river, capturing several Chinese forts through a combination of naval bombardment and amphibious assault.

France joined in the war — its excuse was the execution of a French missionary who had defied the ban on foreigners in Guangxi province. Even the United States became briefly involved after a Chinese fort took pot shots at long distance at an American ship.

In the Battle of the Pearl River Forts, a U.S. Navy a force of three ships and 287 sailors and marines took four forts by storm, capturing 176 cannons and fighting off a counterattack of 3,000 Chinese infantry. The United States remained officially neutral.

Russia did not join in the fighting, but used the war to pressure China into ceding a large chunk of its northeastern territory, including the present-day city of Vladivostok.

When foreign envoys drew up the next treaty in 1858 the terms, were even more crushing to the Qing Dynasty’s authority. Ten more cities were designated as treaty ports, foreigners would have free access to the Yangtze river and the Chinese mainland, and Beijing would open embassies to England, France and Russia.

The Xianfeng Emperor at first agreed to the treaty, but then changed his mind, sending Mongolian general Sengge Rinchen to man the Taku Forts on the waterway leading to Beijing. The Chinese repelled a British attempt to take the forts by sea in June 1859, sinking four British ships. A year later, an overland assault by 11,000 British and 6,700 French troops succeeded.

When a British diplomatic mission came to insist on adherence to the treaty, the Chinese took the envoy hostage, and tortured many in the delegation to death. The British High Commissioner of Chinese Affairs, Lord Elgar, decided to assert dominance and sent the army into Beijing.

British and French rifles gunned down 10,000 charging Mongolian cavalrymen at the Battle of Eight Mile Bridge, leaving Beijing defenseless. Emperor Xianfeng fled. In order to wound the Emperor’s “pride as well as his feeling” in the words of Lord Elgar, British and French troops looted and destroyed the historic Summer Palace.

The new revised treaty imposed on China legalized both Christianity and opium, and added Tianjin — the major city close to Beijing — to the list of treaty ports. It allowed British ships to transport Chinese indentured laborers to the United States, and fined the Chinese government eight million silver dollars in indemnities.

The Western presence in China became so ubiquitous, and so widely detested, that an anti-Western popular revolt, the Boxer Rebellion, broke out in 1899. The hapless Qing Dynasty, under the stewardship of Dowager Empress Cixi, first tried to clamp down on the violence before throwing its support behind it — just in time for a multi-national military force of U.S., Russian, German, Austrian, Italian, French, Japanese and British troops to arrive and put down the rebellion.

It then spent an entire year looting Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding countryside in reprisal.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
The inside of a Taku River fort after its capture in August 1860. Felice Beato feature

‘Century of Humiliation’

It’s hard to over-emphasize the impact of the Opium Wars on modern China. Domestically, it’s led to the ultimate collapse of the centuries-old Qing Dynasty, and with it more than two millennia of dynastic rule. It convinced China that it had to modernize and industrialize.

Today, the First Opium War is taught in Chinese schools as being the beginning of the “Century of Humiliation” — the end of that “century” coming in 1949 with the reunification of China under Mao. While Americans are routinely assured they are exceptional and the greatest country on Earth by their politicians, Chinese schools teach students that their country was humiliated by greedy and technologically superior Western imperialists.

The Opium Wars made it clear China had fallen gravely behind the West — not just militarily, but economically and politically. Every Chinese government since — even the ill-fated Qing Dynasty, which began the “Self-Strengthening Movement” after the Second Opium War — has made modernization an explicit goal, citing the need to catch up with the West.

The Japanese, observing events in China, instituted the same discourse and modernized more rapidly than China did during the Meiji Restoration.

Mainland Chinese citizens still frequently measure China in comparison to Western countries. Economic and quality of life issues are by far their main concern. But state media also holds military parity as a goal.

I once saw a news program on Chinese public television boasting about China’s new aircraft carrier Liaoning — before comparing it to an American carrier. “They’re saying ours is still a lot smaller,” a high school student pointed out to me. “And we have only one.”

Through most of Chinese history, China’s main threat came from nomadic horse-riding tribes along its long northern border. Even in the Cold War, hostility with the Soviet Union made its Mongolian border a security hot spot. But the Opium Wars — and even worse, the Japanese invasion in 1937 — demonstrated how China was vulnerable to naval power along its Pacific coast.

China’s aggressive naval expansion in the South China Sea can be seen as the acts of a nation that has succumbed repeatedly to naval invasions — and wishes to claims dominance of its side of the Pacific in the 21st century.

The history with opium also has led China to adopt a particularly harsh anti-narcotics policy with the death penalty applicable even to mid-level traffickers. Drug-trafficking and organized crime remain a problem, however. The explosion of celebrity culture in China has also led to punitive crackdowns on those caught partaking in “decadent lifestyles,” leading to prominent campaigns of public shaming.

For example, in 2014 police arrested Jaycee Chan, son of Jackie Chan, for possessing 100 grams of marijuana. His father stated he wouldn’t plead for his son to avoid imprisonment.

Past history does not always determine future actions. Chinese sentiments toward the United Kingdom today are generally positive despite the Opium Wars. The escalating military confrontation over the South China Sea is a reality of our times, but that doesn’t mean China’s leaders will forever be committed to a strategy of expansion and confrontation.

Nonetheless, fostering better relations requires that we understand how China’s current foreign policy has it roots in past encounters with the West.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The ships with guns that weighed more than entire battleships

Prior to WW2, knowing that they couldn’t compete with the numbers of the US navy, the Imperial Japanese Navy quietly authorized the construction of the two largest battleships by weight ever seen in warfare — the Musashi and her sister ship, the Yamato.

The origins of these two behemoths can be traced back to Japan’s 1934 withdrawal from the League of Nations. Amongst other things, doing this allowed Japan to ignore rules set by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of 1930, both of which aimed to limit the size of battleships as well as the right of participating nations to construct them.


Almost immediately following Japan’s withdrawal, a team working for the Japanese Navy Technical Department helmed by an engineer called Keiji Fukuda began submitting designs for a class of battleships superior in size and firepower to anything ever seen before.

While initially planning to build five of these battleships, ultimately only two were completed, with a third being converted to an aircraft carrier mid-way through construction.

The two completed ships, the Musashi and the Yamato, were quite literally in a class of their own, designed to displace some 73,000 long tons when fully equipped. For reference here, the United States’ Iowa class battleships created around the same time, while of similar length, weighed about 40% less.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators


Japanese battleship Yamato under construction at the Kure Naval Base, Japan, Sept. 20, 1941.

As one Japanese officer, Naoyoshi Ishida, described, “How huge it is! When you walk inside, there are arrows telling you which direction is the front and which is the back—otherwise you can’t tell. For a couple of days I didn’t even know how to get back to my own quarters. Everyone was like that…. I knew it was a very capable battleship. The guns were enormous.”

On that note, not just big, these ships also featured nine of the largest guns ever put on a battleship, featuring 460 mm barrels and weighing an astounding 3,000 tons each, with all nine combined weighing approximately as much as the United States’ Wyoming, New York, and Nevada class battleships.

These weapons were capable of firing shells that weighed up to 3200 pounds (1450 kg)- or, in other words, in the ballpark of what a typical full sized sedan car weighs. While you might think the range when shooting such an object must have been poor, in fact, these guns could hit a target over 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. They could also be fired at a rate of about once every 40 seconds.

The shockwave produced by one of these guns firing was noted as being powerful enough to tear the skin off of a human if an unlucky individual stood within 15 metres of it without proper shielding. This shockwave also resulted in nearby anti-aircraft guns having to be specially armored to protect them from this.

Speaking of anti-aircraft guns, ultimately these ships were equipped with approximately 150 25 mm guns. In between these and the massive 460 mm cannons previously described, the ships also featured six 155 mm and 24 127 mm guns.

Further, if not needing the 460 mm cannons for hitting ships far away, these battleships were equipped with so-called “beehive rounds” to fire from those cannons. In a nutshell, these rounds were filled with nearly a thousand incendiary tubes and hundreds of shards of steel. The round also included a fuse and explosive that would cause the shell to explode out, with the incendiary tubes igniting shortly thereafter, producing a wall of flame and molten steel meant to absolutely obliterate enemy aircraft. Essentially, the idea here was to convert these guns into comically large shotguns, able to pick any enemy birds out of the air.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

Japanese Battleship Musashi taken from the bow.

Armor-wise, each ship possessed on its outer shell a protective layer some 16 inches thick.

While you might think this all combined must have made these ships slow as molasses, it turns out, they had a top speed of about 27 knots (31 mph). While not the fastest battleship in the world, this compared favorably to, for instance, the aforementioned Iowa class battleships that weighed about 40% less, but could only go about 6 knots faster.

Despite their awe-inspiring power and the full confidence of Japanese military brass that each ship was “unmatchable and unsinkable”, neither saw much combat. In fact, the Yamato spent so much time protecting Japanese ports that it was nicknamed the “Hotel Yamato”.

The reluctance of the Japanese navy to commit either ship to combat was motivated by both the scarcity of fuel in Japan during the war, with these battleships taking copious amounts of such to go anywhere, and the fact that military brass believed losing either ship would be a massive blow to the morale of the rest of the Japanese military.

Of course, in the closing months of WW2 with their forces almost completely obliterated, Japan reluctantly began committing both battleships to naval engagements. Unfortunately at this point these super battleships were so absurdly outnumbered in the limited engagements they’d ultimately take part in that they mostly just functioned as sitting ducks.

Most notably, they proved especially vulnerable to aircraft attacks. Even the aforementioned beehive rounds, which the Japanese believed would decimate aircraft, proved to be little more than a visual deterrent, with some American pilots simply flying straight through the flaming shrapnel they produced.

And while the near couple hundred anti-aircraft guns made it so it took a brave pilot to dive bomb the ships, the sheer number of aircraft that the Americans could throw at these battleships at the same time and how chaotic the battles got, ultimately saw these guns prove just as worthless in practice.

It didn’t help that at this point in the war Japan’s own aircraft were ridiculously outnumbered and outclassed, providing little to no air cover to try to protect the massive battleships. (See our article, How Were Kamikaze Pilots Chosen?)

Ultimately the Musashi was lost during the battle of Leyte Gulf in October of 1944, taking 19 torpedo and 17 bomb strikes to sink it.

As for the Yamato, it took part in her final engagement in April of 1945 in operation Ten-Go, which was an intentional suicide mission.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

Japanese battleship Yamato is hit by a bomb near her forward 460mm gun turret.


The Yamato was to be the tip of the spear of this final, last-ditch effort to repel the American advance. Its crew was ordered to beach the ship near Okinawa and use its main battery to destroy as much of the invading force as possible. Essentially, the ship would function as a base on the island, and members of the near 3,000 strong crew not needed to operate weaponry aboard the ship were to wage a land battle with any enemy forces encountered.

The mission plan was flawed from the outset, however, and performed under protest of some of the Japanese Navy brass involved, who noted there would be no chance of even reaching the target island in the first place given the stated plan, including no air support whatsoever, and time of day they were to execute the plan (broad daylight).

This turned out to be correct- en route on April 7, 1945, the Yamato and handful of accompanying ships were completely, and quickly, overwhelmed by a combined assault from 6 cruisers, 21 destroyers, 7 battleships, and a few hundred aircraft.

One surviving member of the Yamato crew, junior officer Yoshida Mitsuru, had this to say of the battle that they all had known was a suicide mission from the start,

How many times, in target practice, have we conducted such tracking? I am possessed by the illusion that we have already experienced searches under the same conditions, with the same battle positions, even with the same mood.
What is going on before my very eyes, indisputably, is actual combat — but how can I possibly convince myself of that fact?
The blips are not an imagined enemy but an enemy poised for the kill. The location: not our training waters, but hostile waters.
More than one hundred enemy planes attacking!” Is it the navigation officer who calls this out?
… The battle begins….
As my whole body tingles with excitement, I observe my own exhilaration; as I grit my teeth, I break into a grin. A sailor near me is felled by shrapnel. In the midst of the overwhelming noise, I distinguish the sound of his skull striking the bulkhead; amid the smell of gunpowder all around, I smell blood….
The tracks of the torpedoes are a beautiful white against the water, as if someone were drawing a needle through the water; they come pressing in, aimed at Yamato from a dozen different directions and intersecting silently. Estimating by sight their distance and angle on the plotting board, we shift course to run parallel to the torpedoes and barely succeed in dodging them.
We deal first with the closest, most urgent one; when we get to a point far enough away from it that we can be sure we have dodged it, we turn to the next. Dealing with them calls for vigilance, calculation, and decision…. That these pilots repeated their attacks with accuracy and coolness was a sheer display of the unfathomable undreamed-of strength of our foes.

In the end, it took only 2 hours for American forces to destroy the single most powerful ship constructed during WW2, along with most of the tiny fleet it set out with. When the smoke cleared, around 4,000 were dead on the Japanese side vs. just around a dozen dead on the American side and a few more wounded.

Bonus Fact:

  • Early in WW2 the Imperial Japanese Navy had plans to construct even bigger ships than the Yamato and Musashi as part of an even more powerful class of ships they called the Super Yamatos. These ships, if constructed, would have possessed 510 mm guns, displaced upwards of 82,000 tons and could have moved at speeds approaching 30 knots. Lack of resources stopped Japan from ever building the ships however.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

12 rarely seen photos from the Vietnam War

It was one of America’s longest-running wars. U.S. involvement began in 1954 with a few hundred troops advising national and then Democratic forces in a civil war. U.S. involvement grew and, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized a massive increase in troop deployments to the country. 58,000 Americans would die before the U.S. left the conflict in 1973 and South Vietnam fell in 1975.

Here are 12 photos from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center that you won’t see in most textbooks and history papers:


This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Soviets fired this secret heavy cannon while in orbit

If you’ve ever wanted to be a space shuttle door gunner, pay attention: the weapon you might be operating could look something like this monster – the only projectile weapon designed for and fired in orbit around the Earth. Of course, it was the Soviet Union during the Cold War, who else would do that?


This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

These are the people who taught terrorists to hijack planes just to be dicks to the West.

Despite some initial successes, the Soviet Union ended up losing the Space Race in a big way. Their loss is exemplified by the fact that the same day the Americans put men on the moon, the Soviets failed to land a probe there. So after a while, the disparity in technology irked the Soviet Union.

Most important to the USSR was the idea of American spacecraft being able to literally get their hands on Soviet satellites. Anti-satellite operations were something both powers prepared for, but the idea that the satellite itself would need protection up there all alone prompted the Soviets to arm one of theirs, just to see how that would go.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

This is how that would go.

The Soviets built a station code-named “Almaz,” a space station that held spy equipment, radar, and the R-23M, a 37-pound 14.5mm automatic cannon that could fire up to 5,000 rounds per minute that was accurate up to a mile away. There was just one problem: aiming the cannon. The cosmonauts in the station would have to rotate the entire space station to point the weapon.

It was supposed to be the first manned space station in orbit, but the Russians were more concerned with developing the weapon than they were other aspects of the capsule, like sensors and life support. So instead of building their grand space station, they slapped together what they had with the R-23M and a Soyuz capsule, called it the Salyut before launching it into space in 1971.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

All this space station and not one Death Star joke.

The CIA knew about every iteration of the Soviet Salyut spy stations, but what they – and much of the world – didn’t know is that they actually fired the R-23M while in orbit. On Jan. 24, 1975, Salyut 3 test fired its weapon before the station was supposed to de-orbit. The crew had not been aboard for around six months at this point. While the Soviets never released what happened during the test, the shots and the station were all destroyed when they re-entered the atmosphere.

Firing a gun in space would be very different from firing on Earth. First, there is no sound in the vacuum of space, so it would not go bang. Secondly, the Soviets would have had to fire some kind of thruster to balance out the force exerted on the capsule by the weapon’s recoil; otherwise the Salyut would have been pushed in the opposite direction. The weight of the projectile fired would determine how fast you would fly in the opposite direction.

Not to mention that shooting the weapon into Earth’s orbit could cause the bullets to hit the station itself from the opposite direction.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the fighter that was flown by the first US president to go supersonic

A number of U.S. presidents have served in the military. One, though, flew jets and went supersonic. That was George W. Bush, who served as a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard- the first President to break Mach 1.


Though his Air National Guard service was heavily criticized during his runs for the White House, it’s beyond dispute that Bush flew the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger when he was in the ANG.

This plane had a top speed of Mach 1.25, a maximum range of 1,350 miles, and could carry six AIM-4 Falcon air-to-air missiles and 24 unguided rockets.

 

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
F-102As over South Vietnam. (USAF photo)

In a 2004 report, NationalReview.com noted that Bush sought to get into the Palace Alert program, which involved F-102s being deployed to Vietnam. He was passed over due to a lack of experience. The F-102 provided air defense and served as a bomber escort during the Vietnam War, and 15 were lost to hostile action, including one shot down by a MiG-21.

The F-102 was a replacement for the F-89 Scorpion and other first-generation interceptors like the F-86D and the F-94, according to aviation historian Joe Baugher. Development was troubled, and while in service, the F-102 had a Class A mishap rate of 13.69 per 100,000 flight hours.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
A F-102A Delta Dagger with the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, the unit George W. Bush flew with. (USAF photo)

 

The F-102 served from 1956 to the 1970s with the Air Force, and was with Air National Guard units until 1976. The plane also saw service with Greece and Turkey – helping protect NATO’s southern flank. A refined version of this plane became the F-106 Delta Dart.

If you’d like to see the fighter in action, you can catch a video on the supersonic F-102 below.

MIGHTY HISTORY

10 rarely seen photos from the Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War started after the USS Maine suddenly exploded in Havana Harbor in February 1898, an incident that was later found to be caused by faulty ship design but was blamed, at the time, on a Spanish mine. The resulting war was focused on Cuba, but the growing American military contested Spain across its empire, resulting in combat from the Atlantic to Pacific.


Here are 10 photos from the conflict:

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Signal Corps)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)

MIGHTY HISTORY

The World War II commandos dedicated to Arctic operations

Britain formed a number of commando units in World War II that operated from Burma to India to Europe and even north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. The No. 14 (Arctic) Commando trained specifically to sink German ships, destroy infrastructure, and interrupt operations in order to cripple Axis efforts in the Atlantic.


This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

Austro-Hungarian ski patrol on the Italian front.

(Imperial War Museum)

The unit was formed after the success of Operation Gunnerside, a British-Norwegian commando operation that saw the destruction of equipment at a Nazi-held heavy water plant, ultimately delaying German creation of a nuclear bomb or reactor (The Germans were already leaning towards the reactor over the bomb and had limited material to pursue either).

But Gunnerside had also shown a shortage of suitable transportation and experienced personnel, so British leadership allowed members of the 12 Commando unit to form the ‘Fynn Force’ as well as to create an all new commando unit, 14 Commando, in 1942.

Troops were recruited from units with experience in cold climates, especially those who already knew how to ski and canoe. Yes, canoe. The unit was to be split into two, each specialized for certain operations. One group would specialize in transiting via skis, and the other would row in canoes.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

Commandos carry the wounded to landing ships.

(Imperial War Museum)

Canadians were in high demand for the unit, but British and Norwegian sailors and commandos joined as well. It was a job that required steady nerves. Most missions proposed for the Arctic commandos were obvious suicide missions. One raid scheduled for the winter of 1942-1943 called for a group of skiers to parachute in and destroy a viaduct critical for iron ore transportation.

The unit commander voted against the mission on the basis that the party would almost certainly not be able to escape, but was overruled because of the value of success even if the commandos were lost. Luckily for them, weather made the mission impossible.

But No. 14 Commando would get its chance to fight just south of Arctic Circle. Eight men were sent on a canoe raid against German ships in Operation Checkmate.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

The “Cockleshell Heroes,” another group of canoe raiders who sunk ships with explosives.

(Royal Marine Museum)

They went forward on a motorboat and then split up. Four men stayed with the boat while four men went forward in two canoes. The men in the canoes were able to plant a limpet mine against the hull of ships, sinking a German minesweeper before they escaped.

But the mission fell apart there. The men on the motorboat had been forced to move from the rendezvous point, and the quartets were forced to escape and evade separately. Neither group made it out. They were captured during a massive search involving German forces and Norwegian civilians.

Thanks to the new order from Hitler to kill all captured commandos, issued just months before in October 1942, all eight were sentenced to die. Seven were executed after forced labor in concentration camps while the other died of typhus.

The rest of No. 14 Commando was later absorbed into other units after the organization was disbanded.

Articles

4 battles that took place after the war ended

Wars are generally long, bloody, and horrible affairs that everyone is anxious to wrap up so that everyone can go back home.


But for some reason, there have been wars that don’t end on time. Here are four times that the U.S. found itself in a battle after the war it was fighting was technically already over:

1. The Battle of New Orleans propels Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to nationwide fame after the War of 1812

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
Andrew Jackson wins the Battle of New Orleans two weeks after the War of 1812 ended.

The War of 1812 officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814, but Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson repelled an attack on Jan. 8, 1815, by approximately 8,000 British regulars who hadn’t yet heard about the treaty. Jackson’s defense of the city inflicted 2,000 casualties — including three generals and seven colonels — on the British and made Jackson an American hero.

Even that wasn’t the final battle of the supposedly terminated war. The British survivors of New Orleans launched another attack on nearby Fort St. Philip which failed and then a successful attack on Fort Bowyer in modern-day Alabama.

2. American Gen. Sterling Price fought an extra battle in Mexico because he didn’t believe the peace news

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
The city of Vera Cruz was captured as a legitimate military objective during the Mexican-American War. The city of Santa Cruz de Rosales was captured after the war because why not? (Painting: Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot)

American Gen. Sterling Price had orders to hold and defend southern New Mexico near the end of the Mexican-American War — orders that he ignored to attack the city of Chihuahua in early 1848. When he arrived at the city, a group of citizens told him that the garrison had withdrawn from the town to avoid bloodshed as the war had ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the previous month.

Price basically wrote the treaty off as fake news and just assaulted south anyway, catching up to the Mexican forces at the city of Santa Cruz de Rosales. The Mexican commander attempted to defend the town, repelling attacks from the north and west but falling to a thrust from the south.

3. The Battle of Palmito Ranch may have been a colonel trying to pop his combat cherry before the war ended

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
A map of the Battle of Palmito Ranch captures the military movements but not the stupidity of the conflict. (Photo: Pi3.124 CC BY-SA 3.0)

While there was no official peace treaty ending the Civil War, everyone had pretty much agreed it was over by May 1865. Lincoln was dead, the Confederate cabinet was scattered, and the War Department was getting ready to release most of the Union Army from the service.

But Union Col. Theodore H. Barrett found himself occupying an island near Confederate forces who were slowly negotiating a surrender with a major general. Rather than let those negotiations play out, Barrett led his regiment against the Confederate forces despite the fact that he had no combat experience and no orders to do so.

The blow-by-blow of the battle is farcical where it isn’t boring, but it basically amounts to a useless Union defeat at the hands of barely interested rebels and some French soldiers who were stationed in Mexico just across the river. Barrett later claimed the defeat was the fault of another colonel, but a court martial supported no charges against the other officer.

4. The last troops to die in the Vietnam War fought weeks after the war ended and two years after America withdrew

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators
U.S. Marines run from a heavily-damaged HH-53C helicopter during the SS Mayaguez operation. (U.S. Air Force photo)

While the American involvement in the Vietnam War officially ended with the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the actual war drew on for another two years until South Vietnam surrendered to Communist North Vietnam on April 30, 1975.

But the final battle involving American troops took place from May 12 to 15. The Khmer Rouge, a communist military group that had recently seized Cambodia, captured the crew of the U.S. merchant ship SS Mayaguez and President Gerald Ford deployed sailors, Marines, and airmen to rescue them.

The operation suffered from a lack of intelligence and the Marines hit the wrong island, one that was being guarded by 150 to 200 dug-in fighters when the Marines expected light resistance. America lost 41 Marines and airmen killed and wounded, but recovered the ship and the crew.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Navajo airman is heir to ‘code talker’ legacy

Airman 1st Class Phillip Rock is part of his family’s legacy of military service — a legacy that, in fact, would not have continued if it weren’t for that military service itself.

Stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Rock is a B-2 Spirit weapons load crew member in the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. It is his first Air Force assignment and the most recent in his family’s military history.

“I was raised in Kayenta, Arizona, which is an hour away from the four corners,” said Phillip, who is three-quarters Navajo American Indian. “It is really the heart of the reservation.”


Raised by his grandparents, he learned much about his cultural heritage from them. He also learned where his family’s long military lineage began.

This Rock family tradition started with his great grandfather, Joseph Rock — Grandpa Joe — who served in World War II.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron B-2 weapons load crew member, weaves a dream catcher on Nov. 15, 2018, in his dorm at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)

“At first, I didn’t know much about what my great grandfather had done,” Phillip said.

Grandpa Joe died in 2004 at age 92 when Phillip was 5 years old. It wasn’t until he was nearly a teen that Phillip realized his great grandfather was a war hero.

One day, when Rock was 12 years old, he was flipping through TV channels with his grandfather, Ernest Rock Sr., in their living room. They stopped to watch a historical documentary about World War II.

Rock recalled asking his grandfather about his great grandfather’s role in the major world conflict which spanned across Europe and the Pacific.

“I said, ‘Isn’t that the war Grandpa Joe fought in? What did he do?'”

His grandfather told Phillip “He was a code talker.”

Western expansion, cultural repression

It was the early 1900s and Joseph Rock was a young boy living on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. As the country expanded westward, much of the tribe’s land was taken by the U.S. government. Joseph was sent to school, where his long hair was cut and his name was changed.

“He went up to a chalkboard, pointed at a random configuration of letters, and that’s how he became Joseph Rock,” Phillip said. “Four generations later, we still carry on that last name.”

Grandpa Joe was also punished in school if he spoke his native language — the same language that would later save countless lives.

By 1941, shortly after the U.S. had entered WWII, the Marine Corps began to recruit Navajo tribal members for a top-secret code-communications program that wouldn’t be declassified until two decades later.

At first, fewer than 30 Navajo Indians were recruited as code talkers. In total, only about 400 of the 44,000 American Indians who served in WWII were Navajo code talkers. Joseph Rock was asked to work among them, and he accepted.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a B-2 weapons load crew member assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, poses for a portrait on Nov. 15, 2018 in his dorm at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)

“He was told if he served, the family would get some of their land back and a house,” Phillip Rock said. “None of that happened.”

But those promises weren’t what enticed Grandpa Joe to join the military. He wanted to serve his country, and did so honorably.

“My great grandfather was proud of his service,” Phillip Rock said. “It’s his legacy.”

Military recruitment

This was not the first time American Indians were recruited for U.S. military service, either as combatants or code talkers. During the first World War, American troops relied on messages transmitted in Cherokee and Choctaw tribal languages to pass secret information. However, the languages used were eventually all deciphered by enemy troops.

The Navajo language, though, is considered particularly linguistically difficult. And at that time, it had not been written down. The U.S. government knew it would be nearly impossible for a non-Navajo to learn.

So, in the early 1940s, Navajo code talkers used their language to create more than 200 new words for military terms and then committed them to memory.

“The enemy never understood it,” a Marine general was quoted as saying after the Navajo code was first used in WWII. “We don’t understand it either, but it works.”

The Navajo code is the only spoken military code that has never been deciphered, and Navajo code talkers are credited with saving thousands of Americans’ and allies’ lives.

Winning the war

Before he knew his Grandpa Joe served as a code talker, Phillip learned about his tribe’s role in WWII as a boy in school.

“We were taught that we should be extremely thankful for what they did,” Phillip said. “Without the code talkers, we wouldn’t have won the war.”

During the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, Navajo code talkers worked around the clock sending and receiving thousands of messages. One Marine later stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima,” according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Joseph Rock was one of those code talkers involved in the critical battle to claim the Pacific island.

During the battle, a grenade landed only feet away from Joseph Rock, who “watched it hit the ground,” Phillip said. Then, Joseph Rock saw one of his fellow Marines dive on top of it, giving his life to save Grandpa Joe.

“He wanted to save the life of a code talker,” Phillip Rock said. “It’s inspiring what people will do to continue with the mission. My Grandpa Joe owed his life to that man.”

Neither Joseph Rock nor the Rock family was ever able to find out who the Marine was, but know future generations of Rocks have their lives thanks to his valor.

“I owe my life to that man, too,” Phillip said.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

Traditional native american jewelry is laid out on the couch of Airman 1st Class Phillip E. Rock, a B-2 weapons load crew member assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Each piece of jewelry was gifted to rock throughout his childhood.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)

Culture and service

Since Grandpa Joe, many members of the Rock family have answered their nation’s call including his grandfather, his father, uncles and an aunt.

For Phillip, his great grandfather’s service as a code talker influenced Philip’s own decision to join the Air Force.

Phillip is the most recent member of his family to serve in the military.

“I feel like it was a prideful thing to carry on that lineage of service,” said Phillip. “It felt like the right calling. My Grandpa Joe was the first to wear this name on a uniform. I am very proud of this name. I knew I wanted to carry that on and wear it on a uniform.”

Meanwhile, Navajo principles have taught him respect, perseverance, and determination.

“My culture really shapes who I am,” Phillip Rock says. “I wear my culture on my sleeve and my name on my chest.”

This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.

This article originally appeared on the United States Air Force. Follow @usairforce on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Off the shore of Staten Island is PC 1264’s grave

Just off the western shoreline of Staten Island – on a body of water called the Arthur Kill – is the graveyard for a ship that deserved much better. The vessel received no name other than the PC 1264 even though it remains a part of U.S. Naval history. She only served for 22 months in combat, with her keel laid in October 1943 and her decommissioning in February 1946. 

The ship served as a submarine chaser in the North Atlantic hunting for the Nazi wolf pack. Some believe that PC 1264 wounded a German U-Boat, U-866, after a chase near Buoy Able in February of 1945. German submarines would hide out under Buoys as sonar was being developed by the Allies. 

The ship had come far from when President Franklin Roosevelt had written his memo to the Navy Department that led to the manning of PC 1264. FDR concluded, despite the anticipated backlash, that African Americans could man duty in the Navy other than messmen. He suggested that the Navy Department allow African Americans to serve on the line and ordered such on April 7, 1942.

PC 1264 was initially manned with 53 African Americans and its commander was a white officer, Lieutenant Eric Purdon. Several incidents, both good and bad, followed the ship early on. After traveling up the Hudson to load ammunition at Iona Island, Lt. Purdon had trouble getting permission to dock with the ship’s load. In a last shot, they requested permission from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Not only were they allowed to dock, West Point opened its doors to the crew, providing buses and even tours to the sailors. 

The ship sailed south to Miami to the then Submarine Chaser Training Center. There, the harassment included long inspections of the returning sailors’ identification cards when coming back on base (by white civilian guards). It was rumored that there was a plan to shoot up the ship. Another chaser crew (of whites) overheard the threat, armed themselves and stood at the gate backing off the white civilian guards. 

pc 1264

PC 1264 began serving escort duty in 1944 and provided escorts to shipping, to include protecting the French submarine Argo to avoid it being confused with a German U Boat. A spy revealed the Germans planned to use its U Boat fleet to launch V-1 and V-2 rockets at the ports of the United States in January 1945. PC 1264 ran patrols from New York to Virginia, protecting these ports and the American shipping. 

It was in February 1945, while making an “anti-submarine” run against a North Atlantic buoy, that a submarine was believed to have been spotted when a conning tower rose briefly. The U Boat was believed to have been wounded by PC 1264. U Boat 866 was later confirmed sunk by another anti-submarine attack force.

In May 1945, a new officer reported aboard the ship to serve as second in command. Ensign Samuel Gravely, an African American from Richmond, Virginia, would eventually become the Commanding Officer of the vessel. While in Miami, the Shore Patrol detained Ensign Gravely, believing he was impersonating an officer. His crew came to his defense in a heated confrontation. Once it was clear that he was, in fact, a United States Naval Officer, the Shore Patrol backed down.  However, the base Admiral demanded then white Commanding Officer Purdon to court martial the black enlisted sailors that had come to Gravely’s defense. Lieutenant Purdon, citing his authority as a Commanding Officer of a ship of line, refused to do so. PC 1264 left for sea shortly thereafter. 

Ensign Gravely had the final task of commanding the ship, then with its full complement of African American sailors, to its decommissioning and transfer to the Arthur Kill graveyard on Staten Island. Gravely went on to a successful Navy career, retiring as a Vice Admiral. 

PC 1264 sits, today, in the mud until the wind, rain and rust cause her to disappear below the water line. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time the Marines dropped helicopters in the ocean to save families

Few feats of engineering are as impressive as a military-grade helicopter. Today worth millions of dollars each, these high-tech birds are a formidable military asset, including, among many other uses, for rescue operations — all a fact US military personnel helpfully chose to ignore during Operation Frequent Wind when they pushed several dozen of them into the sea, in one case for no other reason than to save a mother, a father, and their five children.


For anyone unfamiliar with it, Operation Frequent Wind was the name give to the final phase of evacuations during the Fall of Saigon — effectively the final days of the Vietnam War. Noted as being one of the largest military evacuations in history and the largest involving helicopters as the primary means of evacuation, Operation Frequent Wind is celebrated as a logistical success for the US due to the fact that a few dozen helicopter pilots were somehow able to evacuate over 7,000 people in around 18 hours. This is made all the more impressive when you realize that the mass evacuation was never supposed to involve helicopters much at all.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

A South Vietnamese helicopter is pushed over the side of the USS Okinawa during Operation Frequent Wind, April 1975.

(US Marine Corps photo)

You see, while Operation Frequent Wind is now famous for being the most successful mass helicopter evacuation ever organised, using helicopters as the primary means of evacuation was never the original plan — it wasn’t even the backup plan. It turns out that it was the backup to the backup to the backup plan.

Known initially as Operation Talon Vise until North Vietnamese spies heard whispers of it, the plans for a mass evacuation of Vietnam had been in place for several years and were originally supposed to involve the primary use of both commercial and military aircraft which would evacuate at-risk citizens and military personnel, with the total slated to be evacuated estimated to be about 2 million people.

Failing or in addition to this, the idea was to dock ships at Saigon port and load them with as many people as possible. In the event none of these options were possible, the final, Hail Mary plan was to instead use military helicopters to transport people to ships off shore.

Of course, evacuating the original estimate of 2 million people was never an option for the helicopter plan alone, nor even the extremely whittled down number of about 100,000-200,000 that military brass eventually reduced that figure to. Instead, at this point it was just as many people as they could as fast as they could.

So why did the US have to fall back to literally their least effective option if they’d been planning the evacuation for years? Well, much of the blame falls somewhat unbelievably to the actions of a single man — Graham Anderson Martin, the American ambassador to South Vietnam at the time who steadfastly refused to agree to start an evacuation for fear of mass panic and given his unshakable faith in the notion that the threat of the “superior American firepower” would keep the enemy at bay.

Despite this, recommendations did go out in advance of Operation Frequent Wind that at risk people should leave the country, resulting in a total of around 50,000 people, including a few thousand orphans, leaving via various planes in the months leading up to an actual evacuation being started. This was mostly done via supply aircraft who would bring supplies in, and then load up as many people as they could for the trip home. Yet an official full scale evacuation, which would have seen these efforts massively ramped up, was continually stalled by Martin.

Military brass tried and failed to persuade Martin to change his mind, with Brigadier General Richard E. Carey going as far as to travel to Saigon to plead personally with with the ambassador. This was a meeting Carey would later diplomatically call “cold and non productive” and should be noted took place on April 13th, 2 weeks after preparations were already supposed to have begun for the mass evacuation.

This back and forth continued until April 28th when North Vietnamese forces bombed the Tan Son Nhut Air Base, effectively eliminating any possibility of getting people out via large aircraft capable of mass evacuation. When this was pointed out to the Martin, he still refused to call for the evacuation, deciding to wait until the next day so he could drive out to the base and confirm the damage for himself.

Upon confirming that North Vietnamese forces had indeed destroyed the air base and the best option for a mass evacuation, he finally relented.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

South Vietnamese refugees arrive on a U.S. Navy vessel during Operation Frequent Wind.

This was an order that was relayed to soldiers on the ground via the official Armed Forces Radio station by the words “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising,” followed by the playing the song I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas by Bing Crosby.

As a direct result of Martin’s stubbornness, the military had no choice but to rely on the least effective means of mass evacuation — via helicopter, with the operation officially commencing later that afternoon at 14:00.

Even as the operation began, Martin’s bullheaded refusal to prepare in anyway for an evacuation caused problems for certain helicopter pilots, most notably the ones trying to evacuate him and his staff.

How?

Well there was a large tree in the embassy courtyard that military brass had “strongly advised” Martin cut down so as to better allow helicopters to land there should the worst happen. Martin, believing that doing so would be as good as admitting the war had already been lost, absolutely refused to do this. As Henry Kissinger would later note, “Faced with imminent disaster, Martin decided to go down with the ship.”

On that note, to his credit, Martin refused to leave once the evacuation had begun, though this was much to the annoyance of the pilot, Colonel Gerry Berry, sent to fetch him. Instead, Martin continually had refugees boarded while he simply waited with his staff in his office, knowing that as long as he was there, the helicopter would keep coming back allowing more lives to be saved.

It wasn’t until the 14th trip that an exhausted Berry finally reached his wits’ end. Said Berry, “I called the sergeant over. And he got up in the cockpit. And I said, ‘This is it. Get all these people off. This helicopter’s not leaving the roof until the ambassador’s on board. The President sends.'”

With an order supposedly from the President himself, though not actually in reality, Martin finally relented and allowed Berry to complete his mission by transporting Martin and his entourage.

Of course, what the military brass had failed to remember after this supposed last flight was that they’d accidentally left almost a dozen soldiers behind at the compound… This wouldn’t be realized for many hours, but all 11 Marines were rescued after being forced to barricade themselves on the rooftop for the night in case of an attack.

Leaving the evacuations as late as Martin did understandably resulted in mass panic across Saigon with many thousands of South Vietnamese citizens fleeing in everything from cars to stolen planes and helicopters.

In addition, lack of time meant that helicopter pilots had a laughable number of people to rescue, resulting in many ignoring the “recommended” weight limit of their craft and massively overloading them to the very extremes of what they could handle given the pilot’s assessments and weather conditions. In one case, one pilot noted he was overweight to the point that he could only hover inches off the ground, but no one was willing to get off as for many it would mean their life if they could not get out of the country.

He then stated he thought if he could get some forward speed he could get the additional lift needed, so simply pitched the craft forward and took a dive off the rooftop he was on, barely recovering before hitting the rooftops below and then managing to very slowly climb from there.

As for these pilots, they were instructed to ferry evacuees to waiting ships in the South China Sea, many of which quickly began to run out of space resulting in people sleeping double in the small bunks, as well as just anywhere on the ships there was available space for someone to sit or lie down on.

On top of that, any South Vietnamese pilots that could manage to get a hold of their own helicopters and flee to sea were also crowding the decks as they arrived. This resulted in the order to push some of these South Vietnamese helicopters overboard to make more space, or orders for some pilots to simply crash their helicopters into the ocean and await rescue after they’d dropped off any passengers.

This all brings us around to the incredible story of Major Buang Lee. Knowing he and his family — a wife and five children — would in all likelihood be executed if they couldn’t find a way out of the country immediately, the Major managed to commandeer a small Cessna O-1 spotter plane. Under heavy fire, he managed to take off and flee the country with two adults and five children jam packed aboard the tiny, slow moving aircraft.

This Coast Guard commander returned to an ambush to save Navy operators

A South Vietnamese UH-1H is pushed overboard to make room for a Cessna O-1 landing.

He then headed out to sea in search of a ship to land on or ditch the plane next to. About an hour and a half off the coast and with only about an hour of fuel left, he finally found one in the USS Midway.

The issue now was there was not sufficient room to land on the ship, owing to the number of helicopters on the deck. Unable to find the right frequency on the radio to talk to those on the Midway, Buang resorted to dropping notes.

The first two notes, unfortunately blew away before anyone aboard could grab them. Buang tied the third to his gun and dropped it. When the crew aboard retrieved it, they saw it read: “Can you move the helicopters to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me. -Major Buang, Wife and 5 child.”

The captain of the vessel, one Lawrence Chambers then had a decision to make. While it was possible to move some of the helicopters out of the way, there was no room to move them all. The young captain, only appointed to that post some five weeks before, decided that there was little chance the family would all survive if they tried to ditch in the sea next to the Midway and be rescued that way.

Said Lawrence of the event, “When a man has the courage to put his family in a plane and make a daring escape like that, you have to have the heart to let him in.”

So, thinking he’d likely be court-martialed for it, he made the call to move what helicopters could be moved and dump the rest in the ocean after stripping them of any valuable gear that could be removed quickly. In total, some million (about million today) worth of helicopters were ditched in this way.

There was another problem, however. The plane in question typically needs a minimum of a little over 600 feet of runway to land and come to a full stop. The Midway itself in total was about 1,000 feet long, but the runway deck was only about 2/3 of that, meaning there was zero margin for error here.

Thus, in order to land such a craft on the deck with enough margin of safety, the ship really needed to be moving as fast as possible to make the plane’s relative speed slow enough that it could stop in time before falling off the end. Using the cable system to stop the craft faster wasn’t deemed a good option as in all likelihood it would have just resulted in the landing gear ripping off and/or the plane flipping over in a spectacular crash.

Unfortunately, Chambers had previously granted the ship’s engineers permission to take the Midway’s engines partially offline for routine maintenance. After all, helicopters did not need nor want that relative wind, especially when landing on such a crowded deck.

Said Chambers, “When I told the chief engineer that I needed 25 knots, he informed me that we didn’t have enough steam. I ordered him to shift the hotel load to the emergency diesels.”

With this, the ship was able to achieve the requested speed and Buang’s landing was also helped by another 15 knots of headwind, further reducing his needed stopping distance.

With that done and deck cleared as it could be, Buang was given the greenlight to land, ultimately doing so with textbook precision and with plenty of deck to spare, becoming a rare individual in relatively modern times to land such an aircraft aboard a military carrier.

And, thankfully for Captain Lawrence, he was not court-martialed for ditching rather valuable military hardware to save Major Buang and his family, and instead enjoyed a continuance of his successful career, eventually retiring as a Rear Admiral.

In the aftermath of Operation Frequent Wind, the U.S. ships continued to hang around for a few days off the coast, trying to pick up as many refugees from the water as they could. Finally, the order was given to head home, forcing the commanders to leave many thousands of people that had been promised evacuation behind.

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

Do Not Sell My Personal Information