Witnesses reported seeing the 24 crates containing what has been called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” at a railroad station at Königsberg, Prussia in 1943. They had earlier been seen in the courtyard of Königsberg Castle.
They were never seen again.
Inside the crates, was an all-amber room that was built by Prussia’s Frederick I between 1701-1706 and later given by Frederick’s son, Frederick William I, to Peter the Great of Russia. The chamber, when assembled, was completely enclosed with amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors and garnished with mosaics, nymphs, cupids and angels, inlays, landscapes, and miniatures — all in amber.
Its construction nearly broke the Prussian economy when it was built, and its worth today, if it were ever found, is estimated to be near $200 million.
Peter accepted Frederick Wilhelm’s gift, something, he said in a letter, he had “dreamed of for a long time.” The Amber Room was disassembled and moved to Russia, but nothing was done about reassembling it there — largely because no one was able to figure out how the badly-marked pieces went together — until the woman who would become Catherine the Great ascended the Russian throne in 1767.
Catherine, who originally came from the amber-mining region near the Black Sea, added another 900 pounds of amber to the room and implemented the work done by an Italian sculptor who had worked on the reassembly problem. She also added large windows to the room and had it assembled at her Tsarskoye Selo palace.
The completed room was said to come alive in candlelight.
The room languished in the St. Petersburg — later Leningrad — Palace until June 1941, when Germany invaded Russia. Ten weeks after the invasion, Germany laid siege to Leningrad. As the siege continued, Russians in the city struggled to save what historic treasure they could, including the Amber Room. Because of the fragility of the amber and the resulting difficulty in removing and storing it, a false room was built inside the Amber Room that hid it from view. But when the Nazis took the palace in September, they discovered the room, disassembled it, and stored it in crates. Those crates were then moved to Königsberg, again reassembled, and displayed in the town’s castle, the former home of the Teutonic Knights.
As the war wound down, Königsberg became the target of frequent Allied bombing raids and the room was again disassembled, loaded in crates, and stored in the castle’s cellar. The crates containing the Amber Room were seen in the castle’s courtyard in January 1945 and later at the railroad depot in Königsberg.
From there, they disappeared.
Since the war, searches have all been unsuccessful in locating any trace of the missing crates and their contents. Numerous theories as to what happened to the famous Amber Room have also been broadcast — all unsubstantiated.
As recently as 2008, radar scans detected a large amount of metal believed to be too dense to be copper in an abandoned copper mine in Deutschneudorf, Saxony that some people, including Hans-Peter Haustein, mayor of Deutschneudorf, claim is the burial site of the Amber Room. Others believe the Amber Room was hidden 2,000 feet down in a salt mine near Gottingen, Germany that has since been flooded. Still other researchers have speculated that the Amber Room was loaded aboard the German liner Wilhelm Gustoloff, which was being used to move refugees across the Baltic Sea, and went down with the ship when it was sunk in January 1945.
Or — perhaps the most likely of all — it was simply destroyed during the Royal Air Force bombing raids in early 1945.
Fortunately, the curious can still get a glimpse of the room’s splendor.
A copy of the room has been created based on black and white photos that were taken of it. Russian President Vladimir Putin dedicated the room at a celebration of the 300-year anniversary of the city of Saint Petersburg in 2003. That copy is currently on display at the Tsarskoye Selo Palace.
According to a pair of memos produced in during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, the Union and the Confederacy combined for roughly one thousand generals during the Civil War. Of those hundreds of generals, only one was a Native American — and he fought for the South.
Brigadier General Stand Watie isn’t that well-known, mostly because he was fighting in what the Confederates called the Trans-Mississippi Department. This region did not see battles on the scale of Antietam, Gettysburg, or Shiloh. Instead, the Civil War was more a collection of raids or guerilla warfare – and it wasn’t always the nicest of affairs.
Stand Watie was familiar with violence. As a major leader of the Cherokee Nation, he had seen family members killed and had himself been attacked in the aftermath of the removal of the Cherokee to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Many of the Cherokee owned slaves, and took them west during that removal. This lead a majority of the Cherokee to support the Confederacy when the Civil War started.
The Oklahoma Historical Society notes that Stand Watie was commissioned as a colonel in the Confederate Army after he had raised a cavalry regiment. He was involved in a number of actions, including the Battle of Pea Ridge.
The Cherokee soon were divided in the Civil War, and a number began defecting to the Union. Watie and his forces were involved in actions against pro-Union Cherokee. Watie was promoted to brigadier general, and his command would encompass two regiments of cavalry as well as some sub-regimental infantry units. His best known action was the capture of the Union vessel J. R. Williams in 1864 and the Second Battle of Cabin Creek.
By today’s standards, his unit also committed some grave war crimes, including the massacre of Union troops from the First Colored Kansas Infantry and the Second Kansas Cavalry regiments in September 1864.
Watie would later be given command of the Indian Division in Indian Territory, but never mounted any operations. By 1865, he would release his troops. He would be the last Confederate general to surrender his forces, doing so on June 23, 1865. After the war, Watie tried to operate a tobacco factory, but it was seized in a dispute over taxes.
We’ve all heard the familiar tune being blared over the intercom or performed live bright and early as the American flag is raised for the beginning of the day.
For other troops stationed on a military base, it’s the bugle call that made them dash for cover so they wouldn’t have to stand outside and salute on a cold morning or throw your pillow at the window in your barracks like it’s going to get the signal to stop — you get the point.
But the motivation behind the “Reveille” tune isn’t to just wake us up, but instead is to remind us of those who have served in remembrance.
Airmen salute the flag during reveille at the Eglin Professional Development Center. (Photo: Tech. Sgt. Jasmin Taylor)
Reveille comes from the French word “réveiller” or in English to “to wake up.”
In 1812, U.S. forces designated the iconic melody to call service members to muster up for roll call to start the work day.
It appears there is no official composer of the tune, which is used by about six countries like Denmark, Ireland, and Sweden to mark the start of the day.
The notes for each country do vary and they all have written different lyrics as well.
“Out on a hike all day, dear
Part of the army grind
Weary and long the way, dear
But really I don’t mind
I’m getting tired so I can sleep
I want to sleep so I can dream
I want to dream so I can be with you
I’ve got your picture by my bed
‘Twill soon be placed beneath my head
To keep me company the whole night through
For a little while, whatever befalls
I will see your smile till reveille calls
I hope you’re tired enough to sleep
And please sleep long enough to dream
And look for me for I’ll be dreaming too”
Click play on the video below and try to sing along.
(United States Air Force Band – Topic, YouTube)Fun fact: Reveille is also the official name of the Texas A&M mascot in the ROTC program — a dog. That is all.
When the Nazis steamrolled into the Netherlands in May of 1940, Jannetje Johanna “Hannie” Schaft and Truus and Freddie Oversteegen were just 19, 16, and 14 years old respectively.
As for the Oversteegen sisters, their mother, Trijn, had left their father years before. Freddie states of this, “She was just fed up one day—we lived on a large ship in Haarlem, but my father never made any money and didn’t pay anything for the barge. But it wasn’t an ugly divorce or anything—he sang a French farewell song from the bow of the ship when we left. He loved us, but I didn’t see him that often anymore after that.”
Immediately after the Nazis came to town, despite the risks, Freddie goes on, “During the war, we had a Jewish couple living with us, which is why my sister and I knew a lot about what was going on…”
At the same time, their mother also had her daughters join in with her in the rather dangerous task of posting and distributing anti-Nazi and communist literature around town.
Given their brazen activities, word soon got around to the resistance that the girls might be open to joining, with one Frans van der Wiel coming calling in 1941. Freddie states, “A man wearing a hat came to the door and asked my mother if he could ask us [to join the resistance]. And he did… she was OK with it. “
She also states her mother simply requested of them that no matter what the resistance asked them to do, to “always stay human.”
Of the sisters’ personal decision to join, Truus stated,
A war like this is a very raw experience. While I was biking, I saw Germans picking up innocent people from the streets, putting them against a wall and shooting them. I was forced to watch, which aroused such an enormous anger in me, such a disgust… You can have any political conviction or be totally against war, but at that moment you are just a human being confronted with something very cruel. Shooting innocent people is murder. If you experience something like this, you’ll find it justified that when people commit treason, such as exchanging a four-year-old Jewish child for 35 guilders, you act against it.
Needless to say, they were all for it, though not quite realizing at that point everything they’d be asked to do. She states, “I thought we would be starting a kind of secret army. The man that came to our door said that we would get military training, and they did teach us a thing or two. Someone taught us to shoot, and we learned to march in the woods. There were about seven of us then—Hannie wasn’t a part of the group yet, and we were the only girls.”
Indeed, in the beginning because of their age and gender, the authorities paid little attention to them. Thus, they were natural message runners between resistance members, as well as ideally suited for smuggling and stealing identity papers to help various Jewish people escape; they also occasionally were tasked with transporting weapons and even helping escort Jews to hiding places- generally Jewish children as they blended in with the girls well and the authorities on the whole weren’t suspicious of the young girls walking along with kids. Also thanks to Freddie’s ultra youthful look, particularly when she did her hair up in pigtails, she was often used for reconnaissance missions, as nobody paid attention to her.
Things escalated from these sorts of tasks, however, with assignments such as helping to burn down various enemy installations. In these cases, the girls were sometimes tasked with flirting with any guards while other resistance members slipped in and set the fires.
In 1943, the sisters were joined by a third female member of their resistance cell, Hannie Schaft- a woman who would go on to be one of the most famous Dutch resistance members in all of WWII, with her activities seeing her marked for death by Hitler himself.
When the Nazis invaded, the then 19 year old Hannie was studying international law, and particularly human-rights law, at the University of Amsterdam. Unfortunately for her, she would soon be given the boot from university owing to refusing to sign a declaration of allegiance to Germany- a requirement to remain a student and something over 3/4 of the rest of the students did. As you might imagine even if you knew nothing else about her but her choosing to study human-rights law at school, and given the activities the Axis were getting up to in the country, she almost immediately joined the resistance.
In the interim since the start of the war and being assigned to the same resistance cell as Truus and Freddie, Hannie had worked with the resistance in various capacities and countless missions, even learning German to aid in her activities.
Naturally, the three girls became fast friends and frequently teamed up for the remainder of the war, with their missions having been expanded to something few women in the resistance were tasked with- directly eliminating enemy targets.
Their big advantage over their male compatriots was their age and gender allowed them to get close to enemy soldiers without garnering any suspicion. Thus, the girls were eventually trained with weapons and set to, as Freddie put it, “liquidating” the enemy.
As for the number of people they killed- a question they were frequently asked- they never disclosed, with the sisters’ stock answer to that question being, “You never ask a soldier how many people he’s killed.”
Perhaps their most famous method was flirting and convincing a mark to join one of them for a stroll. For example, in one instance, their target was an SS soldier who they scouted and, once he entered a restaurant to eat, a slightly drunk acting Truus entered and struck up a conversation. At a certain point, she then suggestively asked if he’d like to go for a walk in the woods with her- a prospect he apparently eagerly accepted.
When they got there, however, Freddie states,
Then they ran into someone—which was made to seem a coincidence, but he was one of ours—and that friend said to Truus: “Girl, you know you’re not supposed to be here.” They apologized, turned around, and walked away. And then shots were fired, so that man never knew what hit him. They had already dug the hole, but we weren’t allowed to be there for that part.
Beyond luring unsuspecting enemy soldiers and Dutch collaborators to their deaths, sometimes they just killed them outright. As Truus once said after watching horrified as a Dutch SS soldier grabbed a baby from the child’s family “and hit it against the wall. The father and sister had to watch. They were obviously hysterical. The child was dead… I pulled out a gun and shot him dead. Right there and then. This wasn’t an assignment. But I don’t regret it.”
Other times they would simply ride along on their bike- Truus on the front, and Freddie on the back with a hidden gun. As they passed their mark, if no one was around, Freddie would pull out the gun and shoot him. After this, Truus would peddle off as fast as she could; once out of sight, they were once again to all the world just a couple of young girls out for a bike ride.
Other times they’d follow the mark home and then come a-knocking, again with their young, innocent look helping to ensure their targets’ guard would be down when they’d kill him.
Beyond this, the trio also took part in bombings and other sabotage efforts, reportedly only refusing one mission in which they were asked to kidnap the three children of Riech Commissioner and former Chancellor of Austria Arthur Seyss-Inquart. The children were then to be used to get the commissioner to release certain prisoners in exchange for their safe return. If he refused, the children would be killed. Said Truus of their refusal of this mission, “Resistance fighters do not kill children.”
As for Hannie, while the two young girls often went overlooked, she was not so lucky, with her bright red hair and the many missions she took part in helping her stand out. The authorities soon caught on and she was initially marked as the “the girl with the red hair.” As the heat turned up on her and Hitler himself ordered efforts towards her capture ramped up, she began dying her hair black and changed her name. Unfortunately her real name was accidentally revealed to an undercover Nazi operative working as a nurse. What followed from this was her family being detained; though eventually when it became clear they didn’t know where she was or anything about her activities, they were let go.
The Axis got her in the end, however, when she was picked up at a random military checkpoint on March 21, 1945, having been caught with copies of the communist newspaper de Waarheid. She was subsequently tortured for a few weeks, but apparently never broke. Given the war was in its final stages, she may have survived if not for her bright red hair giving her away as it grew and with no dye to keep the roots black. Once the Germans figured out who she was because of this, the then 24 year old Hannie was slated to be immediately executed- a sentence carried out on April 17, 1945, a mere 18 days before the Germans withdrew from the Netherlands.
Apparently defiant to the end, it is reported that when the two soldiers tasked with killing her shot her, she fell, but both had missed their mark for a killing shot. Her last words were reported to be mocking the soldiers, allegedly stating after the first volley, “Idiots! I shoot better!”
The Oversteegen sisters in 2014.
As for the sisters, they survived the war, but suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, with Truss burying herself in art and Freddie stating she quickly got married and started a family as her way to cope. Her son, Remi, would state of this, “She shot… people… but she hated it, and she hated herself for doing it.” Freddie would also state, “I’ve shot [them] myself and I’ve seen them fall. And what is inside us at such a moment? You want to help them get up.”
Truss added, “It was tragic and very difficult and we cried about it afterwards. We did not feel it suited us… I wasn’t born to kill. Do you know what that does to your soul? …One loses everything. It poisons the beautiful things in life.”
In the end, both sisters lived to the ripe old age of 92, with Truus dying in June of 2016 and Freddie following her in September of 2018, the day before her 93rd birthday.
Veterans and troops always have a go-to spot where they can enjoy themselves after hours. Oftentimes, it’s a bar where they can unwind alongside buddies and take their minds off the stresses that come with military life, if only for a brief moment. Wherever that place may be, when you’re there, you know you can just kick back, enjoy that sweet, refreshing beer, and relax.
Back during World War II, the U.S. was abuzz with patriotism and everyone who could would do their part to serve those who serve. Hollywood celebrities of the time, like Bette Davis and John Garfield, were no exception. In fact, they created a club designed specifically to cater to returning troops. Best part of all: The uniform got you in for free and troops would never spend a single cent when there.
She would spend almost the entire run of the Second World War supporting the troops at the expense of her infamous Warner Bros. contract.
Located at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood, CA was the fabulous Hollywood Canteen. Troops who visited would be greeted with the words, “through these portals pass the most beautiful uniforms in the world.” Anyone was allowed in, but the troops were treated with more esteem than the celebrities who catered to them.
No one dedicated more time and effort to the Hollywood Canteen than Bette Davis herself. The beautiful actress was the president of the Canteen and would often be the first person ready to greet troops as they came through the door. Visiting troops would be escorted to their seat by a lovely celebrity and then offered a fantastic evening.
Who wouldn’t want a free meal served to you by Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich?
Everything within the Canteen was offered on a donation basis, but the tickets to get were outrageously priced (for those who weren’t in the military). Tickets ran the average civilian — about 4.15 when adjusted for inflation — and they still wouldn’t get the star treatment from the celebrities. Of course, all of that money was funneled back to the war effort.
It operated at a huge loss. It was highly publicized; they welcomed in well over one million troops and spent ,000 (,697.51 AFI) weekly on food alone. As a result, the Canteen relied heavily on donations and good will from wealthy individuals to keep the doors open. The most ardent benefactors were Bette Davis and the many celebrities that came to support the troops — a long list that included everyone who was anyone at the time.
It’s probably the best business move anyways. Anyone would go bankrupt if they openly offered every troop as much alcohol as they wanted.
The troops were offered nearly whatever they wanted. Chef Milani, one of the earliest celebrity chefs, was world-renown and took great joy in making off-the-wall recipes for the troops. The troops were also offered drinks, cigarettes, and a night of entertainment free of charge.
The only real downside is that since it was unprofessional to offer a bunch of free alcohol to troops (and, as a result, have drunk troops’ photos plastered all over the tabloids), they refrained from openly serving alcohol — but you know it happened anyway. Officers were also discouraged from entering as it was more or less seen as “the enlisted’s paradise.”
In 1944, Warner Bros., who had Bette Davis under contract, made a musical, called Hollywood Canteen, which was set in its namesake club. Nearly every actor and musician who supported the club made a cameo appearance in the film. It was the fourth highest grossing film of that year and 40 percent of the profits were funneled directly back into the club.
When V-J Day finally came, the club’s purpose had been fulfilled. They threw one hell of a party before closing its doors for good. The remaining funds in the Canteen’s account were spread among various veteran organizations.
In 1980, Bette Davis was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the Department of Defense’s highest award for civilians, for her dedication to the troops and for giving them the Hollywood Canteen. The two-time Academy award winning actress and arguably the greatest actress of the classical film era said of the Canteen, “there are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.”
While everyone likes to talk about how scary the Spartans or Romans could be, it was the Mongols who pioneered new warfare tactics, used them to win battle after battle, and survived on a diet of horse blood and liquor to ride across whatever terrain they needed to in order to murder you.
The Mongols, made most famous by Genghis Khan after he established an empire in 1206, were centered in the steppes of central Asia. The empire would eventually cover over 9 million square miles, making it the largest land empire in world history.
Mongol success was due to a number of factors. They could be ruthless, allowing them to press the attack when most would back off. They had a good division of labor, with women taking on many camp and political duties while the men did the bulk of the fighting with few distractions. And their societal ties to horses made them highly mobile. So highly mobile that, in battle, they were some of the pioneers of “localized superiority of numbers,” a force concentration strategy where a smaller force could dominate a larger one by outnumbering the larger force at key points.
Basically, it doesn’t matter if you have three times the forces in the region if I have three times the forces at the objective — my team’s horses allow us to quickly hit objective after objective while your marching brethren are still plodding along the roads.
In one case in 1223, two of Genghis Khan’s lieutenants were riding with 20,000 men against 80,000 Russian troops. The horsemen conducted a controlled withdrawal, and the Russians pursued sloppily, allowing their column to get stretched out. After a week, the Russians were split up and the horsemen turned around, slamming their 20,000 troops against a couple thousands Russians at a time. The Mongols won handily, using bows and lances to kill Russian after Russian.
But as the Mongol Empire went to expand, the terrain began to limit them. Horse armies are perfect for traversing grasslands covered in animals, and are even good for mountains and forests, but trying to cross the most sparse parts of Asia was near impossible. The horde could face days of hard riding with barely enough food to sustain a few horsemen, let alone the 20,000 or more in the horde.
For instance, the 1223 attack against Russian forces required that the Mongols cross miles and miles of grasslands for days. They carried dried horse milk, dried meat, dried curds. Sure, it doesn’t sound appealing, but it could keep you going on the march.
But that would only buy the Mongols a few days. Since they also liked getting drunk, they usually carried horse liquor, which packed a lot of calories for relatively little weight. So, yeah, when the Mongol Horde rode out of the mists to slaughter you, they were drunk on horse when they did it.
But for even longer rides, famed explorer Marco Polo said things took a turn for the darker. See, the horsemen would get almost no sustenance from eating grass. It passes through the human digestion system while leaving almost no calories or nutrients behind.
But horses can eat grass just fine; it’s one of their primary foods. And so, in a pinch, the Mongols would cut a vein in their horse’s necks at the end of every day, taking a few swallows of blood that the horse could easily replace. It wasn’t much, but it allowed them to cross the grasses to the west and hit Russia and additional empires.
On the even darker side, they also allegedly ate human flesh when necessary. Even killing the attached human if horses and already-dead people were in short supply. So, you know, the Mongols were the monsters you heard about in history. But they were also tactical masterminds who embraced technology and strategy.
In the Air Force, few names ring as many bells as John L. Levitow. He’s had awards named after him, as well as dorm halls and roads. Levitow’s name is about as close to U.S. Air Force royalty as you’ll get.
Oddly, even though his name is emblazoned across every corner of every Air Force base in the world, many airmen have scant knowledge of Levitow’s actions. Many are more well informed of his mysterious separation than of his heroic actions. The legend of his separation is still shared by many higher-ups during various briefings as a cautionary tale, but I digress.
As the Air Force leads the way into the future, it’s important to remember who paved the way and how exactly they did it. This is how John L. Levitow became the lowest ranking Medal of Honor recipient in Air Force history.
Airman First Class Levitow cross-trained into the Loadmaster career field after a couple of years in the Air Force. This cross-train is what ultimately placed Levitow on board the Spooky 71, an AC-47 gunship, during that fateful night.
A legend born
On Feb. 24, 1969, Levitow was aboard the Spooky 71 AC-47 gunship flying missions in South Vietnam. During the flight, a mortar round struck the side of the aircraft, ripping holes all across the plane, including an approximately two-foot puncture in the wing.
After impact, Levitow, while suffering from over 40 fragment wounds, helped a fellow wounded airman away from the now-open cargo door. As he moved his comrade to relative safety, he spotted a Mark 24 flare that was seconds from igniting.
Mind you, the Mark 24 flare is a three-foot metal tube weighing roughly 27 pounds that, once ignited, generates the light of 2,000,000 candlepower and burns at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Levitow dragged himself towards the flare, which was rolling to and fro as the Spooky 71 pilots fought to regain control, hurled himself atop of it, pushed the flare towards the cargo door, and flung it out into the Vietnam sky just before ignition.
This really happened. It is not an exaggeration or poorly documented folk tale. Levitow literally placed his body atop a flare powerful enough to turn the Spooky 71 into a crisp with no real idea of how long he had until the flare ignited. This is one of the most selfless acts ever documented.
After the amazing feats he accomplished that night, he would return to Vietnam after recuperating to fly another 20 missions.
Awarded the Medal of Honor
Levitow was awarded the nation’s highest military honor on May 14, 1970 by President Richard Nixon. Levitow separated from the Air Force in 1970.
Following his separation, Levitow worked diligently with the veteran community, showing up to events that honored or featured veterans. On Nov. 8, 2000, John Lee Levitow passed away after a year-and-a-half battle with an unspecified cancer. He was 55 years young.
On May 1, 1945, the 5th Marine Regiment arrived at the Shuri line in Okinawa, Japan, to support the war-torn 27th Army Infantry Division. As the Marines patrolled the dangerous area, a Japanese machine gunner opened fire on the incoming grunts, killing three and wounding a few others.
After taking cover, Sgt. Romus “R.V.” Burgin decided that he needed to take action and bring the fight to the enemy.
“I was with some of those Marines out there for two and a half years, and whenever somebody gets hit it’s just like your family,” Burgin states in an interview. “That’s when I decided he needed knocking out right quick.”
At that moment, the Japanese machine gunner was completely hidden, and Burgin needed to locate the threat immediately. He knew what direction the incoming fire came from but he needed to acquire a proper distance to call in for support.
Burgin stepped out into the open and proceeded in the direction of the shooter, hoping to spot the enemy gunner’s muzzle flash — and making himself a target.
After a few steps, the brave Marine’s plan began to work, drawing the enemy’s fire once again. Burgin dodged the incoming fire, two rounds ripped through his dungarees — but the quick-footed Marine was safe.
Little did the Japanese gunner know, he’d just given away his position. Burgin spotted his target and called in the enemy’s coordinates for a mortar strike.
The winter of 1777 was disastrous. The British had successfully retaken many key locations in the 13 colonies and General Washington’s men were left out in the cold of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Morale was at an all-time low and conditions were so poor, in fact, that many troops reportedly had to eat their boots just to stay alive. No aid was expected to arrive for the Americans but the British reinforcements had landed. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in that moment, one cold breeze could have blown out the flames of revolution.
Then, in February, 1778, a Prussian nobleman by the name of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived. He set aside his lavish lifestyle to stand next to his good friend, George Washington, and transform a ragtag group of farmers and hunters into the world’s premier fighting force.
With his guidance, the troops kept the gears turning. He taught them administrative techniques, like proper bookkeeping and how to maintain hygiene standards. But his lessons went far beyond logistics: von Steuben also taught the troops the proper technique for bayonet charges and how to swear in seven different languages. He was, in essence, the U.S. Army’s first drill sergeant.
The troops came out of Valley Forge far stronger and more prepared for war. Their victory at Stony Point, NY was credited almost entirely to von Steuben’s techniques. He then transcribed his teachings into a book, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, better known as, simply, the “Blue Book.” It became the Army’s first set of regulations — and many of the guidelines therein are still upheld today.
Given the hours you spend prepping your dress blues, there’s no way in hell you’d bring it to a desert — or do anything other than stand there for inspection.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Daniel Schroeder)
Different uniforms for officer, NCOs, and troops
This was the very first regulation established by the ‘Blue Book.’ In the early days of the revolution, there was no real way to tell who outranked who at a glance. All uniforms were pieced together by volunteer patriots, so there was no way to immediately tell who was an officer, a non-commissioned officer, or solider. von Steuben’s regulations called for uniforms that were clear indicators of rank.
Troops today still follow this regulation to a T when it comes to the dress uniform — albeit without the swords.
The rifle twirling is, however, entirely a recent officer thing.
(Department of Defense photo by Terrence Bell)
If there was one lasting mark left on the Army by von Steuben, it was the importance of drill and ceremony. Much of the Blue Book is dedicated to instructing soldiers on proper marching techniques, the proper steps that you should take, and how to present your arms to your chain of command.
Despite the protests of nearly every lower enlisted, the Army has spent days upon days practicing on the parade field since its inception — and will continue to do so well into the future.
If you thought troops back then could get by without hospital corners on their bed, think again!
(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Susan Krawczyk)
One of the most important things von Steuben did while in Valley Forge was teach everyone a few extremely simple ways to prevent troops from dying very preventable, outside-of-combat deaths. A rule as simple as, “don’t dig your open-air latrine right next to where the cooks prepare meals” (p. 46) was mind-blowing to soldiers back then.
But the lessons run deeper than that. Even police calls and how to properly care for your bedding (p. 45) are directly mentioned in the book.
While there arestillpunishments in place for negligencetoday, the armorer would be paying far more than for a lost rifle.
(U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa)
Accountability of arms and ammo
No one likes doing paperwork in the military (or anywhere else) but it has to be done. Back then, simple accounting was paramount. As you can imagine, it was good for the chain of command to actually know how many rifles and rounds of ammunition each platoon had at their disposal.
While the book mostly focuses on how to do things, this is one of the few instances in which he specifically states that the quartermaster should be punished for not doing their job (p. 62). According to the Blue Book, punishments include confinement and forfeiture of pay and allowances until whatever is lost is recouped.
Once given medical attention, a troop would be giving off-time until they’re better — just like today.
(U.S. Army photo by Robert Shields)
Sending troops to sick call
The most humane thing a leader can do is allow their troops to be nursed back to full health when they’re not at fighting strength. The logic here is pretty sound. If your troops aren’t dying, they’ll fight harder. If they fight harder, America wins. So, it’s your job, as a leader, to make sure your troops aren’t dying.
According to the Blue Book, NCOs should always check in on their sick and wounded and give a report to the commander. This is why, today, squad leaders report to the first sergeant during morning role call, giving them an idea of anyone who needs to get sent to sick call.
“No one is more professional than I” still has a better ring to it, though.
(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Maria Mengrone)
NCOs should lead from the front
“It being on the non-commissioned officer that the discipline and order of a company in a great measure depend, they cannot be too circumspect in their behavior towards the men, by treating them with mildness, and at the same time, obliging everyone to do his duty.” (p. 77)
This was von Steuben’s way of saying that the NCOs really are the backbone of the Army.
According to von Steuben, NCOs “should teach the soldiers of their squad” (p. 78). They must know everything about what it means to be a soldier and motivate others while setting a proper, perfect example. They must care for the soldiers while still completing the duties of a soldier. They must be the lookout while constantly looking in. Today, these are the qualities exhibited by the best NCOs.
They probably didn’t think we’d have radios back then…
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Thomas Duval)
The soldier’s general orders
Today, each soldier of the Army has their general orders when it comes to guard/sentinel duty. von Steuben’s rules run are almost exactly the same:
Guard everything within the limits of your post and only quit your post when properly relieved? Check.
Obey your special orders and perform your duties in a military manner? Check.
Report all violations of your special orders, emergencies, and anything not covered in your instructions to the commander of the relief? Kinda check… the Blue Book just says to sound an alarm, but you get the gist.
New details have emerged in recent months about the exact plans for Operation Sealion, Nazi Germany’s scheme to invade England, overwhelm defenses south of London, and install the then-Duke of Windsor as the new, pro-German king of England.
While media tends to focus on the 1940 events highlighted by movies like Dunkirk and the 1944 happenings as showcased by Saving Private Ryan, there’s actually a lot of history in the years between. At the start of that period, in May 1940, Nazi Germany was clearly in the dominant position over Britain.
The encirclement of troops at Dunkirk had robbed the British army of much key equipment. The British army successfully evacuated most of its men and a lot of Free French forces out of Dunkirk, but was forced to leave nearly all of its artillery and vehicles behind, as well as thousands of tons of ammo, food, uniforms, weapons, etc.
And the British Navy was larger and more capable than the German one, but British admirals were reluctant to devote large warships to the English Channel, relying on destroyers and the occasional cruiser instead. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force was strong, but would rely on bombers to take out German landing ships. And Germany had a plan for that.
See, Germany planned to do its amphibious invasion under the cover of darkness. The Royal Air Force’s best bombers relied on sights that only worked with plenty of light. At night, Britain’s best bombers would be next to useless.
So in 1940, despite Britain’s pseudo-alliance with the U.S. and its massive industrial base, Germany had the machinery and troops for an invasion, and Britain lacked the equipment to properly defend itself. And Germany had big plans.
First, the invasion flotilla would launch from bases on the French coast, most likely in September 1940. A diversionary attack would sail north and attack around Newcastle in England or Aberdeen in Scotland, drawing defenders north. Within a few days, the real invasion would come across the Strait of Dover.
Germany even knew what to do when it got there. German leaders believed that the then-Duke of Windsor, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David (lots of names), held German sympathies. He was the former King Edward VIII as well, having served in the role from the start of 1936 to the end of 1936. He had abdicated out of love to avoid a constitutional crisis (long story). All Germany had to do was put him back on the throne, hopefully giving them a new ally.
So Germany had the forces, the plan, and the follow-up, all staged and ready to go right as Britain was at its weakest. So why didn’t it happen? Why didn’t America have to join the war in Europe with no convenient staging place off of France? With Britain’s colonies split between opposition to Germany and loyalty to Edward VIII?
But, stupidly enough, part of it was some comments Hitler had made during the initial planning for Operation Sealion.
When the Kriegsmarine was briefing Hitler in the summer of 1940, the Fuhrer had emphasized the need for complete air superiority over the channel before an invasion was launched. As previously discussed, this was unnecessary, but Hitler had emphasized it during planning, and few leaders were willing to try to go to him with a plan that ignored it.
So, when the Royal Air Force surprisingly won the Battle of Britain, the invasion was delayed from September 1940 to early 1941, then back further as Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, got underway in June 1941. The Soviet Union successfully resisted the invasion in late 1941, and the attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drew America more firmly into the war.
In just over a year of fighting, Germany had gone from ascendant, with the machinery and manpower to potentially invade England, to the defensive, with too few troops to resist Soviet counterattacks. Allied counters in Africa, France, and D-Day sealed the deal.
A pinnacle of wartime technology, the HMS Trident was supposed to patrol the Atlantic, doing submarine things. Maybe sink a ship or two, enforce the blockade, and smuggle a reindeer from Russia to England. If that last part sounds more like the plot of a Nickelodeon cartoon than a World War II mission, then you clearly don’t understand diplomacy.
Our stage is World War II, 1941. America is the Arsenal of Democracy but is not yet formally part of the war. Russia and England are the bookends to a powerful and super-evil Nazi Germany, and Germany is busily invading the latter while trying to contain the former.
Britain and Russia were not natural allies. Britain had interceded in the Russian Civil War in 1918 on the losing side, and many veterans of that war were still kicking in 1941. Some were resentful. Some, certainly, would’ve cheered if Germany had invaded the British Isles in 1940 and conquered it.
But Hitler made strange bedfellows. And so a Russian bear cuddled up to the British crown, and much canoodling was had by all. But young romances rely on careful gestures, and one side cannot spurn the gift of another. Which brings us to the strange events of the HMS Trident in 1941.
Again: This was the international diplomacy equivalent of a new high school romance. If the cute girl passes you a photo of her, even if it also shows her disapproving grandpa and some unsightly dental headgear, you give the photo a kiss, smile at the girl, and then tuck the photo into the door of your locker.
And so the British set sail for another six weeks of wartime patrol. Pollyanna often slept in the captain’s cabin next to his bunk. And, according to the BBC, she would trot to the control room and wait for the hatch to open when fresh air was allowed in. The moss eventually ran out, and the crew fed Pollyanna scraps from their meals.
When the sub returned to England, it took a bit of work to get Pollyanna back out. The moss and the table scraps had taken their toll, and the young reindeer was too large to make it back out of the torpedo tube. Instead, she was winched out through the top.
Polly went to the zoo and was reportedly happy, though she did have a few quirks from her submarine service. George Malcolmson, a Royal Navy Submarine Museum Archivist, said, “It was rumoured that she never forgot her submarine career, for whenever she heard bells or a sound like a submarine tannoy, she would lower her head as though preparing for diving stations.”
Pollyanna died at the zoo five years later, the same week that the HMS Trident was sent to the breakers yard to be reduced for scrap.
Belgium’s Fort Eben-Emael was the crown jewel of the country’s defense from invasion, boasting huge gun emplacements, defensive ditches and canals, and hundreds of artillery troops, all to protect the heartland and capital.
And the whole thing fell to 87 German paratroopers after barely a day of fighting from May 10-11, 1940.
The fort was built in the early 1930s to prevent the exact situation it faced in 1940: an invasion of the country from the east. It had large guns to sweep fire across three key bridges that would be vital to an invasion. The bridges were also wired for demolition in case the defenders and the fort couldn’t keep the enemy from them.
Defensive canals, barbed wire, and anti-tank ditches made a land assault nearly suicidal, especially since the thick steel and concrete walls could shrug off most munitions launched by artillery or tanks of the day.
A few anti-aircraft guns were present on top of the fort and cupolas — guns with large domes to protect the crews — could fire across the top and kill any attackers who landed there.
But the fort was vulnerable to airborne assault. It had been constructed by digging into an existing large hill, and the miles of tunnels and thick walls made it tough to assault on foot, but did almost nothing to protect it from the sky.
Three assault forces would hit the bridges and attempt to take them from the defenders while a fourth would hit the fort and prevent the guns from firing on the others. The assault force hitting the fort was carrying a new weapon of war to cut through the defenses, shaped charges.
But, the highly trained and well-armed commandos at the fort would be outnumbered nearly 10 to 1.
The Germans landed on the fort in gliders specially modified to stop in the short space, and German paratroopers rushed out to hit the defenders. Belgian gun crews, who knew a probable assault was coming, quickly opened fire — but they didn’t have the canister shot that could quickly decimate the paratroopers.
Instead, the paratroopers were able to rush improperly maintained machine guns as they misfired and other gun crews as they reloaded. One of the defensive guns was taken out when a paratrooper threw a stick of dynamite through a small opening. Two others were destroyed by the special shaped-charge explosives. One crew was killed by a flamethrower.
And there were less defenders than there should have been. The fort relied on conscripts to flesh out its ranks, and many had finished their period or been pulled away to positions in the Belgian Army. Other troops were sick or on leave.
Within the first 10 minutes, the paratroopers had taken out nine defensive positions and forced many of the defenders to go underground behind barriers. Within 15 minutes, the Germans had neutralized the major defenses that threatened the fort attackers, as well as many of the guns that could hit the bridges.
The Belgians didn’t accept this laying down, of course. Soon after the attack began, the fort commander ordered nearby artillery to fire on the fort, killing some of the German attackers.
But the Germans sheltered in the wrecked cupolas and other positions and rode out the worst of the artillery.
As the Luftwaffe sent planes to silence the Belgian guns, the paratroopers used their shaped charges and other weapons to seal off exits from the fort and to wreck the few remaining positions that could fire outside.
And the bridge crews had successfully captured two bridges intact and one more that was damaged but repairable. Only 28 hours after the start of the attack, the road into Belgium was open.
The paratroopers had suffered six dead and 15 wounded by the time that the Belgian troops began surrendering.
The attackers all received high awards for valor and Hitler captured the country soon after.
When American intelligence detected the massive buildup of North Vietnamese troops that preceded the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh in 1968, Gen. William Westmoreland gave the base priority access to all American airpower in theater, leading to Operation Niagara and a “waterfall of bombs.”
Khe Sanh was the westernmost base in a strong of installations along the crucial Route 9 in late 1967. It was in the perfect position to block North Vietnamese Army forces and other fighters moving in from Laos or other NVA areas.
But Westmoreland believed that Khe Sanh was crucial to victory and worth heavy investment despite its relatively small size as home to one Marine regiment and 5,000 support troops. To ensure the Marines could hold out against anything, he ordered improvements to infrastructure on the base and the installation of thousands of remote sensors in the surrounding jungle.
By the first week of January 1968, sensors and reconnaissance data made it clear that the NVA was conducting a massive buildup in the area of the base. All indications were that the North Vietnamese wanted to recreate their success at Diem Bien Phu in 1954 when a prolonged siege led to the withdrawal of French forces.
Artillery rounds were stockpiled at the base and intelligence was collected. The intel cells were able to get a good idea of where Communist forces were concentrating forces, artillery, and command elements. They were also able to track tunneling efforts by the North Vietnamese trying to get close to the base.
And the North Vietnamese were able to get close — in some cases within a few thousand meters.
On Jan. 21, 1968, the North Vietnamese launched a simultaneous attack against Khe Sanh itself and some of the surrounding hills. Their massed forces would eventually number 20,000, more than three times the number of the 6,000 defenders.
The U.S., with a mass of intelligence and stockpiled weapons, went on the offensive against the North Vietnamese. Artillery shells shot out of the base against pre-identified targets, and a waterfall of bombs started pouring from B-52s.
Initially, the bombs were dropped relatively far from the base. The B-52s tried to stay three miles out, but the communists figured out the restrictions and moved their fighters in close, forcing the B-52s to operate closer to the base and making the ground pounders rely more heavily on strike aircraft and the AC-47 gunship.
Of course, not everything went smoothly for the Marines and their support. An enemy artillery strike by the North Vietnamese managed to hit the ammo dump, destroying 90 percent of the stockpiled rounds in a single hit.