The USS Constitution was firing broadsides into the Tripoli forts as America’s six gunboats rushed into the shallow water of the harbor. The battle quickly spun into hand-to-hand fighting with US sailors wielding pikes and cutlasses as they boarded enemy gunboats. Among the United States’ boats was one commanded by Lt. Stephen Decatur and another commanded by his brother, Lt. James Decatur.
It was Aug. 3, 1804.
In the fighting, four of the U.S. gunboats, including Stephen Decatur’s, quickly closed with nine of the enemy boats and exchanged fire before Decatur collided with the Tripolitan boat at the end of the formation. Decatur and his crew of nineteen quickly leaped aboard the enemy vessel. After a short, brutal fight, they captured the boat, killing sixteen of the enemy, wounding fifteen others, and taking five prisoner.
Decatur began personally lowering the Tripolitan flag.
As that was happening, however, James Decatur’s boat closed with another enemy and, after raking it with fire, saw it strike its colors. As James Decatur stepped aboard the captured vessel, however, the gunboat’s Tripolitan captain shot him at point-blank range. Hit in the forehead, Decatur tumbled into the sea between the boats.
As the Americans struggled to pull their commander from the sea, the Tripolitan gunboat fled.
A short time later, Stephen Decatur was informed of what happened.
With a volunteer crew of eleven, Decatur went after the fleeing enemy boat and, as he closed on it, the Americans boarded her. According to the 1897 book, Twelve Naval Captains by Molly Elliot Seawell, the outnumbered Americans men were able to pause long enough to form a rough line that made the most of their number.
As they advanced, Decatur, armed with a pike, quickly located the boat’s captain, who was described as a “gigantic” man, and lunged at him. But the Tripolitan was able to grab the pike, wrench it from Decatur’s hands, and turn it against him. Decatur quickly drew his cutlass and used it to deflect a lunge of the pike but, in doing so, broke the blade of the cutlass. He leapt to the side as the boat’s captain again lunged with the pike, this timecatching Decatur in the shoulder. Decatur wrenched the pike free of his shoulder and of his opponent and the two men began grappling on the bloody deck.
About this time, another Tripolitan sailor, seeing the struggle, raised his sword to attack Decatur and end the fight. As he began to strike, however, an American sailor named Daniel Frazier (other sources say the sailor was Rueben James) leaped into the sword’s path, shielding Decatur.
He saved his captain but was badly wounded in the head.
As the fight continued, the Tripolitan captain pulled a small dagger from his waist and tried to stab Decatur, but Decatur, despite his wound, was able to hold off the dagger with one hand and with the other, pull a small pistol from a pocket. He cocked it and shot the Tripolitan man in the stomach.
The man fell off Decatur, dying.
By then, the Americans were getting the best of the gunboat’s crew and slowly took possession of the boat. Twenty-one of the enemy were killed or disabled. Decatur immediately returned to the Constitution where his brother’s body was taken and stayed with him until he died.
At the end of the day, six Tripolitan gunboats were taken and the only American to die fighting was James Decatur. The man who saved Stephen Decatur, be it Daniel Frazier or Rueben James, is believed to have recovered from his wounds.
After the fighting finally ground to a halt, Decatur also learned that the USS John Adams arrived on the scene during the battle. Aboard her were papers announcing Decatur’s promotion to Captain.
He remains the youngest man ever to reach the rank in the United States Navy.
Winfield Scott, the longest-serving general officer in the history of the United States Army, served an astonishing 53 years in a career stretching from the War of 1812 to the Civil War. Known as “Ol’ Fuss and Feathers” for his elaborate uniforms and stern discipline, he distinguished himself as one of the most influential U.S. commanders of the 19th century.
Born in Virginia , he briefly studied at the College of William and Mary before leaving to study law, and served for a year as a corporal in the local militia. He received a commission as a captain of artillery in 1808, but his early career was less than auspicious. He vehemently criticized Senior Officer of the Army James Wilkinson for allegations concerning treason, and after a court-martial was suspended by the Army for a year.
After being reinstated, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel as the War of 1812 was getting underway. Serving in the Niagara Campaign, he was part of surrendering American forces during the disastrous crossing of the river into Ontario and exchanged in 1813.
After his successful capture of Ft. George, Ontario in 1813, he was promoted to brigadier general at the exceptionally young age of 27. He played a decisive role at the battles of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, earning him acclaim for personal bravery and a brevet promotion to major general, but his severe wounds during the second battle left him out of action for the rest of the war.
Following the war, Scott commanded a number of military departments between trips to Europe to study European armies, whom he greatly admired for their professionalism. His 1821 “General Regulations of the Army” was the first comprehensive manual of operations and bylaws for the U.S. Army and was the standard Army text for the next 50 years.
After serving in a series of conflicts against the Indians, including the Blackhawk, Second Seminole and Creek Wars. When President Andrew Jackson ordered the Cherokee removed from Georgia and other southern states to Oklahoma in 1838-39, Scott commanded the operation in what became known as the “Trail of Tears,” when thousands of Cherokee died under terrible conditions during the long journey.
In 1841, Scott was made Commanding General of the U.S. Army, a position he would serve in for 20 years. When President James Polk ordered troops to territory disputed with Mexico along the Texas border, Scott appointed future president general Zachary Taylor to lead the expedition while he stayed in Washington. This was under pressure from Polk, who worried about Scott’s well known presidential aspirations. When the Mexican War subsequently broke out, Taylor grew bogged down in northwest Mexico after an initial series of victories, and it became clear that the northern route to Mexico City was no longer viable. Scott decided to personally lead a second front in order to break through to the Mexican capital.
Scott and his army’s landing at Vera Cruz, Mexico marks the first major amphibious landing by a U.S. army on foreign soil, and they seized the strategic port after a short siege. Roughly following conquistador Hernan Cortes’s historical route to Mexico City, U.S. forces won a series of victories against generally larger Mexican armies. Scott showed great skill in maneuver warfare, flanking enemy forces out of their fortifications where they could be defeated in the open. He successfully gambled that the army could live of the land in the face of impossibly long supply lines and after six months of marching and fighting, the U.S. seized the capital, putting the end to most resistance. The campaign had been a resounding success, with no less an authority than the Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo, declaring him “the greatest living general.”
Scott was an able military governor, and his fairness towards the conquered Mexicans gained him some measure of popularity in the country. But his vanity and political rivalry with Taylor, along with intercepted letters showing a scathing attitude towards Washington and Polk, lead to his recall in 1848.
Scott’s presidential aspirations were dashed when he badly lost the 1852 election to Franklin Pierce after a lackluster campaign. Continuing as commander of the Army, he was only the second man since George Washington to be promoted to Lieutenant General. By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, however, Scott was 75 years old and so obese he couldn’t even ride a horse, and Lincoln soon had him replaced by general George B. McClellan. His strategic sense had not dulled. His “Anaconda Plan” to blockade and split the South, first derided by those seeking a quick victory, proved to be the strategy that won the war.
Scott was a vain man, prone to squabbling with other officers he held in contempt, and his political aspirations lead to great tensions with Washington during the Mexican War. His command of the “Trail of Tears” put him at the forefront of one of the most disgraceful episodes in the U.S. treatment of Native Americans. But his determination to turn the U.S. Army into a professional force, his immense strategic and tactical skill, and a career that spanned over five decades makes him one of the most influential figures in U.S. military history.
An American admiral launched an almost perfect carrier attack on Pearl Harbor during an exercise in 1932, but the military failed to learn its lesson, allowing the Japanese to launch almost exactly the same attack 9 years later.
Rear Adm. Harry E. Yarnell was an early proponent of aircraft carriers, but his displays of air power were discounted by the most of the admiralty.
The aircraft was invented in 1903 and, almost immediately, the military started to look at how to use the technology in combat. But different military branches from different nations moved at different speeds, and many navies considered planes an observation platform and nothing more.
In World War I, pilots bombed enemy targets by throwing munitions from their planes, but aerial bombing was still considered a stunt by many, and the U.S. Navy brass was convinced that airplanes weren’t a threat to their capital ships.
Eleven years later, Yarnell was given command of the attacking force in an annual exercise to test the U.S. defenses at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The defenders were certain that he, like all of his predecessors, would launch his attack using his battleships and cruisers.
On the morning of Sunday, Feb. 7, 1932, the attacking fleet was in position and Battleship Row was essentially asleep, just like Dec. 7, 1941. And, except for Japan’s use of modified torpedoes and the size of the respective fleets, the attacks were nearly mirrors of one another.
Good ole, racism, stopping military preparedness. The Japanese, meanwhile, had naval officers at their consulate on Oahu who witnessed the exercise and read the press coverage that followed, allowing them to report on it to their superiors almost 10 years before Japan launched its own attack.
The bulk of the U.S. military refused to accept the result, just like many of them refused to accept the result of Mitchell’s bombing of the German battleship. In 1941, average sailors and soldiers paid the price for their hubris.
These days, Americans are less likely to exclaim “son of a gun” than the more-explicit “son of a b*tch,” but there was a time when “son of a gun” itself was not used in mixed company — and that time was more than 200 years after the age of sail.
It seems the Royal Navy, while not keen on having women aboard its ships, sometimes overlooked the practice. Different times throughout its history saw sailors of the Royal Navy either bring either their wives or lovers aboard ships that might be out at sea for a while. While it wasn’t officially tolerated, there are instances of a ship’s company turning a blind eye to it.
Everyone aboard a ship was counted in the ship’s log back in those days. The log was a detailed account of who was working, who came aboard, who left, who died, etc. It also kept track of who was born aboard one of the King or Queen’s ships. It was uncommon, but it did happen. Women had to get around the world just like anyone else. The Royal Navy kept this count, just like any other ship.
But say there was one of the aforementioned female guests aboard a ship. If that woman just happened to give birth aboard ship, that child would have to be kept in the log. If a child was born with uncertain paternity — that is to say, there were too many possibilities as to who the father could be — the newborn still had to be counted in the log.
If this was the case, the child’s name was recorded as the “son of a gun” — the son of a seaman below decks. Eventually, the common use of the phrase began to refer to any child born aboard a ship, even those of officers accompanied by their wives. Then, it began to refer to any child of a military man, not just the bastard children of sailors.
Some 200-plus years later, it’s used to lovingly refer to a mischievous person or as an expression of awe or esteem. To use an expletive or insult in the same vein, we’ve moved on as a society. Who knows where language will go next?
War stems from division. It happens when there are problems we just can’t seem to solve. War is seldom beautiful, but every now and then, a little light shines through. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was one of those rare moments.
It all started with one of the ugliest wars in history.
World War I began on July 28th, 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. It quickly escalated, pinning the Ottoman Empire, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, known collectively as the Central Powers, against the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania and Japan, known as the Allied Powers. The two sides proceeded to engage in over three years of brutal trench warfare. The experience was hellish, with mass casualties on both sides. In total, over 16 million people lost their lives.
In the midst of utter carnage, the opposing side often seemed evil. Yet, it wasn’t. It was war itself that was inhuman, not the men across the trenches. On Christmas Eve, 1914, soldiers on both sides did the unthinkable; they laid down their arms and sang.
The renowned Christmas Truce that followed was unauthorized.
In the earliest weeks of the war, forces on both sides were aggressive and angry. By December, they had seen enough death and destruction for a lifetime. They had initially believed the war would be over by Christmas and many of them longed for an end to the fighting. While Pope Benedict XV called for a temporary ceasefire for the holiday, none of the countries involved settled on any official agreement, so the exhausted soldiers took matters into their own hands.
As Christmas approached, a sudden cold snap turned weeks of wet weather into an eerily beautiful winter landscape. On Christmas Eve at around 8:30 pm, the truce began. German soldiers began lighting their trenches and singing carols. Small Christmas trees dotted the trenches. Initially, the British were suspicious. One officer reported to headquarters that, “Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.”
Soon, it became apparent that it wasn’t a trap. The Germans sang “Silent Night”, and the British responded with “The First Noel”. A British soldier, Private Frederick Heath, reported that a Christmas greeting rang out through the darkness: “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”
Between the trenches, the war-battered no man’s land transformed.
Cautious at first, scouts ventured out of the trenches and over the barbed wire that divided the two sides. There, they imparted a message: If you don’t fire at us, we won’t fire at you. Let us have peace, if just for a night. Spontaneous truces sprang up along the trench lines without anyone really knowing how they began. In addition to sharing songs and well-wishes, impromptu games ignited. The Germans claim to have won a soccer match against the British 3-2. Meals, drinks, and laughter were shared until dawn.
The truce was imperfect, but miraculous nevertheless.
Unsurprisingly, many officers were against any type of truce. Fraternizing with the enemy was frowned upon, and measures were taken to prevent it from ever happening again. It’s unclear how widespread the truce really was, but some evidence suggests the truce extended across much of the British-held trench line that extended across Belgium, but other reports suggest that the truce took place in sections, scattering pockets of peace and brotherhood throughout thickets of gunfire.
If anything, that makes the night’s events even more striking. The soldiers who chose to shake hands with their enemies must have been afraid, but they chose to do it all the same. The next day, the war continued with just as much hostility and destruction as it had before, but the opposing forces had been humanized. A grain of respect had settled in. The surprising events that took place on December 24th, 1914 along those dark and bloodied trenches didn’t bring any lasting resolution, but to those who were there, the truce brought the greatest Christmas gift of all: Hope.
The video below is just a reenactment (and an advertisement at that), but it’s a pretty moving reminder that Christmas spirit lives on, even in the darkest of places.
The fight for the Hurtgen Forest was one of the most devastating battles of all World War II Europe and one of few the U.S. Army lost after landing at Normandy on D-Day. The relatively quick advance through France gave Allied commanders the drive to race to enter Germany. The pace was so fast, they outran their supply lines and had to take a pause – a pause that would result in the longest land battle in U.S. military history.
Having to wait for the Allied supply lines to catch up to the front gave the beleaguered Nazis the chance to regroup and settle down in one of Europe’s most dense and dark forests. It was a place the Army should never have entered.
To put it mildly, the forest was the ideal place to defend. As the summer was turning to fall, which would soon see winter, the dense wood would see snow and rain that would churn the dirt to mud. Dense forests, deep ravines, and steep hills also gave the German defenders the advantage in the forest. To top it all off, there were also abandoned and overgrown concrete bunkers, part of the old Siegfried Line of defensive fortifications throughout the forest – and that’s exactly what drove the Americans into the bunker.
So after they gave the Germans time to roll out the barbed wire, booby traps, and minefields, the Americans decided to assault the forest head-on in an attempt to be the first to fight and take the vaunted Siegfried Line and thus be the first to enter Germany.
The forest itself was 70 square miles and was situated between Aachen, a city under siege that would not surrender, and the Ruhr Dam along the Rhine, one the Allies were afraid the Nazis would just destroy in an attempt to flood the Allied advance. The Americans decided they would assault the forest directly, and swiftly neutralize the threat to the dam while ensuring the fall of Aachen. That did not happen.
American tanks and airpower were ineffective while fighting in the forest and the machine gun – which the Wehrmacht had in spades – was the most effective weapon, especially considering the difficulty seeing for any kind of distance, along with the hills and ravines throughout the forest. The Germans zeroed in their mortars before the Americans ever arrived. The Americans should never have engaged the forest at all.
The U.S. Army didn’t have to go into the woods. The Siegfried Line was being assaulted all along its perimeter. The debacle at Hurtgen cost anywhere from 30,000-50,000 casualties at a cost of just 28,000 German casualties. To make matters worse, the months slowdown in advancement allowed the Germans to break out in a winter offensive, an advance that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
On April 18th, 1945, war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by enemy fire on Iejima* during the Battle of Okinawa. At the time of his death, Pyle, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was well-known for his intimate and personal storytelling that highlighted the experiences of the “average” soldier. Pyle was able to tell the stories of enlisted men because he embedded himself in their day-to-day lives; he didn’t just observe their work, he lived, traveled, ate, and shared foxholes with them.
In remembrance of Ernie Pyle, the Unwritten Record presents photographs and motion pictures that highlight his work as a roving war correspondent during WWII.
(Photo by Barnett)
(Photo by TSgt. J. Mundell)
(Photo by Tsgt. Mundell)
(Photo by Barnett)
(Photo by Barnett)
(Photo by Blau)
(Photo by Bonnard)
(Photo by Blau)
Jack Lieb Collection
Jack Lieb was a newsreel cameraman who covered the end of the war in Europe (D-Day to Germany). Pyle appears in the following videos, which document preparations for the D-Day invasion in England and France.The records presented above were found in the following series:
The records presented above were found in the following series:
In November 1911, Italy was engaged in a costly war against the Ottoman Empire in what is today Libya. It worked out for the Italians in the end, easily defeating the Ottoman Empire, who was by then a shadow of its former glory. The war brought a number of new technologies onto the battlefield, most notably the airplane. Italian pilots were the first to use heavier than air aircraft for both reconnaissance and to drop bombs on enemy positions. One pilot was also the first to fly a night sortie.
For the Turks, who had no anti-air defenses, they were the first to shoot down an aircraft with small arms fire.
The German-built Taube monoplane like the one flown by Lt. Gavotti over Libya.
On Nov. 1, 1911, Giulio Gavotti, an Italian war pilot, climbed into the cockpit of his Etrich Taube monoplane. His mission was to fly over the Ain Zara oasis, occupied by Turkish troops. Instead of just flying over the target, he decided he would throw bombs out of the plane and into the mass of maybe 2,000 enemy soldiers below. The lieutenant would later write to his father that he was really pleased to be the first person to try. His efforts earned him the nickname “the Flying Artilleryman.”
“I notice the dark shape of the oasis. With one hand, I hold the steering wheel, with the other I take out one of the bombs and put it on my lap…. I take the bomb with my right hand, pull off the security tag and throw the bomb out, avoiding the wing. I can see it falling through the sky for couple of seconds and then it disappears. And after a little while, I can see a small dark cloud in the middle of the encampment. I am lucky. I have struck the target.”
And that’s how one pilot ushered in the Air Power age.
Giulio Gavotti, the first bomber pilot.
The young lieutenant had strapped a number of grapefruit-sized grenade-like bombs into a leather pouch in the cockpit. As he flew over the target, he would toss them over the side. The official history of the Italian Army in Libya says that Gavotti screwed in the detonators and flew at an altitude of just 600 feet as he made his bombing runs. He tossed three over the side at an oasis at Tagiura and then one over the Ain Zara Oasis. No one is really sure how many (if any) he actually killed on his run.
In response, the Ottoman Empire issued a formal complaint. Dropping bombs from aerial balloons was outlawed by the Hague Convention of 1899. The Italians countered that the airplanes weren’t balloons and any heavier-than-air craft was legally allowed to drop bombs as Gavotti had.
“I come back really pleased with the result,” Gavotti wrote. “I go straight to report to General Caneva. Everybody is satisfied.”
When Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams finally allowed the Navy to retire him after nearly twenty years of service, he was the proud holder of the Navy’s top seven awards for valor as well as three Purple Hearts and a number of other accolades.
Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams, the Navy’s most decorated enlisted sailor.
So, how did a young Cherokee boy grow to become one of the U.S. military’s greatest heroes? Well, first, in 1947, he convinced a county clerk to falsify a birth certificate so he could join at the age of 16. His first tour was uneventful, an experience he hated at the time, but learned from, according to a 1998 interview in All Hands Magazine.
“I’d joined the Navy to see the world — and doggonit, I wasn’t moving. I’d got orders to an [landing ship, tank] that just sat around a buoy in the San Diego harbor.”
Landing Ship, Tanks were large supply vessels that could deposit most cargo directly onto the shore when necessary.
“An old chief told me, ‘Son, you got to learn to take orders, even if you disagree with them. That’s the first step to being a good Sailor and a good leader. If you can’t take orders now, you certainly won’t be respected when you give them later.’ Well, I got the message,” said Williams. “Learning discipline was the springboard that helped my Navy career. From then on, I had the sharpest damn knife and the shiniest shoes in the Navy. That’s what I was taught.”
It was this experience and his years of shining shoes and sharpening knives that led to Williams’ proudest day.
“The proudest day of my life had nothing to do with medals, ribbons, citations,” he told All Hands Magazine. “It was when they made me a patrol officer. That position was held only by chiefs and officers. It showed the trust the Navy had placed in me. I always wanted the opportunity to show what I could do. This Vietnam thing was it for me. The Navy gave me the chance to do my job.”
His job would be to take Patrol Boat, River-105 into the small, Viet-Cong-filled rivers of Vietnam.
A Patrol Boat River in the waters of Vietnam.
The crew went out with Williams starting in May, 1966, and the fighting started early. While many of the patrols were quick forays into the river traffic to look for contraband, Williams and his crew saw major combat multiple times before the end of July.
On July 1, Williams and PBR 105 spotted an enemy sampan in the early morning darkness and gave chase. The sampan made for a friendly landing and Williams and his crew quickly came under fire from both the ship and shore. Maneuvering deftly, the men killed five enemies on the boat, captured the vessel and a few ship’s occupants, which were of “significant intelligence value.” He was later awarded the Bronze Star for his actions.
Just 22 days later, PBR-105 once again chased down an enemy sampan, this time at night. Again, they came under fire from enemies on shore but continued to fight. The crew killed six occupants of the boat, one enemy who had made it ashore, and captured the enemy sampan with its cargo and documents intact — again, these were of significant intelligence value. He would later be awarded a Bronze Star for his actions.
Less than a month later, Williams was leading PBR-105 and PBR-101 through the Mekong River in the early evening when they came under fire multiple times from a suspected 100-enemy-gun emplacements on both shores. They stayed in the kill zone, maneuvering and destroying multiple emplacements.
The men intercepted a sampan with two high-ranking Viet-Cong, but Williams was wounded in the face while salvaging documents from it. He kept up his men’s fire and captured 71 classified and sensitive documents before withdrawing. He would later be awarded the Silver Star.
A machine gunner on a Patrol Boat River with his two machine guns.
His greatest heroism under fire came two months later in October, 1966, when PBR-105 and another boat went on what Williams thought would be a routine patrol.
“October 31, 1966, was supposed to be a restful day in the steamy heartland of the Viet Cong,” he said. “But it’s one of those times I won’t never forget, no matter how hard I try. We were on a day patrol, kind of like the ‘relax and recreation’ patrol — nothin’ too heavy.”
But, early in the patrol, the forward machine gunner yelled that he saw two motorized sampans. The motorized boats nearly always carried high-ranking Viet Cong. The Americans gave chase.
The boats attempted to scatter, forcing Williams to choose which to follow, but the Americans quickly killed one and began tracking down the other. The second sampan used the little time it had gained to turn down a shallow canal where the patrol boats couldn’t go.
Williams checked his map. The enemy’s most likely course of action was to follow the canal to its other end, a third of a mile away. He ordered his boats to intercept. Things immediately went sideways.
“We wanted to get them real bad,” he said. “I went around that corner at max sped to cut him off — and, lo and behold, I looked up and didn’t see nothing but boats and people and more boats and more people.”
Not a lot of armor or firepower when you’re dealing with thousands of enemy troops in the water and on shore.
(U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Williams and his boats had run straight into a massive enemy staging area. Suddenly, they found themselves surrounded by multiple companies of Viet Cong fighters. Williams, at the helm, immediately maxed out his engines and used his wake to disrupt the first sampan’s aim, then took off through the gauntlet.
Surprisingly, they made it. Williams later said that it seemed like the sampans were hitting each other more than him as the patrol boats made their mad dash through. Unfortunately for the Americans, they turned with the river only to have their luck worsen.
Their attempted escape landed them in another enemy staging area. Williams decided that the only way to save his shipmates was to fight it out with the Viet Cong, and they did. For over three hours, the patrol boats maneuvered at high speeds and provided fire for one another, cutting down enemy boats and shore positions as fast as they could in a desperate attempt to keep each other alive.
And it worked. The two boats and 10 Americans who went into the river all came back after inflicting a suspected 1,200 enemy casualties and destroying 65 boats. Williams would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but he still wasn’t done in Vietnam.
Less than three months later, Williams was on a patrol when he saw a dredge strike a mine on Jan. 9, 1967. PBR-105 immediately gave aid and was picking up survivors when the crew heard a tapping coming from inside the hull. Williams jumped into the water.
During repeated dives, he directed the elderly man trapped inside to a nearby hatch, loosened two heavy pipes blocking the hatch, and then ran a line from a nearby tug around the pipes so they could be pulled free. Once the obstruction was removed, Williams and a crew member swam into the still-sinking dredge and pulled the man free, saving his life. He would later receive the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
A Patrol Boat River and a sampan in Vietnam.
On January 15, less than a week later, Williams was leading a patrol on the Mekong when the crew spotted a large enemy supply movement across one of the river branches. The boat moved to intercept but quickly came under heavy fire from fortified positions on the river banks.
The boat dropped back and called in Vietnamese artillery and U.S. air strikes to reduce the enemy positions, and then forayed back into the river branch. Once again, heavy fire came at them from the shore.
This time, the Americans stayed in the thick of it and took aim at enemy sampans the Vietnamese seemed eager to protect. The PBRs destroyed them before withdrawing. Williams was injured during the withdrawal, but continued to direct the movement and the PBRs’ fire.
The enemy force that the patrol had encountered was later assessed as three heavy weapons companies with 400 men. The patrol was credited with killing sixteen enemies and wounding 20 while destroying nine enemy watercraft, seven structures, and 2,400 pounds of rice. Williams would later receive the Navy Cross for his actions.
No. Of course not. He took his retirement and his Medal of Honor and became a U.S. Marshal, serving his country once again. This time, in South Carolina, Georgia, and Washington D.C.
He died on October 13, 1999, the Navy’s 224th birthday. According to The United States Navy Memorial, an unidentified, retired admiral spoke at Williams’ funeral and said,
“Willie did not seek awards. He did not covet getting them. We did not seek to make him a hero. The circumstances of time and place and the enemy’s presence did that. I know through personal investigation of each incident that he never placed his crew nor his patrol boats in danger without first ensuring the risk was calculated and that surprise was on his side. He always had the presence of mind not to endanger friendly villages. He inspired us all, junior and senior alike. It was my greatest honor to have served with the man who truly led us all with his example of unselfish devotion to duty.”
A merchant vessel burns after being torpedoed by the U-71 off Cape Hatteras, NC in March 1942.
Imagine the following scenario: A bloody war rages overseas as a fanatical, totalitarian ideology conquers entire countries. The U.S. government announces it will send military forces abroad to stem the tide of the aggression. Despite increasingly dire news headlines, however, life in America proceeds uneventfully.
After all, America is thousands of miles from the battlefields and surely far beyond the enemy’s immediate reach.
That sense of security abruptly ends only weeks later when the enemy suddenly launches a fearsome assault against the U.S. homeland itself. Thousands die as American cities witness explosions and raging infernos. Worse yet, the U.S. military seems powerless to stop the assault.
If that story sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t. It isn’t the plot of Call of Duty– the scenario described above actually happened during World War II. December 1941 saw the U.S. finally join the war against Germany, Japan, and Italy. Many Americans understandably assumed that geography insulated them from any direct threat.
However, while U.S. leaders in Washington debated how to deploy their forces overseas, Adolf Hitler made the first move. In January 1942, Hitler’s forces began a massive naval offensive against the U.S. east coast.
The German navy, or Kriegsmarine, lacked a formidable surface fleet. What the Kriegsmarine did possess, however, was a technologically and tactically sophisticated submarine force: the infamous unterseeboots, or “U-boats.”
The U-boats had proven deadly in World War I, to include a limited number of attacks near the U.S. east coast, but the scale of the U-boat offensive against America in 1942 was without precedent. Only weeks after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, war had come to the American homeland.
Rendition of the U-995
(oil painting by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau)
Cargo ships and even U.S. Navy warships began going down in flames. Many vessels were torpedoed within sight of coastal cities. Coastal residents saw the ships burning off the Jersey Shore and the Outer Banks. Debris and bodies washed ashore for months as the U-boats struck from New England to Texas.
U-boat commanders returning to port in occupied Europe reported that U.S. waters offered more targets than the U-boats had the means to attack. The easy hunting lead German crews to dub 1942 die glückliche zeit: “the happy time.”
(Alamy Stock Photos)
Compounding the fear and destruction was America’s apparent inability to stop it. A combination of factors limited the U.S. military’s ability to stop the U-boats. These included a shortage of warships suited to anti-submarine operations, a lack of convoy procedures, and a reluctance to implement nighttime blackouts of coastal cities to deny U-boat commanders the benefit of ship silhouettes to target.
While U.S. leaders debated how to stem the onslaught, the Kriegsmarine dispatched more waves of U-boats to North America. Hundreds of ships were sunk, and thousands died as desperately needed war material was sent to the bottom of the Atlantic.
The U-123, one of the German subs that prowled the American coast in 1942.
(German Federal Archives)
Fortunately, 1942 would prove to be the apex of Hitler’s U-boat assault against America. The Allies began implementing convoys, and more American air and naval assets were allocated to anti-submarine duties.
These changes eventually led the Kriegsmarine to shift its priorities away from American coasts towards the mid-Atlantic. U-boats would continue to strike in American waters until the end of the war, but the scope and effectiveness of their operations steadily decreased. U-boat losses mounted too as the hunters eventually became the prey.
The U-boat fleet, considered one of the most prestigious assignments for a German serviceman, ultimately suffered the German military’s highest casualties: 3 out of 4 U-boat crewmen did not survive the war.
The crew of the U-550 abandons ship after being crippled by a U.S. Coast Guard attack off Massachusetts in April 1944.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo)
U.S. waters today are littered with the wrecks of U-boats and their victims. Many of these wrecks have become popular sites amongst scuba divers. This chapter of World War II, however, has mostly disappeared from American public memory.
This is to our discredit, as the memory of Hitler’s naval assault against America bears several important lessons for a post-9/11 world. These lessons include the naiveté of assuming that large oceans can be counted on to deter foreign aggression and a sobering reminder of what a small but motivated and capable force can inflict on a much larger power.
The thousands of men lost during this forgotten campaign is a testament to the human cost of global conflict and its ramifications for national security in the 21st century.
American troops have never shied away from taking the fight to the nation’s enemies, no matter the season.
But it’s a particular downer when U.S. forces are deployed to battlefields during the holidays. Here are six of the worst places the American military had to fight during Christmas.
1. Valley Forge (1777)
Just a year earlier, on Christmas Day 1776, Washington had led his troops across the Delaware and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Trenton.
Washington at Valley Forge. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
When Washington marched that same army into Valley Forge on December 19, 1777, the 12,000 Continentals were weary, under-fed, and under-equipped. Only about one in four still had shoes after the many long marches had literally worn them right off their feet.
The weather was also bitterly cold, which combined with the other problems facing the army led to over 2,500 soldiers dying due to starvation, disease, and exposure.
The bright spot of the army’s stay at Valley Forge was the training received by the Prussian drill master Baron Von Steuben. Thanks to his efforts, the Continentals began 1778 a much more professional fighting force than they had been.
2. The Winter Line (1943)
Central Italy may not be known to most for terrible winters. But for the American and Allied troops facing the German Winter Line at the end of 1943, it was far from favorable.
Fighting in the Italian Alps during Christmas during World War II. (Photo from 10th Mountain Division history page)
Stiff German defenses in the Apennine Mountains had brought the Allied advance to a standstill with tremendous numbers of casualties. To make matters worse, bitter winter weather had moved in dumping snow on the weary troops and dropping visibility to near zero.
Despite the weather conditions and determined German resistance the men of the 36th Infantry Division, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the 1st Special Service Force fought on — particularly on Christmas Day, when the 1st Special Service Force captured a strategic hill on the Winter Line with heavy casualties.
3. Bastogne (1944)
When American troops think of a terrible Christmas this one usually tops the list.
The Battered Bastards of Bastogne (the 101st Airborne Division, elements of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, and other support elements) had arrived to hold the key crossroads against the German onslaught just in time for Christmas 1944.
As the Battle of the Bulge progressed, the paratroopers and soldiers were surrounded, short of supplies, and desperately lacking in winter gear to battle the freezing temperatures they had to endure. Despite the conditions they faced when the Germans requested the Americans’ surrender Gen. Anthony McAuliffe simply responded with “Nuts!”
After fending off a German attack on Christmas Day the defenders were relieved by elements of Patton’s Third Army.
4. Basically anywhere in Korea (1950)
Christmas 1950 in Korea was an ignominious affair. After the brilliant victory at Inchon and the drive towards the Yalu River, China had entered the fray and handed the UN Forces their first defeat since breakout of Pusan.
In response, MacArthur launched the Home-by-Christmas Offensive to bring a quick conclusion to the war. But the Chinese were ready for it and decisively defeated American forces. The 1st Marine Division had narrowly avoided annihilation at the Chosin Reservoir, but many other units weren’t so lucky.
For the Eighth Army in Korea morale was low and the temperatures were even lower. Not only were they not going to be home by Christmas, but New Year’s didn’t bring better tidings either.
Another Chinese offensive sent the demoralized Americans reeling and recaptured the South Korean capital of Seoul. Christmas 1950 was one of the lowest points in the war for the Americans.
5. Operation Linebacker II (1972)
By the end of 1972 the war in Vietnam was supposed to be all but over. President Richard Nixon’s program of Vietnamization had allowed large numbers of U.S. troops to withdraw from the country.
However, negotiations in Paris were not going well for the Americans, so Nixon ordered a massive bombing campaign against the North in order to extract concessions from North Vietnam. Massive formations of B-52’s escorted by fighters took to the skies over North Vietnam in what became known as the Christmas Bombings.
From December 19 to December 29, 1972 the bombers flew 729 sorties against targets around Hanoi and Haiphong.
Unfortunately these bombings claimed 16 B-52s and numerous fighter aircraft, with the surviving crewmembers being interred as POWs just in time for Christmas. In all 43 airmen were killed and another 49 captured with a total of 28 aircraft lost to enemy action in the span of just over a week.
For a war that was drawing to a close flying into highly-contested airspace was a miserable way to spend the war’s last Christmas.
6. The lonely Combat Outposts of Afghanistan and Iraq (2001 – present)
As the War on Terror approaches its 15th Christmas with who knows how many more ahead, the soldiers stationed in the remote reaches of those war torn countries have to be included on any list of worst places to spend Christmas.
With the unprecedented length of these wars, there are likely American troops spending yet another Christmas overseas. In World War II even the first units to deploy would have only spent three Christmas’s in a combat zone; there is a good chance that thousands of troops have spent more than that at this point since 9/11.
Those holidays are even more difficult at the tiny combat outposts in the middle of nowhere. If the troops are lucky, there might have been something resembling a Christmas dinner flown in that they can eat while standing guard in a cold little shack or tower.
If they aren’t so lucky, Christmas dinner is just another MRE and the best gift they can hope for is a quiet day.
Scott Kim first escaped North Korea at the age of 17 in 2001. At the time, he and his mother only wanted to get across the border to China so they could eat hot meals. Growing up during North Korea’s deadly famine in the late ’90s, Kim had spent much of his childhood starving.
Today, Kim owns a business trading automobile and railway parts in South Korea. He is currently working on an English-language memoir about his experiences with the help of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), a volunteer-run organization in Seoul helping defectors develop English skills.
But it was a long and dangerous six years in and out of China and North Korea before he got to Seoul.
Most North Koreans defect by crossing North Korea’s northern border to China via the Tumen or Yalu rivers. Then they must smuggle their way across China’s vast expanse to its southern border with Laos or Vietnam. From there, they cross into Thailand or Cambodia and go to the South Korean embassy to ask for help. It’s a journey that can cost up to $5,000, which must be paid to “brokers” in each country to arrange the escape.
Inscription stone marking the border of China and North Korea in Jilin
Paying $5,000 to make it to South Korea or the United States was far out of reach for Kim and his mother. Instead, he and his mother lived as undocumented immigrants and worked as farm laborers. But one year after escaping North Korea, Kim’s neighbor reported his status to the police, who brought him and his mother back to North Korea. Kim was taken to a detention center, where authorities determine where to send defectors next.
“When we reached the detention center in North Korea, we lost all our rights as human beings,” Kim told Business Insider. “We were treated like animals, literally. We had to crawl on the floor to move from place to place.”
Kim was put in a cell with 20 other defectors. There was one toilet in the corner and no space to lie down. Day and night, the defectors sat on the ground.
“It was our punishment because we were sinners. I don’t know why we were sinners,” he said.
When he or other defectors were told to down the corridor to the warden’s office, they were made to crawl on their hands and feet. Officers beat them with gloves and sticks as they went.
An estimated 100,000 North Koreans or more currently live in detention centers, political prisons, or labor camps where they endure hard labor, torture, and starvation.
Kim’s description of his experience comes amid President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has been accused of killing his own people. But when asked about the North Korean dictator’s human rights violations, Trump appeared to be an apologist for the dictator’s actions.
The first time Kim was caught, he got lucky.
Despite the fact that one of North Korea’s biggest reeducation camps is in Chongori, near his hometown in Musan, Kim was sent to a center further south. Because no one knew him — and internet and phone service was nonexistent at the time — he was able to lie about his age. He told the guards he was only 15 years old and had been in China looking for his mother.
Rather than send him to one of the country’s brutal labor camps or political camps, he was sent to a medical center for orphaned children. Shortly after arriving, he escaped and went back to China, where he got work as a farm laborer near Helong, a city in northeastern China.
“Everyday, I planted, farmed, logged on the mountain. Corn, beans, potatoes,” he said. “Life was better because I was not starving. I could eat and be full at meals. It was enough food for me … At the time I left North Korea, I was starving.”
Kim was caught a second time when he visited a friend in China looking for his mother. A neighbor again reported him to the police. The second time he was sent back to North Korea, he wasn’t so lucky. He was sent to the concentration camp near his hometown. From there he was sent to a labor camp, where he chopped down trees on a mountain for months.
He escaped one day when he realized that all his fellow laborers were at the top of the mountain chopping while he was at the bottom. He ran away as fast as he could until he found a train that he could take him north to cross the border with China again.
After some time in China, he was caught a third time and sent to a camp for political prisoners — the worst place to be sent, as imprisonment there is interminable. He escaped the camp by bribing the authorities through a broker, who helped him make it across the border with China a final time.
After six years, Kim reunited with his mother and made it to South Korea
In China, he went back to work to pay off his debt to the broker. One day, he got a call from a North Korean woman from Musan who told him that he had to come visit his mother. She was dying of cancer. For the first time in many years, the two saw each other.
“When I opened the door of my mother’s house, I froze, and couldn’t say anything, because my mother looked incredibly different,” he said. “There was no fat on her, and her whole body looked like a triangle, I just went outside and cried for a long time and came back again, and I embraced my mother and we cried together.”
Several days later, a friend of his mother offered his mother the opportunity to escape to South Korea via Laos and Cambodia. A broker was taking a group through; they had an extra space.
Unable to walk, Kim’s mother told Kim he had to go and become educated. Once he was settled, she said, he could bring her and help others in need. He decided to go.
The night before Kim and the group of defectors were to cross the border into Laos, he received a call telling him that his mother had died. The man on the phone said he had to come back for the funeral.
“After hanging up, I couldn’t say anything, I just cried all night. I really, really wanted to go back, but I thought that if I go back there, I couldn’t do anything for her,” he said. “I decided to go to South Korea, believing that my mother would agree with my decision.”
In 2007, six years after he first escaped, Kim finally made it to South Korea.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
World War II saw the decline of the battleship, the rise of the aircraft carrier, and the maturation of the destroyer and submarine. However, there was another type other major combat vessel in that conflict that often goes ignored: the cruiser. This ship was arguably very important for several reasons.
First, for the initial part of the war, cruisers served as heavy escorts for a carriers against surface threats. Battleships were often too slow to keep up with the carriers and destroyers packed a potent anti-ship punch in the form of torpedoes, but they couldn’t take much punishment. Cruisers were the perfect match.
USS Galveston (CL 93), one of 27 completed Cleveland-class light cruisers. She packed 12 six-inch guns and 12 five-inch guns.
Second, cruisers also were able excellent for maintaining a presence at sea. It took fewer personnel to fully crew a cruiser and they were comparatively cheaper to build than other major vessels. Despite their lower cost, they were still deadly vessels, equipped with either six-inch guns (on light cruisers) or eight-inch guns (on heavy cruisers).
Third, cruisers also fought it out when other options weren’t available. For example, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, a force of two heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, two anti-aircraft cruisers, and eight destroyers were led by Admiral Daniel Callaghan and took on two Japanese fast battleships, a light cruiser, and a number of destroyers. Callaghan’s outnumbered ships managed to turn away the Japanese force, leaving the fatally wounded Hiei behind.
While it’s best known for being sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1945, USS Indianapolis (CA 35) also served as the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance.
Fourth, cruisers could serve as flagships. The Portland-class heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA 35) was the flagship for Admiral Raymond A. Spruance during the Central Pacific offensive in 1943 and 1944. It was also common for Japanese admirals to choose heavy cruisers as their flagships in surface engagements instead of battleships when they had the option.
While all of the major powers had cruiser designs, the most successful was the American Cleveland-class light cruiser. There were plans to build a total of 52 of these vessels. Of those, 27 were completed. The others were either cancelled or converted into light cruisers. Other notable cruiser classes include Japan’s Mogami-class heavy cruisers and the British County-class heavy cruisers.
Other powers in World War II operated cruisers, too. HIJMS Atago served as a flagship in several engagements, including her last one at Leyte Gulf.
(Imperial Japanese Navy)
With the end of World War II, cruisers began to fade away, especially as guided missiles emerged and submarines became more of a threat. Today, the United States Navy has the most of these vessels, with 22 Ticonderoga-class vessels in service.
Though the cruiser’s heyday has come and gone, there’s a chance they’ll make a comeback. The United States Navy intends to replace the Ticonderoga-class ships with a new, modern class of cruiser.