It is always interesting to dive on wrecks. This can include wrecks of sunken warships, which can serve as an eerie glimpse into the past. Some ships, like the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CV 34), are old warships being put to use as artificial reefs.
Others were sent to Davy Jone’s Locker the hard way during the war. One such vessel is the German U-boat U-85. According to U-Boat.net, this sub sank three vessels during its wartime service before it ran into USS Roper (DD 147). The Roper put U-85 on the bottom of the Atlantic. All hands went down with the German sub less than twenty miles off the coast of North Carolina.
The story, though, doesn’t end there. According to Outer Banks Sentinel’s web site, in 2001, divers Jim Bunch, Roger Hunting, and Rich Hunting retrieved the sub’s Enigma machine. The site claimed that Navy divers had attempted a similar objective shortly after the U-boat sank in 1942. The Sentinel noted that the Enigma was worth as much as $200,000, although appraisals supposedly for tax purposes were in the range of $50,000 to $75,000.
A 2003 release by the United States Navy’s Naval Historical Center noted that “the retrieval of the Enigma machine by the private divers was illegal without proper authorization from the German government to do so.” The Navy, the divers, and the German government later arranged for the Engima machine in question to be donated to the Atlantic Graveyard Museum, where it is today.
The looting of war graves has become an epidemic in the East Indies, including the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, and a number of other allied vessels.
For centuries, friends and foes of Russia marveled at the fierce fighting skills of their Cossack Warriors. The Cossacks fought to defend the Russian Czar against any manner of enemies – from Ottoman Turks to Napoleon’s Grande Armée, through a World War, and even against the Bolshevik Red Army.
They expanded the borders of the Russian Empire, conquering Siberia and the Caucasus regions for the Czar, all the way to the Bering Sea – capturing one-sixth of the Earth’s land area. Their martial prowess was unmatched in the region for a long time and they refused to be tied to any master. Even the name “Cossack” in the Turkic languages of the time and area meant “free,” “adventurer,” or “wanderer.”
Cossack loyalty to the Russian Czar was earned over centuries of fighting to maintain that independence. Many Czars were faced with Cossack uprisings and were forced to deal with them in their own ways, from putting down the rebellion or forcibly moving the population to another area of the Russian Empire.
From a young age, Cossacks raised their children to be elite warriors and ethnically Cossack in every way possible. Training could begin in infancy and only ever stop in an actual pitched battle.
Eventually, the Russian nobility came to accept the Cossacks, endowing them with certain rights and privileges in the Empire for their continued service in defending Russia’s borders. And they earned those rights, too. After his Grand Armée was forced out of Russia, the Cossacks harassed them all the way back to France. It was the Cossacks who captured Paris and unseated the French Emperor.
When the Empire fell during World War I and the Czar abdicated, the Cossacks were divided between the Red and White factions of the Russian Civil War. They fought primarily for the White (anti-Communist) Russians, which earned them persecution when the Bolsheviks won the war and founded the Soviet Union.
The persecution got so bad, many Cossacks fought for Nazi Germany during WWII.
As he slides his hands across the edges of the wings and walks from nose to tail, inspecting all aspects of the jet, a wave of emotion begins to hit Jim Harkins.
His weathered features appear calm and determined, but they hide the tears he is fighting back.
While he walks around the aircraft, he greets each maintainer and says, “Thank you.” Harkins rubs and taps the bulging nose of the QF-4 Phantom II, like an aged cowboy saying hello to a trusty steed, and then climbs into the cockpit.
“One last time,” Harkins says and the canopy closes around him.
For Harkins and the F-4, this is a day of lasts. For Harkins, it’s the last time he will fly for the Air Force and, for the Phantom, the last time it will take to the skies.
It’s their final flight.
“It’s not really sad, because in the military you get used to a lot of lasts, but it’s humbling,” Harkins said.
Harkins isn’t the only one feeling nostalgic and emotional about the aircraft affectionately referred to as “Old Smokey.” Hundreds of “Phantom Phixers,” “Phantom Phliers” and “Phantom Phanatics” gathered on the flightline at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to watch the final F-4 flight.
Some used to work on the aircraft, some are just fans and others, like retired Col. Chuck DeBellevue, had the privilege of actually flying the fighter.
DeBellevue flew the F-4 in Vietnam, where he had six confirmed kills – two against the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19 and four against the MiG-21, the most of any U.S. aviator during the war.
He’s not just saying farewell to an amazing machine, he’s saying goodbye to an old friend.
“A friend who got me home more times than I care to remember,” DeBellevue said. “Being back on the flightline today brought back a lot of memories, not all are good. I lost a lot of friends, but it was a great airplane. I loved to fly that airplane. It’s very honest and it got me out of a lot of tight spots during the war.”
DeBellevue recalls the Navy originally bought the F-4 to be a fleet interceptor and the Air Force bought it in 1963 to do everything – and it did do everything. It served as the primary air superiority fighter for both the Navy and Air Force, but it also served roles in ground-attack and aerial reconnaissance and, once taken out of active service, was designated the QF-4 where it flew as aerial targets.
The F-4 was a workhorse weapons system for the Air Force through the 1990s and it still hold the distinction of being the first multi-service aircraft. During it’s heyday, the F-4 set 16 speed and altitude records and demonstrated its effectiveness time and again throughout its lengthy career.
The Phantom looked cool doing it, too.
“You didn’t get into the F-4, you put it on, it became you,” DeBellevue said. “It was a manual airplane, not like an F-16 or F-15, they were aerodynamic and designed well. The F-4 was the last plane that looked like it was made to kill somebody. It was a beast. It could go through a flock of birds and kick out barbeque from the back.”
On the flightline at Holloman, the final flight of four F-4s prepare to take off for the last time. The engines rumble and smoke flies.
In his jet, Harkins looks over the crowd, dancing in the cockpit, revving up the on-lookers and saluting those in attendance. Everyone cheers as the final four F-4s begin their last taxi.
Harkins is first to pass the crowd, followed by pilots Eric “Rock” Vold, Jim “Boomer” Schreiner and finally Lt. Col. Ronald “Elvis” King, the last active duty F-4 pilot and commander of Det. 1, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron. Together these men will fly the Phinal Phlight demonstration before King officially retires the QF-4 program during a ceremony following the flight.
“I don’t want to sound cheesy, but every time I get into the F-4 I can’t help but think of all the stories of all the pilots and all the maintainers who made this aircraft great,” King said. “The history and the heritage to me is the biggest satisfaction of flying the airplane.”
King had no concept when he became the squadron commander he would be the last active duty pilot. It didn’t really set in until he and Harkins began taking the F-4 on a farewell tour during to air shows and aviation expos last year. King felt obligated to take the F-4 on the road, to give admirers the chance to see it, touch it and share their stories one last time. It was then he realized this tour piloting the F-4 would be something special.
“It’s going to be sad to shut those engines down for the last time, but she’s served our country well,” King said of the F-4. “It’s exciting too, because our mission is to provide full scale aerial targets and we are going to be able to do that now with an airplane that’s better suited, provides higher performance and is more representative of the threats we face today in the QF-16.”
King said it was getting more and more difficult to keep the F-4’s in the air, and the only reason the QF-4 lasted as long as it did was because of the maintainers of the 82nd ATS.
Unfortunately, he says, there is no longer a need for the F-4. All remaining aircraft will be de-militarized at Holloman and used as ground targets at the White Sands bombing range.
King says most people don’t like to hear the fate of the last F-4s, and he understands, but it’s too costly to maintain as a heritage piece or to preserve them for museums.
“At the end of the day, the Air Force isn’t real sentimental,” King said. “It will have a warrior’s death.”
Engines roar and a flume of dust and smoke signals to the crowd the final four F-4s are off. The first two jets, piloted by King and Schreiner take off in a two-ship formation. Harkins follows in the third position and Vold in fourth. The last two jets perform an unrestricted climb, staying low to the ground in afterburner before pulling into a vertical climb at the end of the runway. The crowd goes crazy.
The sound of the F-4 is distinct. As Harkins passes over the crowd in a low-altitude turn it sounds like the jet is ripping the sky.
Multiple passes are made in four-ship, two-ship and stacked formations over the crowd of hundreds in attendance. Camera shutters clicking at a furious pace can be heard down the tarmac.
Out of nowhere, the sky cracks open and multiple booms shake the ground, buildings and cars, setting off alarms across the base. The concussions signal the F-4s going supersonic high above.
Harkins swoops down out of the sky passing over the crowd multiple times, and makes his final approach. As his wheels touch back to Earth, Harkins enters the history books as the last pilot to fly 1,000 hours in the F-4.
“I can’t imagine a better way to go out than with the F-4, it’s a special moment and a special jet and then … done,” Harkins said. “Although I flew F-16s and I went down to the F-4, but I consider myself going out on top.”
As climbs down from his jet he’s doused with water from his comrades and sprayed with champagne. In the distance, King lands his F-4 and with the front landing gear touching the asphalt, the history books close on the aircraft’s legacy.
But while the Phantom’s time in the sky may be over, the tales of its exploits are far from done. For those who flew the F-4, there is always time to wax poetic about the good ‘ole days, tearing across the wild blue yonder on “Old Smokey.”
In 1961, 158 Irish soldiers with no combat experience came under determined attack from 3,000-5,000 African rebels and European mercenaries, surviving five days of airstrikes, mortar barrages, and frontal assaults while on a U.N. peacekeeping mission that went horribly wrong.
The men of Company A were sent to the Republic of the Congo shortly after the country received independence from Belgium in June 1960. A wave of violence had swept the country in the weeks and months following independence, and a local politician and businessman saw serious potential.
See, Congo is rich in natural resources, but a lot of those resources are concentrated in the Katanga region in the country’s southeast. Moise Tshombe thought he could cobble together a coalition of local forces from Katanga and mercenaries supported by European companies, and so he got Katanga to secede from the DRC.
Suddenly, the country’s racial and political unrest was a full-on civil war, and the young United Nations resolved to keep the peace. Troops were dispatched, and Congolese leaders were so happy with the first wave of troops that they asked for more, leading to the Irish deployment.
As the Irish got their major weapons systems into operations, they were surprised by an enemy mortar round that shook the buildings. That was when they knew they were outgunned, and it would quickly become apparent that they were outnumbered. There were between 3,000 and 5,000 men attacking the 158 defenders.
Quinlan had ordered his men to stockpile water before the attack, but as the fighting dragged on day after day, it became clear that there wasn’t enough water and ammunition to sustain the defense. And the rebels had taken control of a nearby river crossing, cutting off potential reinforcements or resupply.
One brave helicopter pilot did manage to fly in some water, but it turned out to be contaminated.
So, from Sept. 13-17, the Irish suffered strafing attacks with limited ability to defend themselves, but wreaked havoc on their enemies on the ground, killing 300 of the attackers while suffering zero deaths and only five major injuries.
Yes, outgunned, vastly outnumbered, and under concerted attack, the Irish held their own for five days. But, by Sept. 17, out of water and ammunition, it was clear to Quinlan that the compound was lost. He could order is men to resist with knives as their enemy attacked with machine guns and mortars, or he could surrender.
And so, the Irishmen surrendered and were taken as hostages by the rebels who tried to use them as a bargaining chip with the U.N. in a bid for independence. But the rebels ended up releasing all 158 soldiers just five weeks later.
For decades, the men were treated as cowards and embarrassments, but a 2016 movie named The Siege of Jadotville about the battle treated the men as heroes and has helped cast a light on the men’s heroism. Before the premiere of the movie, the Irish government agreed with lobbying by Quinlan’s son to award a unit citation for Company A and individuals were awarded Jadotville medals until 1917.
Spies have had all sorts of great tools and gadgets, from self-inflating blow-up dolls during the Cold War to special listening devices deployed around the world today. But perhaps one of the most surprising devices was the rectal toolkit issued to some CIA officers deployed into Soviet-era Europe.
As more and more CIA officers were sent into dangerous places in Europe, including the democratic enclave of West Berlin, the dark times called for dark solutions that could be stored in a dark place — a place so dark the sun don’t shine.
Talkin’ about butts. The CIA turned to officers’ butts.
There was a high chance that CIA officers and assets could and would be jailed by secret police, even if it was just on suspicion of being aligned with the U.S. or other western countries. So, the CIA wanted to give these people the best possible chance of escaping custody. But since assets would likely be strip searched, there was really only a couple places left to hide the tools.
And so the large capsule was created, filled with tiny tools that would help officers pick locks and cut through fine materials. The exact tools and materials used varied between different “rectal toolkits,” but all of them were made with materials that were thought unlikely to splinter. They were also very carefully made to prevent leaks that would allow, uh, outside materials into the capsule.
If an officer were captured, he would go through the search, hopefully retain his toolkit, and then fish it out after the guards had left. Not exactly the moment that anyone dreams about when joining an espionage service, but still way better suffering a prolonged hostile interrogation.
Searches of the CIA history archives have not shown a specific case where a U.S. asset fished out this toolkit and used it to make good their escape, so it’s not clear if it saved any specific person’s life or government secrets from Soviet spies.
During the thick of the 1991 Gulf War, anti-Iraqi coalition forces were mounting some 2,000 air sorties against Iraqi targets in the Middle East. In retaliation, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fired scud missiles at Israel.
The U.S. obviously wanted to keep that from happening.
Now, if you’ve been keeping track, the Israelis don’t take kindly to threats. Or attacks. Especially scud missile attacks. Over the course of 17 days, Iraq fired 39 Scud Missiles at the highly populated coastal cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. An estimated 147 Israelis were killed.
To give you an idea of how Israel tends to retaliate to this sort of thing, the 1972 Munich Olympics attack killed 11 Israelis. In response, Israeli intelligence – the Mossad – launched Operation (no joke) WRATH OF GOD. They hunted down every Arab plotter of the Munich massacre and killed them. For 20 years.
Only the Mossad wasn’t about to wait 20 years to ice Saddam.
In 1992, they came up with Operation Bramble Bush, their plan to assassinate the Iraqi dictator. One agent, Nadav Zeevi, was tasked to find a pattern in Saddam’s movements. Then, the Israelis would track the dictator to where he would spend a longer amount of time. Once Saddam settled into a location, the Israelis would have their revenge.
But instead of an air strike, Israel wanted to mount a “glamorous” commando raid, using Sayeret Matkal special operators in a kill, definitely not capture mission. One version of the proposed raid had commandos launching missiles at Saddam during a funeral.
Israel mounted crazy, balls-out commando raids in the past. Their legendary raid on Entebbe featured a caravan of cars designed to resemble Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s entourage. They flew into Uganda, landed at the airport, drove off to the terminal, killed every terrorist, and then took their hostages to waiting planes in a hail of gunfire.
Unfortunately for history, they had to abort the idea. It was difficult to track Saddam because of the sheer number of his body doubles. Agent Zeevi even thought to just watch the dictator’s mistresses, but the body doubles also fooled the mistresses.
To make matters worse, a dry run in Israel’s Negev Desert went horribly awry. Troops training for the raid in 1992 accidentally fired a live missile, killing five IDF soldiers. The accident led to officials canceling the operation.
They thought they might try again in 1999, waiting until Saddam was in a designated location. 40 operators divided into two groups; one within 200 meters of the location, painting the location as a target, the other six miles away, firing three Midras missiles on that target.
That plan was scrapped because the Americans and British were bombing Iraq anyway. And in the end, they didn’t have to assassinate the dictator. But let their effort be a lesson: just leave Israel alone.
Growing up, learning about World War I usually involved learning about three things: trench foot, poison gas, and bloody stalemate. Right before the history teacher moves on to World War II, we learn the old mnemonic device — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, ‘The War to End All Wars’ ended with an armistice.
Then, there was one kickass, worldwide party.
Obviously, glossing over one of the deadliest, most expensive, and most avoidable wars in American history does the Doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force an injustice. We need to remember that World War I was more than just a prelude to World War II. The horrors of WWI led to the annual recognition of those the who had to fight it. The day The Great War ended came to be remembered thereafter as Armistice Day.
But, when the 11th day of the 11 month rolls around, we all celebrate Veterans Day. What happened?
This is what Armistice Day 1938 looked like in Omaha, Nebraska.
The first public celebration of Armistice Day came in November, 1920. Much like how we celebrate Veterans Day today, the occasion was marked by speeches, parades, and exchange of drinks and stories between veterans of the war. The exception came when that 11th hour rolled around. For a moment, there was a pause in all activities across the country.
In that moment, mere years ago, millions of armed men stopped butchering each other over control of several yards of No Man’s Land.
In 1926, Congress made Armistice Day official, resolving that the “recurring anniversary of November 11, 1918, should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace between nations.” In 1938, Armistice Day became a Federal Holiday.
As we all know, the “War to End All Wars” didn’t actually end all wars — or any wars. It actually led very directly to the next war, World War II. Which led to the next war, the Korean War, which was part of a greater war, the Cold War. You get the point. By the time the Korean War ended, there was a whole new generation of war veterans who felt deserving of recognition for a job well done.
Veterans of those war lobbied Congress to change Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954, in order to honor veterans of every war. Congress agreed and President Eisenhower signed on to it, too.
Gerald Ford, the voice of reason.
In 1968, Congress acted again. This time, they wanted to give federal employees a couple of three-day weekends throughout the year, so they changed the dates of some major holidays to fall on certain Mondays. Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Washington’s Birthday were all given Mondays. And Veterans Day was moved from the historic date of November 11 to “the fourth Monday in October.”
The states rightly thought that was a stupid idea and refused to recognize the movement of Veterans Day until President Ford changed it back in 1975.
Veterans Day is currently celebrated nationally on November 11, as it has been for decades. When the day was originally changed to Veterans Day in 1954, it was just in time for then-104-year old Albert Woolson, the last surviving veteran of the Civil War, to celebrate it. With him were two veterans of the Plains Wars, veterans of the Spanish-American War, and vets from the Philippines War.
States, local municipalities, and other governments have declared their own Veterans Days, some dating as far back as the end of World War II, recognizing the courage and sacrifices of every U.S. citizen who answered the country’s call to arms.
Rainbow Division Soldiers Help End WWI during Meuse-Argonne Offensive
(N.Y. State Military History Museum)
For this story, it’s important to remember that World War I ended without Allied troops reaching German soil (something that Gen. John Pershing and Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch protested as they believed it would lay the seeds for another war). So, the final clashes took place on French soil, and there was a surge in fighting in the last days as Allied powers attempted to put as much pain on Germany as possible.
Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had already been nominated for his fifth and sixth Silver Stars, both of which he would later receive. He had suffered injuries in a poison gas attack, survived artillery bombardments and machine gun attacks, and led his men to victory in key terrain.
Then-Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur in World War I.
(N.Y. State Military History Museum)
On November 6, he was in Wadlaincourt with his men, taking the fight to Germany even though few brigade commanders would’ve risked being that close to the guns.
And the 1st Infantry Division didn’t know he was there. So when 1st Infantry soldiers saw MacArthur, clad in his grey cape and cap, they thought it was a German officer they were looking at. As Raymond S. Tompkins wrote in 1919 in The Story of the Rainbow Division:
All [the platoon leaders] saw in the gathering dusk was an important looking officer walking around, attired in what looked like a gray cape and a visored cap with a soft crown, not unlike those the Crown Prince wore in his pictures.
Yeah, coincidentally, MacArthur’s common outfit on the front just happened to be similar to the Crown Prince of Germany’s. While none of his own men would mistake the general for anyone else, he was not yet famous enough to be recognized by average members of other units.
And, the German Crown Prince had, in fact, led troops in combat in 1918 on Germany’s Western Front. So it is, perhaps, not so surprising that the mistake could happen on a fast-moving and chaotic front.
The Crown Prince of Germany Rupprecht did lead German troops in the field against his nation’s enemies.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
And so the patrol arrested him, and MacArthur protested his innocence and identity, but the platoon leader wasn’t going to take the word of a probable German officer over his own eyes, so he vowed to take the man to a unit headquarters for identification.
Obviously, the 84th Infantry Brigade headquarters was nearby, since MacArthur was typically found close to his place of duty. So the 1st Infantry Division patrol took him there, to his own headquarters, for identification. Perhaps in a failure of imagination, his headquarters immediately identified him. They really missed a chance at a great prank, there.
It turned out well for them, though. The Armistice negotiations would begin days later on November 8, 1918, and was signed in the wee hours of November 11. MacArthur was made the division commander of the 42nd Infantry Division. He and his men were welcomed back to the U.S. as heroes, and it doesn’t appear that MacArthur held any personal grudges against the 1st Infantry for his short detainment.
On Oct. 9, 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill walked into Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s study, got super blitzed on whiskey with the Soviet, and then proceeded to split up Eastern Europe with Stalin by writing a list of countries and percentages next to them. He would later call it his “Naughty Document,” and it’s going on display with other World War II and Cold War Era documents.
World War II brought together unlikely allies, and possibly none of the unions was weirder than Soviet Russia teaming up with Great Britain and the United States. The U.S., Britain, and Russia were members of the Allied Powers in World War I, but Russia withdrew as the Bolsheviks rose up against the tsar.
Britain and America—as well as Canada, France, and others—sent troops to back up the tsar, but the intervention failed. So, the Soviet Union began its existence with a grudge against the foreign troops that had tried to prevent the revolution.
Then, Russia’s first foray into World War II was signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler and then following Germany into Poland, capturing sections of that country. Russia didn’t join the Allied effort until after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
And, in 1944, Soviet forces began to take back Poland, and they were not supporting the Polish Home Army that was part of the Allied forces against Germany. This was a problem for Churchill since the U.K. had joined the war in 1939 largely in response to the invasions of Poland.
The Soviet relationship with the U.S. and Great Britain was fraught, is what we’re saying.
But the Soviet Union benefited greatly from allying itself with the U.K. and America. Russian troops drove American vehicles, and the British and U.S. navies kept the sea lanes open for Russian ships, submarines, and supplies. And the invasions of Italy and Normandy had greatly reduced the pressure on Soviet troops in the east. And remember, the German invasion of the Soviet Union had made it deep into Russia before being turned back.
So, in October 1944, Allied-Soviet relations were healthy, but it wasn’t clear what would happen after Germany was defeated and peace returned. On the night of the 9th, Churchill and Stalin got blitzed and tried to figure out how they would avoid new conflict in the future.
And so Churchill started writing on a scrap of paper. He wrote a list of countries that would be between the Western and Soviet spheres of influence. Romania, Greece, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Bulgaria made the list.
Next to these countries, Churchill listed how much “influence” Russia and Britain should have in the countries after the war. Romania would go 90 percent to Russia, 10 percent to Britain. Greece would go 90 percent to the U.S. and U.K. and 10 percent to Russia. Yugoslavia would get an equal split. And Churchill thought Bulgaria should go 75 percent Russian and 25 percent to the other Allies, but Stalin scratched that out and made it a 90-10 split.
And then Stalin put a big blue check mark on it, and the two men looked at it. Churchill proposed burning it, worried about how posterity would look at that casual splitting up of Europe. Stalin told him to keep the document instead.
For what it’s worth, Churchill credited this late night visit and seemingly cavalier negotiation with protecting Greece from a communist takeover. There was evidence discovered after the war that Stalin had already decided to back off of Greece, but Churchill hadn’t known that at the time.
Indeed, there was plenty of conjecture after the “Percentages Document” came to light in the 1990s that the British prime minister was trying to navigate the upcoming peace that would be unforgiving for Britain. The British Empire was clearly in decline, the Soviet Union was on the rise, and America had announced its plans to leave Europe as soon as possible after the war.
So, for Churchill to secure room for democracy after the war, he would have to do it by negotiating with the Soviet Union, at least in part. And if that sucked for Yugoslavia, well, that sucks for them.
John Harrison Simpson was just 16 when he enlisted in the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry (Federal), Company I in 1863. Lying about his age to enlist, Simpson was joined by his father, Green B. Simpson. Despite Tennessee’s secession from the Union, many towns in the state’s eastern region remained pro-Union and sent men to the Federal Army.
In September 1864, the 3rd Tennessee was sent to northern Alabama to guard a federal railroad. Vital to the Union supply line, it was a prime target for the Confederacy. The railroad was attacked by the infamous Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalrymen. The rebels routed the men of the 3rd Tennessee and surrounded them at Sulphur Creek Trestle, forcing them to surrender.
During the battle, the younger Simpson was wounded in the initial rebel cavalry charge. As the horsemen broke the Union line, a Confederate horse stepped down and smashed Simpson’s thigh and side. He carried the scars of these wounds with him for the rest of his life.
Following the Union surrender, the survivors of the 3rd Tennessee were sent to Cahaba prison camp, also known as Castle Morgan, near Selma, Alabama. Despite the deep southern heat and humidity, the camp was not nearly as bad as the notorious Andersonville prison camp in Georgia. However, Cahaba was closed at one point during the war. The prisoners that it housed, including Simpson and the other 3rd Tennessee cavalrymen, were sent to Andersonville. It was only in the last six months of the war that Cahaba reopened and then prisoners were sent back.
In March 1865, just a few weeks before the end of the Civil War, the 3rd Tennessee was part of a large prisoner exchange. They were marched west from Cahaba to Vicksburg, Mississippi. From there they would travel upriver by boat to Ohio where they would be mustered out of service. However, the boat they boarded was the doomed Sultana.
Thousands of weary Union prisoners from both Cahaba and Andersonville were crammed into every open area of the steamboat. Designed to carry 376 passengers, 2,155 men were crammed on board. Simpson, who was 17 at the time, is believed to have been on the third deck. On April 27, the Sultana steamed just north of Memphis, Tennessee near Marion, Arkansas when disaster struck.
Horrifyingly, three of the ship’s four boilers exploded, instantly killing hundreds of men. Sultana burned to the waterline and eventually sunk, taking 1,192 lives with her. Locals, including freed slaves, saw the disaster unfold from the riverbank and rushed to help. About 750 survivors were rescued with 31 later dying from injuries or exposure. Over the next several months, bodies were continuously recovered from the river. Incredibly, both Simpsons survived the Sultana disaster.
John Simpson made his way to Nashville, Tennessee where he was mustered out of the Army on June 10. Green left the cavalry shortly thereafter. Despite the petitions of Sultana survivors for a special pension and a national monument to those killed, Congress never authorized any funds. Instead, the Sultana Survivor’s Association took it upon themselves to commemorate their fallen comrades with a marble memorial in Tennessee. Simpson, a member of the association’s Knoxville chapter, was a promoter of the monument.
By the time sufficient funds were raised, Sultana survivors were getting on in age and dwindling in number. Simpson, who headed the memorial effort, was a member of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Knoxville. He chose the church’s hilltop cemetery as the memorial site. On July 4, 1916, the pink marble memorial was dedicated. It bears the names of 365 Tennesseans who died on the Sultana, most of whom were members of the 3rd Tennessee. Simpson served as president of the Southern contingent of survivors until his death in 1929. He is buried in the Mount Olive Cemetery not far from the Sultana memorial.
Wars are violent, brutal, and bloody. The Crusades were no exception, just one more in a long line of useless, stupid wars that people now romanticize for some reason.
The lasting legacy of the Crusades is used to support international terrorism against the West, to explain the relationship between the Christian and Muslim worlds in poorly-researched history papers, and is used as a meme on the internet by people who are “proud to be an infidel.”
With the Crusades, there was no good guy or bad guy. The truth is that European power was on the rise at the end of the first millennium. Christendom was finally able to respond to the Islamic wars of expansion that rose from the founding and spread of Islam in the Middle East.
But even with all that money and power, the Christian kings of Europe were still stupid, inbred products of the Middle Ages. The Islamic powers in the Middle East were struggling against each other for regional dominance.
The two were bound to butt heads.
Muslim armies and Christian armies could be equally brutal. I mean it when I say there is no good guy or bad guy. Between one and three million people died in the Crusades – one percent of the world’s population at the time. It doesn’t matter who started it, after nine crusades (only the first and sixth being anything close to a “success”), these wars were ridiculously destructive, even for medieval combat.
Eventually, the Crusaders were expelled from the Holy Land. And when you really read the history, it makes you wonder how they were able to stay so long.
1. Crusaders weren’t the best strategists.
In 1187, the Islamic leader, Saladin, tricked the Crusader Armies into leaving their fortified position (and their water source) in what is, today, the deserts of Israel by attacking an out-of-the-way fortress near Tiberias. After a brief war council, the Crusaders decided to march on Saladin’s army.
In an open field.
After crossing a desert.
Did I mention they left their water source to walk nine miles in full armor?
They were so thirsty, their lines broke as the knights made for the nearby springs. That’s where Saladin slaughtered them. He began his campaign to recapture Jerusalem the next day, which he did, three months later.
Arguably the greatest victory for the Crusaders came at Ascalon, after the fall of Jerusalem in 1099. The Crusaders caught the Muslims by surprise, but were still outflanked by an Egyptian army that was actually ready to fight. Luckily, the Crusaders had heavy cavalry the Muslims did not.
By 20th century standards, murdering six million Jewish people makes you history’s greatest monster, and rightfully so. To this day, no one can seriously name their child “Adolf” without subjecting it to a lifetime of sideways glances.
During the First Crusade, God supposedly sent German knights an “enchanted goose” to follow. That goose had a totally different agenda. It led them to a Jewish neighborhood, which the knights immediately slaughtered. There were anti-Jewish massacres at cities like Worms, Mainz, Metz, Prague, Ratisbon, and others. Confused about why these are still European cities? Me too. The Crusaders hadn’t even left Europe before they decided to murder Jews.
The Crusade against the Cathars amounted to a genocide. The fun doesn’t stop there. During the Fourth Crusade, Crusaders hitched a ride to Palestine on Venetian ships but ended up not being able to pay Venice for the sealift. Instead of paying them, the Venetians used the Crusader armies to sack Zadar, a city in modern Croatia. They sacked the city and its Christian population fled to the countryside.
Then, they practically broke the seat of power held by Orthodox Christians in the Byzantine Empire, which brings me to…
4. Christianity lost a lot of power because of Crusaders.
When the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Christian Byzantine Empire, the empire never recovered. By 1453, Ottoman Muslim armies were banging away at the walls and gates of the city.
Crusaders toppled the Byzantine Emperor Alexius III and when his brother tried to submit to the Pope, he was killed in a coup. It caused the Crusaders to declare war and sack the city — during Easter — murdering a lot of Christian inhabitants and destroying much of the fabled city. Which might have been Venice’s 95-year-old, blind leader’s plan the whole time.
When the Muslim Ottoman Turks took Constantinople, the last Christian empire in the Middle East was gone. Good job, Crusaders.
Muslim armies offered to give control of Jerusalem back to the Crusaders during the Fifth Crusade in exchange for the city of Damietta in Egypt. But the Crusaders refused, so the Muslims took both cities.
5. They lost a lot of important relics.
Legend says that when the Fatimid Caliph wanted to destroy Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Christians hid the True Cross that held his body. The Crusaders, geniuses they were, carried it into battle.
And, of course, lost it to Saladin at the Battle of Hattin.
On top of that, Europeans, in general, were just obsessed with holy relics during the era. So, things like the buried remains of Catholic saints and items associated with those saints were stolen en masse, many never to be seen again.
6. A lot of them just gave up.
When Frederick Barbarossa died after marching his horse into a damn river (before he could even get to the Third Crusade), many of his knights committed suicide, believing God abandoned them. Others turned around and went home.
That’s not even the end of it.
When Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, Pope Pius II tried to buy him out instead of fighting him. In exchange for Mehmet converting to Christianity, the Pope offered to “appoint you the emperor of the Greeks and the Orient… All Christians will honor you and make you the arbiter of their quarrels… Many will submit to you voluntarily, appear before your judgment seat, and pay taxes to you. It will be given to you to quell tyrants, to support the good, and combat the wicked. And the Roman Church will not oppose you.”
But these weren’t the knights and heavy infantry we’ve come to know. These were people inspired by the idea of taking up the cross — mostly conscripted, illiterate peasants. By the time they reached the Middle East, Peter already abandoned them and Turkish spies lured them out of their camp, into a valley, where the Turks just massacred them.
8. Crusaders literally ate babies.
Not only were they bad at strategy, Crusaders (like most armies of the time, to be honest) were also bad at logistics — you know, the getting of stuff to the fight. Stuff like food.
A contingent of French knights pillaged, raped, murdered, and tortured people across the Byzantine lands, a decidedly Christian empire. In the countryside near Nicea, they turned to eating the peasants as well, reportedly roasting babies on spikes. When German knights found out, they started doing the same thing.
But they did the same thing to the Muslims, too. After capturing Maara in 1098, they discovered the city they just laid siege to for a few weeks had no food. Big surprise.
The British position at Stony Point, New York was really just an attempt to force George Washington out of the mountains and into a pitched battle – one the British could win. The American War of Independence had been going on for years, and by 1778, the British were languishing in New York City. To get things moving, General Sir Henry Clinton sent 8,000 men north to keep the Americans from using King’s Ferry to cross the Hudson.
But the Americans weren’t stupid. Assaulting a fortified position against overwhelming numbers was a bad call no matter how you try to justify it. So when the British Army left Stony Point with just a fraction of its troops as a garrison, that’s when Washington saw his opportunity.
If there’s anything Washington excelled at, it was picking his battles.
The setup was so grand and well-made, the British began to refer to their Stony Point position as the “Gibraltar of the West.” The fort used two lines of abatements, manned by roughly a third of the total force in each position. To top it all off, an armed sloop, the HMS Vulture, also roamed the Hudson to add to the artillery guns already defending Stony Point. It seemed like a suicide mission.
But when the bulk of the troops left to return to New York, Washington knew his odds were never going to get better than this. The British left only 600-700 troops at Stony Point. The defenses were intimidating, but Washington wasn’t fielding militia; he had battle-hardened Continental Soldiers, and a General they called “Mad Anthony” to lead them.
This is not some tiny stream.
The American plan seemed as Mad as Gen. Anthony Wayne. The Americans discovered that the British abatements didn’t extend into the river during low tide, so they could just go around the defenses if they timed their attack right. They created a three-pronged plan. Major Hardy Murfree would lead a very loud diversionary attack against the British center and create alarm in the enemy camp. Meanwhile, Gen. Wayne and Col. Richard Butler would assault either side of the defenses and flank the British. But they had to do it in total silence.
They unloaded their muskets and fixed bayonets to surprise the British.
They don’t call him “Mad” Anthony Wayne for nothing.
And the British were surprised. They were completely flanked on the sides of their abatements. As Murfree attacked the center, the other Americans completely rolled up the British defenses and cut off the regiments fighting Murfree in the center. They stormed the slopes of Stony Point and completely routed the British positions. They captured almost 500 enemy troops, and stores of food and weapons.
In a dispatch to Washington, Anthony wrote that the fort and its garrison were now theirs and that “Our officers men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”
For much of the Second World War, German engineers and scientists were at the top of their game in developing nuclear fission. As early as 1939, the best minds in Germany were put to work on splitting the atom. They were attempting to use heavy water to control the fission process. Their main source of heavy water production was in occupied Norway, which was a devastating mistake.
They would never get the chance to develop an atomic bomb because Norwegian resistance fighters would blow up the heavy water facilities rather than help the Nazis win World War II.
British commandos tried to destroy the Vemork heavy water facilities in 1942 but were unsuccessful. Operation Grouse planned for Norwegian scouts to recon the area and provide intelligence for British commandos, who would land in gliders and assault the facility under Operation Freshman. But the gliders carrying the Freshman commandos crashed in the local area. One hit a mountain, killing everyone aboard. The other crashed, and some of the commandos survived, but were summarily executed by the Gestapo.
But the Grouse Norwegians were still operating in the area, living off the land, waiting for further instructions.
With the Norwegians still in position, the plan was given a second go-ahead. The Grouse scouts were now called Operation Swallow and the second raid on Vemork was dubbed Operation Gunnerside. The Gunnerside assault team would be an all-Norwegian squad, parachuting in to rendezvous with the Swallow team. Gunnerside launched on Feb. 16, 1943 – and immediately, things went wrong.
Though not as catastrophic as the first raid on Vemork, these problems caused major delays. The infiltrating Norwegians were dropped into Norway under the cover of snowfall, but they were accidentally dropped miles away from their target. It took the team five days to get to Vemork. They made it, though, and were able to connect with the Swallow group.
Unfortunately for the new raiders, the failure of the previous raid on Vemork prompted the Nazis to improve the facilities defenses. All the direct routes into the facility were now heavily guarded or mined. The raiders were forced to climb down into a gorge, cross a frozen river, and then climb a 500-foot cliff wall to access the building. There was a piece of luck for the Norwegians, however. A railroad line in the gorge led to the facility and was relatively unguarded.
After cutting into the facility’s fence, the group split into two teams: a four-man explosives unit and a five-man cover unit. The explosives team was accidentally split up after two men entered the facility through an access tunnel. The two others, presumably lost, broke in through a window. Each team set their explosives independently, cut their timing cord from two minutes to thirty seconds, and bolted.
The successful saboteurs fled on skis toward the town of Rjukan, where they split up. The four men in the explosive unit skied in full British uniforms the entire 200 miles to the border with Sweden. The cover team spread out to draw the Germans away. The Nazis launched a full search for their infiltrators, but none were captured or killed in their pursuit.
The commanding officer of all German forces stationed in Norway called the damage caused by Operation Gunnerside as “the most splendid coup.” The facility was up and running again soon after, but an American bombing raid would force the Germans to move their heavy water production to Germany. All the heavy water from the plant was moved to a ferry for safekeeping in Germany.
That ferry was sunk by Norwegian saboteurs on its way back to the Reich.