This is how the military challenge coin came to be - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

Challenge coins mean different things to different troops. Senior enlisted and officers tend to place them on a desk to gloat to peers and the more junior troops slam them on the bar to see who’s buying the next round. How you earn the coin also ranges widely, from “pleasure to meet you, have a coin” to “you made a great cup of coffee, have a coin” to even “you did something worthy of an award, but nah — have a coin.”


Throughout history, warriors have carried coins, going as far back as the ancient Greeks and, eventually, the Romans. Coins carried by warriors were seen as the payment for the ferryman, Charon, to be exchanged for passage into the afterlife. They served as a memento mori, which roughly translates from Latin to mean, “remember that you will die.” This is also the root of the English word ‘memento.’ Even back in the Civil War, troops from both armies carried coins with them as a cheap reminder of being back home.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

The legend of the challenge coins, as we know them, started with WWI pilots. A young and rich lieutenant felt the need to flaunt his wealth to his new peers, so he spent his own money to buy solid bronze medallions of his unit insignia for his peers. Another pilot accepted it as a nice gift and wore it in a small leather pouch around his neck. Shortly after, he would be shot down behind enemy lines. He was captured by Germans, who stripped him over everything, but overlooked his medallion.

Related: These are some of the best military challenge coins

He escaped in civilian attire, crossed no man’s land undetected, and stumbled into a French outpost. Unfortunately, the French didn’t understand English nor his American accent and thought he was a German saboteur. The Germans took every bit of personal identification from the American pilot, so the only proof he had to show the French to not shoot him was the bronze unit medallion his rich peer gave him.

One French captor recognized the insignia and delayed his execution until they could confirm if he was American or not. Instead of a bullet to the head, the French gave him a bottle of wine and sent him on his way. When the pilot returned and told everyone of what happened, carrying those medallions became immediately important among all pilots. This also started the joke punishment of having to buy the next round if you’re not carrying your coin.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
So, if you’re wondering, nearly every tradition the military dates back to WWI. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Another lower enlisted tradition began in post-WWII Germany as assigned U.S. troops would carry West German money with them. The exchange rate was so bad that the One Pfennig coin was hardly worth a fraction of a penny and had nearly zero value to American troops. So, only the poorest of the poor would bother saving them — until troops gathered to drink. If someone would shout, “Pfennig check!” everyone would empty their pockets to see who was poor (if you had the near-worthless coin) and who wasn’t (if you were above keeping them). If you were “rich” enough to not need to carry a worthless coin, you were rich enough to buy your brother-in-arms a drink. This soon shifted to include challenge coins, which also had no monetary value.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These four photos are the only ones ever taken inside a Nazi death camp

The “Sonderkommando Photographs” are the only known photos taken of the gas chambers and cremation pits at Auchwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp. Shot by a Greek prisoner, the four photos were smuggled to the Polish Resistance where they were cropped and retouched to make them clearer. They were published in a 1945 Polish legal report about the camp. They were later published in a Polish-language book, called “We Have Not Forgotten.”


 

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in occupied Poland was among the most notorious of the Nazi death camps. The SS guards there methodically killed inmates once they were no longer deemed fit to work by leading them into a gas chamber under the auspices that they were taking a shower.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
Photo 280

The Nazi death camp used Jewish inmates — called sonderkommandos — to work the gas chambers and the four crematoria. The sonderkommandos would collect the dead inmates’ personal belongings and dispose of the bodies.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
282 shows women being taken into the Auschwitz gas chamber.

One such prisoner was Alberto Errera, a Greek naval officer who was eventually killed by the guards after punching a Nazi SS officer. He took the photos with a German Leica that was smuggled into the camp by four other prisoners. They had to be careful when taking the photos, as the SS guards would have surely killed them had they been were discovered.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
A cropped and corrected version of 281

The Greek prisoner shot the photos from the hip while the other four men kept an eye out for the guards. As a result, some of the photos are strangely framed, showing only trees. All of the photos were reportedly taken within 20 minutes of each other.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
Cropped, corrected 280

The film was smuggled out of the camp via a toothpaste tube carried by the woman who ran the SS’ canteen. She got the film to the Polish Resistance, along with a note from two political prisoners that read the following:

Urgent. Send two metal rolls of film for 6×9 as fast as possible. Have possibility of taking photos. Sending you photos of Birkenau showing prisoners sent to gas chambers. One photos shows one of the stakes at which bodies were burned when the crematoria could not manage to burn all the bodies. The bodies in the foreground are waiting to be thrown into the fire. Another picture shows one of the places in the forest where people undress before ‘showering’ – as they were told – and then go to the gas-chambers. Send film roll as fast as you can. Send the enclosed photos to Tell – we think enlargements of the photos can be sent further.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
283. Just the branches of a nearby tree.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How American naval tech advanced during the Civil War

The land battles of the Civil War, like the Battle of Gettysburg, often draw much of the attention when discussing the war. And they should — many of these conflicts were massive in scope, accounting for tens of thousands of casualties.


However, the Civil War was also notable for the great leaps in naval technology that took place in just four years. At the start of the conflict, navies still relied on wooden ships powered by sails that used wind power to travel the seas. The wood was necessary, as it was light enough to be pushed by gusts at a decent speed.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
The end of the Age of Sail: The frigate USS Cumberland is rammed and sunk by CSS Virginia on March 8, 1862. (Curier and Ives from Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of the conflict, ships were powered by coal-burning steam engines. This effectively liberated ships from the whims of the wind, allowing them to sail direct courses to their destinations. Even though the ships became heavier as a result, they would travel faster using a powerful engine.

The engines also allowed the ships to don armor to protect them enemy fire. Nowhere was that more evident than when the ironclad ram CSS Virginia attacked the Union fleet off Hampton Roads, Virginia.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
These plans of USS Monitor show the advanced technology that the Navy adopted in the Civil War: Steam engines, iron armor, and a turret. (U.S. Navy photo)

Even the way naval armament was mounted changed, moving from lines of side-mounted cannon to two-gun turrets. In the old days, a ship had to turn to bring half their main battery’s firepower to bear on the enemy. Turrets allowed a ship to hold its course and still bring all of its firepower to a fight.

USS Monitor was the first vessel to tie all these new technologies together. This made her the most powerful warship on the high seas from the time she entered the United States Navy to the time of her unfortunate sinking during a storm on Dec. 31, 1862.

Learn more about Civil War naval technology in the video below.

 

(Civil War Trust | YouTube)
MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Finns stopped the Soviets with this polka song

There’s a subsection of YouTube dedicated to playing the same song on repeat, over and over again, for hours at a time. Parents think it’s just a part of raising children when they have to listen to the same kids’ song, over and over again, for days at a time. Both of these cases have nothing on the five months of playing the exact same polka song over 1,500 times, continuously, as the Soviets retreated from Finland during the Continuation War.


As the Finns recaptured the city of Vyborg from the Soviets, they would have to travel across land saturated with mines left behind by the Soviets.  When the Finns chased out Soviet soldiers, the Soviets retreated to safety, the mines detonated and devastated the Finns. There were so many mines left that civilians, even after reclaiming the city, were still forbidden to reenter their homes.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
…if they still had one. (Photo via War Archive)

This was until an unexploded mine and the radio equipment next to it was brought to Jouko Pohjanpalo, credited as being the “father of Finnish radio” for his work establishing the Finnish radio field. Jouko tinkered with the explosives and the associated radio device and discovered that it operated at the frequency 715 kHz. Inside the radio receiver were three tuning forks. When a certain three-note sequence was sent over the radio and all three forks vibrated — boom.

Now all they needed to do was send out a signal to jam the sequence. They needed something fast with a lot of chords that wouldn’t also set off the mines. So, they played Säkkijärven Polkka by Viljo “Vili” Vesterinen. It was an immensely popular song at the time and many Finns associated it with great national pride, similar to how Americans feel today hearing America, F*ck Yeah!

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

And so began Operation: Säkkijärvi Polkka. The Finns blasted the song at 715 kHz so the mines wouldn’t explode and they continued to fight. The Soviets learned what was going on and changed the radio frequency for their mines. Because the Soviets didn’t change the mines, just the frequency, the Finns played the song on repeat on every frequency the mines could possibly operate on. Out of the one thousand or so mines in the city, only 12 went off.

In a press interview years later, Jouko told them,

In the crowds and the homeland, the operation received a legendary reputation because of its mystery. Säkkijärvi’s polka went together about 1,500 times. All kinds of rumors circulated about somebody crazy enough to have emitted it on every radio station.

To hear the majestic polka song that helped win a war, check out the video below.

(Dallape30 | YouTube)

Articles

This mistress tried to get a future president to back Germany in World War I

President Warren G. Harding served for just over two years as president before dying in office. Before that, his administration was known more for back-door cronyism than sound public policy.


This is how the military challenge coin came to be
President Warren G. Harding. (Photo: Public Domain)

But Harding had a secret that wouldn’t come out until well after his death. He had a long-time mistress who was a deep and vocal supporter of Germany during the buildup to World War I, and she lobbied hard for her lover to gain similar sympathies.

Carrie Fulton Phillips was the wife of a store owner in Ohio. Phillips and Harding began their affair in 1905 when Harding was the lieutenant governor of Ohio. Harding spent the next 15 years sleeping with Phillips when possible and campaigning for various Republican offices when she wasn’t.

This included Harding’s time as a senator and his run-up to the presidency. During this period, Phillips wrote at length to Harding about the glories of Imperial Germany and her sympathies with the German people. Harding famously replied on official Senate stationery with descriptions of his penis.

Ironically, his nickname for his penis was “Jerry,” the nickname American troops gave to German soldiers.

Phillips’ support of Germany only became more open when Harding took office as a senator. Eventually, this led to surveillance by the Bureau of Investigation, now the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and rumors that she was a spy.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
Carrie Fulton Phillips still wanted Americans charging on this hill, she just wanted them to charge the other direction. (Photo: Public Domain)

While the idea of Phillips convincing a rising senator and future president to support Germany in World War I makes for an interesting alternate history where Germany wins World War I or the two countries get the team back together for World War II, the reality was that Harding was never very pro-German.

A post on the National Archives and Records Administration blog says “Harding praised Phillips’s ‘perfect thighs’ and ‘beautiful form’ but found her pro-German sympathies less attractive.”

Phillips interrupted a session of lovemaking in April 1917, the same month America entered the war against Germany, to lobby on behalf of Germany and threaten Harding with exposure. The senator was angered by her arguments and later wrote of his shock at her actions.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
President Warren G. Harding was surprised that he had to stop having sex. These U.S. soldiers on their way to the front in 1918 were probably more annoyed that their next president had a pro-Germany girlfriend. (Photo: Public Domain)

All of her lobbying largely failed. While America could have gone either way or stayed neutral early in World War I, the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by a German sub had tipped the U.S. strongly against the Central Powers.

Harding voted in support of the America’s entrance into World War I in 1917 and most laws that paid for it. When he opposed a bill in 1918 that would have expanded the president’s powers, he had to deal with rumors that Phillips was changing his vote.

For what it’s worth, Phillips probably wasn’t a spy for Germany, just a fan of the country. Historians who looked into German records could find no evidence of a spy sleeping with a senator, something German spymasters in America would have reported as a major achievement.

And Phillips’ and Harding’s relationship ran cold before he took presidential office. While Harding was campaigning for the presidency, Phillips threatened him with exposure if he didn’t send her a large sum of money. Harding eventually agreed to $5,000 per month for as long as he was in public office. This amounts to $62,572.75 per month when adjusted for inflation.

Harding died of a heart attack in Aug. 1923, just over two years after taking office.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This legendary Navy skipper sank 19 enemy ships

In the early months of 1943, the USS Wahoo was on its third war patrol when the sub and its crew found themselves under the new leadership of Lt. Commander Dudley Morton after relieving Marvin Kennedy from his duty.


After serving in the Asiatic Fleet, the Kentucky native and Naval Academy graduate recognized that many of the submarine skippers weren’t as aggressive as he felt they needed for certain victory.

Related: Life aboard WWII submarines was brutal

 

Highly motivated to prove his worth, Morton sailed his crew to New Guinea’s Wewak Harbor to attack a Japanese Destroyer. After firing five torpedoes at the enemy vessel and missing, the Japanese ship began to charge the Wahoo at full-speed.

Morton prepared his sailors and instructed them to remain calm. Once the enemy destroyer was within an 800-meter range, Morton once again ordered his crew to fire a torpedo, which resulted in a direct hit.

The Wahoo would sink four additional ships before heading back to home base, Pearl Harbor.

Over the next to two patrols, Morton and the Wahoo destroyed nine merchant ships, including a 15,000-ton seaplane tender, and began earning a name for himself racking up legendary numbers.

After a brief period back at Pearl Harbor to reload, the Wahoo set sail for the Sea of Japan and sank four other ships in the first week of October — bringing the tally up to 19.

It’s reported that on Oct. 11th, the Wahoo was hit by Japanese depth charges and aerial bombs, which damaged Morton’s submarine and caused her to sink near the near La Pérouse Strait — killing everyone on board.

Morton was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross for his work as USS Wahoo’s skipper.

Also Read: This new speedboat-submarine could change amphibious warfare forever

Check out the Smithsonian channel video below honoring Morton as a fallen American hero.

(Smithsonian Channel, YouTube)

MIGHTY HISTORY

The submarine that smuggled 130 soldiers out of Crete

In August 1941, a submarine crew that already had a series of crazy, Mediterranean adventures under its belt slid up to the coast of Crete, a sailor swam from the boat to the shore with a lifeline, and the submarine rescued 130 stranded soldiers, setting a record for people crammed into one submarine in the process.


This is how the military challenge coin came to be

An Italian ship burns in the Mediterranean while under fire from an Allied vessel.

(Australian War Memorial)

The Mediterranean and Middle East Theater of World War II get short shrift next to the much more famous European, Pacific, and even North African theaters. But the Mediterranean was home to some fierce fighting and amazing stories, like that of the submarine HMS Torbay. Originally launched in 1938, the submarine was commissioned in 1941 and sent to the central and eastern Mediterranean.

Once there, the crew proved itself to be straight P-I-M-P. It slaughtered the small, wooden ships from Greece that Germany had pressed into service for logistics, and it took down multiple tankers and other ships. At one point, it even attacked a convoy with both an Italian navy and air escort, narrowly escaping the depth charges dropped near it. They were ballsy.

But while the Torbay was killing Italian and German ships and escaping consequence-free, even when it’s by the skin of the crew’s teeth, other forces in the area weren’t faring so well. The New Zealanders, British, Australian, and Greek troops holding Greece were being beaten back by a German assault. The Balkans had oil that Germany desperately needed, and the sparse forces there simply could not hold the line.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

German paratroopers land in Crete during the 1941 invasion.

(Bundesarchiv Bild)

Defenders fought a slow withdrawal south in April 1941, eventually falling back to the island of Crete. Forces there were brave, but doomed. There was almost no heavy equipment. Troops had to defend themselves with just their personal weapons while they could only entrench by digging with their helmets.

Glider- and airborne troops hit the island on May 20, quickly seizing an airfield and using it to reinforce their units. The defenders fought hard for a week and then began evacuating. Over 16,000 troops were successfully withdrawn, and another 6,500 surrendered to the Germans.

But, in secret, at least 200 troops were still on the island. During the night on July 26, these troops signaled the submarine HMS Thrasher by flashing a light in an SOS pattern. The Thrasher gathered 78 survivors, but was forced to leave more than 100 on the beach.

An Italian ship burns in the Mediterranean while under fire from an Allied vessel.

(Australian War Memorial)

Soon after, the Torbay was sent to patrol the Gulf of Sirte, and it survived a torpedo attack as well as a fight with an escorted convoy. It sank a sailing vessel with scuttling charges, and then got word of the men on the beach of Crete. The Torbay sailed there to help.

Despite the tight quarters on the small submarine, the HMS Torbay loaded men through the dark of August 18-19 and again August 19-20. A submariner, Petty Officer Philip Le Gros, swam across from the sub to the beach with a lifeline and helped the men get from shore to safety.

Between the two nights, the Torbay onloaded 130 men, setting a record for most people in a submarine at once. Obviously, with quarters that cramped, they couldn’t continue their wartime patrol, so they took the passengers to Alexandria, Egypt.

That wasn’t the end of the Torbay’s adventures. It took part in a failed attempt to kidnap German Gen. Erwin Rommel, and it once followed an entire convoy into a protected harbor in an attempt to slaughter it. The Torbay later served in the North Atlantic until the end of the war.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Chesty Puller may have been America’s first Wolverine

Marine Corps legend Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller is known today for his heroics and his chest full of medals, but some Marines claimed in 1984 that the nickname was a reference to Puller’s metal ribcage, a prosthetic that was placed there after his chest was shot and chopped up by Haitian rebels.


You heard that right: The claim was that Chesty had a metal skeleton like the Marvel hero Wolverine.

 

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
The resemblance is uncanny. (Photo: US Marine Corps)

His nickname, “Chesty,” actually came from his impressive physique and stance, according to a Marine Corps article originally published in 1948 when Puller was a major and the acting commander of a battalion.

The writer of the article, Marine Sgt. Nolle T. Roberts, goes on to describe some stories that Puller’s men had added to his nickname after the fact, including the story of the Wolverine ribcage:

The nickname, “Chesty,” was a natural in view of the colonel’s ramrod stance and belligerent appearance and nature. However, the men of the wartime First Division boasted that Col. Puller had a false “steel chest,” apparently replacing the natural bone structure which had been hacked away by machette-swinging bandits in the Banana Wars. A few claimed that he developed the chest from shouting commands above the noise of battle.

Puller’s chest was likely made with steel because the Army was hoarding all the Adamantium to eventually create Wolverine.

For his part, Puller didn’t quite seem to understand the nickname or the stories surrounding it. In a 1954 letter to Maj. Frank C. Sheppard, Puller wrote:

I agree with you 100% I had done a little soldiering previous to Guadalcanal and had been called a lot of names, but why ‘Chesty?’ Especially the steel part?

The “little soldiering” that Puller is referring to included combat deployments to both Haiti and Nicaragua. Puller supported government forces in Nicaragua and earned his first two Navy Crosses leading units of local fighters against numerically superior rebel forces. So, “a little soldiering” was likely tongue-in-cheek, and it’s easy to see why Puller’s men may have seen him as a man of steel.

While Puller may not have understood the nickname, it’s become a part of Marine Corps culture. Puller is more commonly known by his nickname “Chesty” than by his actual name.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is what other countries thought about the US Civil War

It may seem weird that another country would just show up to war to have a look, but it used to be a fairly common activity, one the United Nations still practices. A military observer is a diplomatic representative of sorts, used by one government to track the battles, strategies, and tactics used in a war it isn’t fighting, but may have an interest in watching — and learning from.

Professional soldiers were embedded within fighting units, but were not considered diplomats, journalists, or spies. They wore the uniform of their home country and understood the importance of terrain, technology, and military history as it played out on the latest battlefield. The Civil War had no shortage of interest from the rest of the world.


England, France, and Germany all sent observers to both sides of the fighting as early as 1862. They were concerned with the technologies related to metallurgy, rifling of cannons, explosive shells, cartridge calibers, and, of course, the new observation balloons used in the war. German observers were concerned with the power of militia and volunteer forces in the face of a standing, professional army. These observations formed many of the tactical developments used in later conflicts, especially World War I.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

General Helmuth von Moltke the Elder had strong opinions on the U.S. Civil War.

The Prussians, with an aforementioned interest in the superiority of professional armies, didn’t think much of the armies fighting the war. While noting the tactics used by American fighting men, Prussian observers thought the New World’s way of war was inferior to the Prussians’.

One Prussian captain, Justus Scheibert, divided the war into three phases. The first was made up of the disorganized skirmishes. At this point, neither side had really come to grips with the war and their own strategic capabilities. The second phase, which ran from 1862 through the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, was defined by a refinement in battlefield formations, which were used to great effect by both sides. After Gettysburg through to the war’s end, the fighting became defensive for both sides, where belligerents fought for inches of battlefield instead of mounting a great retreat or advance.

Scheibert believed that the construction of defensive fortifications that allowed officers time to make careful decisions replaced the skill of trained professional officers in quick decision making. Like many historians in the decades following the war, he cited Union manpower and industrial output as the chief tools of victory for the war while praising Confederate General Robert E. Lee for his innovations that allowed Confederate troops to stay relatively fresh and punch above their weight class, even when outnumbered.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

Despite proclaimed neutrality, thousands of British citizens volunteered on both sides of the conflict.

The British, meanwhile, were horrified at the war’s destruction and bloody death toll. The British government wanted the horror to stop and felt compelled to pressure the United States to accept a negotiated, two-state solution. London could not understand Lincoln’s motivation for keeping the Union together by force in a democracy where people are supposed to be able to determine their own futures by voting. Neither Britain nor France understood why the North and South both rejected publicly making the war about its central cause: slavery. They simply did not understand the politics of the U.S. as well as President Lincoln and did not understand the Confederate government’s chief fears as Jefferson Davis saw them.

London was also turned off by the Confederate threat of an embargo of cotton exports to Great Britain. It turns out they played this hand much too early, as British merchants would seek alternatives and replacements for Confederate cotton as early as 1861. But as the level of death and destruction rose, both Britain and France began to plan to intervene for the South. Even Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation angered European powers, who saw the limited emancipation as nothing more than an attempt to incite a mass slave uprising to save face in losing the war.

The only thing that saved the Union from a combined French-British intervention was the risk or war with the United States and that the South had not yet proven that it could fight the Union Army to a greater defeat on the battlefield.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

British observer Arthur James Lyon Fremantle visited much of the Confederacy in 1863. His exploits were well-documented.

One British observer actually visited nine of the eleven Confederate States during the war. Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, just 25 years old, took leave of the British Army to travel to Texas via Mexico, moving through nearly the whole of the Confederacy, He met Generals Lee, Bragg, and Longstreet, to name the most important, along with Confederate officials, including President Jefferson Davis. After observing the Battle of Gettysburg (where he met the Prussian Captain Scheibert), he crossed the lines and moved north to New York, where he left for home.

The Britisher remarked that Texas was the most lawless state in the Confederacy, that even Confederate generals were notably impoverished, but were in such good humor that they could ride their confidence into battle. As for the generals themselves, he thought it was amazing that a general like Longstreet would lead men into full-frontal assaults, and that a man like General Lee would speak to individual troops while taking responsibility for the losses on the field.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

Unidentified; State Department Messenger Donaldson; Unidentified; Count Alexander de Bodisco; Count Edward Piper, Swedish Minister; Joseph Bertinatti, Italian Minister; Luis Molina, Nicaraguan Minister (seated); Rudolph Mathias Schleiden, Hanseatic Minister; Henri Mercier, French Minister; William H. Seward, Secretary of State (seated); Lord Richard Lyons, British Minister; Baron Edward de Stoeckel, Russian Minister (seated); and Sheffield, British Attache.

(Diplomats at the Foot of an Unidentified Waterfall – NY State, August 1863)

The French were interested in a Union loss and the creation of a new republic, carved from the remnants of the United States because they were determined to recoup the losses suffered at the hands of the British during the colonization of the new world. France’s criteria for intervention were much the same as Britains, but were dashed after the Union victory in the war and any preparations made to use Mexico to capture former French territory west of the Mississippi were scrapped.

Though the world’s other powers didn’t think much of the war and its fighting for the duration, the preparations they all made throughout the war and in the years immediately following shows the lasting impact it had on global politics. In all, visitors from Germany, Britain, Italy, France, Russia, Nicaragua, and Austria all visited various battles of the war. The lasting legacy of this impact is the continued debate over what might have been, even more than 150 years later.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A sixth grade history project exonerated the captain of the USS Indianapolis

In 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed its top secret mission of delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian Island in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The heavy cruiser was sunk on its way to join a task force near Okinawa. Of the ship’s 1195 crewmembers, only 316 survived the sinking and the subsequent time adrift at sea in the middle of nowhere. Among the survivors was the captain of the Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay III.


McVay would be charged with negligence in the loss of the ship. Even though he was restored to active duty after his court-martial and retired a rear admiral, the guilt of the loss haunted him for the rest of his life. He committed suicide with his Navy revolver on his own front lawn with a toy sailor in his hand.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

Even he doubted his own innocence.

McVay did everything he could in the wake of the torpedoing of the Indianapolis. He sounded the alarm, giving the order to abandon ship and was one of the last men off. Many of the survivors of the sinking publicly stated he was not to blame for its loss. But this wasn’t enough for the family members of the ship’s crew, who hounded McVay year after year, blaming him for the loss of their sons.

The Navy was partly to blame. They didn’t warn Indianapolis that the submarine I-58 was operating along the area of the ship’s course to Okinawa. They also didn’t warn the ship to zigzag in its pattern to evade enemy submarines. When the Indianapolis radioed a distress signal, it was picked up by three Navy stations, who ignored the call because one was drunk, the other had a commander who didn’t want to be disturbed, and the last thought it was a trap.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

One of the survivors of the Indianapolis during his rescue.

Three and a half days later, the survivors were rescued from the open water, suffering from salt water poisoning, exposure, hypothermia, and the largest case of shark attacks ever recorded. It was truly a horrifying scene. The horror is what led to McVay’s court martial, one of very few commanders to face such a trial concerning the loss of a ship. Even though the Japanese commander of I-58, the man who actually destroyed the Indianapolis, told the U.S. Navy that standard Navy evasion techniques would not have worked – Indianapolis was doomed from the get-go. Even that didn’t satisfy McVay’s critics.

It wasn’t until sixth-grader Hunter Scott began a history project in school about the sinking of the Indianapolis. He poured through official Navy documents until he found the evidence he needed to conclusively prove that McVay wasn’t responsible for the loss of his ship. His project caught the attention of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who helped pass a Congressional resolution exonerating McVay. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

Lieutenant Hunter Scott with a survivor of the Indianapolis.

Hunter Scott, the onetime sixth-grader and eternal friend to the crew of the Indianapolis, is now a naval aviator. He attended the University of North Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship and joined active duty in 2007. He even spoke at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Articles

World War I MacArthur was a bad ass

Gen. Douglas MacArthur is well known for his exploits in WWII and Korea. What is often overlooked is his exemplary combat record as a leader in the 42nd “Rainbow” Division in World War I.


This is how the military challenge coin came to be
Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur reveling in victory of the Germans in St. Benoit Chateau, France. (National Archives, 1918)

At the outset of the Great War, MacArthur was appointed Chief of Staff of the 42nd Division and promoted to a wartime rank of Colonel. He and the rest of the division arrived in France in November 1917.  

The 42nd entered the line in February of 1918 and MacArthur wasted no time getting into the war. On February 26, MacArthur and another American officer accompanied a French unit on a nighttime raid of a German trench. MacArthur gained valuable experience for his own troops to employ but, more importantly, greatly aided in the effort to capture German prisoners for interrogation. The French awarded him with a Croix de Guerre while Maj. Gen. Charles Menoher awarded him a Silver Star.

Also read: 8 amazing facts about General Douglas MacArthur

Then on March 9, MacArthur joined Company D, 168th Infantry Regiment in an attack of their own. Being their first major action, MacArthur’s presence and coolness under fire inspired the men and they quickly carried the enemy position. MacArthur himself described it as a “roaring avalanche of glittering steel and cursing men.” For his bravery in the attack, MacArthur was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was also lightly wounded and received his first Purple Heart.

MacArthur received a promotion to Brigadier General on June 26, 1918 after he and the men of the 42nd held the line against the German Spring Offensive for 82 days.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
Brig. Gen. MacArthur (third from the left) receives the Distinguished Service Cross. (U.S. Army, 1918)

After a short rest, the division was quickly put back into the line to prepare for the German offensive in the Champagne-Marne sector. As the German onslaught surged forward under a rolling barrage, MacArthur once again joined his troops on the line to steady their nerves. As the Germans broke through the forward lines, MacArthur shouted encouragement and rallied his men for a fight. The German advance was broken up and MacArthur received a second Silver Star.  

After successfully holding the line, the division was moved to Chateau-Thierry to relieve the 26th Division and to maintain pressure on the retreating Germans. MacArthur led his men in a brutal offensive day after day in small unit actions and raids. As they approached the Main Line of Resistance, MacArthur led several large scale assaults to drive the Germans out of strong points and villages. One village changed hands eleven times before the Americans finally laid claim to the smoldering ruins.

Then on July 29, MacArthur led a valiant assault against the Germans at Seringes et Nesles. Under intense enemy fire, the men forded a stream and rushed up the slopes of the defenses before driving off the German defenders. For his part in the action MacArthur was awarded a third Silver Star.

Just days later, MacArthur was placed in command of the 42nd Division’s 84th Infantry Brigade after its former commander was relieved of duty. One of MacArthur’s first orders of business was to personally conduct a reconnaissance of German positions thinking that they might have withdrawn. He and a runner crawled through the mangled corpses and dying wounded of the German defenders left behind. In a tense moment MacArthur’s runner took out a machine gun position with a grenade before they could be spotted.

Eventually they reached the brigade on their flank and determined that the Germans had indeed withdrawn. MacArthur went straight to division headquarters to report his findings. After he explained his mission to his superiors, and passed out from not having slept in four days, the corps commander, Gen. Hunter Liggett, exclaimed “Well, I’ll be damned, Menoher, you better cite him!” MacArthur received his fourth Silver Star.

After another rest, MacArthur led the 84th Brigade in the main assault against the Germans at St. Mihiel on September 12, 1918. After months of fighting, MacArthur knew the German tactics; they would hold the center of the line while leaving the flanks weak. To counter this, his assault plan would fix the German center and then envelope the flanks. It worked, and on the first day of the attack the 84th Brigade drove farther than any other unit and suffered less casualties. They also captured some 10,000 German prisoners. This garnered MacArthur his fifth Silver Star.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
American engineers returning from the front at the Battle of St. Mihiel. (National Archives, 1918)

Two weeks later, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, MacArthur’s unit was ordered to conduct a diversionary raid against German strong points in their sector. MacArthur made a great show of it and, while accomplishing his diversionary mission, managed to suffer less than 20 casualties. For his exceptional leadership he was awarded a sixth Silver Star.

As the offensive continued on, MacArthur continued his valiant leadership. When his corps commander ordered the taking of a position — or to “turn in a list of 5,000 casualties” — MacArthur heartily replied, “We’ll take it, or my name will head the list.” MacArthur’s soldiers fought through bitter cold and determined resistance with mounting casualties, but they finally took the position. MacArthur was recommended for a promotion to Major General and a Medal of Honor. Instead, he received his second Distinguished Service Cross, which in the citation states: “On a field where courage was the rule, his courage was the dominant feature.”

Next, in the mad dash to take Sedan, MacArthur was awarded his seventh Silver Star when he averted a disastrous overlap of units from the 42nd and 1st Divisions by personally leaving friendly lines to communicate with the units involved at great personal risk to himself. During this period of fighting, MacArthur, known to not carry his gas mask as it impeded his movement, was gassed, earning a second Purple Heart.

For his exceptional service to the 42nd Division he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and also briefly made the division’s commanding officer in November 1918. His seven Silver Stars were a military record that stood until David Hackworth earned ten during fighting in Korea and Vietnam.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how early World War II cluster bombs worked

The Joint Direct Attack Munition gets a lot of attention for its ability to strike within 30 feet of a target, no matter what the weather is like. But with all that attention, other bombs get short shrift it seems. Take, for instance, the cluster bomb.


This is how the military challenge coin came to be

The German SD2 bore a resemblance to a butterfly, getting the nickname “Butterfly bomb.”

(U.S. Army)

JDAMs can’t do everything

The truth is that cluster bombs can do things that JDAMs simply can’t. In fact, the bombs are so useful that, this past December, Secretary of Defense James Mattis decided to reverse the Obama Administration’s plan to ditch these valuable weapons. Despite recent controversy and efforts to ban their use, systems like these have been around for decades.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

The CBU-103 is a modern cluster bomb, able to hit within 85 feet of its aimpoint with 202 BLU-97 submunitions from 10 miles away.

(U.S. Air Force)

Germany’s lethal “butterflies”

Cluster bombs first saw widespread use by both sides in World War II. The Germans used a version called the “Butterfly bomb,” also known as the SD2, which carried a number of “bomblets,” or four-and-a-half-pound submunitions. One attack in 1943 on British cities used over 3,000 of these bombs — some were set to go off immediately, others had a delayed detonation.

The system proved effective, so the United States made copies of that bomb: the M28 (100lbs) and the M29 (500lbs). The Americans added a proximity fuse to some of the bomblets, making them even more devastating to troops caught in the open.

www.youtube.com

Modern cluster bombs are more lethal

Today, modern cluster bombs, like the CBU-97, make attack planes like the F-15E Strike Eagle or strategic bombers like the B-1B Lancer capable of wiping out dozens of tanks in a single pass. Other cluster bombs opt to replace the boom with the ability to knock out a country’s electrical grid.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A brief, deadly history of chemical weapons

On April 22, 1915, a stiff wind outside of Ypres helped loose the first systematic poison-gas attack in history.

On a sunny afternoon in April 1915, outside the Belgian city of Ypres, the wind began blowing in the direction the German troops wanted – toward the French lines. German soldiers set up over 5,000 barrels of chlorine gas along their position, and let loose a rolling cloud of thick, yellow death. More than 6,000 French troops died in what was the first systematic use of poison gas on the battlefield. Its effectiveness caught even the Germans off guard. Willi Siebert, a German soldier, noted in his diary, “When we got to the French lines, the trenches were empty, but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable.” Just over 99 years later, on June 17, 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed chlorine gas was used by the Syrian government in an attack on its own people.


Origins and evolution

In 1918, a German chemist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for a method of extracting ammonia from the nitrogen in the atmosphere. The process made ammonia abundant and easily available. Haber’s discovery revolutionized agriculture, with some calling it the most significant technological discovery of the 20th century – supporting half of the world’s food base.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be
German chemistu00a0Fritz Haber.

Haber was also a staunch German patriot who quickly joined the war effort at the outbreak of World War I. He was insistent on using weaponized gases, despite objections from some army commanders about their brutality, and treaties prohibiting their use. He personally oversaw the first use of chlorine gas at the front lines at Ypres. The next morning, he set out for the eastern front to deploy gas against the Russian army.

Chemical weapons quickly became a mainstay of warfare, public condemnation notwithstanding. They were employed by the militaries of Italy, Russia, Spain, and Japan, among others.

Timeline: chemical weapons use

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

During the Cold War, the United States and the U.S.S.R. made major advances in chemical-weapons technology. Their breakthroughs were accompanied by innovations in nuclear-weapons technology. It was during this period that the third generation of chemical weapons was invented: nerve agents.

Within a century of their devastating debut at Ypres, chemical weapons have increased in lethality a thousandfold.

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

Use in Syria’s Civil War

This is how the military challenge coin came to be

Sources

  • Organization For The Prohibition Of Chemical Weapons (background, locations, types of weapons, stockpiles, number of weapons destroyed)
  • United Nations Human Rights Council (Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic)
  • National Institutes Of Health (effects, history, and lethality)
  • Smithsonian Institute (history)
  • Violations Documentation Center in Syria (fatalities)
  • Human Rights Watch (types of weapons, attack locations)
  • U.S. Defense Department (types of weapons)

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information