Nothing about America’s northern neighbor was ever sympathetic to the Nazis. Or any fascist regime. Canada declared war on Japan the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. didn’t even declare war until the day after.
And yet, in a suburb of Toronto, on the shores of Lake Ontario, there sits a stone cenotaph inside St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Cemetery, commemorating the soldiers of the Nazi 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS who died during World War II.
For those unfamiliar with the armed forces of Nazi Germany, the Schutzstaffel (SS for short) were the Nazi Party’s enforcement brigades. They were committed to policing the German population (and other populations, eventually), a secret police enforcing German law and Nazi racial purity laws. Some SS units were used in the notorious extermination camps across Europe.
The Waffen-SS were a series of armed combat units, dedicated to the Nazis, and not necessarily Germany. The ranks of the Waffen-SS weren’t only filled with Germans, however. After the launch of Operation Barbarossa, Waffen-SS units found volunteers and draftees from all over occupied Europe, mostly used to fight the Red Army on the Eastern Front. As many as a third of the Waffen-SS was made up of conscripts.
At the Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen-SS was found guilty of numerous war crimes, including crimes against humanity, the deportation of Jews, massacres at Oradour and Lidice, guarding and administration of concentration camps, killing of prisoners of war, among many others. So how the hell did a memorial to the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS end up in Toronto?
It’s no mistake. The memorial clearly contains the crest of the 14th Waffen-SS. It’s not even the only memorial to the SS in Canada. But the unit memorialized in St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Cemetery was made up of many Ukrainians who suffered under the famines that resulted from the Soviet Union’s agricultural policies. According to Canada’s Ottawa Citizen, many Ukrainian immigrants consider the Ukrainians who fought against the Soviets to be heroes. Canada lost an estimated 45,000 men fighting Nazi Germany in Europe.
Many Ukrainians also argue against the accusations the Ukrainian members of the SS participated in wartime atrocities at all. Those that did, they argue, were under the command of the Nazi Party, and weren’t acting as Ukrainians – except the unit received a visit from Henrich Himmler himself.
The memorial came under fire in 2020 after it was vandalized, the vandals calling the monument out for glorifying Nazi war criminals. The existence of the memorial came to the world’s attention after the Russian government tweeted about them.
The Iranian Navy sure does talk a big game for the sheer number of times it got slapped around in its home waters. When Iranian sailors captured U.S. Navy sailors in 2016, the usual response would have been a short, potent facepunch from a nearby carrier group. When President Obama opted not to slap them around, what should have seemed like a close call instead appears to have artificially inflated some Iranian egos, because traditionally, Iran is not good at Navy things.
Iran has been hit or miss on the water (usually miss) since they lost to the outnumbered Greeks at Salamis in 480 BC. Its biggest naval win came against Iraq on Sept. 28, 1980, a day they still celebrate as “Navy Day” because no other engagement would qualify. Ever since, Iran has been threatening anyone within earshot with its aging, rusted patchwork of garbage scows it calls a navy.
Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran, 1941
During World War II, the Allied powers thought neutral Iran was more likely to aid the Axis powers than the allies when push came to shove. Since Iran’s rich oil fields were not something anyone wanted in Hitler’s hands, the Soviets and the British Empire invaded Iran in August 1941. The British Commonwealth ships steamed into Abadan Harbor and promptly lit up the Iranian fleet, killing its leadership and deposing the Shah. The two allied powers then divided the country between them.
Operation Prime Chance 1987
After Iran crippled the Iraqi Navy during the early days of the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians pretty much had free rein to wreak as much havoc as they wanted on Iraqi shipping – even if those ships weren’t flagged as Iraqi. The Iranians began targeting tankers and container ships flagged as neutral countries in an effort to choke Iraq into submission. Pretty soon, other countries were reflagging their ships as American, both to deter the Iranians from attacking or laying mines and benefitting from U.S. protection.
The Iranians did not stop mining the Gulf, so the United States began setting up oil platforms as maritime staging areas for special operations missions. Operating from these bases, the Navy took down a number of Iranian minelayers while protecting international shipping lanes.
Operation Nimble Archer, 1987
U.S. forces attacked and burned Iranian oil platforms after Iran fired a missile at a Kuwaiti tanker, hitting it and wounding dozens of sailors. The Navy determined the attack came from an otherwise-unoccupied oil platform, which they next surrounded, boarded, and destroyed – using both Navy SEALs and accurate fire from four destroyers as well as aircraft.
The special operators who boarded the platforms also seized valuable classified intel, as the platforms were controlled by the Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Operation Praying Mantis, 1988
In 1988, it wasn’t a flagged merchant who hit an Iranian-laid mine. This time it was a US Navy ship, the USS Samuel B. Roberts. Unfortunately for Iran, Ronald Reagan was still President, and the USS Enterprise carrier group was in the area. An entire battalion of United States Marines assaulted an oil platform being used to stage Iranian attacks in the Gulf. When the platform tried to fire on the Americans, they were punished for the effort from US Navy destroyers and Cobra helicopters.
The Iranians responded by sending an Iranian missile boat, the Joshan, straight at the U.S. fleet. When Joshan missed that shot, the American fleets overwhelmed the ship with missiles and guns, sending her to the bottom. Meanwhile, Iranian aircraft and destroyers joined the fray, one destroyer was sunk the other was heavily damaged, and the Iranian fighters were no match for US Navy A-6 Intruders.
The screams of a fellow soldier trapped inside his armored vehicle pierced through the radio.
Apparently surrounded by the enemy with no more ammunition, the soldier cried for help saying his crew had all been killed.
But with his radio keyed open and no one able to talk back to him, then-Spc. 4 Dave Garrod and others in Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, could only listen to the desperate pleas.
“It was a knee knocker,” Garrod recalled as his 25th Infantry Division unit raced down to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, which was under siege by enemy forces. “I had no idea what we were driving into.”
On Jan. 30, 1968, the Vietnam War escalated as enemy forces launched surprise attacks during the country’s New Year holiday.
Then-Spc. 5 Dwight Birdwell, middle, seen on top of a tank during the Vietnam War. Birdwell and other Soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division’s 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment helped defend Tan Son Nhut Air Base in a Tet Offensive attack Jan. 31, 1968.
About 85,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army fighters rushed across the border to attack over 100 cities and towns in southern Vietnam in an attempt to break a stalemate in the war.
Weeks of intense fighting ensued causing heavy losses on both sides.
Before they could repel many of the attacks, thousands of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops would die. Tens of thousands of enemy fighters were also killed.
While not largely deemed a victory for the enemy forces, which suffered a greater toll, the attacks did trigger many in America to rethink U.S. involvement in the protracted war.
Tan Son Nhut
One of the enemy’s main targets was Tan Son Nhut, a key airbase near Saigon where the Military Assistance Command Vietnam and the South Vietnamese air force were headquartered.
After reports of Viet Cong fighters attempting to invade the airbase on Jan. 31, 1968, soldiers with 3rd Squadron’s Charlie Troop responded to the call.
As they drove toward the airbase in the early morning hours, then-Spc. 5 Dwight Birdwell remembers seeing no civilians along the highway — typically a bad omen.
Photos of Dwight Birdwell before he deployed to Vietnam.
Birdwell had seen attacks before during his tour, he said, but they were mainly mines or other small arms weapons fired by a hidden enemy. This day would be different.
When they arrived just outside the airbase, his unit’s column of tanks and armored personnel carriers suddenly stopped.
As if on cue, thousands of tracer rounds began to pepper the vehicles in front of his tank from both sides of the highway. Enemy fighters then jumped onto the vehicles, shooting inside of them.
“All hell broke loose,” Birdwell recalled.
A bullet then struck Birdwell’s tank commander right through the head and he collapsed inside the tank. Birdwell pulled him out, he said, and passed him over the side for medical treatment, which kept him alive.
Birdwell took command of the tank. By that time, all the vehicles ahead of him had been wiped out or were unable to return gunfire. Enemy fighters also set some ablaze after they failed to drive off with them.
“There was a lot of confusion and pandemonium,” he said.
His tank fired its 90 mm cannon toward the enemy while he shot off rounds from the .50-caliber machine gun to hold the enemy back.
Birdwell’s unit was stuck in the middle of an enemy invasion as hundreds of fighters had already crossed the highway and penetrated the airbase to his left. On his right side, even more fighters — some just 50 feet away — prepared to join the assault.
“They were getting close,” he recalled. “I could see their faces quite well.”
Around the same time he ran out of ammunition, a U.S. helicopter was hit and made an emergency landing behind his tank.
Spc. 4 Dave Garrod, left, poses for a photo with Spc. 5 Ed McKenna and Spc. 4 Joe Carlton during their tour in the Vietnam War.
“I thought that this is unreal,” Birdwell said. “Somebody is filming a movie.”
He jumped down from the tank and ran toward the helicopter. Once there, he grabbed one of the helicopter’s M-60 machine guns the door gunners had been using and returned to his position.
After a few minutes of firing rounds at the enemy, something hit the machine gun — likely an enemy bullet. The impact, he said, sprayed shrapnel up into his face and chest.
With the M-60 now destroyed, Birdwell said he took cover in a nearby ditch. He and a few soldiers then grabbed some M-16 rifles and grenades and moved to a closer position behind a large tree.
There, they exchanged gunfire and tossed grenades over the road until the enemy started to fire a machine gun at them.
As the barrage of bullets cut into the tree, it sounded like a chainsaw chewing it down.
“We were in a very desperate situation,” he said.
Around that time, Garrod’s Bravo Troop began to roll into the area.
Soldiers in a different platoon within Charlie Troop also arrived to suppress the attack from inside the base.
“After pulling on line we started laying down fire,” Garrod recalled, “and trying to keep it as low as possible so as not to fire on Charlie Troop on the road.”
Garrod and other soldiers were then pulled away to help wounded crewmen near a textile factory from which the enemy had been commanding its attack.
Once there, he ran over to a tank that had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Inside, he could see the tank’s loader who could not move due to his legs being seriously wounded.
“Being a small, skinny guy, I jumped down in the hatch and without thinking put him on my shoulders and stuck him up through the hatch,” he said.
Later that day, the intensity of the battle hit home for Garrod as he rested in the shade of his vehicle.
Dave Garrod, fifth from right, poses for a photo in front of a Vietnam War memorial near where the Tan Son Nhut Air Base attack occurred on Jan. 31, 1968.
He lifted his canteen up to take a drink when an awful smell overcame him.
“When I looked down on my flak jacket, there was a hunk of flesh from that loader,” he recalled. “It’s something that’s etched into your mind forever.”
Almost 20 soldiers from the squadron were killed and many more wounded as they defended the airbase that day. About two dozen South Vietnamese troops were also killed along with hundreds of enemy fighters.
Garrod earned an Army Commendation Medal with valor device for his actions and a Purple Heart in another mission a few days later. Birdwell earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
The squadron was also awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
Thirty years later, Garrod and other veterans traveled back to the site on the anniversary of the offensive as a way to find closure for what they saw that day.
They also visited a statue in a nearby park that honors those who were lost or suffered as a result of the battle.
Because of the devastation the war had caused, Garrod expected to see animosity on the faces of the Vietnamese people.
“Instead we found gracious, friendly people,” he said. “Even the veterans from the north whom we met … greeted us with hugs. It was very surprising. They had definitely moved on.”
The beat of the Native American drums reverberated through the halls of the clinic as Crow Nation drummers proudly sang a war song. The ceremony began with a Crow Nation prayer and the presentation of colors.
Hundreds were on hand to witness the long-awaited renaming ceremony of the Billings clinics for World War II Veterans Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, the last member of the Crow Tribe to become a war chief, and Benjamin Steele.
The Community Based Outpatient Clinic was renamed in honor of Medicine Crow and the Community Based Specialty Clinic was renamed in honor of Steele at the ceremony in February.
Shirley Steele beamed with pride while talking about her late husband. He was born and raised in Roundup, Mont., and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940. He was a Bataan Death March survivor and prisoner of war for more than three years. He died in September 2016 at the age of 98.
Tiara Medicine Crow, granddaughter of Joseph Medicine Crow, a Bronze Star holder, talked about her love of her grandfather and all that he meant to the Crow Nation.
A.J. Not Afraid, grandson-in-law of Joseph Medicine Crow and chairman of the Crow Nation, spoke to his history and accomplishments.
A.J. Not Afraid and a child performer attended the ceremony in traditional Crow Nation dress.
Joseph Medicine Crow was born on the Crow Indian Reservation in eastern Montana. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California in 1939. Medicine Crow was the first member of his tribe to attain that level of education. Medicine Crow joined the U.S. Army in 1943. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his service. He died in April of 2016 at the age of 102.
The photo at the top of this story is of Not Afraid and Shirley Steele.
The communist forces of Vietnam were largely successful, and for a lot of reasons. They were willing to undergo extreme discomfort and suffer extreme losses for their cause, they were resourceful, and they became more disciplined and well-trained over time. But there was a nightmare infrastructure that they created that also led to success: Those terrifying tunnels.
The fighting in Vietnam dated back to the 1940s when corrupt democratic officials turned the population largely against it. Communist forces preyed upon this, rallying support from the local population and building a guerrilla army, recruiting heavily from farming villages.
The ruling democratic regime patrolled mostly on the large roads and through cities because their heavy vehicles had trouble penetrating the jungles or making it up mountains.
By the time the U.S. deployed troops to directly intervene, regime forces had been overrun in multiple locations and had a firm foothold across large patches of the jungle, hills, and villages.
Viet Cong Tunnels and Traps – Platoon: The True Story
And while U.S. forces were establishing a foothold and then hunting down Viet Cong elements, the Viet Cong were digging literally hundreds of miles of tunnels that they could use to safely store supplies, move across the battlefield in secret, and even stage ambushes against U.S. troops.
The original Viet Cong tunnels were dug just after World War II as Vietnamese fighters attempted to throw off French colonial authority. But the tunnel digging exploded when the U.S. arrived and implemented a heavy campaign of airstrikes, making underground tunnels a much safer way to travel.
And with the increased size of the tunnel network, new amenities were added. Kitchens, living quarters, even weapon factories and hospitals were moved underground. The Viet Cong now had entire underground cities with hidden entrances. When the infantry came knocking, the tunnels were a defender’s dream.
The tight tunnels limited the use of most American weapons. These things were often dug just tall and wide enough for Viet Cong fighters, generally smaller than the average U.S. infantryman, to crawl through. When corn-fed Nebraskans tried to crawl through it, they were typically limited to pistols and knives.
Even worse for the Americans, the Viet Cong were great at building traps across the battlefield and in the tunnels. Poisoned bamboo shoots, nails, razor blades, and explosives could all greet an attacker moving too brashly through the tunnel networks.
This led to the reluctant rise of the “Tunnel Rats,” American warfighters who specialized in the terrible tasks of moving through the underground bases, collecting intelligence and eliminating resistance. Between the claustrophobia and the physical dangers, this could drive the Tunnel Rats insane.
Once a tunnel was cleared, it could be eliminated with the use of fire or C4. Collapsing a tunnel did eliminate that problem, and it usually stayed closed.
But, again, there were hundreds of miles of tunnels, and most of them were nearly impossible to find. Meanwhile, many tunnel networks had hidden chambers and pathways within them. So, even if you found a tunnel network and began to destroy it, there was always a chance that you missed a branch or two and the insurgents will keep using the rest of it after you leave.
And the tunnels even existed near some major cities. Attacks on Saigon were launched from the Cu Chi Tunnels complex. When U.S. and South Vietnamese troops went to clear them, they faced all the typical traps as well as boxes of poisonous snakes and scorpions.
And the clearance operation wasn’t successful in finding and eliminating the bulk of the tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were the ones used as staging points a weapons caches for the Tet Offensive.
The United States military’s code of conduct implores captured service members to continue to resist by any means possible. This often means reprisals from one’s captors. Therefore, surviving one stint in a POW camp can be excruciating.
To do it twice is unimaginable — except these three American servicemen did it.
1. Wendall A. Phillips
Phillips was assigned to the Air Transport Command as a radio operator on C-47 aircraft flying from bases in England.
While in Europe Phillips survived five separate crashes. During the last one, in late 1944, his aircraft was shot down. Though he walked away from the crash, he was unable to evade the Germans and was captured.
He and his fellow crewmembers were taken to a German POW camp in Belgium.
Phillips had no intention of sticking around though. After just 33 days Phillips and two other POW’s made a break for it.
Phillips simply snuck away while no guards were around. Finding a hole in the electric fence around the camp, Phillips and the other two men made good their escape and quickly found a place to hide.
Phillips travelled for three days before he linked up with the French Underground. The resistance fighters helped Phillips make it back to American lines.
After returning to American forces, Phillips was reassigned to the China-India-Burma Theater flying “the Hump” to bring supplies to forces fighting the Japanese.
Once again, Phillips’ airplane crashed and he was captured by the enemy.
According to an article in The Morning Call, Phillips endured torture at the hands of the Japanese — they even forcibly removed his fingernails trying to get information out of him.
Phillips would not escape this time but he would survive his ordeal as a POW; he was released with the Japanese surrender in 1945.
2. Felix J. McCool
When Gen. Wainwright conveyed the American surrender in the Philippines to President Roosevelt, he said, “there is a limit to human endurance, and that limit has long since been passed.” But Gen. Wainwright was certainly not speaking for one Marine sergeant, Felix J. McCool.
McCool was still recovering from wounds he had received earlier in resisting the Japanese when he, the 4th Marine Regiment, and the rest of the defenders of Corregidor were rounded up and shipped off to internment.
Just getting there was bad enough as the captives were crammed into cattle cars so tightly that when men passed out or died they could not even fall down.
But for McCool, being a Marine meant that he was not out of the fight. He did everything in his power to resist his Japanese captors.
While working as forced labor on an airfield McCool and his fellow prisoners created a tiger trap on the runway — they later watched as a Japanese airplane crashed and burned due to their handiwork.
McCool also managed to smuggle in medical supplies to help the sick and wounded.
He did this despite the constant threat of beatings and even summary execution. He carried on despite the horrendous conditions in the camp.
But there was worse to come.
McCool next endured a brutal voyage to Japan aboard a Japanese prisoner transport vessel, known as a “hell ship.” McCool survived the hellacious conditions only to be put to work in an underground coal mine. There he continued his resistance by sabotaging the work and keeping the faith with his fellow prisoners.
After thirteen months in the coal mine, McCool was freed by the ending of the war in the Pacific.
He returned to the United States and decided to stay in the Marine Corps. Then in 1950, now a Chief Warrant Officer, he found himself fighting the North Koreans.
McCool became part of the fateful Task Force Drysdale, an ad hoc, mixed-nationality unit that was attempting to fight its way toward the beleaguered Marines fighting at the Chosin Reservoir. When the task force was ambushed and separated along the roadway to Hagaru-ri, McCool was once again taken prisoner.
McCool and his fellow captives were marched far north through brutal cold with no rations. Once in their internment camp, the conditions hardly improved. Besides the brutal treatment, the men were also subjected to communist indoctrination and propaganda.
McCool’s resistance earned him the ire of his captors and they threw him in the Hole — a barely three foot square hole in the ground. But he endured.
McCool was repatriated with many other Americans during Operation Big Switch after the end of hostilities.
According to his award citations, McCool spent over six years as a prisoner of war between his two internments.
He later wrote a book about his experiences and the poetry that he wrote to keep himself going during those terrible times.
3. Richard Keirn
Richard Keirn was a young flight officer on a B-17 when he arrived in England in 1944. On Sept. 11, 1944, he took to the skies in his first mission to bomb Nazi Germany. It would also be his last.
Keirn’s B-17 was shot down that day and he became a POW for the remainder of the war. Released in May 1945 after the defeat of Germany, Keirn returned to the United States and stayed in the military. He became a part of the newly formed U.S. Air Force.
In 1965, Keirn embarked for Vietnam, flying F-4 Phantom II’s.
Some 53 years ago, in a faraway Special Forces camp in southeast Asia, Sergeant First Class Eugene Ashley Jr achieved immortality during one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War.
Ashley joined the Army in 1950. After finishing boot camp and Advanced Infantry Training, Ashley went to Germany. When the Korean War broke out in 1953, Ashley deployed in Korea with the 187th Regimental Combat Team. Then, for a brief period, Ashley got out of the Army and was placed in the Inactive Reserves. A few months later, he reenlisted and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. Up to that point, Ashley had trained in numerous military occupational specialties, including as an infantryman, ambulance driver, anti-aircraft ammunition handler, heavy weapons specialist, and parachute rigger; he had also held leadership positions at the squad and company level.
In 1966 he decided to make the jump to Special Forces and graduated from the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) a year later. Upon completion of training, Ashley was assigned first to the 7th Special Forces Group and later to the 3rd Special Forces Group. In 1968, he deployed to the Republic of Vietnam with Charlie Company, 5th Special Forces Group.
Ashley’s arrival to Vietnam coincided with the Tet Offensive, which began in January 1968 and would last till September. During Tet, the NVA and Vietcong took US and South Vietnamese forces by surprise and attacked several large cities throughout South Vietnam, including the capital Saigon where they briefly penetrated the US Embassy.
Once in country, Ashley found his way to the large Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh, which was under siege by the North Vietnamese. Although the majority of the NVA and Vietcong attacks during the Tet Offensive were quickly dealt with, the siege of Khe Sanh continued for months. Carrying morbid similarities with the Siege of Dien Bien Phu, where the French were defeated by the Vietminh in 1954 and were forced out of Indochina, the fighting at Khe Sanh drew international attention.
Close to Khe Sanh was the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp, which was just a mile-and-a-half from the border with Laos. Green Berets stationed in Lang Vei were no foreigners to NVA attacks. Artillery and sniper fire was a pretty common occurrence even before the Tet Offensive. But what was coming next was not common at all.
On the night of February 6, the NVA launched a tank assault on the Special Forces base. Radioing Khe Sanh for assistance, the Marines there couldn’t believe that NVA armor was within the Lang Vei perimeter—this was the first time the NVA had used tanks in force. During the initial hours of the battle, Ashley coordinated airstrikes and mortar and artillery fire in support of his fellow Green Berets in the camp. Then, seeing that reinforcements from Khe Sanh weren’t going to reach the overran camp in time, Ashley and other Green Berets took matters into their own hands.
Ashley hastily organized a relief force comprised of Special Forces operators and partner forces and led them to the nearby camp. In the ensuing hours, Ashley would lead five assaults against NVA tanks and heavy infantry. Time after time, Ashley led by example and destroyed numerous enemy positions. The fifth assault, however, would be his last.
Ashley’s Medal of Honor citation offers a glimpse of his actions on that fateful night.
“During his fifth and final assault, he adjusted airstrikes nearly on top of his assault element, forcing the enemy to withdraw and resulting in friendly control of the summit of the hill. While exposing himself to intense enemy fire, he was seriously wounded by machinegun fire but continued his mission without regard for his personal safety. After the fifth assault he lost consciousness and was carried from the summit by his comrades only to suffer a fatal wound when an enemy artillery round landed in his area. Sergeant Ashley displayed extraordinary heroism in risking his life in an attempt to save the lives of his entrapped comrades and commanding officer. His total disregard for his own personal safety while exposed to enemy observation and automatic weapons fire was an inspiration to all men committed to the assault. The resolute valor with which he led five gallant charges placed critical diversionary pressure on the attacking enemy and his valiant efforts carved a channel in the overpowering enemy forces and weapons positions through which the survivors of Camp Lang Vei eventually escaped to freedom. Sergeant Ashley’s conspicuous gallantry at the cost of his own life was in the highest traditions of the military service, and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
Troops today love to liken themselves to the warfighters of old — Spartans, crusaders, knights, pirates, or whatever else. It helps our troops buy into the classic warrior mentality and it makes us feel more badass. When it comes to U.S. Marines, there’s really one comparison that stands out above the rest as apt: the Vikings of the middle-ages.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you, young Marine, which historical badass you should try to emulate — you do you. But if you’re looking for some inspiration from history’s toughest customers; if you’re looking for some sea-faring, slightly-degenerate tough guys that howl for a fight, you’d do well to start your search with the Vikings.
Here’s where Vikings and modern Marines overlap:
1. Both were masters at disembarking amphibious landing ships to fight on land
First and foremost, there are no two groups in history more feared for their ability to storm beaches and absolutely destroy everything within range than Vikings and U.S. Marines. The Vikings are famous for their sieges on Northumbria while the Marines are known for successes during the South Pacific campaign of WWII. For both groups, their presence alone is often enough to force a surrender.
But their skills on the coastline don’t discredit their ability to fight inland. Vikings, accustomed to the frigid north, fared extremely well when fighting in the Holy Lands — not too far from there was where the Marines fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah.
Hell, one of the stories of Thor is about him basically trying to drink an entire ocean made of booze.
2. Both are known for intense post-combat partying
Another key trait of the Viking lifestyle that isn’t too far off from what happens in the average lower-enlisted barracks of any Marine Corps installation: consuming volumes of alcohol that would incapacitate mere mortals is just the pregame for Vikings and lance corporals.
I’m highly confident that a Jomsviking leaderwould have been completely cool with wall-to-wall counselling to solve any issues.
3. Both share a deep brotherhood with their fellow fighters
Most troops, regardless of era, become friends with the guys to their left and right, but Marines and Vikings are known for taking that brotherhood to a new level.
The Viking mercenaries, known as the Jomsvikings, followed a strict code that revolved around brotherhood among their ranks and their motto is roughly translated as, “one shield, one brotherhood.” This way of live was written into their 11 codes of conduct. It doesn’t matter who you were before you became a Jomsviking, but so as long as you’re a brother, you will not fight with each other and you will avenge another should they fall in combat. And if there was infighting, the dispute was mediated by the leadership (or chain of command).
All of these things are essentially within the UCMJ.
Or the story of Harald “Bluetooth”… because he ate a blueberry that one time.. Yep, Vikings were creative like that.
4. Both had a penchant for giving each other nicknames
Giving someone a terrible nickname after they made a silly mistake is one of the more bizarre tidbits of Viking lore — but it is exactly what Marines still do to one another today. The platoon idiot is “boot,” the big guy in the unit is “Pvt Pyle,” and you know damn well that certain guy they call “Mad Dog” did something to earn that name.
History speaks of the famed viking warrior named Kolbeinn Butter Penis (named after his sexual exploits) and Eystein Foul-Fart (named for the noxious small that came from his ass). Hell, even Erik the Red got his name because he was a ginger — or because he was a violent sociopath at the age of ten… nobody can say for certain there.
On the topic of Valhalla, Marines hold Tun Tavern with about the same level of respect.
5. Both believe that the older the fighter, the more terrifying the man
Beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young.
The only thing more terrifying than a 47-year-old Master Gunnery Sergeant who’s fueled entirely by alcohol, tobacco, and hatred was a 47-year-old, bearded-out berserker who’s lived in the woods for the better part of twenty years.
Unlike their contemporaries, Vikings had a special place in their groups for the older warrior men and treated their cumulative knowledge as sacred. Younger Vikings would pick their brains, trying to learn their tactics. And, at the end of the day, the old viking were said to fight even more ferociously in battle, knowing that their time was short. After all, dying sick in bed won’t get the Valkyries’ attention — only through glorious combat could they earn entry into the hall of Valhalla.
Ah, vikings. You unruly, blood-thirsty a**holes. Some things never change.
6. Both enjoyed fighting more than anything else
The most glaringly obvious similarity between these two groups of warriors is how sacredly they hold the concept of fighting. Much like a Marine being told their deployment got pushed back a few months, Vikings would complain if they weren’t given their time on the battlefield.
Vikings’ culture wasn’t based entirely on fighting, but man, were they good at it. That’s probably why nobody ever talks about the Vikings’ expansive trading network. There’s also a reason why people never really talk about a Water Dog’s “water purification skills.”
H/T: to Ruddy Cano, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and fellow We Are The Mighty contributor, for helping with this article.
The most powerful weapon in the United States’ Cold War arsenal was likely not its hundreds of nuclear warheads — it was the man whose job it was to deploy them.
There are few men in Air Force history as noteworthy and controversial as Gen. Curtis LeMay. He earned the nickname “Iron Ass” for his stubbornness and shortness once his mind was made up. When he did speak, the stout, cigar-chomping, stone-faced general had a reputation for his outspoken manner. Though not always remembered fondly by history, some of his image as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later, caveman may be undeserved.
He was the youngest general to wear a fourth star. When he retired, he had served as a four-star general longer than anyone in American history; a big deal for a general who didn’t go to a service academy, instead graduating from Ohio State. At the height of his career, he was the symbol of American military might. A bit more about one of the U.S. Air Force’s most influential founding generals can be gleaned through his more noteworthy quotes.
1. “We should always avoid armed conflict. But if you get in it, get in with both feet and get out as soon as possible.”
Despite his gruff, cold image, every operational goal, in LeMay’s mind, was a means to an end. Ending a war quickly meant saving American lives. During World War II, LeMay was responsible for the firebombing of Japanese cities which completely destroyed most major Japanese cities. It was his command that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Official estimates from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey determined at least 330,000 killed, 476,000 injured, 8.5 million people made homeless, and 2.5 million buildings destroyed. Almost half of 64 Japanese mainland cities were completely destroyed. The destruction was not lost on LeMay. He acknowledged that if the Japanese had won the war, he would have been tried as a war criminal.
Later he would reveal that dropping the atomic bombs was totally unnecessary, given the level of destruction he had already waged on Japan. He said he only dropped them because of President Truman’s authority. After the war, Japan’s former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe confirmed that the decision to surrender was based on the prolonged bombing wrought by General LeMay’s Marianas-based air forces. LeMay took command of the Marianas in January 1945. The Japanese surrendered in August of 1945.
2. “War is never cost-effective. People are killed. To them, the war is total.”
He was known as a tough commander, but a fair one. He earned a reputation for being stone-faced, uncaring about the needs of his men but LeMay actually suffered from Bell’s Palsey, which literally immobilized his face. When a Harvard study found Army pilots were aborting bombing missions over Germany out of fear, LeMay personally led every bombing sortie and ordered any crew who didn’t go over the target be court martialed.
The gruff general took combat losses to heart, knowing he’d sent men to die, but firmly believed if the death of one American could save a thousand, then it was the right decision to make. In The Fog of War, a documentary about the life of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, McNamara quoted LeMay: “Why are we here? Why are we here? You lost your wingman. It hurts me as much as it does you. I sent him there. And I’ve been there, I know what it is. But you lost one wingman, and we destroyed Tokyo.”
3. “Successful offense brings victory. Successful defense can now only lessen defeat.”
This is an “extremely belligerent, many thought brutal” man who believed in the power, threat and use of nuclear weapons. He wanted SAC to be able to deliver every nuclear warhead in the American arsenal on the Soviet Union at once. This military rationale earned LeMay the image of a cold man who was obsessed with starting any kind of war with the Russians.
It was Gen. LeMay who inspired the character of Buck Turgidson in “Doctor Strangelove,” willing to pay for a victory over the Soviet Union with unlimited American lives. As a bomber pilot, LeMay’s point of view was one of overwhelming force. At its height, the SAC had 1600 bombers and 800 missiles in its arsenal.
4. “We can haul anything.”
As the commander of U.S. Air Forces In Europe, LeMay was asked by the Commander of all U.S. forces in Europe, Lucius D. Clay, about the feasibility of an airlift (later known as the “Berlin Airlift”) to break the Soviet blockade of West Berlin.
Gen. Clay asked LeMay “Can you haul coal?” Even though he preferred the more aggressive response of an armed convoy backed by bomber aircraft, Gen. LeMay enthusiastically began the 5,000 ton per day airlift operation within weeks. He was so instrumental in its startup, it was initially called “The LeMay Coal and Feed Delivery Service.” LeMay’s response to Clay’s hauling question represents the can-do attitude and spirit of the U.S. Air Force.
5. “If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack, I’m going to knock the shit out of them before they take off the ground.”
Robert McNamara, who served under LeMay during WWII and over him as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy Administration, called him the finest combat commander there ever was. While he was convinced a war would happen at some point and believe the U.S. should fight it on the grounds most favorable to it, LeMay’s military upbringing taught him that true readiness required constant training and this readiness was to be in place when the civilian leaders of the military deemed it necessary to use them.
His solution was to create a force so powerful no one would dare sneak an attack. He would always advocate for a heavy military response, most notably during the thirteen-day Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but always loyally and diligently carried out the orders and policy of his civilian superiors.
6. “To err is human, to forgive is not SAC policy”
When he took control of Strategic Air Command in 1948, most of his bomber crews couldn’t hit Ohio with a mock atomic bomb during exercises. The SAC under Gen. LeMay became one of the most effective military units in the world on the basis of relentless training.
One officer was quoted as saying: “Training in SAC is harder than war … it might be a relief to go to war.” Within two years, the procedures, checklists, and training implemented by General LeMay gave SAC one of the best safety records in U.S. military history.
7. “The price of failure might be paid with national survival.”
After retiring from the Air Force in 1965, LeMay ran with George Wallace on his segregationist party ticket. It led many to conclude that LeMay agreed with Wallace’s racial views. In truth, LeMay agreed to run with Wallace because he believed in a hard line against Communism, and an end to the War in Vietnam, and didn’t see any of the potential candidates doing these things.
LeMay was no racist. During his tenure as a commander in the Air Force, he had actually promoted the integration of units well before Truman’s executive order. Protesters would attend Wallace rallies shouting “Sieg heil” at the man who designed the bombing plans that crippled Nazi war production, even personally leading the most dangerous missions.
On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first-ever atomic weapons test, ending America’s monopoly on the most destructive weapon system ever conceived by man. An arms race that had already begun immediately kicked into high gear, with both nations working frantically to develop new weapons and capabilities that were powerful enough to keep the opposition in check.
From our modern vantage point, the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union seems like an exercise in overblown budgets and paranoia, but it’s important to remember the context of the day. Many senior leaders in both D.C. and Moscow had seen not one but two World Wars unfold during their lifetimes. After the uneasy alliance between the Soviet Union and the rest of the Allied Nations failed to last beyond the final shots of World War II, many believed a third global conflict would be coming in short order. And terrifyingly, most believed it would begin with a nuclear exchange — including those with their fingers on the proverbial nuclear buttons.
Although the destructive force of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been so monstrous that they changed the geopolitical landscape of the world forever, both the U.S. and Soviet Union immediately set about developing newer, even more powerful thermonuclear weapons. Other programs sought new and dynamic delivery methods for these powerful nukes, ranging from ballistic missiles to unguided bombs.
Project Pluto and the SLAM Missile
One such effort under the supervision of the U.S. Air Force was a weapon dubbed the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile or SLAM (not to be mistaken for the later AGM-84E Standoff Land Attack Missile). The SLAM missile program was to utilize a ramjet nuclear propulsion system being developed under the name Project Pluto. Today, Russia is developing the 9M730 Burevestnik, or Skyfall missile, to leverage the same nuclear propulsion concept.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin recently pointed out, nuclear propulsion offers practically endless range, and estimates at the time suggested the American SLAM Missile would likely fly for 113,000 miles or more before its fuel was expended. Based on those figures, the missile could fly around the entire globe at the equator at least four and a half times without breaking a sweat.
The unshielded nuclear reactor powering the missile would practically rain radiation onto the ground as it flew, offering the first of at least three separate means of destruction the SLAM missile provided. In order to more effectively leverage the unending range of the nuclear ramjet, the SLAM missile was designed to literally drop hydrogen bombs on targets as it flew. Finally, with its bevy of bombs expended, the SLAM missile would fly itself into one final target, detonating its own thermonuclear warhead as it did. That final strike could feasibly be days or even weeks after the missile was first launched.
Over time, the SLAM missile came to be known as Pluto to many who worked on it, due to the missile’s development through the project with the same name.
The nuclear ramjet developed for SLAM under Project Pluto was designed to draw in air from the front of the vehicle as it flew at high speed, creating a significant amount of pressure. The nuclear reactor would then superheat the air and expel it out the back to create propulsion. This ramjet methodology is still in use in some platforms today and plays a vital role in some forms of hypersonic missile programs.
The onboard nuclear reactor produced more than 500-megawatts of power and operated at a scorching 2,500 degrees — hot enough to compromise the structural integrity of metal alloys designed specifically to withstand high amounts of heat. Ultimately, the decision was made to forgo metal internal parts in favor of specially developed ceramics sourced from the Coors Porcelain Company, based in Colorado.
The downside to ramjet propulsion is that it can only function when traveling at high speeds. In order to reach those speeds, the SLAM would be carried aloft and accelerated by rocket boosters until the missile was moving fast enough for the nuclear ramjet to engage. Once the nuclear ramjet system was operating, the missile could remain aloft practically indefinitely, which would allow it to engage multiple targets and even avoid intercept.
The nuclear-powered ramjet wasso loud that the missile’s designers theorized that the shock wave of the missile flying overhead on its own would likely kill anyone in its path, and if not, the gamma and neutron radiation from the unshielded reactor sputtering fission fragments out the back probably would. While this effectively made the missile’s engine a weapon in its own right, it also made flying the SLAM over friendly territory impossible.
A missile carrying 16 hydrogen bombs
While the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction has since made the launch of just one nuclear weapon the start of a cascade that could feasibly end life on Earth as we know it, Project Pluto’s SLAM Missile was practically apocalyptic in its own right. The nuclear powerplant that would grant the missile effectively unlimited range would also potentially kill anyone it passed over, but the real destructive power of the SLAM missile came from its payload.
Unlike most cruise missiles, which are designed with a propulsion system meant to carry a warhead to its target, Project Pluto’s SLAM carried not only a nuclear warhead, but 16 additional hydrogen bombs that it could drop along its path to the final target. Some even suggested flying the missile in a zig-zagging course across the Soviet Union, irradiating massive swaths of territory and delivering it’s 16 hydrogen bombs to different targets around the country.
Doing so would not only offer the ability to engage multiple targets, but would almost certainly also leave the Soviet populace in a state of terror. A low-flying missile spewing radiation as it passed over towns, shattering windows and deafening bystanders as it delivered nuclear hellfire to targets spanning the massive Soviet Union, would likely have far-reaching effects on morale.
How do you test an apocalyptic weapon?
Project Pluto’s nuclear propulsion system made testing the platform a difficult enterprise. Once the nuclear reactor onboard was engaged, it would continue to function until it hit its target or expended all of its fuel. Any territory the weapon passed over during flight would be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, limiting the ways and the places in which the weapon’s engine could even be tested.
On May 14, 1961, engineers powered up the Project Pluto propulsion system on a train car for just a few seconds, and a week later a second test saw the system run for a full five minutes. The engine produced 513 megawatts of power, which equated to around 35,000 pounds of thrust — 6,000 pounds more than an F-16’s Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 afterburning turbofan engine with its afterburner engaged.
However, those engine tests were the only large scale tests Project Pluto would ultimately see, in part, because a fully assembled SLAM missile would irradiate so much territory that it was difficult to imagine any safe way of actually testing it.
A weapon that’s too destructive to use
Ultimately, Project Pluto and its SLAM missile were canceled before ever leaving the ground. The cancellation came for a litany of reasons, including the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the introduction of global strike heavy payload bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress. There were, however, some other considerations that led to the program’s downfall.
Because the SLAM would irradiate, destroy, or deafen anyone and anything it flew over, the missile could not be launched from U.S. soil or be allowed to fly over any territory other than its target nation. That meant the missile could really only be used from just over the Soviet border, whereas ICBMs could be launched from the American midwest and reach their targets in the Soviet Union without trouble.
There was also a pressing concern that developing such a terrible weapon would likely motivate the Soviet Union to respond in kind. Each time the United States unveiled a new weapon or strategic capability, the Soviet Union saw to it that they could match and deter that development. As a result, it stood to reason that America’s nuclear-spewing apocalypse missile would prompt the Soviets to build their own if one entered into service.
Project Pluto and its SLAM missile program were canceled on July 1, 1964.
Unless it’s a submarine, you generally don’t want your ship filling with water. Of course, all ships have some amount of ballast water held in ballast tanks and cargo holds. This provides stability and maneuverability on the sea. In combat though, extreme and unconventional measures are sometimes necessary to accomplish the mission.
Launched on May 18, 1912 and commissioned on March 12, 1914, USS Texas (BB-35) sailed almost immediately into action. In May 1914, she steamed for Mexico in response to the detention of an American gunboat at Tampico. Despite skipping the usual shakedown cruise, Texas remained on station off the coast of Mexico in support of American forces on shore for just over two months.
During WWI, Texas fired the first American shots of the war. On April 19, 1917, while escorting the merchant ship Mongolia, one of Texas’ batteries opened fire on a surfaced German U-boat. Although the enemy vessel wasn’t sunk, the attack on the merchant vessel was deterred. For the remainder of the war, Texas sailed with Britain’s Grand Fleet escorting convoys and minelayers.
Texas again made history during the inter-war period when she became the first American battleship to launch an airplane on March 10, 1919. She was also overhauled with a new powerplant and given additional guns at the sacrifice of her torpedo tubes. She briefly served as the flagship of the Pacific Fleet before returning to the Atlantic just before the outbreak of WWII.
Before America’s entry into WWII, Texas conducted neutrality patrols and escorted lend-lease convoys across the Atlantic. Additionally, in February 1941, the legendary US 1st Marine Division was activated aboard the Texas. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Texas escorted allied convoys to a variety of Atlantic destinations like Panama, Sierra Leone, and the United Kingdom.
During Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, Texas broadcasted Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Voice of Freedom” speech imploring the Vichy French not to oppose the allied landings. During the invasion, Texas fired less than 300 shells in supporting fire, a number that would be quickly dwarfed during her next major operation.
Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, D-Day. Texas sailed with the Western Taskforce for Normandy on June 3, 1944. On June 6, she took up her station off of Pointe du Hoc and began her bombardment of the coast in support of the 29th Infantry Division, 2nd, and 5th Ranger Battalions. In 34 minutes, Texas had fired 255 14-inch shells into Pointe du Hoc. Afterwards, with the help of aerial observers, she shifted her main batteries to fire on German reinforcements, artillery batteries, and other strong points further inland.
As allied forces pushed off the beach, Texas moved closer to shore to support them. Originally stationed 12,000 yards offshore, she moved to just 3,000 yards from the beach. On June 7 and 8, she continued to bombard German positions. She was forced to return to England to rearm and was on station off of France again on June 11. By June 15 though, allied forces had pushed so far inland that their targets were now out of Texas’ range. In order to fulfill the requested fire missions, Texas’ crew had to get creative.
The ship’s massive 14-inch guns did not have the elevation required to lob their shots as far inland as the invasion forces needed. So, if the guns facing port couldn’t be raised any further, then the starboard side needed to be lowered. The starboard torpedo blister, a sponson on the hull below of the waterline, was flooded with water. This listed Texas two degrees to starboard and gave her main batteries enough elevation to complete the fire mission. Talk about improvise, adapt, overcome. However, the next day, the designated targets were too far for the flooding solution to work and Texas retired to England on June 18.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention and combat has proved this time and time again. The next time someone pitches you a solution that sounds crazy, remember that it might be just crazy enough to work.
After the Japanese surprise attack on December 7, 1941, America’s rallying cry in WWII was “Remember Pearl Harbor”. The American people didn’t forget it and the U.S. military certainly didn’t forget the mastermind behind the attack. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was public enemy number 1 in the Pacific.
By early 1943, the war in the Pacific was starting to turn. The Japanese had been repelled at Midway and been cleared from Guadalcanal. In fact, Japanese morale was so low that Yamamoto planned an inspection tour of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea in order to oversee an aerial counter-offensive and boost the confidence of his troops. On April 14, U.S. Naval Intelligence intercepted and decrypted Yamamoto’s itinerary, as well as the number and types of planes that would execute the inspection tour.
Yamamoto was scheduled to fly from Rabaul to Balalae Airfield near Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on April 18. He and his staff would fly in two Mitsubishi G4M Betty medium bombers. Escorted by six Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters, the bombers would take off from Rabaul at 0600 and land at Balalae at 0800 Tokyo time. The decision to attack Yamamoto in the air needed to be made at the highest level.
Although no official kill order from President Roosevelt is known to exist, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox left the decision up to Admiral Chester Nimitz. After consulting with Admiral William Halsey, Jr., Nimitz authorized the mission on April 17. Operation Vengeance was a go.
The interception would require a 1,000-mile roundtrip from Guadalcanal. With extra fuel required for combat, the mission was beyond the capabilities of the Navy and Marine Corps Grumman F4F Wildcat and Vought F4U Corsair fighters. Therefore, the mission was given to the 339th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group. Their Lockheed P-38G Lightning fighters, equipped with drop tanks, were the only ones able to make the intercept.
18 P-38s were assigned to Operation Vengeance. The mission was led by the 339th Squadron Commander and ace pilot Major John Mitchell. Four pilots, Capt. Thomas Lanphier, Jr., Lt. Rex Barber, Lt. Jim McLanahan, and Lt. Joe Moore, were designated as the “killer” flight. The rest of the pilots served as a reserve and provided cover against the Japanese escort fighters. In order to keep the Navy’s codebreaking ability secret, a cover story was briefed to the pilots stating that the intelligence for the mission came from Australian coastwatchers who had spotted a high-ranking Japanese officer board a plane at Rabaul.
At 0725, the first of the P-38s took off from Guadalcanal. At first, the mission seemed troubled. McLanahan experienced a flat tire during takeoff and Moore’s drop tanks wouldn’t feed fuel. Both killer flight pilots were forced to drop out of the mission. Lt. Besby Holmes and Lt. Raymond Hine covered down on the killer flight and the 16 remaining aircraft set off across the south Pacific.
Flying at low altitude to avoid Japanese radar, Mitchell struggled to stave off boredom and drowsiness. However, he managed to navigate to the intercept point successfully. At 0934, one minute early, the P-38s spotted Yamamoto’s flight high above them at 6,500 feet. The American planes jettisoned their drop tanks and entered a full-power climb after their target. The Zeros, spotting the ambush, dropped their own drop tanks and dove at the P-38s. Mitchell ordered Lanphier and Barber to engage the bombers as he went head-on with the fighters himself.
Barber got behind one of the Betty’s and poured .50-caliber and 20mm fire into its right engine, rear fuselage, and tail. When Barber hit the left engine, the Betty started to spew heavy black smoke. The Betty rolled violently to the left, nearly colliding with Barber, and crashed into the Bougainville jungle. Although the Betty was carrying Yamamoto, Barber had no way of knowing it. He quickly scanned for the second bomber and spotted it low over the water trying to avoid an attack by Holmes and Hine.
Holmes managed to land some hits on the second Betty, but he and Hine flew too fast and overshot it. Barber dived in on the action and began his own attack. His hits on the Betty caused bits of metal to fly off which damaged his own aircraft as he flew past. The Betty, which turned out to be carrying Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki and the rest of Yamamoto’s staff, rapidly lost altitude and crashed into the water.
Although the reserve P-38s were fighting hard to fend off the Japanese escorts, Barber, Holmes, and Hine were attacked by Zeros from above. During the counterattack, Barber’s aircraft took 104 hits. He and Holmes lost track of Hine in the melee, presumably shot down and crashed into the water. With their mission accomplished and fuel at a premium, the remaining 15 P-38s broke contact and flew for home. As they approached Guadalcanal, Lanphier radioed the flight director, “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House.”
The next day, a Japanese search-and-rescue party located the Betty’s crash site in the jungle and recovered Yamamoto’s body. They noted that his body had been thrown clear from the wreckage, still clutching the hilt of his sheathed katana. Despite Lanphier’s claim to the kill, a Japanese autopsy later revealed that Yamamoto was killed by bullet strikes from behind. This was consistent with Barber’s account of an attack from the Betty’s 6 o’clock versus Lanphier’s account of an attack from the 3 o’clock.
Barber, who had been given half credit along with Lanphier for the kill, petitioned the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records for whole credit. In September 1991, the Air Force History Office advised that enough uncertainty existed for both Lanphier and Barber’s claims to be accepted. The board was split and the decision went to Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice who ruled that the shared credit would stand. Both Lanphier and Barber argued their cases until their deaths in 1987 and 2001 respectively. “Historians, fighter pilots and all of us who have studied the record of this extraordinary mission will forever speculate as to the exact events of that day in 1943,” Secretary Rice said in 1993. “There is glory for the whole team.”
Thomas H. Begay didn’t want to be a radio operator. In fact, up until he graduated from bootcamp, he thought he was going to become an aerial gunner for the Marine Corps during World War II.
“They sent me to a confidential area,” he said. “I walked in and there’s a whole bunch of Navajo.”
His previous MOS didn’t matter. Begay would attend code talking school.
The Navajo language had become the basis of a new code, and they were going to train to become code talkers. It was hard to see it then, but Begay and his fellow Navajo would help turn the tides of war and save countless lives.
An unbreakable code
The Code Talkers used native languages to send military messages before World War II. Choctaw, for example, was successfully used during World War I. But the Marine Corps needed an “unbreakable” code for its island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. Navajo, which was unwritten and known by few outside the tribe, seemed to fit the Corps’ requirements.
Thomas H. Begay recalls Navajo Code Talker program; Battle of Iwo Jima
Twenty-nine Navajos were recruited to develop the code in 1942. They took their language and developed a “Type One Code” that assigned a Navajo word to each English letter. They also created special words for planes, ships and weapons.
But just because a person understood Navajo didn’t mean they could understand the code. While a person fluent in the language would hear a message that translated into a list of words that seemingly had no connection to each other, a code talker would hear a very clear message.
In addition to being unbreakable, the new code also reduced the amount of time it took to transmit and receive secret messages. Because all 17 pages of the Navajo code were memorized, there was no need to encrypt and decipher messages with the aid of coding machines. So, instead of taking several minutes to send and receive one message, Navajo code talkers could send several messages within seconds. This made the Navajo code talker an important part of any Marine unit.
Peter MacDonald Sr. recalls Navajo Code Talker program; Battle of Iwo Jima
Begay did well in training and picked up the code quickly. A month after arriving at code talking school, he was given orders to his new unit and sent overseas.
“They told us we were going to Tokyo,” he said with a chuckle. “In February, we were told we’re supposed to land on Iwo Jima.”
On Feb. 19, 1945, at 0900 hours, Begay landed on the north side of the island with the 5th Marine Division. One code talker had already been killed during the first wave of attacks, and five more would be injured by the time the fighting stopped. In the face of machine gun fire and mortar rounds, Begay and his fellow Navajo Code Talkers continued to relay messages that were vital to the eventual victory on the island.
In all, nearly 800 coded messages were sent during the assault on Iwo Jima. There were zero mistakes.
“I was protected by the Marines,” Begay said. “They were protecting us; we were protecting them. I was lucky. But some didn’t get lucky – like those who got killed on the beach.”
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.