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.
Peter MacDonald is one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers. The former chairman of the Navajo Nation recently sat down with VAntage Point staff to explain what made the “unbreakable” code so effective, and how it helped save lives and secure victory in the Pacific.
“Without Navajo, Marines would never have taken the island of Iwo Jima,” he said. “That’s how critical Navajo Code was to the war in the Pacific.”
The Unbreakable Code
Code Talkers used native languages to send military messages before World War II. Choctaw, for example, was used during World War I. The Marine Corps, however, 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.
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.
Understanding Navajo didn’t mean a person 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.
Here is an example:
Navajo Code: DIBEH, AH-NAH, A-SHIN, BE, AH-DEEL-TAHI, D-AH, NA-AS-TSO-SI, THAN-ZIE, TLO-CHIN Translation: SHEEP, EYES, NOSE, DEER, BLOW UP, TEA, MOUSE, TURKEY, ONION Deciphered Code: SEND DEMOLITION TEAM TO …
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.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t the only time the Japanese struck U.S. soil during World War II. In response to the Doolittle Raid — the successful penetration of Japanese airspace and the bombing of strategic targets in Tokyo from the allies — the Japanese executed their revenge. The date of the launch was chosen for the birthday of former emperor Meiji, Nov. 3, 1944.
However, instead of using airplanes, the Japanese used fusen bakudan, or balloon bombs, that each carried four incendiaries and a 33-pound, highly explosive anti-personnel fragmentation device. The Fu-Go balloon bombs traveled 7,500 miles along the Pacific Ocean jet stream at altitudes between 20,000 and 40,000 feet. Witnesses described these large, white balloons as “giant jellyfish” floating in the sky. Their main objective was to start forest fires, create security doubts among the civilian populace, and cause upheaval.
The all-black Triple Nickles battalion was ultimately responsible for combating the slow-moving, round balloon bombs, which had no escort or protection and had been spotted by the U.S. Navy patrol off the coast of California only two days after their initial launch. The patrol alerted the FBI, and investigations were conducted to find the origin of these mysterious flammable balloons traveling over the Pacific Northwest and into Canada.
A Japanese Fu-Go balloon with its payload of charges suspended below. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
Paratroopers from the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions suffered heavy casualties in the European Theater (ETO) during the Battle of the Bulge and the courageous siege of Bastogne; they were in a desperate need for replacements. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, or the “Triple Nickles” as they became known, trained to fulfill this capacity. However, as with other all-black units of the time, African-American soldiers weren’t treated equally. “We were relegated to serving in menial units such as truck drivers, port companies (loading ships), mess halls (waiting on tables) and guard duty,” wrote Walter Morris, a Triple Nickle veteran.
Although no Triple Nickles completed a combat jump or deployed to Europe, these trendsetters provided another example of how an elite all-black unit could be employed in a combat or peacetime environment. The Triple Nickles participated in a top-secret project fighting forest fires as the U.S. military’s first smoke jumping paratroopers over the Pacific Northwest.
The Triple Nickles, a name derived from the parachute regiment’s designation, was created in the winter of 1943 and consisted of 17 of the original 20-man platoon from the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division. These men were hand-selected to create the first “colored test platoon.” A few months into 1944 saw newly minted paratroopers who completed training jumps at Fort Benning, Georgia. The first all-black parachute infantry battalion in history had formed but were still brand-new and lacked manpower. The paratroopers honed their skills and became experts in small-unit tactics.
Several went to the best schools the U.S. Army had to offer. Some became riggers and jump masters while others learned the metrics in communications, the skills to navigate difficult terrain as pathfinders, and the intricacies in demolitions.
They were the cream of the crop — college graduates, professional athletes, men of high character and extraordinary intellect. One Triple Nickle veteran, “Tiger” Ted Lowry, entered the ring to face world champion boxing legend Joe Louis, who came to Lowry’s base in 1943. He was accompanied by Sugar Ray Robinson — who Muhammad Ali coined as “the king, the master, my idol” — when the duo toured military camps to entertain soldiers. “Stay in the middle of the ring,” Robinson advised Lowry, “don’t let him get you on the ropes.” Lowry already had 70 fights to his name and somehow survived the three-round exhibition with one of the greatest boxers in history.
“You can’t imagine what that did for my ego,” Lowry reflected. “I had just been in the ring with the champion of the world, the greatest fighter in the world, and he was unable to knock me down. My confidence was inflated.” His fighting days halted when he joined the Triple Nickles but resumed when he faced Rocky Marciano, the Brockton, Massachusetts, undefeated heavyweight champion. Not only did he stun Marciano, but he shocked crowds of hometown Italian-Americans by going the distance twice with the Brockton Blockbuster, the only fighter ever to do so.
The men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment march in the New York City Victory Parade on January 12, 1946. Maj. Gen. Jim Gavin ensured the “Triple Nickles” not only marched in the parade, but wore the insignia of the 82nd Airborne Division. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
When World War II was nearing a close and as the Germans were losing ground, the Triple Nickles’ focus shifted from Europe to the homefront. The Triple Nickles were the size of a “reinforced company” but expected to reach battalion size by 1945. The threat from the Japanese balloon bombs was imminent, and they were diverted to Pendleton, Oregon, and Chico, California, under secret orders to the 9th Services Command.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) received help from the U.S. Army when 400 paratroopers from the Triple Nickles were tasked with the difficult job. They turned in their rifles, hand grenades, and rucksacks. In that equipment’s place they donned football helmets with wire face masks, equipped 50 feet of nylon rope for lowering themselves from trees, and packed firefighting tools such as axes and handsaws on their person for parachute jumps.
The smoke jumping program was in its sixth firefighting season, but the war dwindled their resources, and the Triple Nickles provided a welcome skillset. Pilots flying C-47s needed no additional training and had prior results in properly managing smokejumper assets in remote regions where fires were often inaccessible by roads. The response and defensive strategy against the Japanese balloon bombs was a little-known secret called Operation Firefly.
Later reports suggested that the Japanese launched over 9,000 helium balloons. Damage from these balloons was rare but noteworthy. One balloon exploded after it hit high-tension power lines that were connected to a plutonium plant in Hanford, Washington. It caused a temporary blackout to the community, and the plutonium plant was ironically responsible for developing the fuel for the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan.
Triple Nickle member Jesse Mayes prepares to jump from a C-47. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
Vincent “Bud” Whitehead, a U.S. Army counterintelligence officer, used to track and chase the balloons in the air from his plane. In March 1945, a balloon had landed on the ground but didn’t ignite. “They sent a bus up with all of this specially trained personnel, gloves, full contamination suits, masks,” Whitehead said in an interview with the Voices of the Manhattan Project. “I had been walking around on that stuff and they had not told me! They were afraid of bacterial warfare.” Biological and bacterial warfare fears were not exaggerated because it was later revealed that the Japanese had scrapped an operation at the end of the war for weaponizing the bubonic plague.
Another notable tragedy that involved these balloon bombs was the devastation of almost an entire family while they picnicked near the Gearhart Mountain in Bly, Oregon. On May 5, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife, Elsie, and five children from their Sunday School class were victims of the balloon’s lethality. The children went to investigate the strange object that had floated to the ground, but they got too close and were killed when the balloon did what it was designed to do. Archie Mitchell was the only survivor.
The Triple Nickles went to work to prevent additional American civilian casualties. First Lieutenant Edwin Willis, a brilliant planner and training specialist, put his paratroopers through a three-week crash course to learn proper firefighting knowledge and techniques. Willis received assistance and guidance from USFS smokejumpers and forest rangers as well.
Frank Derry, Parachute Instructor-Rigger, instructing prospective smoke jumper in the use of the “drop rig.” Simulates landing from chute caught in a snag or other obstacles by use of landing rope. Lolo National Forest, Montana. Photo by W.J. Mead, courtesy fo the National Archives and Records Administration.
This course included “demolitions training, tree climbing and techniques for descent if we landed in a tree, handling firefighting equipment, jumping into pocket-sized drop zones studded with rocks and tree stumps, survival in wooded areas, and extensive first-aid training for injuries — particularly broken bones,” said Morris.
Frank Derry, a master civilian parachutist, issued the Triple Nickles his “Derry-chute,” which was known for its maneuverability and steering capabilities. “Snag trees, those were the worst. I didn’t like those dudes at all,” Derry said, referring to the nuisances found in their path. “But landing in the trees was just as soft as landing, better than landing on the ground. The thick trees […] you just come into them like sitting down on a pillow, nothing to it.”
The Triple Nickles were also assisted by demolition experts from the 9th Services Command and USFS rangers. “Learning the touchy business of handling unexploded bombs, as well as how to isolate areas in which a bomb, or suspected bomb, was located,” Morris wrote. The incedinaries and chemicals were an additional pucker factor to their already challenging task.
Then-1st. Sgt. Walter Morris, right, prepares for his first jump with the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
The Triple Nickles also learned to live off the land and avoid costly mistakes that could derail their mission. “They could walk up the hills like a cat on a snake walk,” Morris wrote, discussing the expertise of USFS rangers. “They taught us how to climb, use an axe, and what vegetation to eat. At the same time, we underwent an orientation program with Forest Service maps. And, above all, our morale and spirit of adventure never sagged in the face of this unusual mission.”
The Triple Nickles became fully operational smokejumpers, but the numbers on how many fires and fire jumps they completed have been skewed over the years. Chuck Sheley, the editor of Smokejumper Magazine, states they completed 460 to 470 jumps on an estimated 15 of 28 forest fires, while they drove or hiked into the other fires. The National 555th Parachute Infantry Association consensus estimates the Triple Nickles answered 36 fire calls with 1,200 individual jumps across seven Western states.
Private First Class Malvin Brown was the only casualty of the Triple Nickles. Brown was a critical component of the team because of his medical expertise. Any injuries, accidents, or potential concerns went through the fire medics. When 15 Triple Nickles paratroopers boarded their C-47 on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Brown wasn’t supposed to be there. However, he volunteered to replace another medic who was sick. Hours later he jumped into a fire in Umpqua National Forest in southern Oregon’s Cascade Range and landed in a tree. Moments later he slipped and fell more than 150 feet to the ground below. He died instantly.
Brown’s fellow smokejumpers changed their mission from fighting the fire to bringing home their teammate’s body. After an arduous search in rocky terrain, they located him and carried him more than 3 miles through the backcountry. Their first sign of civilization was a trail, but it took another 12 miles for them to find a road to get help.
The soldiers of the Triple Nickles weren’t respected while they were in service, but their contributions in a long lineage of elite all-black units are remembered as if they were legends. The Triple Nickles disbanded after World War II, but many of the soldiers continued to serve, including Lieutenant Colonel John Cannon, who was a combat medic during the Korean War. John E. Mann served as an Army Special Forces advisor in Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, three Legions of Merit, and a Distinguished Flying Cross. Mann served in the military for 33 years and later authored four detective novels.
The Civil Irregular Defense Group compound at Loc Ninh. The airstrip is to the right of the photo.
The small town and airbase were important for two reasons. First, the airbase was a logistical hub for military and espionage operations conducted by the U.S.; something communist forces were keen to excise. But the town was also the district capital. With a new president awaiting inauguration in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese wanted to embarrass him before he took office.
And North Vietnam was looking for a tasty target. A new commander and staff needed to try out the 9th Division in the field and build up its combat proficiency ahead of larger, corps-level offensives. So, in late 1967, North Vietnamese Senior Col. Hoang Cam, gave orders to get his regiments in position and supplied for an attack on the base at Loc Ninh.
One of his key units ran into an immediate problem, though. U.S. forces were working to secure a hey highway and clear out communist forces that could threaten it, and they swept through an area where Cam’s top regiment was hiding. That regiment was able to set an ambush just in time and killed 56 Americans, but they also suffered heavy losses and fled to Cambodia.
So Cam was down a regiment before the battle started. Still, his men were facing 11 Special Forces soldiers, 400 Civilian Irregular Defense Group soldiers, and about 200 South Vietnamese regulars. The largest weapons on the base were a few mortars and machine guns.
But the North Vietnamese forces failed to hide their buildup. South Vietnamese and U.S. forces intercepted radio traffic, discovered a field hospital under construction, and discovered elements of a specific unit typically employed in major offensives, the 84A Artillery Regiment.
U.S. Gen. William Westmoreland was too savvy to overlook all this evidence of a coming attack. He suspended some operations and ordered his subordinate to plan for a major defensive operation in that part of Vietnam, especially the district capitals at Loc Ninh and Song Be.
U.S. Special Forces soldiers and South Vietnamese troops in September 1968.
On Oct. 27, 1967, just five days after Westmoreland issued his warning to subordinates, Cam launched the North Vietnamese attack on Song Be. His division attacked a South Korean division but was rebuffed, partially thanks to American artillery and air power. Before South Vietnamese Rangers and American infantry joined the fight the next day, Cam pulled his men back.
As the Rangers looked for the enemy near Song Be, Cam launched a new attack. This time, he struck at Loc Ninh and fully committed to the fight.
Rockets and mortars flew into the base with no warning. The town itself caught on fire, and the South Vietnamese soldiers, with their Special Forces allies, rushed to send their own mortar rounds out.
Before reinforcements could arrive, North Vietnamese sappers blew through a wire obstacle and forced the defenders into the southern part of the compound. With the American and South Vietnamese defense collapsing, the Army rushed in UH-1Bs with machine guns mounted, and the Air Force sent in an AC-47 Spooky gunship that rained metal into the jungle.
The helicopters were able to put some fire on the attackers within the compound, but the AC-47 couldn’t strike there without threatening the defenders. Eventually, that became beside the point, though, as the South Vietnamese called artillery strikes onto the compound. He specifically called for proximity fuses, detonating the rounds a little above the surface to maximize shrapnel damage.
That’s the call you make to shred humans behind light cover. Many of the defenders were in bunkers that would hold back the shrapnel, but the Viet Cong in the open were shredded. The Viet Cong in the jungle finally withdrew under aerial bombing, but attackers remained in the conquered bunkers of the northern part of the compound.
The South Vietnamese were forced to clear these bunkers one-by-one with LAWs, light anti-tank weapons.
The allies found 135 North Vietnamese bodies. They had suffered eight dead and 33 wounded.
But the U.S. knew it had nearly lost the district that night, and it wasn’t willing to go round two with the same setup. So it not only watched the South Vietnamese clear those bunkers, it flew in two artillery batteries and another infantry battalion. Those infantrymen dug into the jungle and established light bunkers.
The U.S. and South Vietnamese alliance struck hard, rooting out platoons in the rubber plantations. In one case, an impatient South Vietnamese soldier grabbed a U.S. officer’s pistol from him and used it to attack a North Vietnamese machine gunner. When he couldn’t chamber a round in the pistol, he used it to pistol-whip the machine gunner instead.
This back and forth continued for days. On Oct. 30, the North Vietnamese sent additional forces to threaten other cities and positions, potentially trying to draw away some of the American defenders. But the allies knew the fight for Loc Ninh wasn’t over and sent other forces to protect Song Be and other locations.
Just after midnight on Oct. 31, another rain of mortars and rockets flew into Loc Ninh. But this time, the fire was more accurate, and North Vietnamese forces used anti-aircraft fire the moment the helicopters and AC-47 showed up. But proximity fuses were again used to slaughter North Vietnamese attackers.
At least 110 North Vietnamese were killed while the allies lost nine killed and 59 wounded.
The next night, artillery and machine gun fire rained onto the air base, but then the main thrust came at the new infantry base in the jungle. Observers posted in the jungle detonated claymores to blunt the attack but then had to melt away as the attackers continued their assault. The U.S. infantry pushed the attack back in just 30 minutes of concentrated machine gun fire and claymore use.
One U.S. soldier had been killed and eight wounded. Over 260 bodies were found, and there were signs that even more had been lost.
Additional forces were flown in, and the U.S. commanders were finally able to go on the attack. The attacks did not go perfectly, however. On Nov. 7, a U.S. battalion moving down a dirt road moved into the jungle and came under a furious assault. An RPG took out most of the U.S. battalion command team, including the commander.
One soldier in that fight was Spc. Robert Stryker who stopped one attack with a well-aimed M79 grenade launcher shot, but then died after diving on a grenade to save others. He’s one of the two Medal of Honor recipients for whom the Stryker vehicle is named.
But the 9th Division finally withdrew, ending the Battle of Loc Ninh. The U.S. had lost 50 dead and hundreds wounded, but the North Vietnamese lost somewhere over 850 dead and failed in its objectives to take either Loc Ninh or Song Be. But the Tet Offensive was on the horizon.
(Most of the information for this article came from an official Army history from the Center of Military History, Combat Operations: Staying the Course, October 1967 to September 1968 by Erik B. Villard. It is available here.)
From November 1947 to December 1948, Camp Pine, which would evolve into Fort Drum, hosted the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division for Exercise Snowdrop. The exercise was the largest over-snow airborne maneuver that the Army had undergone at the time and was designed to validate equipment, logistics and tactics for airborne operations in a sub-zero combat environment like the one that the paratroopers would experience if the United States were to go to war with the Soviet Union. Sadly, not all of the soldiers that participated saw the exercise through to its end.
During Snowdrop, building T-2278, a two-story wooden building, served as an officer barracks. The building housed many WWII veterans like Lt. Robert Manly, Lt. Wallace Swilley, Lt. Rudolph Feres and Capt. Francis Turner. Swilley had earned two Purple Hearts during the war, and Feres and Turner each earned three Bronze Stars.
In the early morning hours of December 10, 1947, the officers in building T-2278 were awoken by thick smoke and loud shouts from the second-floor hallway. The shouts came from Turner, who was first alerted to the fire by the smoke at approximately 0230 hrs. “Turner could have escaped at that point, having done his duty to warn his fellow Soldiers, but he did not,” said Col. Gary A. Rosenberg, Fort Drum Garrison Commander. “Ignoring his own safety, Capt. Turner chose to remain in the building to ensure each officer heard his alarm and to help the wounded among them to escape. Only after every wounded man was out of the building — which by this time was completely engulfed in flames — did he turn his attention to his own safety.”
Survivor accounts lead Army historians to believe that, after Turner ran through the building to alert his comrades of the danger, he attempted to jump to safety from a second-story window. Tragically, his wedding ring got caught on a nail in the window and Turner was left hanging amidst the searing flames. He was eventually rescued by Pine Camp firefighters, but was left with severe burns; nearly 90 percent of his body had suffered third-degree burns.
Thanks to Turner, six officers escaped the flames unharmed. In addition to Turner, four other officers were injured but managed to escape. Capt. Robert Dodge, Lt. Robert Manly, Lt. Wallace Swilley, and Lt. Rudolph Feres died in the building. While the other injured officers were treated and sent home, Turner had been so badly burned that he remained at Pine Camp hospital for treatment. After 18 days, he succumbed to his wounds.
Many factors contributed to the tragedy of the Pine Camp barracks fire. First, the roving fire watchman saw smoke but believed that the fire was in a different building. Second, the fire department took about 45 minutes to arrive on site. Third, two-thirds of the firefighters had less than three months of experience. Fourth, the barracks fire was determined to be a quick and violent “flash-fire” that burned rapidly and with very little notice. It took three hours, three fire engines, and 1,950 feet of water line to extinguish the blaze.
The cause of the fire remains a mystery. Duane Quates, an archaeologist with the Fort Drum Cultural Resources Branch, speculates that the fire could have been started by a faulty boiler or a careless cigarette. “This fire is the only structural fire on Fort Drum that had fatalities,” Quates said. “Every other structural fire may have had injuries, but they never had fatalities.” He also noted that the fire was a catalyst for modern fire safety measures like self-closing doors, permanent escape ladders, and heat raiser alarms.
On August 19, 1948, the four widows of the Pine Camp barracks fire sued the United States, claiming that their husbands’ deaths were the result of negligence due to a faulty heater. Their cases were dismissed by a Northern New York District Court judge who stated that the government was not liable for injuries that service members sustain while on active duty under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The next year, Lt. Feres’ widow, Bernice Feres, brought her case before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Again, the case was dismissed. Feres persisted and, the next year, she appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The rulings of the previous courts were upheld and her case was dismissed again. This series of cases led to the controversial Feres Doctrine, which prevents service members from collecting damages for injuries sustained while on active duty and prohibits family members from filing wrongful death suits in the case of a service member’s death. To this day, service members and their families continue to challenge the Feres Doctrine.
On August 27, 2013, Fort Drum dedicated a historic marker to the memory of the men killed in the Pine Camp barracks fire. Still, knowledge of the fire and Turner’s heroic actions are largely unknown. Years of historical research into the event continues today. Joseph “Sepp” Scanlin, the Fort Drum Museum director, says that the museum remains dedicated to its efforts for Turner to receive a military award for his actions during the fire.
These days, when you see a rocket or missile launch, it almost seems routine. The engines fire and the rocket starts taking off, either sending an object directly to orbit or carrying enough firepower to blow something into orbit. What looks like standard procedure from the outside masks the fact that these rockets and missiles are very complex pieces of technology — and when this routine process goes wrong, it goes wrong very quickly and very violently.
Missiles are complex pieces of technology that are surprisingly delicate (a dropped tool once destroyed a Titan missile and its silo). With so many critical details involved, there are many opportunities for things to go wrong — and occasionally, they do. For example, in the 1980s, two RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles were accidentally launched, one by the United States Navy and one by the Royal Danish Navy. Thankfully, no injuries (outside of the respective captains’ pride) occurred in either incident.
A 2016 Trident II test for the Royal Navy is the most recent launch to have gone bad — and this test led to some disagreements between the Americans (who claimed the missile had to be destroyed) and the UK (who called the test a success). Thirty years earlier, the United States Navy had egg on its face when the first at-sea Trident II launch went out of control. Thankfully, in both of these cases, nobody was injured.
Mitrofan Nedelin’s tenure as the Soviet Army’s chief marshal of the artillery ended when the test of a SS-7 ended in a horrific explosion.
Video stills showing a Chinese Long March rocket going out of control before it crashed into a nearby village.
(United States Congress)
Today, failures are fewer and further between. One big reason for this is that many missiles now use solid fuel as opposed to liquid fuel. Liquid fuel is far more volatile and leads to explosions more frequently.
The launches you see nowadays may look routine from the outside, but remember, that’s the result of thousands of tests.
Watch the 1965 Air Force video below to see some missile launches, both successes and failures.
Fastest jet in the world? That’s easy. Most people know it’s the SR-71, the reconnaissance plane so fast it could outrun missiles. But the fastest fighter jet? Well, the Soviets created a fighter jet to chase down the SR-71 Blackbird, and it was so fast that it’s still the fastest fighter jet ever built. And it’s still in service today.
The MiG-25 Foxbat looks ungainly and boxy next to fourth and fifth-generation fighters. Its younger sibling, the MiG-29, is much sleeker, and the aggressive-looking F-35, F-22, and even the Su-57 make for way better wall posters than the Foxbat.
By comparison, the Foxbat looks almost like a box truck. If you’re feeling generous, you could compare it to something like an old Chrysler LeBaron, instead.
But only if that Chrysler Lebaron could sweep down a drag strip at speeds over 60 percent faster than its rivals.
A two-seat trainer version of the MiG-25 flies over forested land.
The story of the Foxbat is a fairly simple one. When Russia first understood the SR-71, it realized that the step from a reconnaissance plane that could fly three times the speed of sound to a bomber that could do so was large but hardly insurmountable. They had to plan on U.S. bombers that could outrun ground-launched missiles.
And so they got to work on a fighter that could move on the edge of space with the SR-71 and the planned XB-70 Valkyrie. While they knew it was unlikely they could create a fighter that could fly faster than a reconnaissance plane, there was a decent chance that it could outfly the bomber since the bomber would have to carry more weight.
Lacking the materials science to create light airframes like the SR-71, it did the next best thing and just made the engines so powerful that they could muscle through, carrying the nickel-steel alloy frame to record heights and speed. And the engineers at the Mikoyan and Gurevich Design Bureau (MiG is a shortening of that name), were some of the world’s best engine designers.
They came up with a twin-turbojet design that could propel the MiG-25 to Mach 2.8 in operational conditions and 3.2 if the pilots were willing to risk the engines. The plane quickly set world records for speed, time to climb, and top altitudes for a fighter.
And that scared the U.S. and the rest of NATO. Not only was the Foxbat ridiculously fast and powerful, but its design suggested that it was super maneuverable, a design characteristic that the West was moving toward.
But two events would completely change the calculus for the Foxbat. One made it a plane without a mission, and the other took away much of the fear for pilots who might be called to face it.
First, a catastrophic crash killed two pilots and destroyed the 0-million XB-70 Valkyrie test aircraft in a program that was already suffering cost problems. The program was canceled. Suddenly, there was little prospect of a Mach 3 bomber for the Foxbat to chase, meaning the most critical mission for Soviet planners was preventing American air superiority.
When they disassembled, studied, re-assembled, and tested the plane, American engineers realized that it would almost always have a speed and altitude advantage against NATO planes, but it couldn’t capitalize on it. The Foxbat didn’t have a look-down, shoot-down radar system.
Without getting too into the technical weeds, the science of getting a radar that can see ahead of a fighter and beneath it without getting confused by ground clutter is actually sort of tough, and the Soviets hadn’t nailed it yet. So Foxbat pilots would be forced to descend to engage other fighters.
And once it was on a relatively even altitude with its adversaries, it would be relatively easy pickings. While it was undeniably fast, it was not actually super maneuverable. It was unlikely that a Foxbat could dodge missiles or win a dogfight. With a few changes to doctrine, planes like the F-4 Phantom could keep the Foxbat on the run or down it entirely.
Still, the Foxbat has continued in service in Post-Soviet Russia, and it’s still the fastest and highest-flying fighter jet in the world, carrying its full combat load so high that the pilot’s tears will boil off their faces. It just doesn’t matter because there’s nothing up there for the Foxbat to fight.
In the annals of military history, the Korean War is unique in the sheer numbers of human wave attacks that defenders were forced to confront. Like the Japanese in WWII, the Chinese and North Korean forces were keen on assaulting defensive positions with overwhelming numbers. Unlike the Japanese, however, this was a preferred tactic rather than an act of desperation.
American and United Nations forces would pay dearly to hold their positions against these attacks. Many men gave their last full measure of devotion to secure the safety of their comrades. For some men, that last full measure involved fighting to the death in hand-to-hand combat. In the image above, we see a granddaughter of one of these men accepting the Medal of Honor on his behalf. These four heroes really gave everything they could.
1. Jack G. Hanson
In the early morning hours of June 7, 1951, the communists launched an all-out assault at a strategic hilltop held by F Company, 31st Infantry Regiment.
Manning a machine gun covering the main approach was Pfc. Jack Hanson. As the attackers rushed forward, he poured devastating fire into the ranks. The maelstrom of bullets going both ways wounded the four riflemen holding the position alongside Hanson.
As they were evacuated, Hanson was told to relocate to a more tenable position. Meanwhile, the charging enemy forces were threatening to overrun.
Disregarding the order, Hanson held his position to continue engaging the enemy. As others fell back, they reported that Hanson was single-handedly putting up a dogged defense. He never arrived at the fallback position.
Near dawn, his company counterattacked. When they regained their previous positions, they found Pfc. Hanson lying in front of his gun emplacement. His machine gun ammunition was depleted and in his right hand was an empty .45 caliber pistol. In his left hand was a blood-soaked machete. All around him were the bodies of 22 slain enemies.
On Sept. 1, 1951, the communists launched an offensive on a position held by F Company, 2nd Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment. Assisting in the defense of the sector was Pfc. Anthony Kaho’ohanohano and his machine gun squad.
As the enemy surged into the position, Kaho’ohanohano realized it was untenable and ordered the withdrawal of the rest of the squad. He then rushed to retrieve ammunition and grenades, shrugging off his shoulder wound, and returned to his original position to cover the retreat of friendly forces.
His accurate fire drew the attention of the charging enemy, who focused their efforts on taking out the lone defender. He blasted away with his machine gun until his ammunition was depleted. He threw all of the grenades he had, but the enemy was still coming.
Undaunted, Kaho’ohanohano grabbed his entrenching tool and stood to meet his foes. He fought valiantly until the enemy’s numerical superiority overwhelmed him and they overran his position.
His staunch defense inspired his comrades and allowed them time to regroup to launch a coordinated counterattack. When friendly forces retook the position, they found thirteen dead communists around him. Kaho’ohanohano was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
3. Herbert K. Pilila’au
On Sept. 13, 1951, the Americans launched an effort to take a heavily fortified and well-defended ridge. The area eventually gained the infamous nickname, “Heartbreak Ridge,” due to the desperate fighting that went on there.
Just four days into the battle, a young draftee from Hawaii, Herbert Pilila’au, would exemplify the courage of those who fought on Heartbreak Ridge.
On that day, Pilila’au and the rest of C Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, charged up the slopes of the ridge, intent on taking Hill 931. However, his platoon’s attack bogged down and they set in a defensive perimeter while the remainder of the company set in elsewhere.
With the help of supporting fire, the platoon was able to hold back probing attacks. Before long though, the North Koreans attacked in force and Pilila’au’s platoon attempted to rejoin the rest of the company.
Pilila’au, his squad leader, and the company artillery observer remained behind to cover the withdrawal. As the other two called for fire onto the encroaching enemy Pilila’au poured withering fire into the enemy with his BAR.
Despite friendly artillery landing all around him, enemy forces charging forward, and dwindling hopes of a successful retreat, Pilila’au remained in his position to ensure his comrades were secure.
When he expended the last of his BAR ammunition, he met the enemy advance with grenades. When those were gone, Pilila’au grabbed his trench knife and charged from his position to battle his foe hand-to-hand.
From their now secure vantage point, his fellow soldiers watched Pilila’au charge headlong into the communists, stabbing and punching as he went until he was overwhelmed and felled by an enemy bayonet.
When American forces retook the position the next day, they found the bodies of 40 dead enemies around Pilila’au.
For his courageous actions on Heartbreak Ridge, Pilila’au received the Medal of Honor.
4. Demensio Rivera
On May 23, 1951, a dense fog rolled into the positions held by the men of G Company, 7th Infantry Regiment. Hiding in the fog was an overwhelming enemy force, approaching for an attack.
One of the men holding the line against the Communist onslaught was Pvt. Demensio Rivera. With little to go on other than shadows in the fog, Rivera engaged the onrushing enemy with deadly accurate rifle fire. When his rifle jammed, he discarded it and fought on with his pistol and hand grenades.
When an enemy attempted to infiltrate the position through a nearby defilade, Rivera left the safety of his position and killed the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.
As the enemy continued to press the attack Rivera expended his pistol ammunition and all of his grenades but one.
With a mind on nothing other than devotion to duty, Rivera pulled the pin and waited for the enemy to storm his position. When that attack came Rivera calmly dropped the grenade among himself and his attackers, knowing full-well it would be the end of him.
After the grenade’s detonation, friendly forces rushed to Rivera’s position. To their surprise, Rivera was still alive, though gravely wounded. He was surrounded by the bodies of four enemy soldiers.
Rivera’s selfless actions in the face of overwhelming odds earned him the Medal of Honor.
The Barrett M82, known by members of the U.S. military as the M107 .50-caliber semi-automatic rifle, is one of the military’s most beloved weapons in use today. Its service history is as storied – and as American – as the history of its inventor, Ronnie Barrett.
Before his name became synonymous with American military supremacy, Barrett was a professional photographer in his home state of Tennessee. He never studied science or engineering in college – in fact, he didn’t go to college at all. He went to Murfreesboro High School before going out and starting a photography studio.
That all changed during the course of his usual work.
And many, many U.S. and allied troops are better off for it.
In 1982, Barrett was snapping a photo of a river patrol gunboat during a military exercise on the Stones River near Nashville, Tenn. Mounted on that boat were two M2 Browning .50-caliber machine guns. The size of the ammunition cartridge got Ronnie Barrett thinking. He was “wowed” by the Ma Deuce, but he wanted to know if the .50-caliber cartridge could be fired from a shoulder-mounted sniper rifle.
He was out on the water that day to snap promotional photos for the Browning Firearms Company, but he ended up starting a rival firm, one that would become as closely-linked with the U.S. military as Browning.
The photo also won a first-place award from the Tennessee Professional Photographers Association. No joke.
(Photo by Ronnie Barrett)
Barrett went home and began work on a 3D sketch of what would soon become the Model 82A1 – M107. Within just seven years, Barrett was able to sell his powerful sniper rifle to the Swedish military and eventually the United States Marine Corps, then the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force.
Not bad at all for someone with no college education, but a whole lotta vision. Welcome to Ronnie Barrett’s America, folks.
Just 60 years ago, there were no man-made objects above the planet Earth. Now, there are nearly 500,000 objects circling over Earth in various orbits. These include debris, inactive, and active satellites.
The tiny Sputnik, which means “satellite” or “fellow traveler” in Russian, was the first man-made satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit on Oct. 4, 1957, and it changed the course of human history.
The 58cm diameter, 83.6kg metallic orb, with four antennae that transmitted radio pulses, that was launched by the Soviet Union heralded the space race between the USSR and the US – ushering in an era of scientific advances, not only in military, but also in communications and navigation technologies.
There are approximately 1,500 active satellites currently orbiting the Earth. Modern society is heavily dependent on satellite technology, which is used for television and radio broadcasting, telephone calls, GPS navigation, mapping, weather forecasting, and other functions.
Class of satellite orbit
Low Earth Orbit
80km – 1,700km
Communications, Earth observation, development (International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope)
Medium Earth Orbit
1,700km – 35,700km
2 – 24 hrs
Navigation (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo)
Communications (Sirius Satellite Radio)
The US share of satellites
US government and private entities own over 40 percent of all satellites currently in orbit. Most operational satellites currently in orbit are for used for communications, Earth observation, technology development, navigation, and space science.
They have lifetimes ranging from months to 30-plus years after launch.
In 1989, Denzel Washington won his first Academy Award for his portrayal of Private Silas Tripp, a runaway slave-turned-freedom fighter, in Glory. Although Private Tripp was not a real person, the movie took its inspiration from a real-life volunteer unit in the Civil War — the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
The first African American regiment to serve in the United States military, the 54th Massachusetts was led by a 25-year-old abolitionist. The men were a pivotal part of the frontal assault of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, one of the Civil War’s most memorable battles. Made up of hundreds of volunteers, the 54th Massachusetts regiment achieved incredible things — easily meriting their nickname, the “Glory” regiment.
Established in February 1863, just one month after the Emancipation Proclamation officially authorized the recruitment of African American soldiers, the 54th Massachusetts regiment spent the next three months recruiting and training their soldiers before going on to become one of the most iconic units ever to serve in the U.S. military.
The 54th was comprised of 1,100 soldiers, the majority of whom were recruited by local abolitionists — white and black alike. The likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass boosted morale, helping recruit black Americans into military service for the first time. Douglass even contributed two of his own sons to the cause, both of whom enlisted in the 54th.
The Northern states knew that strong African American enlistment could help turn the course of the war, as both a symbol and as additional manpower for the bloody conflict. President Lincoln’s Secretary of War personally charged John Andrew, governor of Massachusetts, with staffing the officer corps of the 54th regiment. Andrew selected a bright-eyed, 25-year-old man, the son of abolitionists, to lead the 54th. His name was Robert Gould Shaw. Although Shaw was only a captain at the time, he was quickly promoted to colonel, and his second-in-command, Norwood Penrose “Pen” Hallowell was promoted from captain to lieutenant colonel–just a few days after his 24th birthday.
At first, the all-white officers were controversial. Both white and black citizens were dismayed that a black regiment would have to be led by white men. But the recruiting efforts of men like Douglass soon turned the tide, and volunteers began showing up in larger and larger numbers.
Morale was strong during enlistment, and the 54th received an influx of hopeful recruits — so much so that the unit implemented a “rigid and thorough” medical exam, with the aim of enlisting only the most physically and mentally fit into its ranks. The company trained at Camp Meigs just outside of Boston, for a period that lasted only several weeks.
On May 28th, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts regiment marched out of Boston on its way to Beaufort, South Carolina. They did so despite a December 1862 proclamation by President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, which stated that any captured African American soldier or white officer in charge of an African American company would be put to death.
As portrayed in Glory, the 54th Massachusetts’s first action was the looting and burning of a small town in Georgia. The action came on the orders of Colonel James Montgomery, a rabid abolitionist and controversial officer in the Northern Army who often implemented extreme tactics when dealing with pro-slavery populations.
Montgomery had been charged with raising an African American regiment around the same time as Colonel Shaw. His 2nd South Carolina unit rampaged through the South with their most famous battle, the Raid at Combahee Ferry, coming just before they linked up with the 54th Regiment Massachusetts. With the help of Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad, Montgomery and his men freed nearly 800 slaves at Combahee Ferry.
But Colonel Shaw wasn’t impressed with Montgomery’s tactics. He wrote a sternly-worded letter to the military higher-ups, complaining of Montgomery’s rampant destruction of Confederate towns and wanton cruelty towards their civilians. As a result, the 54th was shipped off to fight in a skirmish on James Island, South Carolina, in which they repelled a Confederate assault.
It was then that the 54th entered into its most famous battle: the raid on Fort Wagner, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
The climactic scene of Glory, depicting the Battle of Fort Wagner.
Charleston was considered a prize by many in the North, having been the birthplace of the Confederate rebellion. Charleston’s Fort Sumter was where the Confederacy fired its first shots, overtaking a Union garrison and precipitating the Civil War.
Colonel Shaw was tasked with leading the 54th Regiment on a dangerous frontal assault of Fort Wagner, with the aim of keeping the 6,000 men garrisoned inside occupied long enough for a rear-guard attack to penetrate the fort’s walls. It was a bold proposition, and the 54th was a mere 48 hours removed from their battle at James Island. Yet on July 18, 1863, the men of the first African American regiment bravely charged the battlefield and made history in the process.
The raid on Fort Wagner was ultimately a failure and led to the loss of many lives. No unit was more decimated than the 54th Massachusetts. 270 of its 600 men who charged the fort were killed, wounded, or captured. Colonel Shaw was among the dead, having been shot three times through the chest just outside the fort’s parapet.
Despite the heavy losses, the 54th Massachusetts regiment was commended for its valor. Tales of the unit’s bravery spread far and wide, prompting many African Americans to enlist in the Union army. President Lincoln ultimately cited the mobilization of African American troops as a key ingredient in the North’s victory over the South.
Many decades later, in 1900, Sergeant William Harvey Carney, then 60 years old, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery at the Battle of Fort Wagner. Carney had spotted the flag bearer fall during battle, and quickly rushed over to raise the American flag. Carney then led troops to the parapet, waving the flag high to boost morale despite receiving multiple gunshot and shrapnel wounds in the process. Upon the Union’s call to retreat, Carney somehow escaped with the flag intact, and crawled back to his encampment. As he handed the flag off to fellow soldiers, he famously told them, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground.”
The 4th United States Colored Infantry, mustered in Baltimore, Maryland
Although numerous African American soldiers received the Medal of Honor prior to Carney, his actions at the Battle of Fort Wagner preceded theirs. As such, he is considered the first African American to be granted the military’s highest honor.
Despite the bravery of the many men amongst their ranks, the 54th Regiment had still often been treated as second-class soldiers. Upon enlisting, the men who joined the 54th Massachusetts regiment were promised the same wages as white men who enlisted: a month, with food and clothing included. But as soon as the regiment arrived in South Carolina, they discovered that they would only be paid — and three of those hard-earned dollars would be taken by the Department of the South to pay for their clothing. Rather than accept this, the men of the 54th refused all pay. It would not be until late September 1864 that equal pay for the regiment was issued. Most of the men had served 18 months at this point.
After the Battle at Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts continued to fight in several more battles and skirmishes, with and without pay, right up until the end of the war. The regiment gained international fame after the war, and was immortalized by poets and artists both in America and Europe. A memorial to Colonel Shaw and the 54th was erected on the Boston Common as part of its Black Heritage Trail. The bust serves as the closing shot of Glory, over which the final credits roll.
On Nov. 21, 2008, the 54th Massachusetts regiment was reactivated as part of the Massachusetts National Guard. Today, the unit conducts military honors at funerals and state functions.
Easily one of the rarest medals a troop can earn is the Antarctica Service Medal. Spend a single day in Antarctica, south of 60 degrees latitude in the Southern hemisphere, and you’ve forever got bragging rights.
Do it in the wintertime and you’ve earned a distinctive “Wintered Over” clasp you can hold over everyone else. But being authorized to get down there is the hardest part.
Since its discovery in 1820, numerous nations who’ve landed in Antarctica have stuck their flags in the ground and claimed it as their own. Because the continent has essentially no readily available resources, is extremely remote, and was nearly impossible to settle on long-term, the flags (and their claims) were fairly weak.
But that didn’t stop many nations from trying to hold a claim. The United Kingdom (and, by extension, Australia and New Zealand), France, Norway, Argentina, Chile, and Nazi Germany all claimed portions of the continent. The United States and the USSR also held the right to make a claim but never did.
To ease tensions between all parties in 1959, the Antarctica Treaty was established which laid the ground rules for the continent. It was agreed that Antarctica is the “common heritage of mankind” and could not belong to an entity, territorial claim or not.
This was established to increase scientific understanding of the region and allow scientists the ability to freely communicate. Another article of the treaty bans military personnel and nuclear weapons testing from the continent.
The only exception to this policy is that troops are allowed entry into Antarctica as long as it’s done for scientific research and other peaceful purposes — this is the exact mission of every troop who travels south of the 60-degree line.
Airmen, sailors, and coast guardsmen will routinely travel to scientific research facilities to give aid, transportation, or supplies. However, finding the justification to send soldiers or Marines is more limited.
These troops can be found at McMurdo Station, one of the largest coastal facilities on the continent, and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which is a scientific research facility located at the geographic south pole.
During the Battle of Okinawa, one United States Navy ship went up against unbelievable odds — and survived to tell the incredible tale. The Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer USS Laffey (DD 724) faced off against a horde of Japanese pilots — some of whom, now known as kamikazes, were willing to crash into American vessels and sacrifice their lives to complete their mission.
Now, the Laffey’s story is coming to the big screen.
Mel Gibson, acclaimed actor and director of the Academy Award-nominated film Hacksaw Ridge, is currently working on Destroyer, a film based on the Wukovits’ book, Hell from the Heavens: The Epic Story of the USS Laffey and World War II’s Greatest Kamikaze Attack. The film will be centered around the 90 minutes of chaos experienced by the crew of the Laffey on April 16, 1945. In the span of roughly an hour and a half, the Laffey was hit by four bombs and struck by as many as eight kamikazes.
USS Laffey (DD 724) during World War II, packing six dual-purpose five-inch guns and ten 21-inch torpedo tubes.
USS Laffey’s story didn’t start and end with those fateful 90 minutes, however. After Okinawa, she was repaired and went on to see action in the Korean War. After Korea, she served until 1975, when she was decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Register of Vessels. Unlike many of her sister ships that went directly to the scrapyard, she was preserved as a museum and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
USS Laffey (DD 724, right) next to USS Hank (DD 702), a sister ship named after William Hank, the commanding officer of the first USS Laffey (DD 459).
Laffey’s commanding officer, Commander Frederick J. Becton, was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions that April day in 1945. Becton was a well-decorated troop in World War II. He received the Silver Star four times, including once for heroism on D-Day and twice more for actions in the Philippines while commanding the Laffey.
The first USS Laffey (DD 459), a Benson-class destroyer, pulling alongside another ship in 1942.
A previous USS Laffey, a Benson-class destroyer with the hull number DD 459, saw action in the Battle of Cape Esperance, but became a legend during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in the early morning hours of Friday, November 13, 1942. The destroyer closed to within 20 feet of the Japanese battleship Hiei and wounded Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe before being sunk by enemy fire. The sinking of the Laffey cost many US lives, but left the Japanese without command in a pivotal moment.
It seems as though the name ‘Laffey’ is destined to fight the odds.
Check out the video below to see director Mel Gibson’s excitement as he discusses the near-impossible bravery of the USS Laffey at Okinawa.