Lee was a veteran of World War I when he was sent with other American troops to Nicaragua in 1927 to assist the Nicaraguan National Guard in a long-running fight against a leftist rebellion.
The Marines, including Lee, took command of small groups of local soldiers, trained them, and led them in combat.
In 1930, Lee was a gunnery sergeant who led the Nicaraguans against superior enemy forces six times between Mar. 20 and Aug. 19, forcing the enemy to retreat each time. Lee’s men were thought to have killed at least 10 enemy fighters and wounded many more over the span of the ten battles. Lee was awarded his first Navy Cross for his leadership and valor.
In December of the same year, Lee led a 10-day patrol through the jungle and engaged in three heavy fights with the rebels. His men defeated the rebels in each of the firefights, twice while fighting against rebel forces with superior numbers. This action netted Lee his second Navy Cross.
Automatic weapons fire rained down on the Marines and Nicaraguans as rebels fired their rifles and threw grenades. Lee was hit in the arm and head almost immediately at the start of the fight. Puller led the Nicaraguans against the enemy to achieve fire superiority without knowing if Lee was alive or dead.
Luckily for them all, Lee was only unconscious and awoke approximately 15 minutes later as the battle continued. Despite his grievous wounds, he clawed his way to the Nicaraguans’ machine gun, moved it to a good firing position, and started raining hell on the rebels. He then returned to the main element and resumed his duties as the second in command on the final attack.
U.S. Marines holding the Nicaraguan rebel leader Augusto César Sandino’s Flag. Nicaragua, 1932. (Marine Corps photo)
The Marines and Nicaraguans then conducting a fighting withdrawal back to their base, engaging the enemy multiple times and defeating more ambushes.
Lee would go on to fight in China during the lead up to World War II. Soon after the war broke out, he and his men were captured by Japanese forces and taken as prisoners of war and tortured. Lee survived the ordeal and continued serving in the Marine Corps until his retirement in 1950. He died of cancer in 1998.
In May of 1942, U-boat 506 sank the freighter “Heredia” approximately 40 miles off New Orleans. Most of the crew onboard were merchant seamen, but there were also a handful of civilians including the Downs family, consisting of the parents, Ray and Ina, along with their two children, eight-year-old Sonny, and eleven-year-old Lucille. When the ship exploded, chaos ensued and Ina and Lucille were separated from Ray and Sonny who found refuge in a four-foot balsa wood life raft. Father and son were joined by the Heredia’s captain, Captain Edwin Colburn, and civilian George Conyea. The following narrative, excerpted from Michael Tougias’ new book “So Close to Home,” chronicles their final hours in the life raftwhen all hope seemed lost.
The baking rays of the sun pounded down on the four souls clinging to the square life raft, that was now partially submerged. If we don’t drown, thought Ray Downs, we’re going to die of dehydration. They had been drifting in the Gulf of Mexico for over fourteen hours, and Ray worried his boy Sonny wouldn’t last another hour.
Sonny was lost in his own exhausted stupor. Then he felt something against his leg. He glanced down and could not believe what he saw: a banana, perhaps the same one he had lost earlier, was bobbing in the water.
“Dad, look!” he gasped, reaching out and snatching the green banana.
“I knew you’d find it. I think that banana is really going to help us. Why don’t you unpeel it and take a big bite and then pass it around for all of us to share?”
Sonny did as he was told. It was a struggle to swallow his piece of the banana with his mouth and throat so dry. Twenty seconds later, he felt nauseous and vomited the banana bite back into the sea.
“Well, that didn’t work so well,” Ray said. “The banana wasn’t ripe anyway.”
Sonny only nodded. He was slumped forward with his head hanging so low that it almost reached his knees.
A few minutes later, Sonny said, “Dad, can we go in now?” He said it as if they were on a fishing trip and it was up to his father when to call it quits.
Rather than try to explain the situation, his father answered, “Soon, son, soon.”
Sonny looked up at his father and just nodded.
It wasn’t long after this exchange that Ray noticed fellow survivor George Conyea staring at something directly behind where Ray was sitting. Ray turned his head and saw not one but four grey shark fins lazily cutting through the sea just five feet away from the raft. When he looked over at Conyea and the captain, he saw another couple of fins. By now, all four of the survivors could see the sharks. No one said a word.
One shark turned toward the raft and then glided directly under it. The group could see the outline of its body as it passed directly beneath them. It looked to be about five to six feet long.
Sonny quickly pulled his feet out of the water.
“Take it easy, Sonny, don’t thrash around,” said his dad. “They’ll move on.”
But they didn’t move on.
The four survivors now counted seven different sharks making slow half-loops around the raft before making a pass directly underneath it. This was by far the most terrifying experience of the ordeal for both Sonny and the three adults. The raft was too small for the men to try and get their legs on top of the balsa wood. Ray was right: their best defense was not to make a commotion.
The men did not know what kind of sharks they were, only that they were as big as themselves. The life raft probably acted like a magnet for sharks, attracting their interest simply because it was a floating object, and the sharks, with their keen sense of smell, could also have been drawn in by the scent of the blood from the wound on Ray’s leg. And any movement the group made, such as switching position, would have caused a vibration in the water, and that too would attract sharks. It’s also possible that smaller fish were holding position under the shade of the raft, and the sharks came in to investigate this potential prey, and then became inquisitive about the humans.
Whatever kind of sharks were circling the Heredia survivors, they were curious and gradually moved in closer to the life raft, making their lazy half-loops just a couple of feet off the side of the raft before they submerged and swam directly under it. One shark, when passing under the raft, rolled on its back, and an anxious Sonny could see its half-opened mouth. The boy almost let out a scream, but his dad, who had seen the same thing, reached over and put his hand on Sonny’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, they are just checking us out. We are something new to them.”
Ray had no idea if what he was saying was true or not, but the last thing he needed was for his son to go into a panic. He also hoped his words calmed the captain and George Conyea, because they were as wide-eyed as Sonny, watching every move their new visitors made.
Ray felt despair like he had never known. Sundown was just three and a half hours away, and the thought of the sharks gliding beneath them at night was too terrible to contemplate. He felt absolutely helpless.
Minutes crawled by and the four survivors kept still, eyes glued on the fins lazily cutting through the water on all sides of the raft. The behavior of the sharks stayed the same; they came within a foot or two of the castaways but there was no direct contact with either the raft or the group’s legs or feet.
“How long will they stay?” asked Sonny, looking at his father.
“Don’t know, Sonny; but like I said, they are just curious.” Ray paused and continued his calming words: “If we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us.”
An hour went by and the group tried to ignore the sharks, but with little success. There was nothing else to look at, nothing else to take their mind off the seven fins circling them.
About two hours after the sharks first arrived, more fins appeared in the water not far from the raft. Sonny was terrified, thinking, not more sharks. . . .
Captain Colburn spoke up. “Hey, those are dolphins.”
Like the U-boat that had caused their ordeal, the sharks submerged and were not seen again.
Sonny experienced an incredible sense of relief and joy with the dolphins’ arrival and the sharks’ departure. He felt as if he had been holding his breath for the past two hours, afraid to move a muscle. There was no doubt in his mind that the dolphins had driven the sharks off to help him.
The dolphins’ presence not only relieved Sonny’s concern over the sharks, they also gave him something new to watch. Unlike the sharks, the dolphins swam quickly around the raft, their entire backs almost coming out of the water, and then briefly submerge and repeat the process. Up and down came their fins. But after just three or four minutes, they moved on and were gone from sight.
The group didn’t speak. Without the fear of sharks, their minds went back to the predicament of time running out for a rescue. It would be dark within the hour. Their thirst was unbearable and all felt extremely weak. Sonny was in the worst shape because of his small body. Now that the sun was low in the sky, he was shivering again. His father noticed and had him move back on his lap where he wrapped his big arms around the boy, trying to stop his shaking.
Sonny looked up at his father. “Shouldn’t a boat be here by now?” he asked.
Ray needed to keep his son’s mind occupied. So instead of discussing the lack of a rescue boat, he said “Let’s play a game. See those seagulls way up there? You choose one and I’ll choose one and we’ll count how long they go without flapping their wings. Whoever’s bird flies the longest without using its wings wins.”
Sonny perked up a bit. He didn’t really want to play the game because he was so chilled and his mouth so parched that he’d rather not talk. But he thought maybe this game was what his father needed to do.
“Okay, I’m picking the one over there,” Sonny said as he lethargically pointed at a shape off to the west.
“And I’ve got the one straight up,” answered Ray.
With heads tilted back, father and son watched the birds they had chosen. It was easy to look up because the sun was almost touching the ocean.
“Mine just flapped,” said Ray. “You win.”
Sonny gave a half-hearted nod.
“Well, let’s play another round,” said Ray.
Again they chose birds. Sonny chose one high in the sky and way off on the eastern horizon. This time the captain and George Conyea also looked up to see which birds the father and son chose. Anything to take their minds off their body’s demands for water.
Again Ray’s bird flapped its wings quickly. “You win again,” he said.
Sonny kept his eyes on his own bird. “Wow, Dad, mine is still going along without flapping.”
Ray looked closer at the bird in the distance.
“Captain, let me use your binoculars,” Ray said.
The captain removed the strap from around his neck and handed them to Ray, who hurriedly put the binoculars to his eyes. He adjusted the focus and stared intently at the bird far in the distance.
“That’s no seagull, it’s a plane!” he shouted.
“Yes, yes!” shouted the captain.
The survivors still could not hear its engines or tell what kind of plane it was, but there was no doubt it was a plane and that it was heading toward the raft.
“Quick, Sonny, take off the captain’s coat! I’ve got to get it on the board.”
Within seconds, Ray was waving the board with the white coat on it, and the others were waving their arms.
Ray couldn’t tell if the pilot had spotted the white coat, and the tension was unbearable. Please, please, he said to himself. His son’s very life was at stake. The boy could not make it through another cold night. He waved the white coat wildly.
As the plane drew closer, its metal skin briefly glittered when the sun’s rays hit it. Now they could hear the dull drone of the engine, and Sonny shouted “Help!”
“Keep waving the flag!” shouted the captain, his excitement growing. “It’s got to see us. It’s our last chance. I think it’s coming our way.”
Ray could make out the outline of the plane and, because of its unique construction, realized it was a Navy PBY. The single wing was elevated on a pylon above the fuselage rather than coming straight out from the sides. This allowed unobstructed visibility for its aviators to scan the ocean during either patrols for U-boats or search-and-rescue missions. Two engines with propellers were mounted on the wing, one on each side of the aircraft.
The plane came ever closer but it did not descend. Ray thought maybe it was going too fast to see them.
But Sonny’s heart soared. He was certain the plane was coming for them. And he was right. In one swift motion, the PBY started descending and adjusting its course slightly so it was just fifteen feet off the ocean and heading right toward the raft, banking hard so that Sonny could actually see the pilot, who was giving a thumbs-up. The boy let out a croak of joy along with the cheers of his father, the captain, and George Conyea.
The four raft passengers watched with awe as the plane circled back toward them. Its 104-foot wingspan and 63-foot length made it appear enormous so close to the water. Just as the plane was barreling over their location, they saw the pilot drop a package out the window, landing just ten feet from the raft. Using the board and their hands, all four survivors paddled furiously toward what they hoped was their salvation floating in the water.
The captain grabbed the package and ripped it open. Inside were two flares, a large container of water, and a note. The captain read the note out loud: “We will send shrimp boats to come and get you. If anyone is seriously hurt, wave me in and I’ll pick them up.”
Ray thought for a minute. He knew the plane was going to search for other survivors in the few minutes of daylight left and he didn’t want to slow it down. Someone, maybe Lucille or Ina, might be hurt and the plane could rescue them. He thought Sonny could make it the half hour or hour that he expected the shrimp boat to take to arrive.
The plane made a broad circle above the raft and then moved off.
“We made it, son,” said Ray; “we’ll be on the boat in no time.”
Then the captain passed the water container to Ray, saying, “Let’s all take a drink. We may want to let our bodies adjust to the water before we take a second drink.”
When Sonny took his gulp of water, he thought he had never tasted anything so good, so sweet. It was as if the water had magical powers, because he felt better immediately. He couldn’t wait for the container to come around again for his second drink of the life-giving fluid. But the captain said again that they shouldn’t drink too much all at once, and the other adults agreed.
A few minutes later the plane reappeared, then moved off. The survivors had no way of knowing that the pilot had dropped a note to shrimp boats a few miles off that said: “Watch my direction. Follow me. Pick up survivors in water.”
A half hour went by and the survivors bobbed on their little raft in the darkening shadows. They all had another drink of water, and the captain said that he thought a shrimp boat could reach them within the next half hour.
Sonny shivered in his father’s arms. The hydrating water had eased his thirst but did nothing for his growing hypothermia.
“That plane can land on water, right, Dad?”
“Then why didn’t they just do that and pick us up?”
“They needed more time in the air to find others. But the boat will be here soon.”
“What if the boat can’t find us?”
“They will. And remember, we’ve got flares to use if we see a boat.”
Sonny had forgotten about the flares. But he also wondered how his dad would see a boat in the distance in the pitch black of night.
More time went by. The sun had set, but the survivors could still differentiate between the horizon and the ocean in the twilight. Sonny had forgotten all about the sharks, but Ray hadn’t. Ray still scanned the dark ocean around the raft for any sign of a fin. He wondered what to do if a shark appeared and thought that should one come, he could use the strong light from a flare to scare it off. But with only two flares. . . .
The prospect of another night in the water scared Ray to the core—not for himself but his concern over Sonny, who he could feel shivering in his arms. He second-guessed himself about not waving in the plane. Now there was nothing he could do to change that decision.
Editor’s note: Michael Tougias is a New York Times bestselling author and co-author of 25 books including “The Finest Hours,” “A Storm Too Soon,” “Rescue of the Bounty,” “Overboard,” “Fatal Forecast,” “Ten Hours Until Dawn,” and “There’s a Porcupine in my Outhouse.”
His latest work is an inspiring historical narrative titled “So Close to Home” that tells the story of all four members of the Downs family as they struggle for survival. Their story is contrasted against that of the daring U-boat commander, Erich Wurdemann, who pushed his crew to the limit of endurance as he laid waste to ships throughout the Gulf.
A continuous, heavy reliance on the most elite U.S. forces is threatening to erode what many officials now see as an increasingly indispensable set of military capabilities.
Already on the front lines in the battle against terror groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaida, U.S. special forces are increasingly being called upon to help combat a growing variety of threats from state and non-state actors at a pace that Pentagon officials fear may not be sustainable.
“We’ve been operating at such a high op-tempo for the last decade-plus,” Theresa Whelan, acting assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “We’ve mortgaged the future in order to facilitate current operations.
“That has impacted readiness and it’s also impacted the development of the force for the future. And as the threats grow, this is only going to get worse,” she added.
Approximately 8,000 U.S. special operations forces are currently deployed to more than 80 countries, according to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
Special operations forces have also been playing a key role in Afghanistan, where just last week two Army Rangers were killed in a large raid with Afghan counterparts that is thought to have killed the leader of IS in that country.
Additionally, SOCOM has been given new responsibilities, taking the lead in coordinating military actions against terrorist organizations and also maintaining the Defense Department’s efforts to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
“Special operations forces are more relevant than ever,” SOCOM Commander General Raymond Thomas told lawmakers. “The evolution, the change in terms of the threat environment, is almost kind of at a frantic level in terms of number of threats.”
But Thomas and Whelan cautioned that the additional responsibilities combined with a larger role on the ground, in many areas, have led to increased strain, especially in a tight budget environment.
In some cases, support staff has taken a hit, Whelan said.
“In fact, we have actually downsized because of requirements for downsizing of the federal workforce, particularly major headquarters organizations,” she told lawmakers.
Officials also worry about the lack of certainty when it comes to funding.
Nearly 30 percent of SOCOM’s money comes from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget — meant to help fund current military operations. But SOCOM said the vast majority of that money pays for long-term functions or capabilities.
The renewed concerns about special operations funding came the same day President Donald Trump touted a $20 billion military spending increase, included in a bill expected to be approved by the House of Representatives this week.
“We are at last reversing years of military cuts and showing our determination and resolve to the entire world,” Trump said May 2 while welcoming the U.S. Air Force Academy football team to the White House Rose Garden.
“These long-awaited increases will make America more safe and more secure and give our amazing service members the tools, equipment, training, and resources they need and they very much deserve.”
Still, the impact when it comes to stabilizing SOCOM funding is unclear, as the military spending increase includes billions of dollars for OCO.
But even if funding is stabilized, there remain deep and long-standing concerns about trying to do too much with not enough, possibly pushing special operations force (SOF) troops past their breaking point.
“SOF leaders are worried about that,” a former SOCOM staff officer warned VOA last year, pointing to a continuous surge in the number of missions over the past 15 years.
“They continually say ‘yes,’ ” the officer said. “When do we say ‘no’ in contemporary times to be able to say ‘yes’ to perhaps something more critical in the future?”
The U.S. Air Force needs a lot of space to train, especially when it wants fighters, refuelers, and other aircraft to work together in a way that realistically simulates combat conditions where jets chase each other at twice the speed of sound and refuelers run race tracks near the edges of the battlefield.
That’s why it conducts the Red Flag – Alaska training exercise. While the Red Flag exercises in Nevada are more famous, Red Flag – Alaska lets the Air Force conduct missions using approximately five times the space available in Nevada. The total area is roughly equivalent to the state of Florida.
“The large amount of space forces pilots to figure out the logistical problem of working in such a large scale, similar to an entire theater of operations,” Lt. Col. Julio Rodriguez, the 18th Aggressor Squadron commander, told a military journalist. “The multiple uses the [Joint Pacific Alaska Range complex] provides is imperative to the success of our training. We can go faster here than any blue force has ever trained, almost to Mach 2 to show the pilots what it’s like if the enemy were to do use that as one of its tactics”
The JPARC contains 65,000 square miles of airspace, 2,490 square miles of land, and 42,000 nautical miles of sea and airspace in the Gulf of Alaska.
International partners are invited to the exercise which usually lasts 10 days. While most of the participating aircraft are American, Korean, Canadian, and New Zealand crews have participated in recent years.
The Red Flag exercise attempts to simulate combat conditions across a broad range of missions. Obviously, this includes air combat, but it also includes refueling, resupply, and even the air insertion of paratroopers.
“I’ve got a lot of young aviators that have never seen something at this level with this many aircraft going against a very good and proficient threat, both on the air-to-air side and the surface-to-air side,” said Marine Lt. Col. Gregory A. McGuire, commanding officer of a Marine Corps fighter unit. “For me, I’m happy about giving my guys the opportunity to see this kind of real-world kinetic, large-force exercise so they can see how we would employ should we be called upon to do so.”
Paratroopers with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, board a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules during Red Flag Alaska 17-1 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Oct. 12, 2016. During Red Flag-Alaska 17-1, approximately 2,095 U.S. service members will participate in the exercise – approximately 1,295 personnel from outside Alaska and 203 international visitors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Valerie Monroy)
Thousands of people from around the world take part in the exercise. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson takes in an additional 1,000 personnel on its own when the exercise comes to town.
Of course, with so many pilots coming from so many places, the support staff on JBER have to increase their activity and precision, meaning that they get good training as well.
The military has very talented photographers in its ranks, and they constantly attempt to capture what life as a service member is like during training and at war. This is the best of what they shot this week:
Airman Natalie Gaston, a 374th Medical Support Squadron bioenvironmental technician, simulates using an ADM 300, an instrument that measures radiation in the air, at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Feb. 1, 2016. Bioenvironmental engineering first responders use an ADM 300 to protect them from possible contamination while taking samples.
An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 480th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron takes off from the flightline at Souda Bay, Greece, Feb. 1, 2016, during a flying training deployment. The training included more than 15 aircraft launches a day as part of the training between the U.S. and Hellenic air forces.
U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to 173rd Airborne Brigade, conduct sling load operations with UH-60 helicopters from 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry division, part of an artillery raid during Exercise Allied Spirit IV at 7th Army JMTC’s Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Jan. 26, 2016.
A U.S. Army Soldier, assigned to 2d Cavalry Regiment, provides security using his M240B machine gun during a unit reconnaissance patrol, part of Allied Spirit IV, at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, Jan. 20, 2016.
U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to 82nd Airborne Division Artillery, 82nd Airborne Division, attach a M119A3 howitzer to a CH-47 Chinook helicopter from 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade during sling load operations, part of a division artillery readiness test at Fort Bragg, N.C., Jan. 20, 2016.
TOKYO BAY, Japan (Feb. 05, 2015) Sailors, aboard the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Texas (SSN 775), moor the boat to the pier. Texas is visiting Yokosuka for a port visit. U.S. Navy port visits represent an important opportunity to promote stability and security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, demonstrate commitment to regional partners and foster growing relationships.
NORTH PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan 30, 2016) –Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Timothy Dunkel directs a landing craft air cushion (LCAC) fire drill in the well deck of amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). Bonhomme Richard is the lead ship of the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group and is forward-deployed in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operation.
PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 26, 2016) Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Maxell Reynolds, from Palm Springs, California, takes part in a command swim call aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG 53). Providing a combat-ready force to protect collective maritime interests, Mobile Bay, assigned to the Stennis strike group, is operating as part of the Great Green Fleet on a regularly scheduled Western Pacific deployment.
Marines with 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, II Marine Expeditionary Force, radio in a CH-53E Super Stallion as part of their avalanche scenario at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California Jan. 20, 2016. Marines across II MEF and 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade took part in the scenario as part of Mountain Exercise 1-16 in preparation for Exercise Cold Response 16.1 in Norway this March. The exercise will feature military training including maritime, land and air operations that underscore NATO’s ability to defend against any threat in any environment.
A Light Armored Vehicle with 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, take part in a mechanized assault course (MAC) during Integrated Training Exercise 2-16 at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, Jan. 28, 2016. The training was conducted to strengthen unit coordination and maneuvers during mechanized assaults.
Coast Guard crews routinely train to respond to emergency situations they may encounter while underway. Fire aboard a cutter can cause mass casualties or total loss of the vessel, but proper training can help crewmembers to quickly and safely save lives and the ship.
The F-15 Eagle, arguably the most successful fighter jet of the modern age, could be in for an early retirement with the US Air Force thanks to skyrocketing upgrade and refurbishment costs.
In a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Air Force and Air National Guard brass informed the panel that a plan was recently formed to retire and replace the F-15C/D variant of the Eagle far ahead of schedule by a matter of decades, though no decision had been made on that plan. While the Air Force did plan to keep the Eagle flying till 2040 through a $4 billion upgrade, it was recently determined that a further $8 billion would need to be invested in refurbishing the fuselages of these Eagles, driving up the costs of retaining the F-15C/D even higher than originally expected — presenting what seems to be the final nail the Eagle’s eventual coffin.
So, what will the Air Force likely do to replace this 40-year-old wonder jet?
The Air Force had at first planned to replace the F-15 with the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, but successive cuts to the Raptor program left the branch with only 187 fighters, a substantially lower quantity than the planned buy of around 700. This forced the decision to keep the Eagles in service longer, and thus, the aforementioned investment of over $4 billion was made towards upgrading all combat coded F-15C/Ds with new radars, networking systems, and avionics to keep these fighters in service up till around 2040, when it would be replaced with a newer sixth-generation fighter, also superseding the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor.
Once the F-15 gets pulled by the mid-2020s, the Air Force claims it already has a solution to replace what was once a bastion of American air power.
This solution comes in the form of enhancing F-16 Fighting Falcons with new radars from Northrop Grumman, and networking systems to take over the Eagle’s role in North American air defense, at least in the interim until the Air Force begins and completes its sixth-generation fighter project, which will bring about an even more capable air superiority fighter replacement for both the F-22 and the F-15.
The Air Force has already begun extending the lives of its F-16s till 2048, through a fleet-wide Service Life Extension Program that will add an extra 4,000 flight hours to its Fighting Falcons. Air Force leadership has also advocated buying more fighters, namely the F-35A Lightning II, faster, so that when the hammer does eventually drop on the Eagle, the branch’s fighter fleet won’t be left undersized and vulnerable.
Even with upgrades, however, the F-16 still has some very big boots to fill.
The F-15 was designed primarily as an air superiority fighter, meaning it was built to excel at shooting other aircraft down; all other mission types, like performing air-to-ground strikes, were secondary to its main tasking. To perform in this role, the Eagle was given stellar range, sizable weapons carriage, fantastic speed (over two and a half times the speed of sound), and a high operational ceiling. Conversely, the F-16 was designed as a low-cost alternative to the F-15, able to operate in a variety of roles, though decidedly not as well as the F-15 could with the air-to-air mission. Its combat range, weapons load and speed fall short of the standard set by the Eagle. Regardless, the Air Force still believes that the F-16 will be the best interim solution until the 6th generation fighter is fielded.
The USAF’s most decorated F-16 pilot, Dan Hampton, doesn’t disagree with these plans. In an interview with The War Zone, Hampton argues that though the F-16 lacks the weapons payload that the F-15 possesses, advances in missile guidance and homing make carrying more air-to-air weaponry a moot point, as pilots would likely hit their mark with the first or second shot, instead of having to fire off a salvo of missiles. Hampton adds that the F-16’s versatility in being able to perform a diverse array of missions makes it more suitable for long-term upgrades to retain it over the Eagle. Whether or not this will actually work out the way the Air Force hopes it will is anybody’s guess.
Throughout history, executions have been controversial ways of punishing heinous crimes against individuals, institutions, and governments. From hangings to lethal injection, executions have spanned the gamut of cruelty and, at every point, there has raged a debate over the moral grounds of taking a life for justice.
Historically, one form of execution has been reserved for military personnel: the firing squad. The concept is elementary: a prisoner stands against a brick wall or study barrier and is gunned down by a handful of soldiers. It might sound simple, but there are a few things about this deadly punishment that you might not know
The final walk
Out of grim curiosity, we’ve watched several videos of firing-squad executions found in the war archives. We noticed that the majority of criminals sentenced to die conducted their last walks under their own accord. Although this was likely their last moment of life, criminals weren’t dragged to their position.
We thought that was interesting.
A firing squad in Cuba.
The crimes committed
Throughout many parts of the world, if a troop or civilian was convicted of cowardice, desertion, espionage, murder, mutiny, or treason, they would be sent up in front of a firing squad as punishment.
That doesn’t happen too often today.
What it’s like facing a Spanish firing squad without a blindfold.
In many cases, the prisoner was blindfolded before stepping in front of his executioners. However, some requested the opportunity to face the men who were about to unload their barrels.
That’s pretty ballsy.
According to the Crime Museum, when the condemned person was able to look into the eyes of their executioners, it diminished their anonymity. This made the event stressful for the shooters who were following orders.
The firing squad
Once given the cue by a superior, each soldier pulled the trigger of their rifle simultaneously, resulting in a kill shot by multiple rounds.
In some cases, only a handful of the executioners were given live rounds. The rest would receive blanks. This way, nobody could know who, exactly, was responsible for the kill.
Ronnie Lee Gardner in the the courtroom
(National Public Radio)
The last use of a firing squad for a convicted criminal.
According to NPR, the last person to be executed by firing squad was convicted murderer, Ronnie Lee Gardner, in 2010. While already faced with a murder conviction in Utah, Gardner attempted to escape and, in the process, killed an attorney.
Gardner’s conviction came through before the state abandoned the use of the firing squads in 2004. He elected to be killed this way.
A lot gets said about “America’s porous borders,” especially in an election year. Forget for a moment, about the argument about whether or not a wall would be effective along the U.S.-Mexican border (and forget about who is going to pay for it). Right now, there is no wall and there are three borders, guarded by a thin green line called the U.S. Border Patrol.
The boats, horses, and men of the Border Patrol weren’t originally meant to be on guard against illegal Mexican immigrants, drugs, and guns from coming over the southern U.S. border, they were formed to keep the American southwest free of illegal Chinese immigrants.
The Border Patrol is no joke. The agency has a Congressionally-mandated 21,370 agents covering a staggering 19,000 miles across the U.S. northern and southern borders as well as the Caribbean. It has its own SWAT team, special operators, and search and rescue squads. They finish a 13- to 21-week long basic training course (depending on how well the trainee speaks Spanish) and then complete 12 to 16 weeks of field training at their first duty station – just to call themselves “agent.”
In 1904, the nascent Border Patrol was known as the Mounted Guards. Operating out of El Paso, Texas, 75 horsemen scanned as far west as California in an attempt to stem the tide of Chinese immigration.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, restricting immigration from China. During the Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroads, Chinese laborers were welcomed to the U.S. in droves. After the economic booms of the post-Civil War years and the end of the Gold Rush, the once-welcomed source of cheap labor lost their appeal and public opinion quickly turned sour.
A mix of these Mounted Guards, U.S. troops, and Texas Rangers kept an eye out for the unwanted immigrants. In 1915, the Mounted Guards became Mounted Inspectors and had Congressional authority – but they had to bring their own horses.
In those days, catching customs violations were more important than cutting off illegal immigration. The Border Patrol as we know it was born in 1924, both as a response to Prohibition and to Congressional restrictions on the number of legal immigrants coming into the U.S.
With Prohibition, defending the northern border became as important as the south. Based in Detroit, the northern area had to cut illegal immigration as well as the illegal import of Canadian Whiskey. The American government authorized 450 agents to patrol all of America’s borders.
In 1925, Pancho Villa and his “Villistas” invaded American territory, sacking Columbus, New Mexico and killing it inhabitants. It was the largest American loss of life on American soil until the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Columbus didn’t receive Border Patrol agents until 1927 – two men guarding 135 miles of border, a microcosm of the modern Border Patrol’s modern long-distance mission.
The United States began registering men for the draft well before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (it’s like they knew something was coming on the horizon). After all, you don’t want to go to the mattresses without the men and material necessary to win a war. The U.S. needed men and guns, but somehow, the heads of New York’s Five Families managed to avoid it.
While there were a lot of men associated with the mafia who fought in World War II, the guys at the top (many of which who were still the prime age for selective service) did not. It wasn’t about their connections; they had a legitimate reason to stay stateside.
Maybe the draft letters got lost in the mail. I dunno. Probably.
It has nothing to do with patriotism. If you consider the idea of pure capitalism, no one could possibly be more pro-America than the wiseguys who played the system to their advantage. Besides, the mafia was no fan of Mussolini. In Italy, the dictator was going to war with mafioso families in Sicily, men he considered a direct threat to his regime.
Back in the United States, members of New York’s crime families did join the military to fight in the looming World War. Matty “The Horse” Ianniello, who would one day be the acting boss of the Genovese family, served in the Army. The Genovese’s George Barone was one of the family’s most feared hitmen, but before that, he was in the Navy fighting on Guam, Saipan, Leyte, Luzon, and Iwo Jima. The Bonnano family’s “Johnny Green” Faraci landed at Normandy on D-Day.
But their bosses were absent.
“In this suit? Fuggedaboudit.”
But there was a reason, and that reason didn’t include intimidating selective service officials or beating the unholy crap out of draft boards. Some of the wiseguys at the top of New York’s five families were still (mostly) of draft age. Though many of the fathers at the top were just a hair older, even Bonanno family father, Joe Bonanno, was eligible for the draft. But these guys weren’t just running numbers, prostitution, and carjacking rings; they also ran legitimate businesses. Basically, they still needed a legitimate income, they just had the best marketing and growth plans every business owner dreams about.
In his autobiography, Joseph Bonanno talked about what happened to the mafia during the war, albeit very briefly. He mentioned for his part, he managed to avoid being drafted because one of his legitimate businesses was a large dairy operation in upstate New York – which was considered an industry vital to the war effort, and thus kept his name off the draft rolls.
“Whatsa matter? You don’t like farming?”
Mafiosos famously controlled labor unions across the United States and, as a result, were considered essential members of key war production industries, including concrete construction, harbors, and the Teamsters unions. What would become the Genovese family got its start laundering money through extensive fishing operations. This became an especially powerful way to avoid the draft in the 1970s, where the Mafia reached the peak of its power in the United States.
This work was known as a “reserved occupation” and included dock workers, farmers, scientists, railway workers, and utility workers. Joseph Bonanno was just your average crime family father, and a simple dairy farmer.
North Korea launched its longest-range, most capable missile ever on July 28, and experts say that all of the US, besides Florida, now lies within range of a nuclear attack from Kim Jong Un.
Fortunately, unlike an attack from a nuclear peer state like Russia, North Korea’s less-advanced missiles would only be expected to hit a few key targets in the US. And even that limited attack would still take North Korea years to prepare, since it still needs to perfect its missiles engines with more tests, in addition to guidance systems. It also needs to build and deploy enough of them to survive US missile defenses.
But a North Korean propaganda photo from 2013 showing Kim Jong Un reviewing documents before a missile launch (pictured below) may have inadvertently leaked the planned targets for a nuclear attack on the US. On the wall besides Kim and his men, there’s a map with lines pointing towards some militarily significant locations.
In Hawaii, one of the closest targets to North Korea, the US military bases Pacific Command, which is in charge of all US military units in the region.
San Diego is PACOM’s home port, where many of the US Navy ships that would respond to a North Korean attack base when not deployed.
Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana holds the US Air Force’s Global Strike Command, the entity that would be responsible for firing back with the US’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Washington D.C., of course, is the home of the US’s commander-in-chief, who must approve of nuclear orders.
All in all, the targets selected by North Korea demonstrate a knowledge of the US’s nuclear command and control, but as they come from a propaganda image, they should be taken with a grain of salt.
North Korea has developed nuclear weapons as a means of regime security, according to more than a dozen experts interviewed by Business Insider. If Kim ever shot a nuclear-armed missile the US’s way, before the missiles even landed, US satellites in space would spot the attack and the president would order a return fire likely before the first shots even landed.
As unique as Kim is among world leaders, he must know a swift disposal awaits him if he ever engages in a nuclear confrontation.
The Islamic State came dangerously close to obtaining a radioactive dirty bomb, in fact the ingredients were readily available to the group for more than three years, but an apparent lack of knowledge or know-how prevented a disaster.
ISIS gained a military treasure trove after its seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014. Everything from tanks to guns were spoils of war, many of them American-made. But the most valuable prize the group unwittingly obtained were two supplies of cobalt-60, a highly radioactive substance used in cancer treatment which is also perfect for a dirty bomb, according to a report by Joby Warrick of The Washington Post published on July 22.
ISIS apparently stumbled upon the radioactive substance possibly without even know what they had. It was locked away in a storage room on a college campus contained in heavy shielding when ISIS took over the area. When Iraq Security Forces retook the campus earlier this year, they found the cobalt-60 still in storage, providing a major relief to security officials and experts who had been tracking its location.
“We are very relieved that these two, older albeit still dangerous, cobalt-60 sources were not found and used by Daesh. They were recovered intact recently,” said the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank which compiled a dossier on the substance’s whereabouts beginning in 2015, in a report published July 22.
The Institute provided its final report to the US and other “friendly governments,” and ultimately decided not to publish the report at the time out of concern that ISIS could use it.
A dirty bomb is essentially a terrorist’s ideal weapon. It uses a traditional explosive to spread radioactive material across a given area, in an attempt to incite panic and chaos. It is not necessarily difficult to obtain the ingredients for a dirty bomb; highly radioactive material is used in a multitude of civilian applications. A terrorist would need only to gain a suitable amount of material, combine it with a traditional explosive, and unleash it on a target area. While the death toll from the detonation of such a device would likely be low, it is the resulting fear among the targeted population that worries officials.
Thankfully, ISIS either was not able or aware of the cobalt-60 in Mosul.
“They are not that smart,” a health ministry official told WaPo.
It is possible that ISIS was aware of the caches of cobalt-60, but did not have the know-how to remove it from its casing without exposing its own forces to the deadly radiation. It is equally possible they simply had no idea what they had. The Institute also speculated that “courageous hospital and university staff” may have worked to keep the cobalt-60 a secret from the terror group.
The cobalt-60 is not the first time ISIS has had a chance at a weapon of mass destruction. US forces conducted air strikes against two chemical weapons factories in Mosul in March 2016. Officials had been concerned that the group was possibly stolen using chemistry equipment from Mosul University, though it is unclear if that equipment was being used in the weapons factories. Despite the strikes, ISIS is known to have used chlorine and mustard gas against its enemies in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS’s failure to use the cobalt-60 was fortunate, but there are lessons to be learned.
“This case should lead to reinvigorated efforts to inventory and adequately protect radioactive sources throughout the world. However, as this case highlights, improving physical protection may not be enough,” said the Institute’s report. “It is also important for the United States and its allies to accelerate programs to identify, consolidate, and remove dangerous radioactive sources, particularly in regions of tension or where terrorists are active.”
Remember that first time you had to sign for more than $10,000 in gear? Or, hell, even that first real clothing hand receipt when you saw that the military was handing you what they saw as a couple thousand dollars worth of uniforms and equipment, and they could hold you accountable for every stitch of it?
Now imagine signing a hand receipt for a nuclear bomb, the only one of its type in existence in the world at the time.
The Little Boy bomb is prepped on Tinian island for insertion into the Enola Gay’s bomb bay.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
America had learned in 1939 of German efforts to weaponize the power of nuclear energy from just years before. Experiments in 1935 and 1938 had proven that uranium, when bombarded with neutrons, underwent the process of fission. Scientists had argued about whether a sustained nuclear reaction could be created and, if so, if it could be used for the industry or war.
It may sound odd today, but there was plenty of reason to suspect that nuclear fission was useless for military designs. No one had yet proven that fission could be sustained. But the Roosevelt Administration, understanding the existential threat that fascism and the Third Reich posed to the rest of the world, decided it couldn’t wait and see if German efforts came to fruition.
The USS Shaw explodes in Pearl Harbor during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
The group would go through two name changes and multiple reorganizations as the scientific research progressed. While America was bombed at Pearl Harbor and entered the war, America’s scientists kept churning away at the problem of how to enrich uranium and create “the bomb.”
But in that same month, Germany shelved its own plans to create a nuclear bomb, opting instead to dedicate its best scientists and most of its research funds into rocket and jet research. Germany had been at the forefront of research, but would now essentially cease progress.
America, unaware that none of its rivals were still developing the bomb, pressed ahead, dedicating vast resources to gathering, enriching, and testing uranium and plutonium. This would eventually result in material dedicated to one uranium device and a number of plutonium ones.
The Trinity explosion was the first human-controlled nuclear explosion in history.
(U.S. Department of Energy)
The first nuclear explosion took place on July 16, 1945, in the deserts of New Mexico. The Trinity test used a plutonium implosion to trigger the blast. The Trinity “Gadget” was tested because America was having better luck gathering and preparing plutonium for use, but wasn’t sure the design would actually work.
It did, releasing as much energy as 21,000 tons of TNT from only 14 pounds of plutonium.
But at the same time, the nuclear elements of the Little Boy device were already headed across the Pacific on the USS Indianapolis. Of course, this being the military, there was a form for shipping dangerous materials, and the form specifically tells users to avoid remarks that would make the document classified.
An Army form shows the transfer of materials for components of the Little Boy bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
(U.S. Army Heritage Education Center)
This resulted in a “Receipt of Material” form describing “Projectile unit containing…kilograms of enriched tuballey at an average concentration of ….” Hopefully, if the form ever had fallen into Japanese hands, they would’ve been smart enough to suspect something was amiss when famous physicist and member of the Secretary of War’s staff Dr. Norman F. Ramsey was signing over a single bomb to Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Farrell.
Not the way most bombs units are transferred to the Pacific, we’d wager.
The materials were transported to Tinian Island where they were used to assemble the “Little Boy” bomb which, at the time, was the only uranium bomb that had ever existed. Capt. William Parsons, the Enola Gay’s weaponeer and commander, signed for the bomb and was in charge of verifying that it was returned to the base or expended in combat.
An atomic cloud rises over Hiroshima after the Little Boy bomb was dropped.
(509th Operations Group)
On Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped the bomb at approximately 8:15 on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Parsons, seemingly consulting his watch while it was still set to time on Tinian Island, wrote: “I certify that the above material was expended to the city of Hiroshima, Japan at 0915 6 Aug.”
It’s one of the most mundane ways possible of annotating the destruction of a city, but it satisfied the requirements of the form. Over the ensuing years, Farrell got notable members of the mission and the Manhattan project to sign the form, creating the most-stacked piece of nuclear memorabilia likely in existence.