No two innocent-sounding words can crush a troop’s morale quite like “Dear John.” In the military lexicon, a “Dear John” letter is a cute letter sent by a troop’s lady back home that lets him know she’s gone. These letters typical start with incoherent ramblings about how they miss their “John” before ultimately saying they’re moving on.
To the deployed John, time stands still, but the Earth still rotates. Even if a troop finds a good one that’s willing to wait, everyone knows someone who got a “Dear John.”
Despite the fact that these heartbreaking letters were undoubtedly sent with the near-12 million letters delivered per week during WWI, the phrase wasn’t popularized until WWII, when American GIs sent and received over one billion pieces of mail throughout the war.
When, exactly, troops started using it to refer to an actual letter is lost to time, but it’s been used as a popular saying as far back as 1944 in the St. Petersburg Times. However, the phrase originated many years prior, and was used extensively in Anthony Trollope’s 1864 novel, Can You Forgive Her? The immensely popular Victorian English novel that, honestly, does not hold up to the modern standards of bearable.
A CliffsNotes of the CliffsNotes is that the story centers around a woman named Alice who has two suitors. One is wild and exciting, but evil: George. The other is honest and a war hero, but boring: John. As it turns out, George is a psychopathic politician who tries to murder everyone and Alice’s cousin. Just throwing that out there. But, in the end, John finds out Alice is leaving him through a letter that starts with a phase repeated throughout the novel, “Dear John.”
Although we don’t know the exact origins of the phrase, as John was the most popular boys name of the time (see: John Doe), this our best guess. Either way, the phrase has had an undeniable impact — it’s since been referenced by Hank Williams Sr., Taylor Swift, a Nicholas Sparks novel that became a film, and television.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was America’s original nemesis in the Middle East before Saddam’s Iraq stole the spotlight from 1990-2003. (Saddam and the Iranians, by the way, fought a bloody 8-year war against each other in the 1980s.) A casual observer might assume that the Islamic Republic of Iran must be best buddies with the infamous Islamic State (ISIS)…but no, they share a mutual hatred of each other.
Yeah, it’s all a bit complicated and messy, so strap in, and we’ll clear things up a bit.
Iran is a theocracy, meaning the country is governed by religious law. Rather than a single strongman dictator, Iran is ruled by a group of religious clerics who control the country’s “elected” leaders like former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (remember him?) Iran became the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 after religious fundamentalists overthrew the secular government of Shah Reza Pahlevi.
The Shah was a dictator, albeit one less brutal than the current regime, who came to power in 1954 with the help of the American CIA. It was a bad look for Uncle Sam, and many Iranians never forgot it.
American hostages in Iran following the Islamist takeover of 1979.
(Source: Associated Press)
The Iranians are not Arabs like their neighbors to the west. Rather, they are Persians. Instead of Arabic, they speak a dialect of Persian called Farsi. The Iranians are predominantly Shia Muslims, whereas most Arabs are Sunni Muslims.
Theologically, Shias and Sunnis are akin to Protestants and Catholics in the Western world. 85-90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunni and, while the world’s Shia are concentrated in Iran, there are Shia minorities throughout the Arab world. Iraq is unique because it has both an Arab majority and a Shia majority, giving Iran a prime opportunity for heavy influence there (check the news…)
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are Sunni jihadist groups, whereas Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and many of the large militias in Iraq are Shia.
(Source: Pew Research Center)
So the Iranians are Persians and not Arabs, and their leaders are fundamentalist Muslims but from the opposite branch of Islam than bin Laden and the Islamic State.
So what’s Iran’s game plan? In a nutshell, Iran wants to preserve and spread its “Islamic revolution” by boxing out the Sunni Arabs and supporting Shia groups across the Middle East (they also work with certain Sunni groups like Hamas.)
To dominate the Middle East, Iran’s leaders want to exploit the “Shia Crescent,” a network of Shia populations stretching from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon. Iran’s message to these Shia populations is “Big Brother Iran is here to save you from the Sunnis, the Israelis, and the Americans.”
(Source: Geographic Intelligence Services)
You can think of the fight against ISIS as World War II, with ISIS filling the role of Nazi Germany. During WWII, the Western Allies and the Soviet Union set aside their rivalries to defeat a common threat. The Defeat-ISIS campaign was similar in that Iran’s Shia coalition shared a mutual enemy with the American/Sunni alliance, even though the two sides weren’t officially partners.
But now, like in 1945, the old rivalries are back in play once again. On one side, Iran leads Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and other Shia factions in the region. Opposing them are the Sunni Arab countries aligned with the United States.
Fear and mistrust of Iran runs deep in countries like Saudi Arabia- so deep, in fact, that Saudi Arabia has reportedly made secret arrangements with Israel to counter the Iranian threat (that’s, uh, a plot twist…to put it mildly.) Iraq, with its Shia majority but close and complicated relationship with the United States, remains stuck in a tug-of-war between the rival coalitions.
Alleged secret plan for Israeli aircraft to use Saudi airspace to strike Iran. Saudi Arabia publicly denies this.
(Source: Rick Francona)
Iran was once the great ancient empire of Persia, and there is more to modern Iran than its leaders’ ambitions. Iran has a population of over 80 million, and resentment toward the regime is widespread. Strict religious tyranny and a weak economy cause frequent protests which the Iranian regime suppresses with ruthless violence. It’s unclear if this unrest will eventually put the regime’s power in serious jeopardy.
Iran’s economic problems are driven in part by economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe. These sanctions, in turn, are imposed partly as a result of Iran’s nuclear program- a program which, the regime insists, is strictly for domestic energy production. Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons is concerning because an atomic Iran could lead its Sunni rivals to pursue their own nuclear weapons.
Iranian protesters in 2009.
(Source: Getty Images)
Further Iranian vs. American bloodshed seems to have been averted in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, but violence between the two countries is nothing new.
The infamous 1983 Beirut bombing, which killed 241 U.S. servicemen, was perpetrated by an Iranian suicide bomber and 1988’s “Operation Praying Mantis” pitted the U.S. Navy against the Iranian Navy in the largest American naval combat operation since WWII. The whole region remains a Game of Thrones-tier snake pit of conflicting loyalties, religious conflict, and political scheming.
Hopefully now, however, you better understand what led to the U.S. government ordering a drone strike on that guy who looked like Sean Connery.
Iranian Quds Force general Qasem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. drone strike in January 2020.
Every country’s military has their own version of Special Forces. However, none of them are quite like the 14th Intelligence Detachment, ‘The Det,’ which was formed as part of the British Army Special Forces during a time known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Det was tasked with mounting surveillance and intelligence gathering operations against the Irish Republican Army and their allies.
They worked in the shadows. No one knew who they were or what they did. They received no acknowledgement or fanfare. The world will never know who they were. But, this dedicated force of highly-trained plain-clothes operatives worked to gather the intelligence needed for the British Army and others to maintain their peacekeeping role between the IRA and the unionist paramilitary forces.
The Det was formed after the British Army’s intelligence unit, the Military Reaction Force, was compromised. The MRF was compromised when IRA double-agents were discovered and then interrogated. They spilled details about a covert MRF operation out of Four Squares laundry in Belfast. This led to an IRA ambush of a MRF laundry van, which killed one undercover soldier.
With the MRF compromised, the Det was set up in 1973. The Det was open to all members of the armed services and to both genders. For the first time, women were allowed to be a part of the UK Special Forces. Each candidate had to pass a rigorous selection process. Members of the Det were expected to have excellent observational abilities, stamina and the ability to think under stress, as well as a sense of self-confidence and self-reliance as the majority of surveillance and intelligence gathering operations were solo missions.
The IRA treated the conflict like guerilla warfare for national independence. They used street fighting, sensational bombings and sniper attacks, which led to the British government classifying their aggressions as terrorism. The Det’s main focus during this time was utilizing their unique talents and training to gather information on the members of the IRA so that the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary could then intervene.
The skills and training of the members of the Det included the disciplines of surveillance, planting bugs and covert video cameras, and close quarters combat. They were also experts in the use of pistols, sub machine guns, carbines and assault rifles. They were also trained in unarmed combat, as well as techniques to disarm and neutralize knife or gun-wielding assailants. It was important for each member to be adept in these skills in order to be able to protect themselves while undercover.
Along with this specialized training, the Det was also equipped with unique equipment much of which could be considered ahead of its time. This included a fleet of ordinary looking saloon cars called ‘Q’ cars. These vehicles were specially equipped with covert radios, video and still cameras, concealed weapons packs, brake lights which could be switched on and off, and engine cut off switches to prevent hijacking. All of these worked to aid in the surveillance missions of the operators. The Det also had their own flight of Army Air Corps Gazelles, which were referred to as ‘The Bat Flight.’ The Gazelles carried sophisticated surveillance gear which was uniquely suited to the operations of ‘The Det.’
From the time of its inception until the end of The Troubles the Det performed numerous operations, mostly following and observing suspected terrorists. These painstakingly planned intelligence operations often led to the arrest of the suspected terrorists and/or the discovery of weapons caches. Occasionally the members of the Det would find themselves in a firefight with terrorists, this was usually due to their cover being blown. Unfortunately, several Det operators tragically lost their lives in Northern Ireland.
The highly-trained members of the Det did not do what they did for glory. They didn’t do it for the accolades, as there were none offered. These elite members put themselves in danger because they believed in what they were working for. They wanted to do their part to protect their country and those they loved. They believed in justice. They believed in the greater good. They knew going into it that no one would ever know what they did or the sacrifices they made in the name of Queen and country. But, they went in anyway. They didn’t see themselves as heroic. But, the elite members of the Det can truly be considered the unsung heroes of The Troubles.
The Det has now been absorbed into the British Army’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment, with a mission to fight the global war on terrorism.
Before taking office as POTUS, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a white house of his own — a smaller, less notable white house, located in Warm Springs, Georgia. Now a museum of all things FDR, the late president built the house in 1932. He first came to this location of West-Central Georgia in 1924, while seeking treatment for his polio in the natural buoyant waters.
It was a combination of warm mineral water — sitting at a year round 88 degrees — and physical exercise that helped ease his symptoms. Into his presidency, FDR used the Little White House as a vacation retreat, where he’s said to have visited a total of 16 times, often for weeks with each stay.
In fact, it’s said that FDR drew many of his ideas for the New Deal from his small town visits, specifically the Rural Electrification Administration.
Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation
In 1927, FDR purchased the land that hosted its popular warm waters. Formerly known as Bullochvile, the area had become a tourist destination for residents of Savannah and Atlanta, including those with symptoms of yellow fever. Through his ownership, he rebuilt the area’s “ramshackle” hotel that housed pools of natural mineral waters, and began bringing in polio survivors to bask in these healing waters.
FDR became so interested in hydrotherapy that he eventually founded the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. It was funded by the Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, known today as the March of Dimes. Their rehab efforts were available for a wide variety of ailments, including post-polio syndrome, amputation, spinal cord injuries, brain damage, and stroke.
The area is preserved as the Warm Springs Historic District, where buildings have been maintained to their looks from the Roosevelt era, with the exception of a cottage that burned down in 2001 due to a suspected lightning strike.
Visitors can head to the Little White House for a trip back in time; the space is said to be preserved as it was the day Roosevelt died. (Yes, you can even see the very room where he passed.) Other highlights include his custom Ford convertible and the Unfinished Portrait, a painting that was being made of FDR when he suffered a stroke.
Take a feel of the warm waters by hand on your tour, or plan ahead for a swim; the springs are open to public swimming once a year on Labor Day weekend.
“I was young then, and I wanted the action. There was nothing going on (here). It was too dull at home,” said Jessen, who was Margaret O’Shaugnessy at the time.
She’d worked for a couple years at the newspaper in Homer, Nebraska, after graduating from Homer High School in 1942. With World War II raging in Europe and in the Pacific Ocean, there were a lot of opportunities to find something more exciting to do. There was the military, and there were jobs available in the many factories that built planes, ships, and other supplies needed for the American war effort.
Jessen considered both before telling her mother that she was joining the Marines.
“Oh, she was horrified,” Jessen said. “I said I was going to join the Marines or go to California to be a welder. She figured if I didn’t show up for work in the Marines, someone would come looking for me. If I didn’t show up for work as a welder, they wouldn’t look for you.
“She figured I’d be better off in the Marine Corps.”
Jessen joined the Marines in May 1944 and was sent to Missouri for basic training. Men also were trained at the base, but kept separate from the women. Jessen said the training was physically demanding, and women were allowed to practice on guns but were not allowed to have them. Once she completed basic training, Jessen was sent to Norman, Oklahoma, to learn how to fix Cosair fighter planes.
“They just thought that’s what I was capable of,” Jessen said.
Jessen passed the training and was sent to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Santa Ana, California, where she was assigned to work as an office clerk. She never did work on airplanes.
“You know how the government works,” she said. “They train you to do one thing and then have you do another.”
The women who arrived at El Toro weren’t viewed positively by the men they replaced. For many of the men, it meant they were losing their stateside assignments and heading to war.
“The men were mad at us because we came in and took their jobs and they were sent overseas, so we were resented, I’m sure,” Jessen said.
Jessen spent the remainder of the war at El Toro and was discharged in June 1946. Still looking for adventure, Jessen and another female friend hitchhiked across the country to Florida and up the East Coast to New York.
“It drove my mother crazy,” Jessen said with a wry smile and a chuckle.
Eventually, Jessen returned home, where she began dating Alfred Jessen, who had served in the Army in Germany during World War II. They were married in 1947 and raised five sons. Jessen would later work for Iowa Beef Processors in Dakota City for 19 years before retiring in the mid-1970s. Her service in the Marines taught her a valuable lesson for her later work experiences.
“It taught me how to get along with people,” she said. “You don’t judge them. Everybody was the same.”
Over the years, Jessen saw her husband honored for his military service. Few people knew she, too, had served.
“I think my husband was proud of it, too. He realized they didn’t treat us the same,” Jessen said. “When they came around and offered him an award for being in the service, he told them I was in the service, too, but they never offered me an award.”
That slight doesn’t lessen the pride Jessen said she feels about her decision to join the Marines rather than be a welder.
“I’m proud of the fact I served,” she said. “It gave me a lot of experiences.”
Chaplains have long held a special place in many troops’ hearts. In fact, at times, they become legends. In the Army, the first chaplains were authorized on July 29, 1775. They’ve been with the troops on the front lines ever since.
Some chaplains have made the ultimate sacrifice. The most famous instance was that of the “Four Chaplains” who were on board the transport SS Dorchester when it was torpedoed by U-223 at 12:55AM on Feb. 3, 1943.
According to HomeofHeroes.com, when the transport was hit, the four chaplains, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Rev. George L. Fox, Rev. Clark V. Poling, and Father John P. Washington promptly began to aid the troops who were on the stricken vessel.
One sailor was heading back to his bunk for gloves, but Rabbi Goode instead handed his over. Despite a loss of power, they got some of the troops to the deck. Then, they began handing out life jackets, even as the Dorchester was rapidly headed to a watery grave.
Finally, when the life jackets ran out, they gave up their own. They were among the 668 who went down with the Dorchester, but many of the 230 men who were saved owed their lives to the Four Chaplains, each of whom received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously.
In the Korean War, two other chaplains notably made the ultimate sacrifice. Chaplain Emil Kapuan, a Catholic priest, was captured during the Chinese offensive of 1950 — and shortly after his capture, he shoved a Chinese soldier who was trying to execute an America.
Then there was the case of Chaplain Herman G. Felhoelter, also a Catholic priest, who, during the initial salvos of the Korean War, offered to stay behind with a medic to help the wounded. As he was providing comfort, North Korean troops attacked and wounded the medic, who escaped.
The North Koreans then proceeded to carry out what became known as the Chaplain-Medic massacre, killing the wounded Americans and the chaplain. Felhoelter received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for his actions.
These cases only begin to scratch the surface of why the troops love their chaplains.
On Sept. 21, 2018, the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System hosted our annual POW/MIA Recognition Day program. Three former prisoners of war (POW) attended including World War II Veteran Fred Brooks.
Here is his story.
From Bartlesville to the Battle of the Bulge
Born on April 2, 1926, Fred Brooks turned 18 in 1944. Nearly nine months later, the native of Bartlesville, Okla. was sent to the front lines on Christmas Day during the Battle of the Bulge.
On January 10, 1945, Brooks and five other solders in the 4th Infantry Division were conducting a night patrol and entered a German village.
“We went into this little village at night to check it out, and there wasn’t anyone in that village when we entered it,” said Brooks. “When daylight came, the Germans were everywhere. They killed one and wounded two.”
Surrounded, the remaining soldiers were forced to surrender, and were transported to Stalag IV-B Prison Camp in Mühlberg, Germany.
Brooks said the Germans fed the POWs once a day, which was typically a small cup of vegetable soup.
World War II Veteran Fred Brooks.
“That’s all they had to give you,” he said. “The Germans had nothing to feed their own troops, let alone us.”
He said the Germans never harmed him, but he did have to endure the brutal winter conditions.
“My feet were frozen terribly bad,” he said. “I didn’t have one drop of medication. There was an elderly English man in the camp where I was at and he helped me tremendously to clean the wounds as best we could. It was a rough winter.”
On April 23, 1945, the Russians liberated Stalag IV-B and approximately 30,000 POWs.
“The Russians entered our camp during the night,” said Brooks. “The next day, I think there was three German guards left and the Russians hung them high in the trees. We were very happy to see (the Russians). They fed us.”
Approximately 3,000 POWs died at Stalag IV-B, mostly from tuberculosis and typhus.
World War II Veteran and former POW Fred Brooks has received his health care from the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System for approximately 30 years.
Brooks was reunited with the American Army and sent to the coast of France to wait for a transport ship home. While waiting, he met another soldier from Bartlesville, and the two made a pact not to tell their families they were coming home.
“When we got to the little bus station in Bartlesville, his wife was waiting on him,” he said with a laugh. “He had broken our vow not to call.”
From the bus station, Brooks walked a mile to his parent’s home.
“I got my parents up at 2 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “It was unreal. My parents were just out of it to see me walking in the door. It really surprised them. They were very happy.”
After the war, Brooks worked in construction and retired at the age of 75. He still lives in Bartlesville.
Looking back on the war and his internment in a German POW Camp, Brooks credits divine intervention for his survival.
In the years following the American Civil War, Canada was still very much a possession of the British Empire. As such, it had a number of official fortifications and other important areas along its border with the United States. One of those was Fort Erie, directly across the Niagara from the American city of Buffalo, New York. In June 1866, some 850 men crossed the Niagara from Buffalo, intent on capturing the fort.
They were Irishmen, and they were going to conquer Canada to free their home country.
Irish immigrants flowed into the United States in droves following the Acts of Union that saw British domination of Ireland since the early 1800s. The Great Irish Famine of the late 1840s also saw a huge emigration of Irish people to the United States. By 1860, there were more than 1.6 million people of Irish descent who called themselves American – and upwards of 175,000 of them were about to serve in the Union Army.
The Irish made-up 40 percent of foreign-born enlistments in the Civil War, and were 17 percent of the overall Union force. When these battle-hardened veterans returned home after the war, many of them were headed to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England. It was there that Irish National leaders were waiting to use the veterans’ new talent for combat.
To be fair, when this plan was hatched, there were upwards of 10,000 Fenians.
Called the Fenian Brotherhood, its original aim was to send money, arms, and supplies to Irish rebels in Ireland via Irish émigrés living in the U.S. Many in the movement were soon convinced that liberating Ireland through a direct uprising was impossible, so they decided to step up their game a bit. If the Irish couldn’t mount an invasion of Ireland, then they would mount an invasion of Canada, the nearest British-held country and trade it for Irish independence.
T.W. Sweeny a former Union general who also served in the Mexican War hatched a three-pronged plan to invade Canada, set up an Irish government-in-exile, and pressure Britain to release Ireland to the Irish. It called for multiple incursions into Ontario in an effort to draw the main British force out of Quebec. With that done, the main Fenian force would invade Quebec, cutting off lines of communication and supply.
Noncommissioned officers of the 10th Royal Regiment of Toronto Volunteers, circa 1870.
On June 1, 1850, a force of Irish-American members of the Fenian Brotherhood landed in Ontario and planted the Irish flag. They tore up railroads and cut the telegraph wires, effectively cutting Fort Erie off from the rest of Canada. Then, 600 Fenians marched westward. At the same time, the commander of British forces in Canada activated upwards of 22,000 troops to put the insurrection down. While the larger force formed up, 850 men under Lt. Col. Alfred Booker were dispatched to pin the Irish down and keep them from wreaking any more havoc.
The two forces met at Ridgeway in Ontario, Canada. It was the first time an all-Canadian force was led by a Canadian commander. Unfortunately for the Canadians, the Fenians were well-armed and skilled fighters, having just braved the battlefields of the American Civil War. The Canadians were soon reinforced, and the superior numbers caused the Fenians to retreat.
No. 5 Company of the Queen’s Own Rifles.
The Fenians were repulsed elsewhere along their proposed lines of attack. Having assumed that Irish Canadians would join the uprising, they were surprised at how the Canadians responded to their invasion. By the time British forces mounted a full response, many of the Fenians had retreated back across the river, the United States Navy was stopping Fenian barges from bringing reinforcements, and the U.S. declared total neutrality in Canadian affairs.
There would be more Fenian uprisings in later years, but for the time being, the push to trade Canada for Ireland would not come to pass.
In 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed its top secret mission of delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian Island in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The heavy cruiser was sunk on its way to join a task force near Okinawa. Of the ship’s 1195 crewmembers, only 316 survived the sinking and the subsequent time adrift at sea in the middle of nowhere. Among the survivors was the captain of the Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay III.
McVay would be charged with negligence in the loss of the ship. Even though he was restored to active duty after his court-martial and retired a rear admiral, the guilt of the loss haunted him for the rest of his life. He committed suicide with his Navy revolver on his own front lawn with a toy sailor in his hand.
Even he doubted his own innocence.
McVay did everything he could in the wake of the torpedoing of the Indianapolis. He sounded the alarm, giving the order to abandon ship and was one of the last men off. Many of the survivors of the sinking publicly stated he was not to blame for its loss. But this wasn’t enough for the family members of the ship’s crew, who hounded McVay year after year, blaming him for the loss of their sons.
The Navy was partly to blame. They didn’t warn Indianapolis that the submarine I-58 was operating along the area of the ship’s course to Okinawa. They also didn’t warn the ship to zigzag in its pattern to evade enemy submarines. When the Indianapolis radioed a distress signal, it was picked up by three Navy stations, who ignored the call because one was drunk, the other had a commander who didn’t want to be disturbed, and the last thought it was a trap.
One of the survivors of the Indianapolis during his rescue.
Three and a half days later, the survivors were rescued from the open water, suffering from salt water poisoning, exposure, hypothermia, and the largest case of shark attacks ever recorded. It was truly a horrifying scene. The horror is what led to McVay’s court martial, one of very few commanders to face such a trial concerning the loss of a ship. Even though the Japanese commander of I-58, the man who actually destroyed the Indianapolis, told the U.S. Navy that standard Navy evasion techniques would not have worked – Indianapolis was doomed from the get-go. Even that didn’t satisfy McVay’s critics.
It wasn’t until sixth-grader Hunter Scott began a history project in school about the sinking of the Indianapolis. He poured through official Navy documents until he found the evidence he needed to conclusively prove that McVay wasn’t responsible for the loss of his ship. His project caught the attention of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who helped pass a Congressional resolution exonerating McVay. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Lieutenant Hunter Scott with a survivor of the Indianapolis.
Hunter Scott, the onetime sixth-grader and eternal friend to the crew of the Indianapolis, is now a naval aviator. He attended the University of North Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship and joined active duty in 2007. He even spoke at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
On December 26, 1994, millions of shoppers across North America rushed to malls in an attempt to make the most of post-Christmas sales. Across the Atlantic Ocean, at an airport in Marseille, France, a small group of men decked out from head to toe in black garb were doing a different kind of rushing — clinging to the back of a mobile staircase while barreling at high speed (or at least as fast as the truck would go) down a runway.
These weren’t ordinary men. Their target was a hulking, cream-white Airbus A300 filled with more than 160 scared and bewildered passengers and flight crew, some of whom were now resigned to accepting an imminent death.
The men on the mobile stairs planned on taking the aircraft in front of them by force, even if it meant giving up their lives in the process. Success was the only acceptable outcome of this operation. Failure would result in the massacring of innocents. Hailing from the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (more popularly known as GIGN), these black-clad ninjas were counter-terrorists, the best France had to offer.
(The Aviation Intelligencer YouTube)
Today’s mission was a hijacked Air France airliner, wired with explosives and crammed with 166 innocent lives. A small group of hijackers, armed to the teeth, were identified as the targets of this mission. Negotiations had failed and the last-resort scenario was now in play.
Just a few days earlier, on Christmas Eve, that same aircraft sat at an airport in Algeria with flight attendants scurrying around, preparing the cabin for takeoff. The pilots and flight engineers chatted among themselves as they completed their pre-departure checklist. Labeled Air France Flight 8969, this plane would travel with 236 passengers and crew from Algiers to Paris.
Civilian airlines flying routes into Algeria were repeatedly warned, at the time, that their planes were under constant threat of missile attacks. As a result, Air France only allowed crews who volunteered for the Algiers route to fly it, as long as they knew the risks involved.
On December 24th, the threat didn’t come from a missile but rather from 4 members of the Armed Islamic Group — a Middle Eastern terrorist organization. Disguised as members of the Algerian presidential security force, they walked into the cabin of the Airbus without arousing any suspicion, though some found it quite odd that they visibly carried their weapons.
Outside the aircraft, airport personnel began to worry when the airliner sat on the apron, sealed and ready to depart for Paris, but didn’t move an inch. Already facing delay, the control tower tried to hail the cockpit — no response. Fears began to manifest and armed tactical response teams were deployed immediately.
It was hijacked.
Aboard Flight 8969, the hijackers began checking passports, likely to earmark targets for execution in the event that their demands weren’t met. Soon after, amidst terrified screams, the terrorists revealed their intention to take the aircraft and waved their guns in the air, demanding cooperation.
The hijackers wired explosives in the cockpit and the main cabin while forcing the pilots, at gunpoint, to exchange clothes with them. The airliner was surrounded outside by police and Algerian military personnel. Negotiations began, but would soon break down.
Within hours of the hijacking, two passengers were executed and their bodies were dumped outside the aircraft. Attempts to use the lead hijacker’s mother to get him to surrender peacefully further enraged the terrorist, causing a breakdown in communications. By the following day, Christmas, another passenger was executed. French government officials were outraged — the Algerian military had botched the situation and were losing innocent lives.
After releasing just over 60 passengers as a sign of good faith, the aircraft was eventually allowed to take off and continue to France, albeit to Marseille as it had burned through too much fuel to make it to Paris.
GIGN was notified and they diverted their aircraft to Marseille, which had already taken off for Spain — as close as they could get to Algeria without entering the country. Having familiarized themselves with the Air France A300 they were aboard — identical to Flight 8969 — they were ready to roll as soon as their plane touched down.
In the early hours of December 26, Flight 8969 landed and was ushered to a secluded spot at Marseille, Unbeknownst to the hijackers, they were now under surveillance by highly-trained and well-experienced GIGN snipers. Their new demands confirmed the rumors of an attack on Paris. They ordered 27 tons of fuel, instead of just the 9 they needed to make it to Paris.
They intended on turning the A300 into a flying, fuel-laden bomb, triggered using the explosives they had previously wired. When detonated over densely-populated Paris, it would kill all on the flight, scores on the ground, and wound and maim many more. GIGN wasn’t about to let this happen.
Tricking the hijackers into clearing a space in the front of the aircraft for a press conference (and forcing the passengers further towards the back of the jet), GIGN prepped the aircraft for a takedown. In the early evening of December 26, the raid began.
Airstairs (mobile staircases) began racing towards Flight 8969 loaded with GIGN commandos that were armed with submachine guns and pistols. They threw stun grenades and entered the fray.
In the chaos, one of the plane’s pilots jumped out of the cockpit window and hobbled to safety. Snipers began firing into the cockpit, aiming for a hijacker they knew had hunkered down in there. The teams that entered through the rear of the aircraft evacuated passengers. Three hijackers were immediately killed; a fourth remained in the cockpit for 20 minutes before meeting his end.
By the end of the engagement, all four hijackers were dead. 13 passengers and 3 crew were wounded. Aside from the 3 passengers who were executed, all survived. The majority of the Air France flight crew returned to the skies despite the trauma.
Everyone who is a fan of veteran Marine Corps General and onetime Secretary of Defense James Mattis knows of his affinity for reading, for consuming as much knowledge on a subject as he can before giving his opinion. His lifestyle of eschewing a family in favor of a lifetime of learning and dedication to duty even earned him the moniker “The Warrior Monk.” This well-known devotion to knowledge makes it all the more interesting to discover Mattis was “obsessed” with the date August 1914.
From the Iraq War to the Trump Administration, Mattis is always the man for the job.
In journalist Bob Woodward’s book, “Fear: Trump in the White House” one Trump Administration official who spoke highly of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Woodward that the former general was “obsessed with August 1914… the idea that you take actions, military actions, that are seen as prudent planning and the unintended consequences are that you can’t get off the war train.”
Specifically, Mattis was “obsessed” with historian Barbara Tuchman’s World War I history book, “The Guns of August,” which has a spot on every reading list he ever published for the troops.
In June 1914, as we should all know by now, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by an assassin in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary issues an ultimatum to Serbia as European allies began to muster their troops throughout the continent during July of 1914. At the end of July, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia, shelling Belgrade just days later. As July turns to August, Serbia’s ally Russia begins to mobilize for war. That’s when Germany demanded Russia stop preparing for war, which Russia ignored.
On Aug. 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Russia’s allies began preparing for war in response to their mutual defense treaties. Germany then declared war on France and invaded neutral Belgium, forcing Great Britain and its Empire to declare war on Germany. Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. By Aug. 7, 1914, much of the world was at war. By the end of August, the fighting had spread to Africa and the Chinese mainland. What started as a regional dispute that could have been mediated led to millions of lives lost in a brutal, industrialized war machine.
German defenders of Tsingtao, China, who were fighting against the Japanese invaders because a Serbian shot an Austrian archduke in Bosnia.
In this context, Mattis was trying to keep the United States and NATO out of a war with Russia, which (according to Woodward’s book) seemed like a real possibility if the Trump Administration had enacted some of its more sweeping changes to American defense policy. Mattis was also trying to convince Trump that the U.S. needed to be in NATO, and if NATO didn’t already exist, it should be created – because Russia could not win a war against NATO, in Mattis’ opinion.
Russia had privately warned Mattis that if a war broke out in the Baltics, the Russians would use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO forces. Mattis and Gen. Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, began to think Russia as an existential threat to the United States. Even so, Mattis was determined to keep Russia and NATO from sliding into a similar war via a web of alliances.
In 2011, Libyans took arms against the 40-plus year rule of Muammar Gaddafi. The dictator tried to brutally crush a demonstration against his regime in Benghazi. The response from the Libyan people was a nearly nine-month-long civil war which ended with the death of the dictator near his hometown of Sirte. But it was a victory that almost never was. The Libyan Rebels needed to level the playing field when it came to air superiority – they needed to be able to call in airstrikes.
That’s where Twitter came in.
Some people swear by it.
By mid-March 2011, Gaddafi’s loyalist forces were pushing the rebels back fast. All their hard-won gains liberated more than half of Libya from the dictator who promised to make the streets of Benghazi run red with rebel blood. Gaddafi’s air power was proving to be a decisive advantage in the civil war. Luckily for the rebels, there was a NATO task force assembling offshore.
American, French, British, and Canadian ships had all joined each other off the Libyan coast and began to hit Gaddafi’s positions with the full might of their respective sea-based air forces. They also began to enforce a no-fly zone. This was enough to turn the tide of the rebels, who were battle-hardened veterans, fighting for their lives. It was a strategic win for them, no doubt, but the tactical use of NATO air power proved problematic.
“I can just call a jet fighter and one will come kill these tanks? This must be what being a U.S. soldier is like.”
Many wondered how NATO fighters could know where to drop tactical missiles and bombs when their own JTACs are not on the ground with rebel forces, and NATO has no direct communications with the fighters it’s supporting. The answer is that the Twitter social media network became part of NATO’s overall “intelligence picture.” NATO allies began analyzing data gleaned from Twitter posts to understand Gaddafi’s movements but also to assist rebel fighters in pushing down pro-Gaddafi attacks.
Rebel fighters using their cell phones would gather coordinates from Google Earth and then tweet those coordinates to NATO, who would then come in and light up the loyalist forces. The top NATO brass says it’s a normal step any military would take.
That’s how Gaddafi would meet his end, and where his death would be posted for the world to see.
“Yes, right up his butt. It’s on YouTube.”
“Any military campaign relies on something that we call ‘fused information’,” said Wing Commander Mike Bracken, a NATO spokesman. “We will take information from every source we can… The commander will assess what he can use, what he can trust, and the experience of the operators, the intelligence officers, and the trained military personnel and civilian support staff will give him those options. And he will decide if that’s good information.”
Since NATO had no boots on the ground but deems it vital to support the Libyan rebels, extrapolating the information needed by commanders seems like a totally legitimate means of intelligence gathering – and an effective one to boot. NATO airplanes decimated Libyan air defenses and made the critical difference in the war for the Libyan people to liberate themselves from a terrible dictator.
In a section of the National Archives dedicated to historic panoramic photos, there’s an odd selection of wide images that show the troops and trainees who would soon deploy to France as America joined World War I. (Panoramics are obviously wide photos, so you may need to turn your device sideways and/or zoom in to see all the detail in the photos.)
(Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs – Panoramic Views of Army Units, Camps, and Related Industrial Sites)
This photo shows engineers of the 109th Engineers in June 1918 as they trained at Gila Forest Camp, New Mexico. It’s unlikely the men made it to France in time for the fighting, but training like this allowed U.S. forces to overcome the trench works and other defenses of Germany as they pushed east and liberated France.
(Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs – Panoramic Views of Army Units, Camps, and Related Industrial Sites)
Company H of the 347th Infantry pose in Camp Dix, New Jersey, in January 1919. During the war, men like this rotated into position on the lines or, during major offensives, were sent against German defenders en masse, hitting machine-gun nests with grenades and bodies to ensure victory. After the war, they were sent into Germany as an army of occupation to ensure the terms of the armistice and the peace treaty were followed.
(Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General)
“White trucks” at Fort Riley. The trucks in the photo were made by the White Sewing Machine Company, later renamed the White Motor Corps. The Army had asked the manufacturer to design a motorized ambulance in 1902, just two years after the company had produced its first car. By World War I, their trucks were well-respected, and they did so well in the war that France awarded the trucks the Croix de Guerre.
(Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel)
Sailors go through boat exercise at the Naval Training Station, Hampton Roads, Virginia, in September 1918. The naval war was largely over by the time America joined the fray, but sailors still fought against German U-boats and protected the convoys that kept troops ashore supplied and fed.
(Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs)
At Camp Meigs, Washington D.C., quartermasters trained on how to keep the men full of food and weighed down with valuable ammunition. This was more challenging than it might sound. Allied advances in the closing months of the war were frequently slowed down by artillery and logistic support getting choked up for hours on the heavily damaged roads behind the infantry, forcing the infantry to slow or stop until support could reach them.
Quartermasters and other troops who could get the trucks through could save lives.