This was the Army's battle dress throughout the centuries - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

From rags to spit-and-polish boots, from scratchy blue wool to the new operational camouflage pattern, from tricorn hat to helmet, the Army uniform has changed drastically through the years. In honor of the U.S. Army’s 240th birthday, and the launch of the Operational Camouflage Pattern, Soldiers takes a look at the evolution of battle dress from the Revolution through today.


The Revolutionary War

Early in the war, most Soldiers simply wore what they had, whether that was a state militia uniform, frontier dress (as seen here in the 1777 battle of Saratoga) or even their regular clothes. Washington actually ordered the use of fringed hunting shirts as a field garment to provide some uniformity until the Continental Army had a more consistent uniform.

Also read: Dress uniforms from every military branch, ranked

Supply problems throughout the war – sometimes Congress actually failed to authorize uniform funds – forced many Soldiers to huddle in blankets in the winter and tie rags around their feet when their shoes wore out.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Even officers’ uniforms varied widely. Here, Washington sports the blue and buff regimentals he designed, whereas an aide-de-camp wears brown and another general wears black. The officers’ ribbons, instituted by Washington, indicate their various ranks and positions. Noncommissioned officers were distinguished by epaulettes or strips of cloth on the right shoulder.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Later in the war, Continental Army uniforms became more standardized. Here, Soldiers wear the uniforms prescribed in1779: blue coats lined with white and trimmed with white buttons, worn with white overalls and waistcoats. The colors facing the coats identified Soldiers by region or branch.

For example, the lieutenant on the right wears blue faced with buff and shoulder epaulettes, indicating he is an infantry officer from New Jersey or New York. The Soldier on the left is an artillery private.

In 1782, blue coats faced with red became standard for everyone except generals and staff officers.

The War of 1812

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

During the War of 1812, the Army began cutting uniform cloth at the Philadelphia Arsenal before distributing it to master tailors, in the hopes of insuring greater uniformity and more efficient sizing.

Uniforms were highly influenced by the dress of European armies. The version adopted in 1813 and used for the next two decades was single-breasted blue coat with black herringbone false buttonholes and gold bullet buttons. (High boots were only authorized for generals and general staff officers.)

Related: How new Army and Marine uniforms are signaling a looming ‘big ass fight’

The gray uniform on the right was adopted in March 1814 as an alternate because of a shortage of blue cloth. A detachment of riflemen in green summer linen rifle frocks stands at attention in the background.

The Mexican-American War

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

The heat and the dust of the Southwest had a major impact on the Army’s uniforms, and Army leaders began to see the need for separate field and dress uniforms. Fatigue jackets, first introduced in 1833, light blue pants (with stripes for officers and NCOs) and forage caps became the field dress. (Many cavalrymen/dragoons like the Soldier on the left wore a yellow band on their forage caps, in contradiction to regulations.)

Most officers wore the dark blue frock coat seen on the first lieutenant to the right. His light blue trousers with a white stripe down the side and the silver buttons on his coat indicate infantry.

The Soldiers the background wear the universal dress of the enlisted infantryman: light blue fatigue jackets and trousers.

The Civil War

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

The trend throughout the mid-19th century was increased simplicity and practicality for uniforms. New regulations in 1851 (refined in 1858 and 1860) had introduced the blue wool frock coat as the service uniform for all Soldiers, a style worn throughout the Civil War, with double-breasted coats worn by field grade officers and above. Mounted troops wore jackets with sky blue trousers.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

The later regulations updated the Army campaign hat, and introduced a four-button sack coat (as seen on the first sergeant above) and forage cap, often known as a kepi, for field wear.

In practice, many uniforms were purchased by individual states, privately tailored or were made at home by mothers, wives and sisters, and there was an enormous amount of variety on the battlefield.

The Spanish-American War

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Cpl. Thomas Gorman of the 3rd Regiment, Texas Volunteer Infantry poses for a photo in 1898. (U.S. Army History and Heritage Command)

The Spanish-American war was the last time the blue Army field uniform was used in a major campaign. During the war, Soldiers wore a uniform and campaign hat adopted in the 1880s. For enlisted infantrymen this meant a dark blue wool shirt or jacket, light blue wool trousers, brown canvas leggings and a drab campaign hat.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

The standard officer uniform was an undress coat trimmed with black mohair braid that was introduced in 1895, dark blue breeches, black boots and drab campaign hat.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Cavalry Soldiers typically tied neckerchiefs around their necks, as these Spanish-American War veterans demonstrate after the war. (The famous Rough Riders wore lighter blue shirts and brown trousers to set them apart.) The Soldier on the left wears the new, khaki uniform that was issued in late 1898, after forces returned from Cuba.

World War I

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
A World War I Soldier with full pack, circa 1818. (U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

The standard uniform in World War I was the service coat and breeches introduced in the first decade of the century, when sweeping War Department reforms included almost every article of clothing. Khaki and olive drab continued to replace blue, black leather changed to russet, chevrons became smaller and pointed up instead of down, and even insignia and buttons changed.

More: Why the US military has shoulder pockets on combat uniforms

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Thanks to the vast amounts of olive drab wool the Army needed during the war, uniform color varied from mustard green to brown. Other variations occurred when many officers like this lieutenant colonel had their uniforms tailored in England or France. Officers also adopted the British brown leather Sam Browne belt and wore high, brown boots instead of the leggings and brown shoes worn by enlisted Soldiers. Another item of equipment widely used by the American Expeditionary Forces was the British basin pattern steel helmet.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army Signal Museum)

World War I was the first conflict in which large numbers women officially went to war, both as nurses and as telephone operators – “Hello Girls” – for the Signal Corps in France. (A few women were also attached to other branches such as the Quartermaster Corps.) They needed uniforms. The Army issued them Navy blue wool, Norfolk-style jackets and matching wool skirts, as seen in this photograph of the Hello Girls. (Hello Girls and nurses wore similar uniforms.)

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Here, an Army nurse (center) wears the navy blue worsted military overcoat and velour hat, and high tan shoes prescribed in August 1917. (A Red Cross nurse is on the left in a dress similar to what nurses would have worn for hospital work.)

World War II

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

In the late 1930s, the Army introduced trousers to replace the jodhpur-like service breeches that had been in use since the turn of the century. The new trousers were worn with shorter, dismounted leggings made of khaki canvas. The introduction of a comfortable and practical field jacket in 1940 quickly relegated the service coat to garrison wear. The rounded, steel M-1 helmet made its appearance in 1941, as did new, herringbone twill, olive drab fatigues.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

After fighting began, the quartermaster general recommended several changes to make the uniform more practical, and suggested a layering system in 1943 that would keep troops warm during the cold European winters, standardized as the M-1943 field ensemble with cap, four-pocket field jacket, detachable jacket hood, field trousers and service shirt. Heavy winter coats and jackets were also available as seen in this 1944 photo of troops in Belgium. 1943 also saw the introduction of combat boots with attached leather gaiters and the field cap.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Although an early form of camouflage was more heavily used in the Pacific, this photo taken in France in July 1944 shows that the Army did use it in Europe, particularly the 2nd Infantry Division. However, the experiment was not a success: Other Allied troops mistook the Soldiers for Nazis. Even in the Pacific, units found that the olive drab uniform offered better concealment.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Soldiers in the Pacific fought in herringbone twill fatigues in olive drab shade number seven, which was adopted in 1943 as summer combat clothing. Local commanders had the option of allowing troops to roll their sleeves up and leave their collars open.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Female Soldiers in the Women’s Army Corps get ready to disembark from their transport ship in an unknown location during World War II. (U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

In 1943, the Women’s Army Corps joined the Army Nurse Corps as a permanent part of the Army. Female service and field uniforms paralleled those worn by the men, albeit with a skirt.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Army nurses train to follow the fighting man: Because the Soldier fights over hills and barricaded areas, these nurses at Fort Baker, California, train to follow him wherever he goes to engage the enemy, ready to supply ever aid and comfort possible to the wounded, 1943. (U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

In some forward or malaria-prone areas, women could replace their skirts with slacks (or even altered male trousers), as these nurses demonstrate in a training photo from 1943.

Also read: This is why there’s no excuse for Hollywood to screw up military uniforms

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

In the Pacific, female personnel traded their stockings and Cuban heel shoes for cotton anklets and high quarter russet field service shoes.

The Korean War

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Two men find that several days rain has made their foxhole a small water tank. Trying to bail some of the water out with their helmets are Sgt. Robert LeGregor (left) and Sgt. George Rainwater, both of the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. (U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Uniforms worn in the Korean War were those of an Army in transition and reflected innovations from the closing days of World War II. In fact, the original fatigues in this conflict were leftover World War II summer uniforms from the Pacific theater.

The combat boot widely used in Korea was actually the old service shoe with a double-buckle cuff. Its flesh-out leather was no longer treated with dubbin, but instead was rubbed smooth to accept polish.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Sgt. 1st Class Elijah McLaughlin (left front), leads his squad down a steep hill, northwest of the Chongchon River, as they begin a 1,500-yard advance to another hill. Assistant squad leader Cpl. Luther Anderson is in the right front, Nov. 20, 1950. (U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Adjustments had to be quickly made for the frigid Korean winter, and Soldiers needed heavy overcoats. Herringbone twill cotton clothing in a dark olive drab shade became the battle dress, with large pockets providing a convenient means to store rations and other vital items.

The Vietnam War

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(Photo by Pfc. Norman F. Bachman, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

At first glance, uniforms worn during Vietnam are remarkably similar to those worn during the Korean War, but as the war wore on, modifications in basic weapons, clothing and equipment came rapidly as the Army tried to solve the special problems encountered in hot and humid Vietnam. The updated, wind-resistant fatigue jackets and pants brought back the use of cargo pockets and other utilitarian features. Fast-drying boots with nylon uppers accompanied the uniform.

Olive green underclothing and subdued ranks and nametapes, which became a requirement in 1968, reduced the chances of giving away one’s position to the enemy.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Members of the Women’s Army Corps and Army nurses, seen here caring for Vietnamese refugees in 1975, typically wore uniforms similar to the men: two-piece tropical combat uniforms of olive-green, rip-stop cotton poplin.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(Photo by Spc. 5 Raymond C. Jewett, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Special Forces Soldiers quickly realized they needed more concealment than their olive drab fatigues could provide. Very early on – this Special Forces unit was photographed in country in 1964 – this meant the duck hunter camouflage pattern that dated from World War II.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(Photo by Spc. 5 Thomas A Seddon, Jr., U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

The uniform was unsatisfactory, however, and Special Forces quickly adopted the tiger stripe camouflage used by rangers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, as seen on this sergeant first class in February 1968. Because tiger stripe was not official Army issue, units contracted local tailors to produce the uniforms, leading to a lot of variation.

By the end of the war, a precursor to the woodland battle dress uniform pattern, known as ERDL, had been introduced.

1981-2004

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(Military History Institute, U.S. Army History and Heritage Command)

The Army’s iconic battle dress uniform made its appearance in 1981. (By 1988, there was a hot-weather version as well.) Its woodland pattern meant that for the first time, all Soldiers wore camouflage, and the uniform saw service in operations around the world, including Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Haiti in 1994 and the Balkans in the late 1990s.

Also read: This is how US Army uniforms have changed since the Revolutionary War

Properties of the fabric and the use of miniature rank insignia on the collar further reduced the chance of detection. The Army also issued an improved protective vest, new helmet and new field coat. A redesigned boot drew upon the best features of commercial hiking and camping gear to extend the Soldier’s capabilities in a field environment. The Army also issued a new personal armor system for ground troops, which included a new helmet and Kevlar vest.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army History and Heritage Command)

Around the same time, the Army introduced the six-color desert battle dress uniform, often called chocolate chip camouflage. It was intended for limited use by Special Operations troops, and in military exercises in the Middle East. Although a logistics glitch kept it from being issued to all deployed Soldiers, this uniform is most closely associated with Operation Desert Storm. It was also used by some troops in Somalia in 1993.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Soldiers practice house-breaching techniques in their desert combat uniforms. (U.S. Army)

After Soldiers reported that the dark patches on the DBDU made it difficult to blend into the terrain effectively, the Army began issuing a new, three-color desert camouflage uniform in July 1991. (Only a few Soldiers were issued the uniform before the end of Operation Desert Storm.) It had been developed using soil samples from throughout the Middle East. This uniform, with improved, lighter boots, was still in use more than a decade later when Soldiers began deploying to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 (many Soldiers were issued body armor in the woodland pattern).

2004-2014

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jeffery Sandstrum)

The Army combat uniform, featuring a universal, digitized gray and green camouflage took the place of both the BDU and the DCU in June 2004. The new uniform added additional pockets, a mandarin collar that could be worn up or down, zippers, moved the rank insignia to the center of the chest and featured hook-and-loop tape for name tapes, rank insignia and badges. Later updates included flame-resistant material and the option for sewn-on tapes and badges. The accompanying t-shirt and socks were moisture wicking.

Although the black beret had been authorized for wear with field uniforms as well as service uniforms in 2001, it was further approved for use in a combat zone with the introduction of the ACU.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(Department of Defense photo by Spc. Blair Neelands)

In 2007, the Army authorized the moisture-wicking, flame-resistant Army combat shirt, originally designed to be worn under the new improved outer tactical vest (also introduced in 2007) in warm weather. The sleeves featured the universal camouflage pattern, and included cargo pockets and elbow pads.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Hamann)

To allow Soldiers to operate more effectively in Afghanistan’s varied terrains, the Army introduced a new multicam pattern for the ACU, featuring seven shades of greens, browns and beige. It was issued to deployed Soldiers starting in 2010. A matching combat shirt was also available. Mountain combat boots featured a tougher, more durable sole.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kandi Huggins)

With women taking on more combat roles than ever, their uniforms and gear are almost identical to their male counterparts. The Army even issued a new version of the tactical vest – one specifically designed for women’s bodies – in 2013.

2015 and Beyond

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(PEO Soldier)

The Army will begin issuing Army combat uniforms in the operational camouflage pattern, which is similar to multicam, in the summer of 2015. The cut is based on the ACU, but lower leg pockets will be closed by a button instead of hook and loop tape thanks to Soldiers’ concerns that the old fastener made too much noise in combat environments. Pockets for kneepads and elbow pads will also be removed. The Army uniform board is still considering other changes, including a return to the fold-down collar, adjustments to the infrared square identification for friend or foe, the removal of one of three pen pockets on the ACU sleeve and the elimination of the drawstring on the trouser waistband.

The Army is expected to retire the digital universal camouflage pattern in 2018.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This mayor saved his town by drinking 3 liters of wine at once

There are no wars like religious wars, and the wars between early protestants and Catholics are no exception. They tend to be particularly destructive and brutal. Such was the 1618-1648 Thirty Years War, which was one of the most destructive in human history. The German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber might have met the same fate as many before it were it not for the legendary wine it produced and the extraordinary consumption ability of its Bürgermeister, Georg Nusch.


This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Prost. Prost to the Max.

Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly led the Catholic armies of the Thirty Years War. For 11 of those 30 years, Tilly dominated the protestant forces, sacking and destroying town after town with a demoralizing effect. When he arrived at Rothenberg, he was prepared to do the same to it as he had done so many other times. Legend has it he sent the city’s councilmen to death and prepared to burn the town. At the last second, he was convinced to take a glass of wine – in a large, beautifully ornate cup.

Tilly was as taken with the nearly one-gallon flagon as he was the wine itself. With his mood changed, either by the townsfolk or because of a delicious, intoxicating beverage, Tilly decided to offer the town a bargain. He said he would spare the town if anyone could slam an entire glassful of the wine – the 3.25 liter glassful – in one drink.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

When your future rests upon the fate of a bar bet.

Anyone in the town was free to try, but there was a catch. Anyone who failed to down the full glass in a single go would be put to death. The choice was clear: die trying to drink the wine or die by the sword when the Catholics torch the town. That’s when fate the mayor stepped in.

The glass itself was new. No one had ever really downed a whole glass tankard of wine in one drink. No one knew they should have been practicing all these years. But that was okay. The people of Rothenberg elected him to take care of the town, and by choice and by duty, Georg Nusch was going to be the first man to make the attempt.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

And ever since, no one could stop talking about it.

When Nusch walked in, he took the tankard, and downed the entire 3.25 liters of wine, all in one go. Everyone watching, especially Tilly, was suitably impressed. True to his word, Tilly spared the town, and the locals have been telling the legend of Der Meistertrunk (the Master Drink) for some 400 years now. They even wrote a play about it, which is retold better and better (like most bar stories) with every retelling.

But most notably, the story is retold in the clock tower of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the 17th-century Ratstrinkstube. When the clock strikes the hour, a door opens and out comes Count Tilly on one side, and the other side comes Mayor Nusch, who puts a drink to his lips for as long as the clock chimes.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Rhodesian Fireforce took airborne operations to a whole new level

By the 1970’s, the Rhodesian Security Forces were facing a growing and determined insurgency in the civil war known as the “Rhodesian Bush War.” Faced with increased threats, manpower and equipment shortages, and a large territory to cover, they needed a new tactic to deal effectively with rebel groups. This led the Rhodesian Light Infantry to the development of the fireforce, a vertical envelopment technique involving light infantry, helicopters, and paratroopers in a rapidly deployable posture.


 

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

A fireforce was equipped with four helicopters, one C-47 Dakota transport aircraft, and a light attack aircraft. The helicopters were of two types; the K-Car and the G-Car. The K-Car was so called because it was the ‘killer’ with its 20mm cannon and functioned as the command and control aircraft. The G-Cars served as gunships with machine guns and as transports for heliborne troops, though they were only capable of carrying four combat loaded troops at a time. The unit was also supported by vehicles, called the ‘Landtail’ that supported the deployment of the airborne component. Weapons were standard for Africa at the time – FN FALs and FN MAG machine guns.

A unit set to a fireforce mission was distinctly organized from standard infantry units. Instead of fire teams, squads, and platoons, the Fire Force was composed of ‘waves’ that were broken down into stops, also known as sticks, each consisting of four men, due to the space constraints on the G-Cars. Each stop had a stick leader, machine gunner, and two riflemen, one of which was also trained as a medic. The fireforce airborne component was composed of eight stops. Stops one through three were assigned to the G-Cars while stops four through eight were assigned as paratroopers. These forces, along with the light attack aircraft, constituted the first wave. The remaining men assigned to the fireforce were in vehicles as the ‘Landtail,’ or second wave.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

There were three main fireforce units located at three bases throughout the country, ready to respond to a contact or sighting of enemy forces by the Selous Scouts. That’s when the excitement began. Once contact was reported, a siren would sound alerting the fireforce. The first three stops would board helicopters while the rest would quickly don parachutes with the help of off-duty team members. The airborne component would rush to the objective where the fireforce commander would determine a drop zone and position the heliborne stops to encircle the rebels. Once on the ground, the stops would attempt to stop the enemy. They would act as blocking positions for the sweep element, usually paratroopers, creating the classic hammer and anvil movement. Combined with circling gunships and close-air support, this method proved deadly effective, resulting in a kill ratio of better than 80:1.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

The fireforce became the primary tactic of the Rhodesian security forces. By 1977, all infantrymen would be trained as paratroopers. While on a ‘bush trip’ – usually lasting about six weeks – the men on a fireforce would rotate between heliborne insertion, paratrooper, landtail, and off-duty. After a bush trip, the men were given ten days rest before returning to the field. This allowed for a very high ops tempo. As the fireforce was perfected and the insurgency gained strength, this meant that Rhodesian soldiers were called on more and more to conduct missions. In his book Fireforce: One Man’s War in the Rhodesian Light Infantry Chris Cocks tells of men making three combat jumps in a single day. This led to a truly staggering number of jumps for many members of the Rhodesian Light Infantry, unmatched by any other unit in the world.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

The fireforce was not enough to keep the Rhodesians from losing the war and the method was never adopted by other militaries. The French had used paratroopers extensively in Indochina while the Americans preferred to use only helicopters. With Rhodesia turning over to majority African control and becoming Zimbabwe, the Rhodesian Light Infantry and fireforces were disbanded. Though it would go down in history as one of the most effective counter-insurgency forces ever conceived.

MIGHTY HISTORY

One of the world’s largest-ever tank battles was between India and Pakistan

When we think of the largest tank battles in military history, we probably think of epic slugfests like the World War II Battle of Kursk between the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany. More recently, we might look to the Battle of 73 Easting during the Gulf War.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
An Iraqi Type 69 main battle tank burns after an attack by the 1st United Kingdom Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm.

The battles between India and Pakistan often get overlooked in the minds of even the most hardcore tank fans, but some of history’s most hardcore fighting happened between the two former British possessions. 

In fact, the two have been fighting ever since the British withdrew from India and Pakistan. The first war happened pretty much immediately, as the two countries squared off over who would control the areas of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. The first war didn’t really settle anything, so they were back at it nearly 20 years later. 

Just before India launched a full-scale invasion of Kashmir in 1965, Pakistan sent thousands of soldiers into the area dressed as locals. The Indians found out somehow and retaliated with almost its entire army, which included more than 180 Centurion tanks, 340 Sherman tanks, and an estimated 700,000 infantry, not to mention its air forces. 

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
The hull of an M4A1 Sherman tank destroyed in the Indo-Pakistani war.

Knowing the war lasted a little less than a month, one might think that India sent in an overwhelming force to push Pakistan out of Kashmir for good. They would be wrong. Pakistan was already prepared for the war their intended insurgency might cause. Both sides made significant gains in the first few weeks of fighting, aiming at different goals. 

A few days before a United Nations ceasefire forced an end to the fighting, the two sides met at Chawinda in the Punjab area of Pakistan. India was attempting to counter the Pakistani advance into Kashmir. The Indians sent an entire Corps into the area near Chawinda with an estimated 150,000 infantry and 260 tanks. Initially, the Indians annihilated an enemy infantry regiment and pushed the Pakistani forces back to Chawinda. 

Outnumbered by a margin of around ten to one, the Pakistanis dug in at Chawinda. With repeated losses to the Indians at Phillora and Asal Uttar in an attempt to divert the Indians away from Chawinda, things looked pretty bleak for the Pakistani defenders. 

But despite repeated Indian attacks on Chawinda, the Pakistanis held out long enough for reinforcements to arrive. When the Indian Army launched its major assault on Chawinda on September 18, 1965, the Pakistanis’ strength had grown to 132 tanks and 50,000 defenders. They were still outnumbered but they repelled the Indians.

In fact, the Indian attack was so unsuccessful, and they took such heavy losses trying it, that they were forced to withdraw from Chawinda and both sides stopped their offensive plans. When the United Nations-brokered ceasefire came, both India and Pakistan were so bloodied and bruised, the ceasefire was welcome news. 

Pakistan lost 60 tanks defending Chawinda, nearly half of its force there. India lost almost the same ratio of tanks, an estimated 100 or more. When all was said and done, the Battle of Chawinda was the largest tank on tank battle since the World War II Battle of Kursk. 

India withdrew from Chawinda on September 19, and the ceasefire went into effect on the 22nd. The 1965 war ended on September 23, probably to the relief of both sides. The war didn’t change much of anything, except ceding a little bit of Pakistani territory to India. Even that was returned just ten years later, when the Soviet Union mediated a peace agreement between the two in Tashkent.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Coast Guard ship was a Venus fly trap for Nazi subs

During World War II, The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were tasked with ruining the days of any and every Nazi submarine they could find, but those underwater dongs of death were notorious for staying hidden until they spied a convoy of merchant ships and oil tankers moving on their own.


This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

The USS Big Horn fires Hedgehog depth charges, an anti-submarine warfare system.

(Navsource.org courtesy Coast Guard Cmdr. Douglas L. Jordan)

How were the big, bad naval services supposed to counter the insidious “wolf packs?” By dressing up as sheep until the wolves got close, and then revealing themselves to be sheepdog AF.

The Navy purchased used merchant vessels, mostly oil tankers, and converted them for wartime service. Anti-submarine weapons were cleverly hidden across the deck while the holds were filled with additional ammunition as well as watertight barrels to provide additional buoyancy after a torpedo strike. The resulting vessels were known as “Q-ships.”

These were derivative of a World War I and World War II practice pioneered by the British, who built decoy “Queen Ships” for the same purpose.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

The USS Big Horn exposes its 4-inch gun at sea.

(Navsource.org courtesy Coast Guard Cmdr. Douglas L. Jordan)

One Q-ship, the USS Horn, carried five large guns on the deck of which only one was typically visible. There was a 5-inch gun visible, four 4-inch guns concealed behind false bulkheads, and “hedgehogs,” depth charge systems that would quickly fire a series explosives into the ocean.

The ship commissioned into Navy hands in 1942 and served in the Caribbean before being sent more broadly across the Atlantic. During this time, it encountered numerous submarines and damaged at least one with its depth charges. The damaged sub was likely sunk.

In 1944, the ship was transferred to Coast Guard control and assigned to weather patrols, still heavily armed to challenge any U-boat that exposed itself. The new Coast Guard crew sailed across the Atlantic, looking for targets and relaying weather information until March 1945, when they were sent to actually move oil across the Pacific, supporting operations like the capture of Okinawa.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

U.S. Navy sailors conduct gunnery drills on the USS Big Horn.

(U.S. Navy)

Unfortunately, the Coast Guard crew never got to go on a true submarine hunting mission like their U.S. Navy brethren, but they were able to contribute to victory in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters by safeguarding convoys and moving oil to where it was needed.

All Q-ships were released from the fleets in the years following World War II. While the modern Coast Guard has some anti-surface capability, it lacks any weapons effective against long-endurance diesel-electric or a nuclear submarines. Either type could dive well outside of the cutters’ ranges, fire torpedoes, and sail away without ever exposing themselves.

Basically, if it’s more dangerous than a narco submarine, the Coast Guard has to be careful about attacking it.

There have been some calls for re-arming the Coast Guard for a true anti-submarine mission, but with the Coast Guard failing to maintain the budget for its current ships, it’s unlikely they’ll get the funds and crews for sub hunters in the near future.

popular

Coke exists thanks to this wounded warrior from Civil War

There’s a fun fact that you can’t escape in the South: Coca-Cola used to have cocaine in it. The Coke brand is everywhere down here, and every 14-year-old will bring up the cocaine fact a couple of times a week for the first six months after they learn about it.


This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(Public domain)

 

The fact that cocaine used to be offered in every town usually gets written off as an odd quirk of history, but it turns out the inventor had a good reason to appreciate the coca plant: he had a number of gunshot and saber wounds from the Civil War.

Coke was invented by John Stith Pemberton (the drink is named after the coca plant, not the inventor or company founder). Pemberton became a doctor at the ripe old age of 19 in 1850. He was a successful surgeon and chemist in the 1850s, but he signed up for frontline service when the Civil War broke out.

He didn’t serve as a doctor, though. He started as a first lieutenant in a cavalry unit in 1862 and climbed the ranks to lieutenant colonel. He faced his fiercest fighting when Union Gen. James Wilson attacked Columbus in 1865. Pemberton suffered multiple gunshots wounds and even a saber strike to his chest.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Union Gen. James Wilson led Union troops during the Battle of Columbus. (Brady National Photographic Art Gallery)

 

Pemberton would suffer for years from the wounds he took near Columbus, and he struggled against an opium addiction thanks to all the painkillers he was given. But Pemberton was, luckily, a skilled chemist and pharmacist. He moved to Atlanta after the war and developed new chemical products.

He became aware of a new European product already popular in Italy and France, wine infused with extracts from coca leaves. After a new business partnership in 1870, he was able to purchase the equipment to develop even more complex products.

In 1885, he made his own version of the coca-infused wines which he called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. One thing worth noting here, this isn’t technically cocaine in a drink. Coca leaves are a precursor to cocaine, but you have to use a solvent to extract cocaine sulfate from the leaves in order to get actual cocaine out. But Pemberton’s wine did have anesthetic effects like cocaine would.

Pemberton sold the drink as a way to settle nerves, relieve pain, and cure morphine addiction. You know, the same morphine addiction that he and many of his veteran friends had.

The jump from French Wine Coca to Coca-Cola came when wine was threatened by alcohol prohibition in Atlanta and Pemberton decided to replace the sweetness from the wine with sweetness from sugar. After a few more changes to refine the taste, the product was renamed Coca-Cola and released in 1886.

It has gone through a few formula changes since, including switching fresh coca leaves out for spent coca leaves which have had the cocaine sulfate extracted. So, you know, you can’t get high from Coke anymore.

Pemberton never got rich off his invention, though. He was still standing up the Coca-Cola Company under his son, Charles Pemberton, when he died. The company passed into the hands of another investor, and the Pembertons were largely ousted.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Everything the US has learned in Afghanistan the Brits learned in the 1800s

In 1839, the forces of Great Britain and the British East India Company invaded Afghanistan in the first major conflict of the “Great Game” – the struggle between Great Britain and Russia for control of Asia. The British quickly defeated the opposing forces of Dost Mohammad and garrisoned the capital Kabul, as well as the major cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad. However, by mid-1841 the situation in Kabul was deteriorating. The British forces made camp in an indefensible position just outside the capital. Meanwhile, two senior British officials were murdered with no reprisal from the British forces, further emboldening the Afghans.


This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Unfortunately for the soldiers of the garrison, a confluence of events meant trouble for them. First, the appointment of the incompetent General Elphinstone to command the British forces in Kabul. The second was a new government in London calling for increased cost-savings from the ongoing campaign. The combination of these two events led to the fateful decision for the garrison in Kabul, along with their camp followers, to conduct a retreat to Jalalabad and then back to India to escape the rising unrest in the capital. After the first unit to travel to Jalalabad in November has been harassed and sniped throughout their journey, General Elphinstone trusted the assurances of an Afghan warlord that his column would be granted safe passage.

On 6 January 1842, Elphinstone’s column of the British 44th Regiment of Foot, three regiments of Bengal Native Infantry, British and Indian cavalry, the Bengal Horse Artillery – about 700 British and 3800 Indian soldiers – as well as 12,000 camp followers – set off on their march through the treacherous Afghan winter towards Jalalabad. Almost immediately, they began receiving harassing fire from the Ghilzai tribesmen and were ambushed and attacked repeatedly over the next several days. The weather also took a toll on the Indian soldiers and camp followers who had been recruited from the more tropical climate in India. On 9 January, after losing over 3,000 casualties and having only covered twenty five miles, General Elphinstone, along with the wives and children of the officers accepted the offer of a warlord to be taken into his custody for safety, and immediately became his hostages instead. The remainder of the force trudged on, hoping to clear the snow-choked passes and reach the safety of the garrison at Jalalabad.

By 12 January, the column had been reduced to around one hundred men, mostly infantrymen of the 44th Regiment of Foot, as well as a few remaining officers on horseback. As they tried to clear a barrier erected on the valley floor many were killed while the survivors gathered on a hillock outside the village of Gandamak to make their last stand. When offered a surrender by the Ghilzai tribesmen surrounding them a British sergeant reportedly yelled back “not bloodly likely!” and thus sealing their fate. In the ensuing chaos the British infantry fired their remaining ammunition before fighting on with bayonets. Only a handful of men survived to be taken captive.. Though some officers on horses managed to escape they were hunted down and killed as well; all except for one.

“You will see, not a soul will reach here from Kabul except one man, who will come to tell us the rest are destroyed.”

– Colonel Dennie, British Army of the Indus, Nov. 1841

At Jalalabad on 13 January, Colonel Dennie was manning the fortifications awaiting the arrival of the column from Kabul when he spotted a lone man on horseback approaching the city. Upon seeing the man he is said to have remarked “Did I not say so? Here comes the messenger.” The lone survivor of the column was Dr. William Brydon, an assistant surgeon, who straggled in exhausted and severely wounded on a horse that was also severely wounded. Dr. Brydon had survived a sword strike to the head, which had cleaved off a small portion of his skull, thanks to a copy of a magazine he had stuffed into his hat for extra warmth. His horse apparently cleared the gates of the city and promptly laid down, never to rise again. Brydon was the sole survivor of some 16,000 who started the trek a week earlier to arrive at Jalalabad.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
“The Sepoy revolt at Meerut,” wood-engraving from the Illustrated London News, 1857

Brydon would survive his wounds and later survive another harrowing incident when we was severely wounded during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. General Elphinstone died in captivity. Shortly after the news of the massacre reached British officials, the decision was made to withdraw all British forces from Afghanistan, but not before retribution was sought. By the summer of 1842 the Army of Retribution had been raised and marched through Afghanistan, releasing many of the prisoners taken during the retreat from Kabul as well as exacting their vengeance before finally withdrawing on 12 October 1842.

Articles

You have to see Boeing’s awesome ‘Bird of Prey’ stealth aircraft

In the early 1990s, stealth aircraft technology was still coming into its own. The United States had developed the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, but there was still more work to do. So Boeing, one of the United States’ most capable defense aircraft developers, went to work.

The company’s Phantom Works division created the Boeing Bird of Prey, a single-seater black project stealth aircraft that looks like the most futuristic plane ever developed. It’s not — but it sure looks like it.

Boeing’s Bird of Prey looks part F-22 Raptor and part science fiction-inspired deep space fighter. Not much is known about the experimental fighter aircraft’s true purpose. Even less is known about the specific technologies it might have been testing. Its association with Phantom Works and being developed and constructed at Area 51 means the skies are the limit for UFO junkies and big tech enthusiasts. 

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Figuratively speaking, that is. For all we know, we’re still working on sending this guy back home (Image by Pawel86 from Pixabay)

Despite its cool, futuristic appearance and the technologies it might have been testing, the program was a relatively cheap one for the aircraft manufacturer. At just $67 million dollars, the Bird of Prey is considered a “low-cost” program for a defense contractor. 

What is known about the Bird of Prey is that it was a stepping stone in the development of low-observable technologies and aircraft design. Some of its “revolutionary” design elements were later incorporated into the X-45 unmanned combat aerial vehicle, one of the earliest tested drones developed by the Air Force. 

The X-45 program was the first test the technology needed to, “conduct suppression of enemy air defense missions with unmanned combat air vehicles.”

Developing the Bird of Prey and its associated technology first began in 1992. The aircraft took its first flight in 1996. It never received an x-plane designation because it was never a true military test aircraft, but the tech it tested might later have been integrated into the F-22 and the F-35 fighters. 

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
“Well, hello, there.” (U.S. Air Force photo)

It’s also believed the Bird of Prey tested active camouflage technology for planes, which would allow it to change colors, luminosity or appearance mid-flight to blend into its environment.

Although the Bird of Prey was potentially packing a wide array of unknown and probably still-classified technologies, keeping costs down meant using commercially-available engines and manual controls, as opposed to computerized controls. 

Aside from classified future technologies, the Air Force also says its tested tech that is now considered “industry standards.” This includes the lack of a horizontal tailplane and a conventional vertical rudder, which is used in later experimental stealth drone aircraft. 

Boeing Phantom Works is an advanced prototyping arm of the aircraft manufacturer that has worked on a number of advanced vehicles and technologies, including the Boeing X-51 Waverider hypersonic vehicle and concepts for an as-yet unnamed sixth-generation joint strike fighter. 

The Bird of Prey was officially ended before the turn of the 21st Century, even though it looks the part of an aircraft from this era. After (presumably) being stripped of all the nifty tech that would allow it to evade ground sensors (and maybe the naked eye), it officially ended its career in the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Let’s see Ben Stiller deal with this museum coming to life (U.S. Air Force)

Visitors to the massive aircraft and air power museum can see the Bird of Prey in the Modern Flight Gallery – near its successor aircraft, the X-36 flight demonstrator and the museum’s F-22 Raptor.

Feature image: Photo courtesy of Boeing

Articles

This infantry commander received 3 Silver Stars in 5 months

 


This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Fred K. Mahaffey was a distinguished veteran of the U.S. Army who eventually rose to the rank of four-star general. It was during his time as a battalion commander in Vietnam that he, on at least three separate occasions in five months, risked his life to save his men. He received a Silver Star for each action.

Mahaffey was the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division. On Jan. 26, 1969, his units were engaged in the Ding Tuong Province. He ordered his command and control helicopter to begin conducting low passes over the battlefield so he could survey the action and coordinate support between his men.

Then he had the helicopter drop him off, and he began leading the fight from the ground. Throughout the night, he came under intense fire four times but stayed at the front to rally and direct his forces.

A few months later on Apr. 29, the 2nd Battalion was conducting a reconnaissance in force mission in Long An. One of the infantry companies found a larger enemy element and engaged in a firefight. Mahaffey once again ordered his helicopter to the battlefield.

When he arrived, he began flying circles over the battlefield and selected targets for artillery fire despite the fact that he was under severe anti-aircraft fire. After the company had surrounded the enemy, Mahaffey had the helicopter land so that he could help his men eliminate the Vietnamese element.

Between May 12 and 13, Mahaffey completed his hat trick. Again, his forces were conducting a reconnaissance in force when they encountered a large enemy element. Mahaffey called in both artillery and air strikes from the bird and made constant adjustments to the fire missions to maximize their effects.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Soldiers on the ground guide in a helicopter during a resupply mission in Vietnam. (Photo: U.S. Army)

He then joined the forces on the ground and kept calling in missions, some as close as 35 meters from his own position. He stayed on the battlefield and coordinated the support fires until his men were able to destroy the enemy element completely.

For these three engagements, Mahaffey received three Silver Stars, but that’s not the full extent of his heroics in Vietnam.

He also received two Distinguished Flying Crosses. One was for his actions leading from the sky throughout the Vietnam deployment.

The other Distinguished Flying Cross resulted from actions taken on Apr. 6, 1969, when he saw two enemy soldiers maneuvering near his men. He ordered the bird to conduct low passes while he fired on the soldiers with his M-16, killing them both. He then landed, recovered their weapons and documents, and took off again.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The first machine gun was invented before the Revolutionary War

If you don’t think East-West relations have come very far in the past few centuries, consider the fact that James Puckle’s flintlock revolver fired two types of ammo: round shot for use against Christians, and square shot for use against Muslims. The square shot was supposed to hurt more, convincing Muslims of the superiority of Christian life.


This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Invented in 1718, his “Puckle Gun” is the first weapon to be called a “machine gun,” even if it doesn’t fit the modern definition of the word. The Puckle Gun was tripod mounted, intended for use on ships but had field uses as well. The cylinders revolved manually, firing 32mm shot through a 3-foot barrel and loaded while detached from the main gun.

The main problem was that instead of shooting a series of shots, the chamber had to be unscrewed before the handle could revolve the ammo, then screwed in again to seal the breech to the barrel. In demonstrations, the Puckle Gun could fire nine rounds per minute, tripling the output of disciplined troops, whose rate was three rounds per minute.

The armed forces of Britain didn’t respond favorably to the weapon. As a result, neither did the investors of the time. Only two models of the Puckle Gun exist today, at the homes of members of the Montagu family, the only people to ever buy Puckle Guns with the intention of using them.

Montagu, while acting as Britain’s Master-General of the Ordnance, purchased this first machine gun for use on a doomed expedition to capture St. Vincent and St. Lucia. It’s unknown if they were ever used in combat.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The near-suicidal way American pilots played possum in WW1

In World War I, pilots on either side of the line enjoyed sudden lurches ahead in technology advances followed by steady declines into obsolescence. This created a seesaw effect in the air where Allied pilots would be able to blast their way through German lines for a few months, but then had to run scared if the enemy got the jump on them.


So the Allied pilots found a way to fake their deaths in the air with a risky but effective maneuver.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

Some Nieuport planes had a tendency to break apart when pilots pulled them out of a steep dive.

(Nieuport, public domain)

By the time that America was getting pilots to the front in 1917, all of the early combatants from the war had years of hard-won experience in aerial fighting. U.S. pilots would have to catch up. Worse, U.S. pilots were joining the fight while German planes were more capable than Allied ones, especially America’s Nieuport 28s purchased from France.

France had declined to put the Nieuport 28 into service because of a number of shortcomings. Its engine burned castor oil, and the exhaust would spray across the pilots, coating their goggles in a blinding film and making many of them sick. It could also turn tight but had some limitations. Worst of all, pilots couldn’t dive and then suddenly pull up, a common method of evading fire in combat, without risking the weak wings suddenly snapping off.

Yes, in standard combat flying, the plane could be torn apart by its own flight. So new American pilots adopted a strategy of playing dead in the air.

The technique wasn’t too complicated. In normal flying, a pilot who stalled his plane and then entered a spin was typically doomed to slam into the ground. And so, enemy pilots would often break off an attack on a spinning plane, allowing it to finish crashing on its own.

But a British test pilot, Frederick A. Lindemann, figured out how to reliably recover from a spin and stall. He did so twice in either 1916 or 1917. So, pilots who learned how to recover from a stall and spin would, when overwhelmed in combat, slow down and pull up, forcing a stall in the air.

Then as they started to drop, they would push the stick hard to one side, causing one wing to have full lift and the other to have minimal lift, so it would fall in a severe spin. German pilots, thinking they had won, would break off the attack. Then the Allied pilot would attempt to recover.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries

U.S. combat pilot Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker was America’s top-scoring fighter ace of World War I.

(U.S. Air Force)

But spins were considered dangerous for a reason. Recovery required leveling that lift on the wings and then using the rudder to stop spin before pulling up on the stick to stop the fall. So, for the first few moments of recovery, the pilot had to ignore that they were pointed at the ground. If they tried to pull up while they were still spinning, they really would crash. In fact, on some aircraft, it was essential to steepen the dive in order to recover.

And this whole process took time, so a pilot who fell too far before beginning recovery would hit the ground while still trying to recover from their intentional spin.

Most future American aces learned these maneuvers from British pilots in fairly controlled conditions, but some of them were limited in their flight time by their duties on the ground. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, in charge of maintaining and improving America’s major aerodrome at Issoudon, France, taught himself the maneuver on his own during stolen plane time, surviving his first attempt and then repeating it on subsequent days until he could do it perfectly.

Rickenbacker would go on the be America’s top scoring ace in World War I despite being partially blind in one eye and officially too old for training when he went to flight school.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why there’s no Field Marshal rank in the US military

During the second world war, the size of the U.S. military swelled significantly and became far larger than even during World War I. With technology advancing so significantly in the interwar years and the military growing more diverse, the need arose for a rank higher than four-star general. The U.S. needed an equivalent to the British and Russian Field Marshal.


But they declined. Instead, the five-star “General of the Army” and “Fleet Admiral” for the Navy were created by act of Congress.

The reason was ultimately that the name of U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall would have sounded ridiculous with this new rank. Still, the Americans were now the senior partner in the alliance against the Axis and its commanders were technically outranked by British Field Marshals.

 

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
General of the Army George C. Marshall.

Admiral Ernest King was a well-known stickler for things like uniform wear (he even introduced a new Navy uniform during the war), awarding fewer medals so that they meant something when awarded, and – especially – for rank. The longtime officer hated the idea of using British terms like “Admiral of the Fleet.” He suggested other terms, like “Arch Admiral” and “Arch General.” His suggestions were so odd, his contemporaries thought he was joking.

President Franklin Roosevelt thought “Chief General” and “Chief Admiral” would be good names for the new positions. The debate ended when Congress revived the five-star ranks with their new names in 1944.

Only one American officer ever held the title of “Field Marshal.” Douglas MacArthur was appointed as Field Marshal of the Army of the Philippines in 1936 when the island nation achieved a semi-independent status. MacArthur was tasked to create an operational army for the fledgling country and wore a special uniform, complete with a Field Marshal’s baton.

This was the Army’s battle dress throughout the centuries
Left to Right – Vice-President Sergio Osmena, Paul V. McNutt, U.S. High Commissioner, President Manuel Quezon, Field Marshal Douglas MacArthur, General Paulino Santos, Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Two Red Army veterans on freedom and why it’s always worth fighting for

They call it the “Island of Death.”

At this spot on the western side of the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, some 30,000 Soviet soldiers died under Nazi artillery during World War II. Yet, on this hot June day, there’s nothing to suggest that this particular place was once on the deadliest front of the deadliest war in human history.


“What horrors happened here,” says my 55-year-old Ukrainian father-in-law, Valeriy Deriy, who is a Red Army veteran of the Cold War. “Can you imagine?”

I cannot.

We’ve hired a zodiac boat for the day, embarking from a yacht club in the riverside town of Horishni Plavni. To get to the so-called Island of Death, our captain weaves through narrow, overgrown channels that branch off the main course of the Dnieper River.

Tucked away in a dense forest on the island, there’s an old Soviet war memorial. You’d hardly notice it from the water, unless you knew what to look for. Valeriy explains that one can still find evidence of war in the surrounding woods. Old artillery pieces, bullets, rifles, and boots. That sort of stuff.

“Some people want to forget the past. But it’s impossible,” he tells me. “It’s always there.”

Between August and December 1943, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fought the battle for the Dnieper River. It was one of World War II’s largest battles, comprising some 4 million soldiers stretched along a nearly 900-mile-long front.

After Nazi Germany’s defeat at the Battle of Kursk, the Soviets pressed their advantage and pushed the Nazis back across Ukraine. The third longest river in Europe, the Dnieper — which runs roughly north to south down the middle of Ukraine to the Black Sea — was a natural physical obstacle for the advancing Red Army.

The Nazis took to the heights on the western bank to set up their artillery, which they used to devastating effect. The Red Army crossed the river under heavy fire, improvising makeshift means to get across. Soviet losses were staggering — accounts vary, but roughly 400,000 Red Army soldiers died in the Dnieper River battle of 1943.

The Other Side

Earlier, Valeriy and I stand at a spot on the opposite, eastern bank of the Dnieper River.

“My great-grandfather said the water ran red with blood in the war,” Valeriy says as we stand on the riverbank, looking to the other side.

Valeriy explains that his great-grandfather fought in that Dnieper River battle, and he crossed the river at this very spot. Right where we’re standing. I’m left a bit speechless.

His great-grandfather couldn’t swim, Valeriy continues, but Soviet commanders would have him shot if he’d refused the crossing. So he held on to a log for flotation and kicked his way across. Somehow, he survived.

“It was October, and the water was already very cold,” Valeriy says, shaking his head. “What a nightmare.”

Today, at this spot where so many died in World War II, there’s a simple old Soviet memorial crumbling, halfway reclaimed by the forest. A dilapidated Soviet tank and artillery piece sit in the foliage, too. But that’s it. You have to rely on your imagination to appreciate what happened here.

There’s not a cloud in the sky and the hot breeze feels good on my face. On a day like this, it’s hard to appreciate what happened here about 77 years ago. I can hardly imagine the fear felt by Soviet soldiers as they stood at that same spot on the river shore, looking to the far side like lost souls about to cross the River Styx.

And then I remember what it was like to stare across no man’s land in eastern Ukraine. I remember the fear I felt under the Russian artillery and sniper shots. And I imagine, at least a little, what those Soviet soldiers must have felt.

The trench lines in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region — where Ukrainian troops have fought a war since 2014 to keep a Russian invasion force at bay — are only about five hours away by car. We could be there by dinner, if we wanted to.

True, we’re much too far from the trenches to hear the daily rumble of battle, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The war is always there.

Standing on the riverbank, Valeriy says to me: “History has been hard on Ukraine. But things will get better. We’re fighting for our democracy, just like your country did. And we’ll win it, too. Just like you did. I still have hope that my daughter and my grandchildren will see an amazing, free Ukraine.”

Still looking across the river, facing the same divide his great-grandfather once faced, Valeriy adds: “We’ll get there.”

The Past

Valeriy never served in Afghanistan. He was posted instead to East Germany and worked in signals intelligence, a specialty that paved the way for his future civilian career as a German language interpreter.

“It was an unwritten rule in the Soviet army that only one brother would have to be in Afghanistan at a time,” Valeriy explains. “And my brother went in my place.”

Valeriy’s older brother, Sergiy, was drafted into the Red Army and served in the war in Afghanistan from 1982 to 1984.

In fact, both brothers had volunteered for the war. But their mother had secretly gone to military officials and asked that only one son be allowed to go. Sergiy ultimately volunteered without Valeriy’s knowledge. It wasn’t until their mother died in December 2012 that Valeriy learned the truth.

Sergiy was a sergeant in a signals unit deployed near the Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The combat he experienced was terrible, Sergiy tells me, but he doesn’t go into much detail about the war very often. And when he does, his eyes adopt a distinctly distant look, as if he’s looking past me, in an attempt to articulate memories that no words could ever really recreate.

Today, both Deriy brothers live in the town of Horishni Plavi — it’s where my wife, Lilya, grew up.

On a warm June afternoon, our family gathers at a park by the Dnieper River to grill shashlik — Ukraine’s version of a barbecue. Both Sergiy and Valeriy are wearing NASA baseball caps, gifts from me and my wife.

It’s the first time we’ve all been together since the coronavirus lockdown was lifted on June 5, and we’re in good spirits. We make toast after toast until our legs are a little wobbly. We’ve brought along an iPhone speaker and grill the meat while we cycle through a playlist of staple rock hits — songs by bands like the Scorpions, Led Zeppelin, Metallica. That’s my in-laws’ favorite kind of music. Mine too.

We end up cooking more meat than we could ever hope to eat in a day. And we maintain a steady pace with the cognac toasts. And, as it’s prone to do, the conversation between Valeriy, Sergiy, and myself returns to the ongoing war in Ukraine’s east.

“The Russians were never our friends. Stalin invaded us, and now Putin has, too,” Sergiy says. “The only county that ever really cared about us was the United States.”

“We’ll never forget what your country has done for us,” he adds, speaking specifically about America’s delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.

Then Valeriy abruptly stands.

“Please,” he says, beckoning me to shake his hand, “I want to shake the hand of a citizen of the country that put a man on the moon.”

I stand and shake my father-in-law’s hand and feel proud of my country. And I’m particularly proud that he’s proud of my county, too.

A generation ago, we would have been enemies. Our countries were poised at opposite ends of the earth, ready to unleash nuclear Armageddon to destroy one another.

Today, we are a family.

No One Forgets

Located on the east bank of the Dnieper River, roughly 190 miles southeast of Kyiv, Horishni Plavni was founded by Soviet youth volunteers in 1960 as a place to live for workers in the nearby iron-ore mines.

Originally, the city’s name was “Komsomolsk,” a reference to the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, or “Komsomol.” The town was renamed Horishni Plavni in 2016 as part of Ukraine’s decommunization laws—a set of measures that went into effect in 2015 to curb Russia’s cultural influence.

Across the country, all Soviet-era names of settlements and roads have been changed to new Ukrainian ones. All reminders and relics of the Soviet Union have been removed or made illegal — including playing the Soviet national anthem and displays of the hammer and sickle flag.

Horishni Plavni’s main thoroughfare was once called Lenin Street. Now it’s named Heroes of the Dnieper River Street. The statue of Vladimir Lenin that once stood in the city center is gone. Only an empty pedestal remains — a common sight in Ukraine these days.

Yet you can’t totally erase the past. World War II is too deeply ingrained in Ukraine’s national psyche, and its physical environment, to ever be forgotten.

Soviet-era war memorials still stand around Horishni Plavni. At a riverside park, children play on the marble ramps of a towering, Soviet-era war memorial. In a nearby field, a row of Soviet tanks are on permanent display. Teenagers sit in the shade of the turrets and drink beer and listen to music.

Despite all their years living under Soviet propaganda, my father-in-law and uncle-in-law have a surprisingly pro-American perspective on the war.

“The Soviet Union could have never won without American help under lend-lease,” Valeriy tells me, referring to the American policy from 1941 to 1945 to provide materiel assistance to the Soviet Union’s war effort.

“And thank God the Allies landed in France,” Valeriy adds. “Otherwise Stalin would have taken over all of Europe.”

No War Ever Ends

After our shashlik picnic is over, Sergiy visits his brother’s apartment, where my wife and I are staying. He brings with him a photo album from his time in the Soviet army, including his deployment to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

I’m thrilled to have a look and listen to his stories from the war.

Sergiy recalls how his commander in Afghanistan justified the Soviet war by the need to defend the Soviet Union from U.S. nuclear missile strikes.

“We were told that America was evil, and that we were fighting in Afghanistan to defend the world from America,” Sergiy tells me. “It was all a lie, of course.”

Incredibly, Sergiy bears no ill will toward the country — my country — that was responsible for the death of many of his comrades.

“The Soviet Union did the same to America in Vietnam,” Sergiy says of America’s covert effort from 1979 to 1989 to arm and finance Afghanistan’s mujahideen fighters to fight against the Soviets. “It was the Cold War, and we were enemies. And that’s what enemies do to each other.”

Now, Sergiy has welcomed me — an American veteran of another war in Afghanistan — into his family with open arms. More than that, I’d even say that Sergiy and I share a special bond because we share a common battlefield. We remember the same places, and in some cases, the same enemies. Sometimes, as I’ve learned, former enemies actually have more in common with each other than they do with their fellow citizens who know nothing about war.

As he goes through the old photos, Sergiy’s face flashes with various contradictory emotions. Pride and pain. Nostalgia and regret. For Sergiy, war was both the worst and the best experience of his life. Therein lies that great paradox that faces all soldiers who’ve home to live in peace.

If war was so terrible, why do we sometimes miss it?

Sergiy, for his part, remembers his friends from the army fondly. But there’s a dark cloud, too, that hangs over every good memory.

“The Soviet Union lied to me. They lied to all of us,” Sergiy says as he flips through the photo album’s pages.

He pinches his lips and slowly shakes his head.

“They wasted so many lives,” he adds.

Soldiers rarely fight for the reasons dictated to them by the governments that send them to battle. Rather, once the bullets start flying, a simple sense of duty to defend one’s friends, and to not disappoint their expectations, is what inspires one to act courageously.

Yet, once soldiers are separated from their wars for a while — either by time or by distance — the moral clarity of duty may erode, leading them to question the justice of their individual actions in combat. The simple kill-or-be-killed morality of combat no longer shields them from thoughtfully considering the consequences of the things they did in war.

In many ways, life in peace is much more complicated than life in war. That was certainly true for my uncle-in-law. Although Sergiy came through the war in Afghanistan physically unscathed, he was left irrevocably jaded about Soviet communism.

Hope

In 1985, just a year after his discharge from the Soviet Army, Sergiy began law studies at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukraine’s premier university.

“I felt so at peace. Finally, no war, no suffering. Only a bright future,” Sergiy recalls of his arrival in Ukraine’s capital city to begin his studies.

But it didn’t last. In April 1986, an explosion ripped through reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The Chernobyl plant is located only about 60 miles north of Kyiv. And so, spooked by the threat of radiation, Sergiy was unsure whether he should stay in Kyiv to finish his law degree. The reborn optimism and happiness he’d felt just a year earlier, fresh from his wartime service, quickly gave way to feelings remembered from the war — dark feelings that he’d wanted to forget forever.

“When I was in Afghanistan, I always felt like death was chasing me,” Sergiy remembers. “And when I came back to Ukraine, I thought I could be free from that fixation on death. But Chernobyl happened, and here death finally caught me. A long and painful death. I remember I said to myself, ‘How ironic, death didn’t catch me in the war, but it did in civilian life.'”

Sergiy ultimately stayed in Kyiv to finish his law degree. After graduating from law school in 1991, he returned to his hometown of Horishni Plavni (then called Komsomolsk). The Soviet Union broke apart that year, further upending his world.

When Ukraine’s economy subsequently collapsed in the 1990s, Sergiy ultimately abandoned his law career and took up work as a hired hand. It was his only option to make a living. He never went back to practicing law.

My uncle-in-law, who is a devoutly religious man, has struggled with his demons from Afghanistan. And his family life has had its ups and downs. But he’s never given up hope for his country, even as Ukraine has gone through revolutions and an unfinished war to finally free itself from Russian overlordship.

“I try to stay positive, despite everything that’s happened to our country,” Sergiy says. “It would be so wrong not to believe in our future. I always have hope. It’s just a matter of time. Our future generations will be truly happy and free.”

Moral Courage

As young men, Soviet propaganda told Valeriy and Sergiy that America was their mortal enemy. Yet, as older men, they’ve both shown the remarkable moral courage to abandon their former worldviews and embrace the promise of democracy.

Above all else, Valeriy and Sergiy now believe in the justice of freedom and democracy rather than conformity and communism. And the two Red Army veterans wholeheartedly believe that the United States is a force for good and a beacon of hope for freedom-loving people around the world.

It’s true that history hasn’t been kind to Ukraine, and my in-laws have not led easy lives.

Yet in spite of everything, their faith in America remains unbroken. And, with America’s promise lighting the way, they still extoll the justice of their own country’s democratic path, no matter its attendant hardships.

In the end, they choose to reject their Soviet past but not forget it. When the work of building a democracy gets tough, as it so often does, they look to the past to remember what they’re working so hard to achieve.

“Democracy hasn’t been easy, but I’d rather live as a free man than go back to the way things were before,” my father-in-law says.

Freedom, after all, usually means more to people who’ve experienced the alternative.

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.

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