5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars

In the past few years, dozens of veteran and civilian Americans left the comfort and safety of their homes to tackle what they saw as an unspeakable evil growing from the Middle East — the Islamic State. A new television documentary series from History followed those Americans as they fought with Kurdish fighters in Syria. The show pulls no punches in showing what combat looks like on the front lines of the fight against the world’s most ruthless terrorists.

You can catch Hunting ISIS every Tuesday at 11pm on History but read on and learn about how and why Americans fought the good fight long before their country was ready.”I heard the stories, I knew that ISIS was evil,” says PJ, a Marine Corps vet who served in Iraq. “But you can never understand the brutality that they’re capable of until you see it with your own eyes… Most people in America aren’t able or willing to come over here,” he says. “And for them, I will carry what weight I can.”


The group that came to be dubbed ISIS by Americans came to global recognition in 2014 while capitalizing on power vacuums in Iraq and Syria. The group managed to capture large swaths of both countries. In Iraq, ISIS captured most of Fallujah, took the provincial capital of Mosul, and even approached the outskirts of Baghdad.

 

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
The ISIS terror state at the height of power in 2014.

(UnderstandingWar.org)

In Syria, ISIS occupied most of the country’s eastern half, basing out of the group’s de facto capital, Raqqa. At the height of its power in 2014, the would-be terrorist state controlled the lives of some 10 million people. What was most horrifying about life under ISIS control was not only the restrictions on personal freedoms for those 10 million people, but the punishments for breaking ISIS law, executions of political prisoners and POWs, and the genocides committed against “apostate” ethnic groups, especially Yazidis.

Horrified by the ongoing violence, many American veterans of the war in Iraq were inspired by the dogged resistance of the Kurdish Peshmerga as they fought to push back the dark tide of ISIS’ brand of Islamic extremism. The Peshmerga has long been the most effective fighting force in the region and a natural U.S. ally against ISIS.

Long before that alliance was solidified, and long before other regional powers, like Iran and Russia, decided to intervene in the two countries, some American veterans decided to travel to Iraq and join that fight alongside the region’s only remaining stand against terrorist domination. For them, they would be fighting the good fight and doing the right thing against the wishes of the U.S. government and military. They fight unpaid and unsanctioned. Worst of all, they face jail time if they’re caught by Americans — execution if they’re caught by the enemy.

“This battlefield called out to me personally, being that I have blood, sweat, and tears on that sand,” says PJ. “How many of my brothers lost their lives fighting those scumbags in Iraq? And now here they are from Raqqa to Mosul… we can stop this if we stand together.”

But the Islamic State isn’t the only evil Americans fought before their country was ready.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
Members of the Lafayette Escadrille pose in front of their Nieuport fighters at the airfield in Verdun, France circa 1917.

1. World War I – Lafayette Escadrille

Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, a French general who was instrumental in the success of the American Revolution, the Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron of American airmen who volunteered to fight for the French against Germany in the first world war in 1916 – almost a full year before the United States entered the war on the side of the Entente.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
American volunteers Merian C. Cooper and Cedric Fauntleroy, fighting in the Polish Air Force. The Soviets placed a large bounty on Cooper’s head.

 

2. Kosciuszko Squadron – Polish-Soviet War

For three years, Poland fought Soviet Russia for control of parts of Eastern Poland and Ukraine. American volunteers, wary of the spread of Communism to the West, volunteered for the Polish Air Forces against the Soviets with notable successes — the Soviets put half-million ruble bounty on one aviator’s head. One Polish general said of the Americans,

“The American pilots, though exhausted, fight tenaciously. During the last offensive, their commander attacked enemy formations from the rear, raining machine-gun bullets down on their heads. Without the American pilots’ help, we would long ago have been done for.”

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
Tom Mooney Company from the Lincoln Battalion. Jarama, Spain circa 1937.

 

3. Lincoln Battalion – Spanish Civil War

Fascism was the true enemy in Spain, where those loyal to the democratic Second Spanish Republic fought Francisco Franco’s nationalism for three years before their defeat in 1939. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were among the countries who officially supported the Nationalists, while the Soviet Union supported the left-leaning Republicans. Meanwhile, Britain and the U.S. officially stayed out of the fighting.

Many, many volunteers poured in from all over the world to fight for the Republican army in the International Brigades. For the Americans, they joined what was known as the Abraham Lincoln brigades, an amalgamation of English-speaking British and American volunteers.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
American pilots of No 71 ‘Eagle’ Squadron rush to their Hawker Hurricanes at Kirton-in-Lindsey, March 1941.

 

4. Eagle Squadrons – The Battle of Britain

The early days of World War II were dark days for the British. The threat of Nazi invasion loomed large over the whole of the island. We know today that they were relatively safe across the English Channel, but they hardly thought so back then. But after the seeds of our “special relationship” with the United Kingdom were sown in World War I, many Americans eschewed American neutrality to join the RAF in giving Jerry a black eye.

Those men would join the RAF’s three Eagle Squadrons. The first was formed in September 1940 and fought with the British until their units were transferred to the U.S. 8th Air Force in 1942.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars

5. The Flying Tigers – WWII China

A truly joint operation, the Flying Tigers were formed from a bold group of Army, Navy, and Marine Corps airmen and placed under the command of a retired American general attached to the Chinese Air Force. Three squadrons of 90 aircraft trained in Burma well before the U.S. entry to World War II. So, when their first combat mission came calling just 12 days after the attack at Pearl Harbor, they were more than ready.

When the U.S. came to take them back, they were made part of the U.S. Army’s 14th Air Force – the 23rd Fighter Group. The 23rd still flies planes with shark teeth nose art on their A-10 fleet, an homage to the P-40 Warhawks flown by the Flying Tigers.

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Welcoming home Vietnam War veterans 45 years later

In March of 1965, the first U.S. troops entered the jungle-filled country of Vietnam. This would begin America’s involvement in one of the most controversial wars in the nation’s history. While the service members were facing new dangers around every turn, the environment back home was growing increasingly hostile. As more of the population grew to protest the war, it became evident that the military members fighting in the jungles of Vietnam were quickly becoming public enemy number one.


By March of 1973, with the war coming to an end, demonstrations in the States began to die down. However, disillusionment with the war was as widespread as ever. The troops were withdrawing from Vietnam, but there was no warm welcome and appreciation waiting for them as they arrived home. The World War II era of celebration as troops returned to U.S. soil had passed, and the troops of the Vietnam era were met with nothing more than disdain, anger and protest.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars

These war veterans were thrown back into “normal” life without ceremony and with little to no assistance to help them adjust to life after war. This combined with the anger of the American people led many of these service members to turn to addiction and worse to cope with their inability to adjust back to civilian life. Others adjusted well enough, but went on to live their lives without the pride of their fellow veterans, always knowing deep down that their service was seen with disdain as opposed to gratitude. Even decades later, those who served in Vietnam were ignored or seen with the same contempt they were met with when they arrived home.

It wasn’t until 2007 when the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War was being observed that the movement to give Vietnam Veterans the acknowledgment they deserve truly took form. It was then that Congress authorized a program to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that Vietnam Veterans Day was officially established to be celebrated every year on March 29. This enactment states that the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War should be commemorated through 2025, thus ensuring that Vietnam Veterans Day will be observed at least through that time.

Along with establishing a specific day to acknowledge these veterans, there has been a movement across the country to give Vietnam Veterans the welcome home they never received 45 years ago. This movement encourages Americans to thank a Vietnam Veteran, shake their hand, and tell them, ‘Welcome home,’ when they meet them. Each of these veterans sacrificed something in those jungles many decades ago. Many sacrificed everything — while over there, or after they returned home. It is long overdue that those men are given the welcome home and the gratitude they deserve.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars

They didn’t choose to enter that war, or trek through those jungles. Many of them didn’t even choose to be in the military in the first place, their choice was taken away from them when they were drafted. However, they did their duty. They fought the war. And they faced contempt when they arrived home, living with it for decades since.

This Vietnam Veterans Day, and every day, take the time to thank a Vietnam Veteran. Take a moment to shake their hand, thank them for their service and welcome them home. It’s a small gesture, but to them it means more than anyone could possibly know. For them, 45 years later, they are finally gaining the acknowledgement and gratitude they should have received the day they stepped foot back on U.S. soil.

To each and every Vietnam Veteran: Welcome Home.

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The founder of Delta Force was almost impossible to kill

In 1952, the Green Bay Packers drafted “Chargin’ Charlie” Beckwith from the University of Georgia. But seeing as how the Korean War was already in its second year, Chargin’ Charlie declined the offer for a different green uniform.


Commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, Charles Beckwith served a few years on the Korean Peninsula, in war and later peacetime. It was after Korea that he joined the 82d Airborne, and later, U.S. Army Special Forces.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
Col. Charles Beckwith toward the end of his career.

Beckwith’s first mission was to train the Royal Lao Army in 1960 but his mission to deploy with British SAS to Malaysia as they fought a Communist insurgency is one that forever changed military history.

It was there that Beckwith came down with a mean case of Leptospirosis — a bacterial infection that causes kidney failure and pulmonary hemorrhaging. Doctors did not expect Beckwith to survive.

In fact, they called it one of the three worst cases they’d ever seen. Beckwith was given three weeks to live — and he did.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
The British SAS patrol during Malayan insurgency.

He survived the infection and his time with the Special Air Service inspired him to develop the American Army’s version of such an elite unit. In 1963, he formed the specialty unit code-name Project Delta, personally selecting the men best suited to conduct long-range recon operations in Vietnam.

But his time in Delta — and on Earth — was nearly cut short in Vietnam in 1966. Beckwith was shot in his abdomen with a .50-caliber round. He was taped up, but essentially left for dead.

But death still didn’t come.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
A MACV Special Operation group in Vietnam circa 1969.

Beckwith not only recovered, he continued with his military career, fighting in a series of battles from the Tet Offensive in 1968 until the end of the war in 1973.

It was in the mid-70s that Beckwith’s elite unit idea finally became a full reality. He was given the authority and formed the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta in 1977. The new elite unit focused on anti-terror and hostage recovery ops, based on the model of the British SAS.

Unfortunately for Beckwith and Delta, their first mission was Operation Eagle Claw, the doomed hostage rescue of Americans held in Iran. After the catastrophic failure of Eagle Claw, Beckwith retired from the Army.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How Afghanistan got its bizarre panhandle

For a country that hasn’t been conquered since Tamerlane rolled through, Afghanistan has sure been shaped by all those who tried to control it. Today, there’s even a little strip of land in the country’s northeast that forms a panhandle – strange for such a small strip considering the major powers who fought for control of the area.


5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
Good luck getting there.

It was those major powers who created the panhandle in the first place. Today it borders China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. But during a period of time in Afghan history known as “The Great Game,” those countries were parts of China, the Russian Empire, and the British Empire, respectively.

It was Britain’s way of containing a quickly-growing Russia.

A treaty between Russia and Great Britain in 1873 made the Panj and Pamir Rivers the border between the Russian Empire and Afghanistan’s northern border. In 1893, the Durand Line became Afghanistan’s border with British India. A mostly independent Afghanistan was a buffer zone between the two growing empires.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
The red line through the center represents the British-imposed Durand Line.

The resulting narrow strip of land became known as the Wakhan Corridor.

It’s an area even more ungovernable than the rest of Afghanistan. At elevations as high as 17,000 feet in some areas, the area is inaccessible to most Afghans – and even the Taliban and the Soviet Union were unable (or unwilling) to fully move into the area.

The form of Islam practiced in the Wakhan is very hostile to the Taliban, a further explanation of the lack of central interference from Kabul.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
A valley in the Wakhan Corridor.

The 3,500-mile area used to be a route along the Silk Road and was traversed by great historical figures like Alexander the Great and Marco Polo. People there still depend on trade, but this remote part of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province sees little in the way of tourists or even Afghan visitors.

Today the area has few roads, no government, and is home to roughly 12,000 nomadic and semi-nomadic people.

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Meet the intelligence officer who urged Nimitz to kill Yamamoto

If you’ve seen the 1960 classic, The Gallant Hours, starring James Cagney as Admiral William F. Halsey, then you saw a very dramatized version of how the United States Navy got the information that would eventually lead to the demise of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. But Hollywood blockbusters have a way of twisting history for the sake of entertainment.


In the movie, Capt. Frank Enright, an intelligence officer, passes on the information to Halsey who then flies to Guadalcanal, where he gives the command to Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. Lanphier would later bring justice to Isoroku Yamamoto in the skies over the island of Bougainville.

Historically, Halsey didn’t get the information about what would be Yamamoto’s last flight directly from the officer who recommended the mission. In fact, the officer who urged the mission to go ahead was in Pearl Harbor, right by the side of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. That officer was Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
Edwin T. Layton, the intelligence officer who recommended that Yamamoto be taken out. (U.S. Navy photo)

 

In his memoirs, “And I Was There,” Layton related his service as a naval attache in Tokyo prior to the war. He was one of a number of officers fluent in Japanese — the most notable of the others being Joe Rochefort, best known as the officer who saved Midway. Layton had been assigned as the chief intelligence officer for the Pacific Fleet in 1940 and witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nimitz chose to retain Layton, who would be the one officer Nimitz kept by his side throughout the war.

By April of 1943, Rochefort had been sidelined from code-breaking by jealous Washington bureaucrats, but Layton was still at Pearl Harbor when the message with Yamamoto’s itinerary was decoded. Having met Yamamoto a number of times in Japan (he had even played cards with him), Layton had a knowledge of the Japanese commander. He told Nimitz,

“Aside from the Emperor, probably no man in Japan is so important to civilian morale. And if he’s shot down, it would demoralize the fighting Navy.”

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
Painting depicting the moment that Capt. Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. shot down the Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” carrying Isoroku Yamamoto (USAF photo)

 

The rest, as they say, is history. Eighteen P-38s were slated to carry out the mission of intercepting the Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers carrying Yamamoto and his staff. Two of the P-38s had to turn back. The rest tangled with Japanese forces, gunning for aircraft containing the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack. Capt. Thomas G. Lanphier landed the shot that ended Yamamoto.

After World War II, Layton served in the Navy until 1959, taking up his position as chief intelligence officer during the Korean War. He died in 1984, before his memoirs were published. Even though Layton played a crucial, yet unheralded role in America’s victory over Japan, no ship has been named in his honor.

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Unexploded German WWII bomb found in British port

Germany dropped a lot of bombs on England (not to mention the rest of the United Kingdom) during World War II. Not all of them exploded – and unexploded ordnance, or UXO, has been an ongoing issue.


According to a report by NavalToday.com, war’s gift that keeps on giving turned up in Portsmouth, England. This is where the Royal Navy is planning to base the 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
The Royal Navy’s largest ever warship HMS Queen Elizabeth is gently floated out of her dock for the first time in Rosyth, Scotland in July 2014. (Photo from U.K. MOD)

The report said that the German SC250 bomb, which weighed 500 pounds and had 290 pounds of high explosive, was discovered while dredging was underway as part of a program to improve the Royal Navy base’s infrastructure. The London Guardian reported on a past UXO find in Portsmouth in November that was rendered safe in a controlled detonation. The Guardian report also mentioned a bomb discovered in September.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians work with local law enforcement bomb squad members to transport Civil War cannonballs washed ashore from Hurricane Matthew to a safe location at Folly Beach, S.C., Oct. 9, 2016. After the discovery of ordnance on the beach, local law enforcement and Air Force personnel worked together to properly dispose of the hazards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sean Carnes)

UXO has been a long-running problem after wars. In fact, last October saw EOD personnel in the United States tasked to deal with Civil War cannonballs that were unearthed by Hurricane Matthew. UXO from World War I and World War II has been very common in Europe, including poison gas shells.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
U.S. Marines with Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) platoon, Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBRIF) participate in a final training exercise with Fire Department of New York (FDNY) responding to and deactivating a notional explosive threat found at a steam plant on Randall’s Island, N.Y., Sept. 15, 2016. (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Maverick S. Mejia)

In 2009, a U.S. Navy release reported that a number of leftover mines and a British torpedo from World War II were discovered during a mine countermeasures exercise during that year’s BALTOPS. Three years later, during that same exercise, an unexploded aerial bomb was discovered according to another U.S. Navy release.

A 2011 Navy release estimates that in the Baltic Sea alone, there are over 200,000 pieces of UXO from not only conflicts, but training exercises dating back to the Russian Revolution.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Britain unveils drone that will protect vulnerable warships

Britain’s Ministry of Defence has announced the successful testing of a new kit that turns small combat boats into drones that can protect larger warships, warning them of drones, small enemy vessels, and shore defenses, among other threats.


The British Royal Navy attached a kit to the Pacific 24 rigid inflatable boat. The resulting Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed was 13 meters, or 43 feet, in length, so it is known as MAST-13. Because Britain likes to name their things simply.

The MAST-13 was demonstrated at the Defence and Security Equipment International Conference on September 10 in London as senior members of the British defense community looked on. The MAST-13 was tasked with protecting the HMS Argyll in the London Docklands. The MAST-13 detected threats on the riverbed and transmitted them back to Argyll.

“MAST-13 is pioneering the future of Unmanned Surface Vehicles for our world-leading navy,” said U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. “The development of unmanned technology is vital for success in modern warfare, going beyond the capability of traditional ships to attack and defend in uncertain environments.

“As more advanced technology and new threats continue to evolve, collaborative technology development ensures we are constantly pushing the boundaries to give our armed forces the best capabilities possible,” he continued.

Britain is investing heavily in protecting large ships as its navy has constructed new carriers that it can ill-afford to lose. This makes force protection a key mission for the Royal Navy moving forward, and the MAST-13 could be perfect for that mission.

In addition, the Royal Navy expects to use the program in anti-piracy and border control operations.

The technological developments necessary for MAST-13 fall under Britain’s NavyX program to develop autonomous vessels. The Programme Director for NavyX, Royal Navy Commander Sean Trevethan, said, “Ultimately this will change the way we fight, through integrated command and control, and lead to the development of new tactics, techniques, and procedures.”

He also said, “This is much more than an autonomous surface vessel demonstration for the Royal Navy. What we are doing is the first step of exploiting system architecture in a complex warship to integrate an unmanned system into the ship.”

Vessels like the MAST-13 would be highly valued in the potential, but still unlikely, war with Iran. Iran has historically put pressure on the international community by restricting movement through the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian territory dominates the narrow waterway.

The MAST-13 could help larger ships moving through the strait avoid mines and other threats in the case of open conflict.

BAE Systems, the company which makes the PAC24 RIB, has also created an autonomous system for the Pacific 950 RIB.

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3 heroes who became POWs twice

There is no easy time to be a prisoner of war.


The United States military’s code of conduct implores captured service members to continue to resist by any means possible. This often means reprisals from one’s captors. Therefore, surviving one stint in a POW camp can be excruciating.

To do it twice is unimaginable — except these three American servicemen did it.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
The United States Code of Conduct is memorized by service members to act as a touchstone and a guide if captured. (Department of Defense)

1. Wendall A. Phillips

Phillips was assigned to the Air Transport Command as a radio operator on C-47 aircraft flying from bases in England.

While in Europe Phillips survived five separate crashes. During the last one, in late 1944, his aircraft was shot down. Though he walked away from the crash, he was unable to evade the Germans and was captured.

He and his fellow crewmembers were taken to a German POW camp in Belgium.

Phillips had no intention of sticking around though. After just 33 days Phillips and two other POW’s made a break for it.

Also read: Bob Hoover stole a Nazi plane to escape from a POW camp

Phillips simply snuck away while no guards were around. Finding a hole in the electric fence around the camp, Phillips and the other two men made good their escape and quickly found a place to hide.

Phillips travelled for three days before he linked up with the French Underground. The resistance fighters helped Phillips make it back to American lines.

After returning to American forces, Phillips was reassigned to the China-India-Burma Theater flying “the Hump” to bring supplies to forces fighting the Japanese.

Once again, Phillips’ airplane crashed and he was captured by the enemy.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
POWs at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel in Germany welcome their liberators, April 16, 1945. (Imperial War Museum Photo)

According to an article in The Morning Call, Phillips endured torture at the hands of the Japanese — they even forcibly removed his fingernails trying to get information out of him.

Phillips would not escape this time but he would survive his ordeal as a POW; he was released with the Japanese surrender in 1945.

2. Felix J. McCool

When Gen. Wainwright conveyed the American surrender in the Philippines to President Roosevelt, he said, “there is a limit to human endurance, and that limit has long since been passed.” But Gen. Wainwright was certainly not speaking for one Marine sergeant, Felix J. McCool.

McCool was still recovering from wounds he had received earlier in resisting the Japanese when he, the 4th Marine Regiment, and the rest of the defenders of Corregidor were rounded up and shipped off to internment.

Just getting there was bad enough as the captives were crammed into cattle cars so tightly that when men passed out or died they could not even fall down.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
POWs in the Pacific Theater endured horrific conditions. Pictured here are men on the Bataan Death March with their hands bound behind their backs; later this would be labeled as a Japanese War Crime. (U.S. National Archives)

But for McCool, being a Marine meant that he was not out of the fight. He did everything in his power to resist his Japanese captors.

While working as forced labor on an airfield McCool and his fellow prisoners created a tiger trap on the runway — they later watched as a Japanese airplane crashed and burned due to their handiwork.  

McCool also managed to smuggle in medical supplies to help the sick and wounded.

He did this despite the constant threat of beatings and even summary execution. He carried on despite the horrendous conditions in the camp.

But there was worse to come.

McCool next endured a brutal voyage to Japan aboard a Japanese prisoner transport vessel, known as a “hell ship.” McCool survived the hellacious conditions only to be put to work in an underground coal mine. There he continued his resistance by sabotaging the work and keeping the faith with his fellow prisoners.

After thirteen months in the coal mine, McCool was freed by the ending of the war in the Pacific.

He returned to the United States and decided to stay in the Marine Corps. Then in 1950, now a Chief Warrant Officer, he found himself fighting the North Koreans.

McCool became part of the fateful Task Force Drysdale, an ad hoc, mixed-nationality unit that was attempting to fight its way toward the beleaguered Marines fighting at the Chosin Reservoir. When the task force was ambushed and separated along the roadway to Hagaru-ri, McCool was once again taken prisoner.

McCool and his fellow captives were marched far north through brutal cold with no rations. Once in their internment camp, the conditions hardly improved. Besides the brutal treatment, the men were also subjected to communist indoctrination and propaganda.

Related: The day we saved 2,147 prisoners from Los Baños Prison

McCool’s resistance earned him the ire of his captors and they threw him in the Hole — a barely three foot square hole in the ground. But he endured.

McCool was repatriated with many other Americans during Operation Big Switch after the end of hostilities.

According to his award citations, McCool spent over six years as a prisoner of war between his two internments.

He later wrote a book about his experiences and the poetry that he wrote to keep himself going during those terrible times.

3. Richard Keirn

Richard Keirn was a young flight officer on a B-17 when he arrived in England in 1944. On Sept. 11, 1944, he took to the skies in his first mission to bomb Nazi Germany. It would also be his last.

Keirn’s B-17 was shot down that day and he became a POW for the remainder of the war. Released in May 1945 after the defeat of Germany, Keirn returned to the United States and stayed in the military. He became a part of the newly formed U.S. Air Force.

In 1965, Keirn embarked for Vietnam, flying F-4 Phantom II’s.

Then on July 24, 1965, North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles engaged and shot down an American aircraft for the first time. That aircraft was piloted by Capt. Richard Keirn.

Keirn ejected from his stricken aircraft and would spend nearly eight years as a POW in North Vietnam.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
Newly freed prisoners of war celebrate as their C-141A aircraft lifts off from Hanoi, North Vietnam, on Feb. 12, 1973, during Operation Homecoming. The mission included 54 C-141 flights between Feb. 12 and April 4, 1973, returning 591 POWs to American soil. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Keirn, like many of his fellow POWs, made every effort to resist the North Vietnamese. For his actions as a POW, he was awarded a Silver Star and a Legion of Merit.

Keirn was released from captivity with many other downed airmen as part of Operation Homecoming in 1973.

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This is the only Seabee to receive the Medal of Honor

In their 75 years building, fighting and serving on every continent – even Antarctica – only one Navy Seabee has been bestowed with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.


Marvin G. Shields was a third-class construction mechanic with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11 and assigned to a nine-member Seabee team at a small camp near Dong Xoai, Vietnam. The camp housed Army Green Berets with 5th Special Forces Group, who were advising a force of Vietnamese soldiers including 400 local Montagnards.

Shields, then 25, who enlisted in 1962, was killed in an intense 1965 battle in Vietnam. His actions under fire led to the posthumous medal, awarded in 1966, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”

So far he is the only Seabee to receive the Medal of Honor.

On June 10, 1965, Dong Xoai came under heavy fire from a regimental-sized Viet Cong force, who pummeled the camp with machine guns and heavy weapons. The initial attack wounded Shields but didn’t stop him.

“Shields continued to resupply his fellow Americans who needed ammunition and to return the enemy fire for a period of approximately three hours, at which time the Viet Cong launched a massive attack at close range with flame-throwers, hand grenades and small-arms fire,” his award citation states. “Wounded a second time during this attack, Shields nevertheless assisted in carrying a more critically wounded man to safety, and then resumed firing at the enemy for four more hours.”

Still, Shields kept fighting.

“When the commander asked for a volunteer to accompany him in an attempt to knock out an enemy machinegun emplacement which was endangering the lives of all personnel in the compound because of the accuracy of its fire, Shields unhesitatingly volunteered for this extremely hazardous mission,” reads the citation. “Proceeding toward their objective with a 3.5-inch rocket launcher, they succeeded in destroying the enemy machinegun emplacement, thus undoubtedly saving the lives of many of their fellow servicemen in the compound.”

But hostile fire ultimately got Shields, mortally wounding him as he was taking cover.

“His heroic initiative and great personal valor in the face of intense enemy fire sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service,” the citation states.

The five-day Battle of Dong Xoai also garnered a Medal of Honor for a junior Green Beret officer, 2nd Lt. Charles Q. Williams, who was wounded several times in the battle and survived the war.

Shields’ unit – Seabee Team 1104 – had come together just four months before the attack on their Dong Xoai camp, Frank Peterlin, the team’s officer-in-charge, recalled in a 2015 Navy news article about the Navy’s 50th commemoration of the battle and Shields’ award.

“In the evening, he [Shields] would have his guitar at his side and would love to sing and dance, especially with the Cambodian troops at our first camp,” said Peterlin, who attended the ceremony. “Marvin was always upbeat. At Dong Xoai, he was joking and encouraging his teammates throughout the battle.” Peterlin, a lieutenant junior-grade at the time, was wounded amid the fight and earned the Silver Star medal for his actions leading the men.

Shields, who was survived by his wife and young daughter, has been long remembered by Port Townsend, Washington, his hometown.

At the time of his death, the Port Townsend Leader newspaper wrote of him and his service: “A 1958 graduate of Port Townsend High School, Shields was one of the first employees on the Mineral Basin in Mining Development at Hyder, Alaska, when the locally organized project was initiated there by Walt Moa of Discovery Bay. He worked at Mineral Basin during the summer before graduating from school and returned there as a full time construction worker in 1958. He was called into the Navy early in 1962, and was due to be discharged in January.”

The Navy honored his memory with a frigate in his name (retired in 1992). The official U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, California, has a large display about him its Hall of Heroes. Navy Seabees have never forgotten Shields, who is buried in Gardiner, Washington. Inscribed on his black-granite headstone is this: “He died as he lived, for his friends.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

The first clash of iron fleets was in 1866, and it was weird

In 1862, the Merrimack and the Monitor fought the famous naval battle at Hampton Roads where ships with iron armor fought each other for the first time. That clash is often cited as one of the moments where warfare changed overnight. Suddenly, it was clear that most cannons couldn’t penetrate iron hulls, and so every navy rushed to armor their hulls.


Just four years later, two fleets of wooden and iron-hulled boats clashed in the waters near Venice, and this first clash of iron fleets got weird, fast.

The Battle of Lissa was fought near an island of the same name in the Adriatic Sea, sometimes known as Vis, its Croatian name. A large Italian fleet of about 26 ships, including 13 ironclads, faced off against about 26 Austrian ships, but only seven Austrian ships were ironclads.

But the ironclad numbers weren’t the end of the Italian advantage. The ships that took part were powered by a mix of sail and steam. Like, each ship used both. Some ships were predominantly steam-powered but had sails to make them more efficient on long voyages, and some were sail-powered with small steam engines and paddles to help them quickly turn in combat. The ships predominantly powered by steam were generally more effective in combat, and Italy had a higher mix of those. And the Italian ships were generally larger, as well.

But most importantly, the Italian ships had larger guns and more rifled pieces. At the time, rifle-fired rounds and exploding rounds were about the only thing that could pierce iron armor. And by larger guns, we mean the largest Austrian guns were 48-pounders, and every piece of Italian naval artillery was larger.

So, the Italian ships were larger, better armed and armored, and technologically advanced. Guess the Italians won. Cool. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

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The Austrian wooden battleship Kaiser rams an Italian ironclad in the Battle. The ship left its figurehead behind after the clash.

(Eduard Nezbeda)

Except, nope, just wait. Italy sent ships to capture the island of Lissa from an Austrian garrison on July 16, 1866. This assault was repelled, and the Italian ships returned on the night of July 19 to try again. The next morning, July 20, 1866, was rainy and the waters were covered in mist.

But the Italian fleet used the weather as a cover for their coming bombardment and landings right up until a dispatch vessel ran back to elements of the fleet with news that Austrian ships had reached the island. The Italian fleet had been split up to bombard multiple targets and land troops. They were not properly massed for a naval battle.

The Italians were unimpressed, though, and continued to focus on landing troops. With the technological and numerical advantage, it must have seemed that they could bat away any attempts at disturbing the landings.

The sun came out a couple of hours later and burned away the mist, and the Italians had to deal with a real Austrian threat. Three groups of ships, all arranged into arrowhead formations, were bearing down on them. But while this was a threat, it would have seemed like an easily countered one.

Ships are designed with long bodies to minimize resistance and to give stability, but artillery works best when it’s deployed side-by-side with all the guns firing in support of one another. So, when one group of ships charges on another, the group firing broadsides can typically fire many more cannons than the group that is charging. So, seemingly, this would work to the Italians’ advantage.

But then the Italian admiral did something completely baffling. He changed flagships as the Austrians bore down on him. He would later claim that he did this so he would be on a faster ship that could more efficiently relay orders, but the Italian ship crews didn’t know about the change and so would look to the wrong ship for direction for most of the battle.

And then the Austrians got a second break. Their headlong charge was obscured as the naval guns opened fire and began to emit those huge clouds of smoke. The Austrian commander, Rear Adm. Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, charged through the smoke with most of his ships and suddenly realized that he had unwittingly passed through the Italian line of battle.

So the Italian fleet was receiving no clear orders from what the captains thought was the flagship, was obscured by smoke, and suddenly had an enemy literally sailing through their lines. The battle quickly descended into a tight mass of ships circling and firing on one another with little real coordination. As the smoke filled the air and everyone lost sight of nearly everything, it became tough for combatants to tell who they were supposed to fight.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars

An illustration shows Rear Adm. Wilhelm von Tegetthoff during the Battle of Lissa.

(Anton Romako)

Von Tegetthoff, though, had issued an order that worked perfectly in this insanity. Remember, Austria’s largest guns in the battle were nearly useless for firing at armor plating. The 48-pound shells that were his most powerful projectile would still need a lucky shot to seriously damage an Italian ironclad. So, von Tegetthoff had ordered his ships to ram Italian vessels whenever the opportunity arose.

And so the spinning, chaotic, smoke-filled brawl that morning was perfect for them. It softened the impact of the Italian artillery advantage, and Austrian crews began ramming everything that looked vaguely Italian.

Yeah, the first clash of iron fleets descended into a battle of naval ramming, a tactic that had lost favor in the decades prior because rammings were hard to pull off as the ships required a lot of time and space to build up speed, but easy to avoid as the targeted vessel could pull out of the way or turn so that an otherwise lethal blow would be a glancing hit instead.

In the melee of Lissa, ships of both sides rammed each other, and gun crews fired on ships that they were locked into combat with. An Austrian battleship rammed an Italian vessel and left its figurehead, a statue of the emperor, in the enemy’s iron armor. The Austrian ship even caught fire when one of its masts broke, landed on its own smokestack, and then became overheated by the exhaust.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars

The Italian ship Re d’Italia sinks at the end of the Battle of Lissa.

(Carl Frederik Sørensen)

When the ships were exchanging shells, the Italians generally got the better of the exchanges as they could lob 300-pound shells from some guns. But the Austrian proficiency at ramming claimed a greater toll.

The original Italian flagship, the Re d’Italia, became the target of multiple Austrian ships looking to capture the enemy commander and his colors. Austrian gunners managed a hit that broke its steering, limiting it to forward-back maneuver. And then the Austrian flagship, the Ferdinand Max, bore down on it for a solid ram and scored a hit amidships, punching an 18-foot-wide, 7-foot-tall hole in it with a ram mounted at the waterline.

The heavy Italian ship rolled away, rolled back, and then sank in less than two minutes as sailors and marines struggled to escape the suction of the quickly sinking iron.

The fleets disentangled themselves. The Austrian forces had lost no ships, had only one badly damaged, and had suffered almost 200 casualties including 38 killed. The Italians had lost a prized ironclad and hundreds killed. Worse, a fire was spreading on another ironclad, the Palestro. Despite heroic efforts by the crew to save the ship, including flooding its powder magazines, a separate store of shells and powder was ignited.

The ship blew up like a massive bomb, sending parts of its plating and hull high in the air. Hundreds more Italian sailors died, and the wreckage sank within minutes. Italy had lost a second ironclad, and its death toll for the battle rose to 620. Not to mention, the shores of Lissa were now safe from the threatened Italian amphibious assault.

The aftereffect of Lissa was even weirder than the battle, though. The success of rams led to new ship designs that emphasized the weapon for decades, so even in World War I modern-ish battleships and many smaller vessels still carried iron rams at the waterline. And, maybe even more surprising, the Austrian success at Lissa had become moot before it was even fought.

The Austrian Empire had been decisively defeated on land at the Battle of Königgrätz by Prussian forces on July 3. Prussian forces on the continent kept pressure on Austria for the rest of July, and the war came to an end with Prussian victory.

Germanic tribes, and their Italian allies, were allowed to consolidate their peoples into new nations separate from the Austrian Empire. That empire renamed itself the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and, 48 years later, one of its archdukes was killed while riding in a car in the town of Sarajevo, less than 130 miles northeast of Lissa.

(Today, the island is part of Croatia and is known by its name in the Croatian language, Vis.)

Articles

4 weird things armies fight over

You get into a mammoth fight with another country, and you both have to go for every advantage you can get. In some cases, that means fighting for resources that most people may not realize are all that important. While everyone knows that steel and oil can make and break campaigns, it turns out that everything from coal to fish oil to guano can be important too:


4. Coal

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
The USS Jupiter was a collier ship that carried coal for other American ships before being converted to America’s first carrier, the USS Langley. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

While it’s usually either loved or hated for its role in making electricity, coal was a major fuel source for military operations during the time of America’s Civil War until a little past World War I. Even today, it’s important for industrial processes like forming steel for tanks and ships. And in World War II, Germany exploited a 1920s discovery that allowed them to turn coal into synthetic fuel and oil.

So, that hopefully explains why the Allies and Germans launched raids against coal reserves in and around Europe, often north of the Arctic Circle. The German war machine desperately needed enough fuel to fight on multiple fronts, especially when they began losing their oil fields in North Africa and the Balkans.

3. Diamonds

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
British commandos, like these two in a photo from the St. Nazaire Raid, launched a daring mission to secure Antwerp’s diamonds before the Germans could seize them. (Photo: Public Domain)

Like coal, diamonds are valuable during war for their use in industry. Their physical strength is needed for the manufacture of important items like radar as well as the tools for manufacturing weapons and vehicles.

So, when the Third Reich launched its massive assault through the low countries, Britain sent agents to buy, steal, and capture Dutch diamonds before the Germans could. Most concentrated on buying stockpiles and accepting bags of them from Jewish traders for safekeeping, but one officer actually broke into a massive vault and made away with the jewels just as Nazi paratroopers hit the building.

2. Bat and bird crap

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
Guano mines were an important source of saltpeter for munitions production. (Photo: Public Domain)

So, this one is probably the most surprising, but large deposits of bat and bird feces were actually a huge deal from soon after the invention of gunpowder through World War I. That’s because the animals have diets filled with insects and their feces are often filled with saltpeter, one of the key ingredients for gunpowder.

And major countries fought for large crap deposits. Spain invaded Peru and fought an alliance that included Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador over the Chincha Islands in the 1860s. A Confederate regiment had to guard the deposits in Austin, Texas, for use in the Civil War. And one of Japan’s prizes in World War II was Nauru, a crap-soaked island between Hawaii and New Zealand.

1. Fish oil

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
British commandos burn fish oil facilities in the Lofoten Islands in World War II. (Photo: War Office Capt. Tennyson d’Eyncourt, Imperial War Museum)

Not the stuff you get in capsules from nature made, we’re talking about huge vats of fish fats. The chemicals in the fish fat included glycerine, a crucial propellant for modern weapons. And that high flammability turns fish oil fires into massive columns of black smoke.

In World War II, this turned Norway and other countries that relied on the fishing industry into targets for the two sides. The Germans captured Norwegian fishing villages but failed to fortify them well, so the British and Canadian militaries sent commandos to trash the facilities and burn them to the ground, robbing the Germans of needed supplies and forcing them to defend far-flung facilities.

Articles

This is the last tank airborne units jumped into combat

Airborne forces face a problem whenever they have to jump behind enemy lines — whether it’s to seize an enemy airfield or to take and hold territory.


The paratroopers can’t bring their own armor support, because America doesn’t currently have an airborne-certified tank or large armored vehicle. (The Stryker and the Light Armored Vehicle have undergone successful airdrop tests, but neither has been certified).

But it wasn’t always this way. During the Cold War, Airborne forces relied on the M551 Sheridan, an Airborne-capable light tank first fielded in 1969.

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The M551 Sheridan tank was a 16-ton tank made primarily of aluminum and employed by airborne forces. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Sheridan was a replacement for the World War II-era Mk. VII Tetrarch tank and the M22 Locust Airborne tank. The Tetrarch was a British glider-capable light tank and the M22 was an American tank custom-built for glider insertion.

The M551, unlike its predecessors, was airdrop-capable, meaning it could be inserted using parachutes instead of gliders. The tank was also used with the Low-Altitude Parachute Extraction System, an airdrop system that allowed the U.S. to drop the tanks from a few feet to a few dozen feet off the ground.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
An M551 Sheridan is pulled from the back of a C-130 by the Low-Altitude Parachute Extraction System. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The Sheridan was crewed by four people and weighed 16 tons, light enough that it could actually swim through the water. It was powered by a 300-hp diesel engine and could hit approximately 45 mph. It could travel 373 miles between fill-ups.

The tank used an experimental 152mm gun that could fire missiles or tank rounds. Even its tank rounds were experimental, though — they used a combustible casing instead of the standard brass casings.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
The M551 Sheridan tank firing a Shillelagh missile. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Sheridan served well in Vietnam and Panama. During Operation Just Cause, it was even airdropped into combat, allowing paratroopers to bring their own fire support to the battlefield.

The tank’s main gun could inflict serious damage at distances of up to 2,000 feet, allowing it to punch out enemy bunkers from outside the range of many enemy guns.

Unfortunately, the light armor of the Sheridan posed serious issues. Some Sheridans were pierced by enemy infantry’s heavy machine guns, meaning crews had to be careful even when there was no enemy armor or anti-armor on the field. Worse, the main gun started to develop a reputation as being unreliable.

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
The M551 Sheridan could be airdropped from Air Force cargo planes. Crew would follow it to the ground and get the tank up and running. (GIF: YouTube/Strength through Humility)

Firing the main gun knocked out the electronics for the longer-range missile, meaning that a tank firing on bunkers or enemy armor at close range would usually lose their ability to punch targets at long range. And there was no way to avoid this issue as the Shillelagh missile couldn’t hit targets at less than 2,400 feet.

The only way for an M551 to punch at close range was to give up its capability at long ranges.

By 1980, most cavalry units were moving to the M60 Patton Main Battle Tank, which was actually introduced before the Sheridan. The Patton featured heavier armor, more power, and a more reliable gun. It had also just been upgraded with new “Reliability Improved Selected Equipment,” or “RISE.”

5 times Americans left to fight in foreign wars
The M60 Patton, which is still in service with allied nations today, was seen as more reliable and powerful than the M551. (GIF: YouTube/arronlee33)

According to an Army history pamphlet, one cavalryman told the Stars and Stripes, “We can get the job done with the Sheridan, but most cavalrymen would rather have the tank.”

The airborne forces would keep the Sheridan through 1996, partially because they had no other options. A number of potential replacements were canceled and modern airborne forces just make do without true armored support.

The Army is, once again, looking at new light tanks or heavy-armored vehicles to support paratroopers. The new solution could be another custom-built tank, like the Sheridan. But as of summer 2016, its specifications were up in the air. It just has to be capable of an airdrop, and it has to get the job done.

WATCH

WATCH: Where do retired aircraft end up?

Ever wonder where planes go to die? After their last mission, Air Force aircraft doesn’t just disappear. They retire to Arizona. And, if they’re salvageable, the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) makes sure they get recycled. If you were to fly over the Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona, know what you’d see? The resting place of thousands of retired aircraft. Davis is nicknamed “The Boneyard” for good reason – the base houses nearly 2,600 acres of aircraft, many of them retired and disassembled.

Why Arizona?

AMARG Air Force Graveyard’s location in Arizona has very good reasons. The desert climate is perfect for storing this vast quantity of aircraft. The risk of corrosion or other damage from the elements is low.

Parked at The Boneyard are more than 4,000 aircraft. If they were still in use, this number of planes would make up the second-largest air force in the world. Pretty wild to think that they’re all just sitting at the Boneyard, aging gracefully. Some of the aircraft are full-on retired, ceremony and all. But the rest are in storage. Sometimes those aircraft get repurposed for training and other uses.

Retired Aircraft Save Taxpayers Money

The US Air Force, along with most other US government agencies, sends their retired aircraft to this Arizona location to be “recycled.” They are either disassembled for parts to use in other aircraft or sold as scrap metal.

The goal of this program is to save taxpayers money. We’ve been doing it this way since WWII. For every dollar that is spent on AMARG’s mission, almost $11 is returned to the national treasury. That’s a pretty solid return.

The Boneyard is Full of Military History

Not long after WWII ended, the surplus of aircraft around the globe was astounding. Some of them still had use for parts or scrap, while others, entire fleets even, became obsolete. Then there are also the planes that simply needed regeneration and storage until their next use. The problem was, there was nowhere to put all these aircraft. That’s when they started ferrying them over to Arizona.

Since 1962, Davis Monthan AFB has been the complete storage facility for all government aircraft. This includes Coast Guard, NASA, Border Patrol, Marine, and Navy aircraft, plus Reserve and National Guard units.

For the aircraft historian, Davis presents a bounty unlike anything else. The variety, age, and rarity of aircraft calling the Boneyard home is astounding. So many a budding historian will eventually find themselves walking the lanes, exploring the aircraft.

These days, our aircraft production isn’t nearly what it used to be. So fewer types of aircraft are produced. At some point, the Boneyard might not exist, – all the more reason for aircraft and military history buffs to get their fill in now.

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