Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

On May 9, 1941, the German U-boat U-110 was captured by the Royal Navy, and with it, a number of German cipher documents and an intact Enigma machine.

The Enigma was a brilliant piece of German enciphering machinery that allowed their military to send messages securely. The Germans were so efficient with Enigma that they even had a method for changing the cipher system daily. The device was exceptionally sophisticated, mechanically scrambling the 26 letters of the alphabet based on the daily cipher code. In order to decrypt an Enigma-encoded message, one would need both a machine and the daily cipher.

Later named “Operation Primrose,” the U-boats’ capture remained a secret for months while codebreakers at Bletchley Park got to work. Using the documents on board, they were able to crack a hand-cipher system that was used as a backup to Enigma. In other words, they had access to German messages in plain text and in cipher text, which allowed them to decrypt future messages.

Codebreakers at Bletchley Park, including the now-famous Alan Turing and fellow code-breaker Gordon Welchman, were able to use critical intelligence like that obtained from U-110 to invent a machine known as the Bombe, which automated much of the Enigma decryption work.

With this information, the Allies were able to strategically respond to Enigma-encrypted messages and deliver decisive blows to the Nazi war force.

The work of Bletchley Park, including Turing’s role there in cracking the Enigma code, remained classified until the 1970s, but it has been estimated that the work of the code-breakers shortened the war by several years and saved countless lives.

Featured Image: U-110 was captured by HM Ships Bulldog, Broadway, and Arbretia. (Royal Navy Photo)

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the real Forrest Gump was far more impressive

It’s a touching scene that even the most stoic of us will get choked up over. The titular character runs into enemy fire to save his brothers-in-arms. Without hesitation, he carries each wounded soldier to safety — all while being severely wounded.


That fantastic scene earned Forrest Gump‘s place in cinematic history. What makes this and the rest of Forrest Gump’s Army scenes so great is that they were entirely based off the career of Sgt. First Class Sammy L. Davis, to include the Medal of Honor ceremony.

Unlike Gump, Davis was an artilleryman. His fateful night began around 2AM when the enemy engaged Davis’ unit with a 30-minute barrage of mortar fire. The moment he got the all clear, he showed them what his 105mm Howitzer could do. He fired the first beehive shot and the enemy returned fire with a recoil-less rifle that hit eight inches from his head.

After recovering from an insanely close call, he grabbed his M-16 and fired on the advancing enemy. When he fired all but three rounds, he then turned back to his Howitzer to get off that beehive. The weapon had taken a heavy beating and much of the powder was scattered. But he loaded what he could find. Under normal circumstances, seven bags of powder is fine. Davis loaded nearly 21. It almost destroyed the cannon but also devastated the enemy.

The Howitzer blew up and rolled over Davis and nearly 30 fragments of the beehive were in his back. Davis, just like Gump would in the film, took the shrapnel in the buttocks. His body and his cannon were in terrible condition.

That’s when he noticed some American G.I.s on the other side of the river.

He had been shot in the leg and was partially deafened, his ribs were broken and his spine fractured, and there was still plenty of beehive in his back — yet he grabbed his Army-issued air mattress and swam to his brothers without even a second’s thought.

Surrounded by enemies, he had to sneak around with nothing but an air mattress until he found the soldier waving at him. There, he found three wounded men in a foxhole — two were ambulatory but one was shot in the head and somehow still holding on. Davis grabbed the soldier with the head wound and placed him on the mattress and the four of them headed back across to safety.

Much of the film touches on Sammy L. Davis’ life, which he openly embraces. Every military scene is based off Davis, including the scene where President Lyndon B. Johnson bestows the Medal of Honor upon Forrest Gump. That was literally Sammy Davis under Tom Hank’s CGI face. Granted, Davis is a much more eloquent speaker.

For more about Sgt. First Class Sammy L. Davis, please watch the American Legion video below.

Articles

This famous guerrilla leader captured the general hunting him

Confederate Col. John S. Mosby was one of the world’s greatest guerrilla leaders, deploying cavalry against Union forces in lightning raids. In one impressive raid, he even managed to kidnap the Union general who commanded forces sent to stop him.


The engagement took place in March 1863, when Mosby was new to his command. He and his men were interrogating prisoners when a Union deserter laid out the location of the brigade’s picket lines and other defenses.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard
John S. Mosby and his Rangers. (Photo: Public Domain)

As it turned out, the Union 2nd Vermont Brigade had moved camps, but its general decided to stay at a local doctor’s house about three miles from his closest regiment. It was the 2nd Vermont that had so often sent its cavalry forces to try and catch Mosby — and Mosby saw an opportunity to end the harassment.

Mosby created a daring plan to slip through the nearby picket lines and kidnap both Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton, the commander of 2nd Brigade, as well as the colonel who commanded the brigade’s cavalry regiment.

The Confederate forces launched their operation on the night of March 8. Mosby and 29 others followed the Union deserter through the picket lines, then cut carefully though the forest toward Fairfax Courthouse. They arrived without incident and went into action.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard
Union Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton with other Union soldiers. (Photo: Matthew Brady, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

They cut the telegraph wires and captured the operator as well as most of the guards in the area. They attempted to grab the cavalry colonel but learned that he had been called to Washington.

But the general was there — and he was woken by Mosby spanking his back.

“There was no time for ceremony, so I drew up the bedclothes, pulled up the general’s shirt, and gave him a spank on his bare back, and told him to get up,” Mosby later wrote.

As the general tried to understand what was going on, Mosby asked him, “Do you know Mosby, General?”

The General replied, “Yes! Have you got the rascal?”

“No,” said Mosby. “He’s got you!”

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard
Union Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton was captured by Confederate forces before his commission could be voted on by the Senate. (Photo: Matthew Brady, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Stoughton was captured with three other officers, a number of enlisted men, and at least 55 horses. When President Abraham Lincoln was told of the event, he supposedly said that he could always make a new brigadier general in five minutes, “but those horses cost $125 apiece!

Surprisingly, both the men of the 2nd Brigade and officers in nearby units had predicted that Stoughton would be captured if he didn’t move his headquarters, and Stoughton himself expressed concern about the thin manning of the picket lines.

The deserter stayed with Mosby’s Rangers for a year before he fell in combat.

Stoughton’s fall was, for obvious reasons, very quick. His capture was an embarrassment for the nation and his rank had not yet been confirmed by the Senate as a brigadier general. Lincoln withdrew his nomination. When Stoughton was traded back to Union lines two months later, he found that he had no military rank or position.

He left the military and died within a few years.

Mosby would go on to become a legend and survive the war. He later supported the Republican Party and was made consul to Hong Kong by President Ulysses S. Grant.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The only servicewoman killed during the Katyn Massacre in WWII

The Ukrainian Famine lasted from 1923 to 1933 and killed nearly 4 million people. Known as the Holodomor, the famine was blamed on the Poles who were subsequently targeted by Stalin and the NKVD, a precursor to the KGB. Vsevolod Balytskyim, the head of NKVD in Ukraine blamed the mass starvation of Ukrainians on the “Polish Military Organization.” Moreover, Poles accused of belonging to the PMO were also guilty of espionage. Suspected PMO members were “taken care of” by the NKVD.

On August 11, 1937, Operational Order 00485 was signed and went into effect. This anti-Polish order provided for the complete liquidation of all potential members of the PMO with a sentence of either execution or confinement in a prison camp. Because all Poles were suspected to be PMO members, the order effectively called for the elimination of the Polish people in Ukraine.

The process began with relocating captured Polish soldiers and officers to Kazakhstan. However, 15,000 of these men never made it to Kazakhstan. The Soviet government claimed that the prisoners had all escaped. It was not until February 1943 that the missing Poles were located. They had been sent to the Soviet camps of Starobelsk, Kozielsk, and Ostashkov. There, German field police stationed in Smolensk, Russia, reported that bodies were found in the ground; the missing soldiers. One of these soldiers was Lt. Janina Lewandowska, the only woman killed in what would become known as the Katyn Massacre.

Lewandowska was born into a military family in Poland. At a young age, Lewandowska discovered a love for flying and planes, achieving certificates in parachuting and gliding. She joined Poznań Flying Club as a teenager and, by the age of 20, was the first European woman to parachute from an altitude above 5km. By 1937, Lewandowska had her pilot’s license for light aircraft and joined her father, now a General, in the Polish military as an Air Force reservist.

Right before the outbreak of WWII, Lewandowska, a newly minted 2nd Lt., was drafted for service with the 3rd Military Aviation Regiment stationed near Poznań. Just over a month later, before she had the opportunity to fight in combat, her unit was captured by the Red Army and taken prisoner. She and the only other officer in her unit were transported to Kozielsk, a Soviet camp that consisted mostly of officers and high-ranking prisoners. She and the other Polish service members in the camp were executed en masse by gunshot in Spring 1940. It wasn’t until 1943, in the Katyn Forest, that German soldiers discovered the mass graves, including the body of Lewandowska.

In total, nearly 22,000 Poles were killed. Exiled in London, the Polish government requested an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross. In response, Stalin severed diplomatic ties with the Polish government and accused the Nazis of the atrocities. It was not until 1990 that the Soviet government acknowledged the massacre and cover-up.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard
Lt. Lewandowska in her flight gear (Public Domain)

Lewandowska’s body was finally recovered and laid to rest in her family plot in 2005.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima doesn’t have a grave

When Paul Tibbets died in January 2007, he had been retired from the Air Force since 1966. He was never forgotten, however, and never would be. He was the man who dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat against an enemy city. But instead of being interred at home or at Arlington National Cemetery with all his brothers in arms, he was cremated and his ashes spread across the English Channel.


Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Tibbets in his later years.

It wasn’t that Tibbets wasn’t proud of his service. At the time of the Hiroshima bombing, he was one of the youngest, but most experienced pilots in the Army Air Forces. He proudly named his airplane Enola Gay after his beloved mother. He even re-enacted the bombing in a B-29 during a 1976 Texas air show and denounced the Smithsonian’s exhibition of the actual plane when it debuted because of the exhibition’s focus on the suffering of the Japanese people, and not the brutality of the Japanese military.

His family was also a proud military family. His grandson is an Air Force Academy graduate who came up flying B-2 Spirit bombers. But when he died at age 92, he requested cremation with no headstone – and no funeral, military honors or not.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Paul Tibbets Jr., left, and his grandson, then-Capt. Paul Tibbets IV, fly the last flyable B-29 Superfortress, ‘Fifi,’ in Midland, Texas.

The elder Tibbets was concerned that any grave or headstone he left behind would become ground zero for anti-nuclear weapons protests, anti-war protesters, or a place for any other kind of revision historian to make a stand against what he saw as the right history. Instead of that, he opted to be cremated and his ashes spread across the English Channel, where he had flown so often during the war.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These fighter pilots literally pushed their wingmen to safety

The bonds that members of the military make with their comrades during their service are unlike any other. There’s a special kind of trust and faith that you have in a person that you would risk your life for and know would do the same for you. Fighter pilots are a breed of service member that understand this bond well. In aerial combat, your wingman is someone you have to trust completely and be willing to do anything for.

These fighter pilots demonstrated this commitment with unwavering loyalty and bravery.


On September 15, 1952, Air Force Capt. James Risner was escorting a flight of F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bombers on an attack on a chemical plant along the Yalu River. Flying his F-86 Sabre fighter jet, Risner engaged an attacking enemy MiG and chased it at nearly supersonic speed at ground level. Risner pursued the MiG across the Yalu River and into Chinese airspace. He landed several solid hits on the MiG with his .50-caliber machine guns which shot off the enemy jet’s canopy and set it on fire. Risner chased the MiG over a Chinese air base where it crashed into more MiGs parked on the ground. Throughout this engagement, Risner’s wingman, 1st Lt. Joseph Logan, was flying in pursuit and covering Risner’s six.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Risner poses in front of an F-86 (Photo by the United States Air Force)

As the flight headed for home, Logan’s Sabre was hit by enemy flak—fuel and hydraulic fluid gushed out of the wounded jet’s belly. Logan had only five minutes of fuel left; not enough to get him out of enemy territory. Refusing to abandon his wingman, Risner told Logan to shut his engine down and lined up behind him. He skillfully inched the upper lip of his Sabre’s air intake toward the tailpipe of Logan’s Sabre until they made contact. Despite fuel and hydraulic fluid obscuring his canopy and turbulence constantly separating the two aircraft, Risner persisted in his endeavor to push his wingman to safety.

After almost 60 miles of pushing, the two planes were finally over the ocean and in range of rescue swimmers. Logan called out to Risner, “I’ll see you at base tonight,” and bailed out of his stricken aircraft. Despite being a strong swimmer, Logan became tangled in his parachute shroud lines and tragically drowned off the coast of Cho Do Island. Having burned extra fuel to push his wingman, Risner’s Sabre ran out of fuel and he glided to a dead-stick landing at Kimpo Air Base. Over a decade later during the Vietnam War, two Air Force fighter jet crews would find themselves in a similar situation to Risner and Logan.

In 1967, Capt. Bob Pardo with Weapon System Officer 1st Lt. Steve Wayne and his wingman Capt. Earl Aman and his Weapon System Officer 1st Lt. Robert Houghton flew F-4 Phantom II fighter jets from Ubon Air Base in Thailand. On March 10, they were a part of a bombing run on a steel mill just north of Hanoi in North Vietnam. Heavy anti-aircraft fire cut through the skies, damaging both Phantom IIs. Aman and Houghton’s plane took a direct hit to the fuel tank and quickly lost most of their precious fuel. Without the range needed to make it to the KC-135 refueling tanker over Laos, Aman and Houghton would have to bail out over the unfriendly skies of North Vietnam. To prevent this, Pardo decided to push the stricken plane.

First, he had Aman jettison his drag chute so that he could insert his fighter’s nose into the drag chute compartment, much like Risner did with the tailpipe of Logan’s Sabre. However, the aerodynamic properties of the two aircraft created a suction that threatened to pull Pardo and Wayne up into Aman and Houghton’s plane. Pardo then had the idea to push the Phantom II from its tailhook. Originally designed for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the F-4 Phantom II was equipped with a tailhook to snag arresting cables and land on aircraft carriers.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

An F-4 Phantom II’s drag chute in its compartment (Photo by David Wallace, Jr.)

With the tailhook lowered, it provided about 4 feet of standoff distance between the two planes—just enough to prevent the deadly aerodynamic interference. Pardo then maneuvered his F-4 under and behind Aman’s until the tailhook was resting on the front of his windscreen. Aman then shut down his engines as Pardo pushed to keep his wingman airborne. The stunt worked to slow the rate of descent of Aman and Houghton’s aircraft. However, every 15 to 30 seconds, the tailhook would slide off of the windscreen and Pardo would have to line back up and re-establish connection.

Pardo and Wayne were also struggling with a fire in their port-side engine, eventually having to shut it down. After 88 miles of pushing, both aircraft reached Laotian airspace at an altitude of just 6,000 feet.

Aman and Houghton ejected safely, but Pardo and Wayne had burned so much fuel that they were forced to eject just ahead of them. All but Wayne had to evade enemy forces on the ground before they were located by friendly forces and rescued. Pardo and Wayne were initially reprimanded for losing their aircraft and putting their own lives in danger. It wasn’t until 1989 that the military re-examined “Pardo’s Push”, as it came to be known, and awarded the Silver Star to both Pardo and Wayne.

Both Risner and Pardo persisted in their commitment to their comrades in arms. During the Vietnam War, Risner was shot down over North Vietnam and was imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton for seven years, four months, and 27 days. During this time, he and Navy Commander James Stockdale led the American resistance in the prison and organized the other POWs to present maximum resistance to their captors.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Risner answers questions at a press conference after he is released from captivity. (Photo by the United States Air Force)

After retiring from the Air Force, Pardo learned that Aman had developed Lou Gehrig’s disease and lost both his voice and mobility. He created the Earl Aman Foundation to raise money and buy his wingman a voice synthesizer, a motorized wheelchair, and a computer. The two men remained close friends until Aman’s death in 1998.

The bonds formed by these airmen in the crucible of aerial combat manifested in their refusal to abandon their wingmen and willingness to risk life and limb to save them. It is a commitment that is difficult to understand for people who have not experienced it firsthand, but Risner, Wayne and Pardo’s selfless actions help to demonstrate its power and magnitude.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Donner Party really should have taken the Army’s advice

At some point while growing up, every kid is issued a stern warning from their parents to not touch the hot stove when it’s on. Most kids take that advice at face value and never risk it. But then there are the other kids; the ones who repeatedly try to poke at the red hot coils. Eventually, there comes a time where the curious kids get burnt. This is basically what happened to the ill-fated and infamous Donner Party in 1847. History often paints the pioneers as unfortunate travelers, but it also often glosses over the fact that they were issued repeated warnings by the United States Army, who told them to stay away.

Spoiler alert: They didn’t stay away and it didn’t end well for thirty-nine of them — and if they were petty enough, the Army could’ve issued the survivors a “so, what did we learn?


Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

This information in important to the rest of the story.

(“Battle of Churubusco,” John Cameron, lithograph, 1846)

Manifest Destiny was in full force during the 1840s and countless pioneers moved out west in search of greener pastures. When Mexico saw the influx of new settlers coming into and setting up shop in disputed territory, their army attacked American troops in March, 1846, along the Rio Grande River, beginning the Mexican-American War.

The Army knew full well that the coming battles could stretch across the West and into places where settlers were building new lives. So, they issued a warning to pioneers, advising them to either wait for the war before venturing into the southwest or to proceed with extreme caution. After all, the soldiers had a war to fight; they couldn’t dote on individual settlers.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Just take a wild guess who they listened to: the grizzled Ranger or the sketchy salesman?

(“Advice on the Prairie,” William Ranney, painting, 1857)

That warning didn’t stop George Donner and James Reed from saddling up the wagons to make their way along the Oregon Trail and find new homes in California. The path was well-traveled and would take them through Wyoming, Idaho, and, eventually, down the California Trail near Ft. Hall, Idaho. This was the prescribed route made by the Army for all travelers. The route was generally pleasant, had several Army posts along the way, was seldom ambushed by Natives, and took about four to six months to traverse.

But they caught wind of a faster route that saved time by cutting through Utah. This information came from a writer/salesman, Lansford Hastings, who’d never actually been on his so-called Hastings Cutoff. This new route cut about 300 miles from the trip. Accounting for an average speed of about 12 miles per day, that would theoretically save them about a month of travel. It was important to make it to California before the winter, because as the Army told them, the winter would be deadly.

On their travels, the party randomly met James Clyman, an old Army Ranger turned mountain man. He strongly advised against this alternate route. Clyman had traveled all across the United States and her territories — he even wrote about Hugh Glass (you know, the guy from The Revenant) because he was there with him. There wasn’t a human being alive more suited to give counsel about these lands. He was very serious about them turning around and taking the established route.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Let this be a lesson for you. If a bunch of people with years of experience tell you something… maybe listen.

(“Encampment,” Daniel A. Jenks, watercolors, 1858)

You know this story doesn’t have a happy ending, so you know which advice they followed. The shortcut, turns out, was absolutely horrible and added months to their journey. Instead of making it to the Pacific Ocean by early September, they found themselves in Truckee Meadows (near present-day Reno, Nevada) by late October.

One of the party’s scouts, William Bryant, had taken the regular route ahead and made it safely to the Army’s Fort Sutter. He heard about their new route and the soldiers sent a dire warning. The warning implored them stay in Reno for the winter and to not even think about crossing the Sierra Nevada in this weather.

Truckee Meadows was beautiful. It had bountiful food, sturdy trees, flowing water in the winter. In a word, it was perfect! They could have as easily made their new lives there. They could’ve been happy. But wintering in Reno would have made too much sense, so they decided to try and push through the terrible wintry mountains — in spite of all of the warnings.

Now, it’s hard to say if they actually had to resort to cannibalism or not — some survivors suggested they did, others said they didn’t, and historical evidence is inconclusive — but it was still the definition of a sh*tshow. It took the Army months to find them (since they were kind of busy with the aforementioned war) but at least forty-eight people made it out.

Thirty-nine did not.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Hair today, gone tomorrow: 62 years ago, Elvis joined the Army

When Elvis Presley turned 18 years old in 1953, he registered for the draft – just like every other young American male during that time. The rules governing the draft stated that all young men that were in good health were required to serve in the United States military for a minimum of two years. When he signed his name on that line, promising to serve, he had no idea of the superstar fame that would soon be coming his way.


After signing up for the draft, he graduated high school and soon began his entertainment career. Three years later in 1956, he was a film and recording star. Presley was in the middle of filming King Creole when he received his draft notice. He requested a delay so he could finish filming, which he was granted.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

On March 24, 1958, with his family and friends by his side, The King reported to the Memphis draft board. Once he was sworn in and processed with others into the Army, he boarded a bus to Arkansas.

He would go on to coin the phrase “hair today, gone tomorrow” after he received his G.I. haircut.

Once Presley finished his basic training, he was on leave and managed to do a concert and recording session in Nashville. He then headed back to Ft. Hood, Texas, to complete his advanced training. His mother became ill during this time and passed away and Presley was granted leave to be with her.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

When he returned to Ft. Hood, he was assigned to the Third Armored Spearhead Division. He soon boarded the U.S.S. Randall and sailed for Germany. Upon arrival, he served in Company C, which was a scout platoon. He was declared off limits to the press.

Presley would be right there in the thick of things alongside his unit. He completed all required duties. Some research suggested that he did more than what was required of him because he didn’t want people to assume he got special treatment. He would go on to earn a medal for expert marksmanship and rise to the responsibility of an NCO, all without seeking celebrity treatment.

He was honorably discharged from active duty in 1960.

Lists

The 12 most essential Civil War books

The Civil War is cemented in history as the deadliest war fought on American soil. For four years, the Unioners of the North fought the Confederates of the South, hoping to dismantle the institution of slavery. This led to the loss of over 600,000 lives and, ultimately, the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865.

Thousands of Civil War books have been written since the first shot rang out in 1861. Though no single book can attempt to cover the endless tragedies or important events that occurred over those four years, the following works add valuable new perspectives to the narrative. Between fictionalized accounts and battle retellings to soldiers’ eye-opening diaries, this list will satisfy any Civil War history buff.


1. Dee Brown on the Civil War

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard
Open Road Media

By Dee Brown

This trilogy focuses on the some of the Civil War’s most influential but lesser-known figures. In Grierson’s Raid, a former music teacher leads almost 2,000 Union troopers from Tennessee to Louisiana. Their attack diverts attention from General Grant’s crossing of the Mississippi—an instrumental distraction for the subsequent Siege of Vicksburg.

The Bold Cavaliers stars Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, whose cavalrymen wreak havoc on Alabama. Meanwhile, The Galvanized Yankees tells the widely unknown story of a group of captured Confederate soldiers. Faced with the prospect of serving time in a prison camp or in the Union Army, they choose the latter. When they’re tapped to guard outposts in the Western frontier, their experiences have profound effects on their own loyalties—and make for a fascinating Civil War story.

2. Battle Cry of Freedom

By James. M. McPherson

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book charts the period between the 1846 outbreak of the Mexican-American War to Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865. Author James McPherson examines the economic, political, and social factors that led to the Civil War, particularly how small, violent outbursts evolved into America’s deadliest war. Both sides believed they were fighting for freedom—though their definitions of this freedom differed greatly. With in-depth analyses of nearly every major event, Battle Cry of Freedom is an indispensable addition to any history buff’s collection.

3. The Civil War: A Narrative

By Shelby Foote

In the first book of Foote’s three-volume series, the author opens with Jefferson Davis’ resignation from the US Senate. The Democratic politician was destined for another, bigger role: the first presidency of the Confederate States. So begins an extensively researched account of the events—and war—that followed, which culminates in the Union’s victory four years later. Maps are a welcome addition to the narrative, providing useful visuals of important battle sites and travel routes.

4. Mary Chesnut’s Diary

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard
Penguin Classics

By Mary Chesnut

A native of South Carolina, Mary Chesnut kept a detailed account of her life as an upper class woman during the Civil War. Though her husband was a senator and a Confederate officer, Mary secretly hated the institution of slavery. From her reflections on witnessing the first shots fired in Charleston to hearing parts of her husband’s meetings, Chesnut’s diary is one of the few complete firsthand accounts of the war written by a non-soldier.

5. For Cause and Comrades

By James M. McPherson

After countless bloody battles and widespread death, how did Civil War soldiers find the will to keep fighting? In For Case and Comrades, James McPherson explores what drove them—namely, their unshakeable belief in the necessity of their actions. For both sides, victory was worth everything.

McPherson analyzed over 250 diaries and 25,000 letters to truly understand the soldiers’ thought processes. He was shocked by their eloquence and honesty, and the frequency with which they wrote of their daily lives. Their writings reveal how they were not just hardened men of war—but brothers, sons, fathers, and husbands who simply wanted to go home with their dignity in tact. The result is a humanizing study of war, and of the men who fought unwaveringly for their ideals.

6. The Black Flower

By Howard Bahr

As a war veteran and novelist, Bahr was a master of well-paced, engaging Civil War fiction—and lucky for us, he wrote three books. The first installment in his Civil War trilogy is The Black Flower, a New York Times Notable Book. When a 26-year-old Confederate soldier is wounded, the bond he forms with a medic gives him hope for a brighter, post-war future.

The Year of Jubilo sees a similar hero: Gawain Harper, who only fights in the Confederate army to be with the woman he loves. His return home is not as charmed as he anticipated when he discovers the rebels’ plot to incite new warfare—which Gawain must stop.

In the final book, The Judas Field, Civil War veteran Cass accompanies a friend to Tennessee, where they’ll retrieve the bodies of her brother and father. As they pass through devastated Southern towns, Cass cannot escape his haunting memories of the battlefield. All three novels explore the violence of warfare, the endurance of hope, and the lengths to which men and women fought to return to their loved ones.

7. The North and South Trilogy

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard
Open Road Media

By John Jakes

In the trilogy that has sold millions of copies, John Jakes examines how war can disintegrate even the closest of bonds. While training at West Point, Southerner Orry Mains quickly befriends Northerner George Hazard. But when the Civil War places them on opposite sides of the battlefield, tensions reverberate through their relationship, their families, and the rest of Jakes’ bestselling trilogy. Part war story, part family drama, the books were adapted into a wildly popular miniseries starring Patrick Swayze and James Read.

8. Murder at Manassas

By Michael Kilian

With the Civil War still in its earliest days, Virginian Harrison Raines is torn between his abhorrence of slavery and his love for his home state. He is also in love with actress Caitlin Howard—though her affection for John Wilkes Booth (yes, that one) poses a serious threat. Raines’ personal dramas reach new heights when, after taking Caitlin to watch the Battle of Bull Run, he becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving a wrongly-disgraced major. What ensues is a fast-paced whodunit full of rich historical detail and real-life figures like Abe Lincoln.

9. Cold Mountain

By Charles Frazier

Nothing, not even war, can prevent Inman from reaching his true love, Ada, in North Carolina. After being gravely wounded in battle, Inman deserts the Confederate army, determined to return to the woman he left behind. As he journeys across the ravaged American landscape, Ada struggles to restore her late father’s farm back to its former glory. But with only a few moments shared between them, have Inman and Ada pinned their hopes on a foolish dream?

Frazier’s National Book Award-winning novel is based on stories he heard from his great-great-grandfather as a child. Gorgeously written and unrelentingly heartbreaking, Cold Mountain is at once an unforgettable tale of war and a deeply moving love story.

10. The Killer Angels

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard
Ballantine Books

By Michael Shaara

Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel recreates the bloodiest battle in American history: Gettysburg. Over the four days of fighting, countless men died—men with families, men with futures, men who might have done great things for the nation. Shaara imagines who these men, whether Northern or Southern, may have been.

Told through the perspectives of multiple historical figures, the story begins with a very confident Robert E. Lee as he and his troops travel to Pennsylvania. But instead of finding the victory they envisioned, Lee and his fellow Confederates are demoralized by the battle—and many know they’re unlikely to win the war, or even see its end.

11. Cain at Gettysburg

By Ralph Peters

Another Gettysburg-centered novel, Cain at Gettysburg is a fictional retelling of what is considered “the turning point of the Civil War.” It follows a misfit group of characters—including desperate generals, a German refugee, and an Irishman who fled the famine—as they fight for their cause, unsure of their futures. Compelling and jam-packed with action, Cain at Gettysburg is a fascinating tale of battle, bravery, and brotherhood that no lover of Civil War history should miss.

12. Gone with the Wind

By Margaret Mitchell

If you ever had access to the Turner Classic Movie channel, then you’ve probably heard of the film version of Gone with the Wind. But before Vivien Leigh starred as Scarlett O’Hara, there was Margaret Mitchell’s epic book, which offers a more detailed look at Georgia during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. At the center, of course, is Scarlett—a Southern belle and the daughter of a wealthy planter—who is forced to change her spoiled ways once war divides the country. Though her enduring relationship with Rhett Butler is considered one of the greatest love stories of all time, the novel is also one of the best portraits of the effects of war on a place and its people.

This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the first battle of the Civil War was called the ‘picnic battle’

It took more than three months after the fall of Fort Sumter, South Carolina for Union and Confederate armies to meet on the battlefield. At Centreville, Virginia on July 21, 1861, groups of civilians, including women and children, joined U.S. Senators to watch the first battle of the Civil War. 

Many in the Union government thought the war would be a short one. The Union troops who fought the battle were mostly made up of new recruits on a 90-day enlistment. The Senators and the civilians packed lunches carried in picnic baskets to watch the grim melee. They had no idea the battle was not going to go as well as expected.

first battle civil war reenactor
Much like the soldiers in the real first battle of the CIvil War, this reenactor looks confused.

In all fairness, no one quite knew how the battle was going to develop. The southern forces were equally as inexperienced as the northern troops. The United States hadn’t seen a pitched battle since its 1846-1848 war with Mexico and that war never came home. The last time the United States saw a war on its own soil was during the War of 1812.

Even long-serving Senators would not realize the magnitude of watching a Civil War battle while trying to eat lunch until it was running them down on the battlefields. But after the fall of Fort Sumter, the American public demanded some kind of action from the U.S. government before the Confederate Congress convened in Richmond, Virginia for the first time. 

The Union’s plan to recapture the south was a mess from the start. Its most capable commander, Gen. Winfield Scott, created the “Anaconda Plan,” a strategy that would strangle the south by taking New Orleans while the U.S. Navy blockaded it from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. But since Scott was 75 years old and unable to lead the Army himself, he was widely written off. The American press pushed for an assault on the Confederate capital, just 100 miles from Washington, DC. 

President Abraham Lincoln called on 75,000 volunteers to bolster the small, 15,000-strong U.S. Army, an act which forced the last four Confederate states to secede from the Union. Under mounting pressure from all sides the Federal troops had little to no time to train for combat. By July 1861, all 11 Confederate states had seceded and the stage was set for the two inexperienced armies to meet in battle for the first time. 

Even the already green Union Army was going into the battle with a lot going against it. Its commander, Irvin McDowell, had spent most of his career as a staff officer and was promoted three ranks in order to take command of the Union Army. To make matters worse, a Confederate spy ring in Washington had already informed the Confederate Army of the Union’s plan to move on Richmond. 

Across the battlefield from the Union Army and its picnickers, was a Confederate force led by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, a veteran of the Mexican War, a skilled engineer, and a defensive mastermind. A number of Confederate forces met at Manassas Junction to bolster the Confederates and by the time the two armies met, they were equally matched in number. Fighting began in earnest in the early morning hours of July 21st.

The Union forces saw some initial successes, and before noon the Union had forced the rebels into a disorderly retreat to nearby Henry House Hill. But the south’s superior, experienced leadership reformed the rebel line and by 3pm, the rebels had pushed the Union forces back from the hill and captured a significant number of their artillery pieces. 

By 4pm, the Union was in full retreat and the army itself was falling apart. The lunching civilians were suddenly overrun by Union soldiers retreating from the battlefield, some who had dropped their weapons and bolted. The roads were clogged with wagons, horses, and soldiers who were warning the onlookers to beat a retreat themselves. Many prominent U.S. Senators were almost captured by the Confederate Army.

They, and likely the remnants of the Federal Army, were saved by the south’s own inexperience. The commanders themselves didn’t know whether or not to pursue the fleeing enemy. By the time they were finished squabbling, it was too late. 

What everyone did come to realize was that the Civil War was much more serious than previously believed and the battles yet to be fought were not occasions watch over picnic lunches.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Det: Secret soldiers and unsung heroes of the troubles

Every country’s military has their own version of Special Forces. However, none of them are quite like the 14th Intelligence Detachment, ‘The Det,’ which was formed as part of the British Army Special Forces during a time known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Det was tasked with mounting surveillance and intelligence gathering operations against the Irish Republican Army and their allies.

They worked in the shadows. No one knew who they were or what they did. They received no acknowledgement or fanfare. The world will never know who they were. But, this dedicated force of highly-trained plain-clothes operatives worked to gather the intelligence needed for the British Army and others to maintain their peacekeeping role between the IRA and the unionist paramilitary forces.


The Det was formed after the British Army’s intelligence unit, the Military Reaction Force, was compromised. The MRF was compromised when IRA double-agents were discovered and then interrogated. They spilled details about a covert MRF operation out of Four Squares laundry in Belfast. This led to an IRA ambush of a MRF laundry van, which killed one undercover soldier.

With the MRF compromised, the Det was set up in 1973. The Det was open to all members of the armed services and to both genders. For the first time, women were allowed to be a part of the UK Special Forces. Each candidate had to pass a rigorous selection process. Members of the Det were expected to have excellent observational abilities, stamina and the ability to think under stress, as well as a sense of self-confidence and self-reliance as the majority of surveillance and intelligence gathering operations were solo missions.

The IRA treated the conflict like guerilla warfare for national independence. They used street fighting, sensational bombings and sniper attacks, which led to the British government classifying their aggressions as terrorism. The Det’s main focus during this time was utilizing their unique talents and training to gather information on the members of the IRA so that the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary could then intervene.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

The skills and training of the members of the Det included the disciplines of surveillance, planting bugs and covert video cameras, and close quarters combat. They were also experts in the use of pistols, sub machine guns, carbines and assault rifles. They were also trained in unarmed combat, as well as techniques to disarm and neutralize knife or gun-wielding assailants. It was important for each member to be adept in these skills in order to be able to protect themselves while undercover.

Along with this specialized training, the Det was also equipped with unique equipment much of which could be considered ahead of its time. This included a fleet of ordinary looking saloon cars called ‘Q’ cars. These vehicles were specially equipped with covert radios, video and still cameras, concealed weapons packs, brake lights which could be switched on and off, and engine cut off switches to prevent hijacking. All of these worked to aid in the surveillance missions of the operators. The Det also had their own flight of Army Air Corps Gazelles, which were referred to as ‘The Bat Flight.’ The Gazelles carried sophisticated surveillance gear which was uniquely suited to the operations of ‘The Det.’

From the time of its inception until the end of The Troubles the Det performed numerous operations, mostly following and observing suspected terrorists. These painstakingly planned intelligence operations often led to the arrest of the suspected terrorists and/or the discovery of weapons caches. Occasionally the members of the Det would find themselves in a firefight with terrorists, this was usually due to their cover being blown. Unfortunately, several Det operators tragically lost their lives in Northern Ireland.

The highly-trained members of the Det did not do what they did for glory. They didn’t do it for the accolades, as there were none offered. These elite members put themselves in danger because they believed in what they were working for. They wanted to do their part to protect their country and those they loved. They believed in justice. They believed in the greater good. They knew going into it that no one would ever know what they did or the sacrifices they made in the name of Queen and country. But, they went in anyway. They didn’t see themselves as heroic. But, the elite members of the Det can truly be considered the unsung heroes of The Troubles.

The Det has now been absorbed into the British Army’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment, with a mission to fight the global war on terrorism.

MIGHTY HISTORY

VA Clinic renamed in honor of two World War II Veterans

The beat of the Native American drums reverberated through the halls of the clinic as Crow Nation drummers proudly sang a war song. The ceremony began with a Crow Nation prayer and the presentation of colors.

Hundreds were on hand to witness the long-awaited renaming ceremony of the Billings clinics for World War II Veterans Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, the last member of the Crow Tribe to become a war chief, and Benjamin Steele.

The Community Based Outpatient Clinic was renamed in honor of Medicine Crow and the Community Based Specialty Clinic was renamed in honor of Steele at the ceremony in February.


Honored heroes

Shirley Steele beamed with pride while talking about her late husband. He was born and raised in Roundup, Mont., and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940. He was a Bataan Death March survivor and prisoner of war for more than three years. He died in September 2016 at the age of 98.

Tiara Medicine Crow, granddaughter of Joseph Medicine Crow, a Bronze Star holder, talked about her love of her grandfather and all that he meant to the Crow Nation.

A.J. Not Afraid, grandson-in-law of Joseph Medicine Crow and chairman of the Crow Nation, spoke to his history and accomplishments.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

A.J. Not Afraid and a child performer attended the ceremony in traditional Crow Nation dress.

www.blogs.va.gov

Joseph Medicine Crow was born on the Crow Indian Reservation in eastern Montana. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California in 1939. Medicine Crow was the first member of his tribe to attain that level of education. Medicine Crow joined the U.S. Army in 1943. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his service. He died in April of 2016 at the age of 102.

The photo at the top of this story is of Not Afraid and Shirley Steele.

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Nope, ‘God & The 3 Mistakes’ is not what happened after Pearl Harbor

I’m known among my friends as a bit of a heartless cynic (#NotPopularAtParties #PleaseStopInvitingMe #HowManyOfTheseDoIHaveToRuinToBeLeftAlone). Maybe that’s why We Are The Mighty’s president and CMO, U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Harper, sent me this heartwarming story about Admiral Nimitz arriving at Pearl Harbor after the attack.

But then, I ruined it.


Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, a bold and brave man too busy being optimistic for your “history facts” or his own notes.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

The story is entitled God and the 3 Mistakes, and it makes the rounds on the internet every once in a while. Here’s a version of it from armchairgeneral.com:

Tour boats ferry people out to the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii every thirty minutes. We just missed a ferry and had to wait thirty minutes. I went into a small gift shop to kill time. In the gift shop, I purchased a small book entitled, “Reflections on Pearl Harbor” by Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington D.C. He was paged and told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the phone. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Admiral Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume command of the Pacific Fleet. He landed at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1941. There was such a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat–you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. On Christmas Day, 1941, Adm. Nimitz was given a boat tour of the destruction wrought on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Big sunken battleships and navy vessels cluttered the waters every where you looked.

As the tour boat returned to dock, the young helmsman of the boat asked, “Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?” Admiral Nimitz’s reply shocked everyone within the sound of his voice. Admiral Nimitz said, “The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?”

Shocked and surprised, the young helmsman asked, “What do mean by saying the Japanese made the three biggest mistakes an attack force ever made?” Nimitz explained:

Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk–we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

Mistake number two: when the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.

Mistake number three: every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply. That’s why I say the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make or God was taking care of America.

I’ve never forgotten what I read in that little book. It is still an inspiration as I reflect upon it. In jest, I might suggest that because Admiral Nimitz was a Texan, born and raised in Fredricksburg, Texas –he was a born optimist. But anyway you look at it–Admiral Nimitz was able to see a silver lining in a situation and circumstance where everyone else saw only despair and defeatism.

President Roosevelt had chosen the right man for the right job. We desperately needed a leader that could see silver linings in the midst of the clouds of dejection, despair and defeat.

There is a reason that our national motto is, IN GOD WE TRUST.
Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Look, an optimistic photo of a re-floated battleship. Let’s all go get coffee and not read the rest of this.

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

Stop here to remain happy. No? Alrighty, then.

Was that heartwarming and satisfying for you? Good. Stop reading. Go away. Be happy. Don’t let my factual poison into your soul. Ignore the holes and historical discrepancies and return to the world as a satisfied human being.

Or, let’s go through this together and destroy joy.

(Author’s note: For some of the debunking done here, we’re turning directly to Adm. Nimitz’ notes from December, 1941, compiled in his “gray book,” which the Navy put on the internet in 2014. Citations to that document will be made with a parenthetical hyperlink that will give the PDF page, not the printed page number. So, “(p. 71)” refers to his December 17 “Running Summary of Situation” that is page 71 of the PDF, but has the page numbers 9 and 67 printed on the bottom.)

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Navy Adm. Chester W. Nimitz.

(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

That phone call on December 7 didn’t happen

First: “Sunday, December 7th, 1941 — Admiral Chester Nimitz was … told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Nope. At the time, no one knew exactly what had happened or who to blame, and Adm. Husband E. Kimmel was still very much in charge. How screwed up would it have been if Roosevelt’s first action, while the fuel dumps were still burning and sailors were still choking to death on oil, was to fire the guy in command on the ground rather than shifting supplies and men to the problem or, you know, investigating what happened?

The bulk of the losses at Pearl weren’t even announced until December 15 (p. 51) because no one, even at Pearl, could be sure of the extent of the damage while the attack was ongoing.

In reality, Nimitz wasn’t ordered to Hawaii until December 17, the same day that Kimmel was told he would be relieved (p. 71).

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

National ensign flies from the USS West Virginia during the Pearl Harbor attack.

(U.S. Navy)

No, it wouldn’t have been worse if the Japanese had lured the ships to sea

The single most non-sensical claim in this story is that Nimitz was glad Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack.

Mistake number one: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk–we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

What? Nimitz thought he would’ve lost more men if the Japanese had lured them into a fight near the island? Does anyone believe that he had that little belief in the skills of his men?

If the Japanese had tried to lure the American ships to sea, we would’ve only sent the ones ready to fight, with full ammo loads and readied guns with crews. We would’ve tried to recall the carriers conducting exercises at sea. Yes, losing 38,000 sailors is worse than 3,800, but we’ve never lost 3,800 in a fair fight.

At the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the U.S. took combined losses of about 1,000 killed while inflicting losses against Japan of about 4,000. At the Battle of Savo Island, “the worst defeat ever inflicted on the United States Navy in a fair fight,” according to Samuel Morison, the U.S. lost 1,100 sailors.

Meanwhile, at Pearl, the U.S. lost over 2,000 killed while inflicting less than 100 enemy deaths. Who the hell would be glad it was a surprise attack?

In his notes on Samoa dated December 17, Nimitz specifically cites Japan’s use of surprise as to why it had been so successful (p. 64).

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

The largest fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor did survive the attack, but they weren’t enough.

(U.S. Navy)

Yes, Japan did ravage America’s fuel dumps and hit drydocks

Nimitz, when he got the actual call on December 17, quickly tied up his duties in Washington, D.C., and reported to Pearl Harbor. (He arrived Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve.)

There, he found an island still burning and heavily damaged. The Japanese planes absolutely did hit fuel dumps at Pearl Harbor. They hit drydocks as well, heavily damaging three destroyers that were in the docks at the time.

Luckily, Pearl Harbor didn’t have “every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war” in December 1941 as the story says, but the other dumps were under attack as Nimitz was supposedly giving this pep talk. Fuel dumps on the Philippines and Wake Island were destroyed or isolated by the Japanese attack in the days and weeks following December 7.

(Seriously, how would you even run a Pacific fleet if your only gas station was in Hawaii? That would mean ships patrolling around the Philippines and Australia would need to travel 10,000 miles and over three weeks out of their way every time they needed to refuel.)

It is true, though, that Japan failed to hit the largest and most important fuel tank farms on Pearl and didn’t destroy the doors to the drydocks. That was a major strategic error on the part of the Japanese.

But, what damage was done to these facilities was important, changing the strategic calculation for America at every turn.

On December 17, Nimitz wrote a plan to reinforce Samoa that specifically cited the lack of appropriate fuel dumps being ready or filled at Pearl or Samoa (p. 63 and 70). It even mentioned how bad it was to shift a single oiler from replenishing Pearl to getting ships to Samoa. The fuel situation was dire, and Nimitz knew it.

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Two heavily damaged U.S. destroyers sit in a flooded drydock. Both destroyers were scrapped and the drydock was damaged, but it did return to service by February 1942.

(U.S. Navy)

The ship repair situation was worse

If the fuel situation was bad, the repair situation was worse. Drydocks were attacked during the battle. Two ships were destroyed in Drydock number one, and Floating Drydock number 2 was sunk after sustaining damage. Both were back in operation by February 1942.

Other drydocks were safe or only lightly damaged and were up and running by the time Nimitz arrived at Pearl. Yes, that’s a big deal logistically. But that still left too few drydocks for the sheer number of ships heavily damaged in the attack.

But the number of drydocks wasn’t the biggest factor in whether a ship could be repaired at Pearl, because there weren’t nearly enough supplies and skilled laborers in and around the harbor, anyways. Capt. Homer N. Wallin, the head of the salvage effort from January 1942 onward, lamented shortages of firefighting equipment, lumber, fastenings, welders, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, and pumps for the duration of salvage.

That’s why three battleships left Pearl Harbor for repairs on the West Coast on December 20, and ships were heading back to the continent for repairs as late as the end of 1942, nearly a year after the attack, because drydocks had insufficient space or supplies to repair them on site.

In fact, in his history written in 1968, Wallin specifically remembers Nimitz touring the wrecks on Dec. 31, 1941, and being pessimistic about repairs, especially the viability of the USS Nevada. The Nevada was back in combat less than a year later, despite Nimitz’ pessimism.

But the worst problem facing Pearl Harbor was invasion

But the most naive claim of this entire story is that Nimitz was optimistic as to the situation in December 1941. His actual notes from the period paint a much grimmer picture of his mind.

In the wee hours of December 17, hours before Nimitz was ordered to replace Kimmel, Nimitz sent Kimmel a message on behalf of himself and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Kimmel was ordered to “reconsider” his beliefs that Pearl Harbor was safe from further attack (p. 74).

Knox and Nimitz wanted Kimmel to keep ships out of the harbor as much as possible, to reinforce defensive positions. Most importantly:

Every possible means should be devised and executed which will contribute to security against aircraft or torpedo or gun attack of ships, aircraft and shore facilities [on Hawaii];

Given that Nimitz was actively cautioning about how vulnerable Pearl Harbor was on December 17, it would be odd for him to feel cocky and optimistic on December 25 (the earliest he could have actually taken this supposed boat tour).

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller at Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942.

(Library of Congress)

But he was still a great leader

The fact is, Nimitz was not some famed optimist. He was a realist. And he was in command of a fleet crippled by a sneak attack but backed by the most industrialized nation in the world in the 1940s. American industrial might was so strong that, by the end of the war, the U.S. was producing half of all industrial goods and weapons in the world. And the Japanese had failed to hit the submarines, something that did give Nimitz hope.

While it took most of 1942 and 1943 to fully ramp up America’s wartime production, the seeds were all in place in 1941 thanks to Roosevelt’s Cash-and-Carry and Lend-Lease policies. Nimitz was no fool. He knew he could win, even though the challenge facing him on Christmas 1941 was still daunting.

We can honor him, the sailors lost at Pearl Harbor, and the stunning achievements of the greatest generation without sharing suspect anecdotes about a Christmas Eve boat ride.

(As an added side note: The book this story supposedly came from wasn’t actually by Nimitz, it’s an “oral history” by William H. Ewing. And it was published five years after Nimitz died. Maybe it is a faithful account of Nimitz’ words at some point, but it doesn’t match his notes or the tactical situation in 1941.)

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