Today in military history: German airship Hindenburg crashes - We Are The Mighty
Today in Military History

Today in military history: German airship Hindenburg crashes

On May 6, 1937, the German airship Hindenburg burst into flames while attempting to moor after a trans-Atlantic flight.

Billed as the largest airship ever built — nearly the size of the RMS Titanic — the Hindenburg had begun regular passenger service from Germany to the United States the year before, carrying commercial passengers (who, by the way, were allowed to smoke in the on-board smoking lounge…) across the Atlantic. 

The hydrogen-floated airship had departed Frankfurt, Germany, three days before, bound for the first of ten round trip crossings to the United States in a time when airplanes were not yet a viable trans-Atlantic option.

Today in military history: German airship Hindenburg crashes
The dining room of the Hindenburg (German Federal Archives, CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

The trip had been relatively uneventful until a storm began to brew in Hindenburg’s path. To avoid the inclement weather, Capt. Max Pruss re-charted his course over New York City, creating a sensation in Manhattan. He waited out the storm hovering over the Atlantic before ordering his ship to Lakehurst, New Jersey.

With heavy winds requiring challenging maneuvering, it was said to be a difficult landing. Nonetheless, the Hindenburg dropped her mooring lines and successfully tied in to the landing winches on the ground. Still, disaster was imminent.

The cause of the fire is still much debated, but the hull of the warship incinerated within seconds as it fell 200 feet to the ground, killing 13 passengers, 22 crewmen, and 1 civilian ground worker.

Surprisingly, 62 survived, but most of them were left with substantial injuries. As the radio reporter Herbert Morrison so famously uttered that day, “Oh the humanity…”

Hindenburg’s tragic disaster marked the end of the airship era.

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Today in military history: Victory in Europe is celebrated around the world

On May 8, 1945, the Allied Powers celebrated Victory in Europe after years of brutal warfare. The day would be known as V-E Day, celebrated for generations to come.

Victory over the Nazis became official when German General Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender of all forces in Reim, France, just 9 days after Adolf Hitler committed suicide.

General Jodl had initially hoped to limit the terms of surrender to only the German forces still fighting the Western Allies, but General Dwight D. Eisenhower would accept nothing short of total surrender, putting an end to all fighting on the Western Front.

There were two official signings: The first was on May 7, 1945, when German Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s surrender on all fronts in Reims, France. The second signing — insisted upon by Soviet Premier Josef Stalin — was by German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel the next day in Berlin. Jodl and Keitel were later found guilty of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, and both were subsequently executed.

On May 8, the people of Europe, who had been subjected to years of German occupation, oppression, and bombardment put out flags and banners, and rejoiced in the defeat of the Nazi war machine.

News spread quickly around the world from Moscow to Los Angeles. 

While the American military still had months of fighting ahead of them in the Pacific, the war in Europe was won, but not without grave cost.

Tens of millions of service members and civilians were killed over five years of war across the continent, including 250,000 U.S. troops who were killed in the European theater. Among the dead were also 6 million Jews who were murdered by Nazi Germany. 

While it would take another four months to defeat the Japanese threat in the Pacific, the cessation of war in Europe was cause for world-wide celebrations.

Featured Image: Crowds gathering in celebration at Piccadilly Circus, London during V-E Day on May 8, 1945.

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Today in military history: Brits capture and burn Washington DC

On Aug. 24, 1814, British forces achieved victory in the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland, and marched into Washington, D.C.

The burning of Washington was a retaliation attack for the American burning of Toronto and much of America’s capital was set on fire. Little remained of the original city, including the original White House.

The United States had been engaged in the War of 1812 against the British Empire for two years. Battles were rough and fierce, and it seemed like the war would never end. Then some British troops decided to burn down the White House – which had serious consequences.

There were lots of reasons for the war but there were two main ones. First, there were really strict regulations on American trade and secondly, the U.K. was falsely imprisoning American seamen. Plus, the Brits weren’t exactly happy about the fact that America was pushing its boundaries and trying to expand in all directions.

During the battle, President James Madison took command of one of the American batteries, becoming the only sitting U.S. president to engage in combat as commander-in-chief, but he and his wife were forced to flee the capital before the arrival of the invaders.

British General Robert Ross and his officers dined in the White House that night as British troops began to set the city on fire in retaliation for the burning of Canadian government buildings by American troops earlier in the war. They burned the White House, the Capitol building and the Library of Congress before rains fell, extinguishing the flames. 

After 24 hours of occupation, Ross withdrew from the city, leaving its charred remains behind. 

President Madison hired the original architect, James Hoban, to rebuild the White House, which was restored by 1817.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: U-2 spy plane is shot down

On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, sparking a diplomatic crisis. 

Built by Lockheed and operated by the CIA, the single-jet U-2 reconnaissance spy plane took its first flight on Aug. 1, 1955. Nicknamed “Dragon Lady,” the U-2 was the highest-flying aircraft available, reaching heights of 70,000 feet. At 70,000 feet, “the pilot is more astronaut than aviator. In the cocoon-like, pressurised cockpit of the U-2, wrapped in a bulky pressure suit with a large spherical helmet, the pilot breathes 100% oxygen.”

While that was nearly double the altitude of the highest flying Soviet aircraft, Soviet radar could still track flight above 65,000 feet. 

On May 1st, Francis Gary Powers, a former Air Force Captain and Korean war veteran, was flying a CIA reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union when his U-2 was detected by Soviet Radar. Two aircraft, a MiG-19 and an unarmed Su-9, were launched to intercept. The MiG-19 couldn’t reach high-enough altitude to fire on the U-2. Meanwhile, the Su-9 was ordered to ram the spy plane, but failed due to differences in speed.  

However, the Soviets also launched 14 surface-to-air missiles — and hit the plane. Powers was forced to eject; he was taken into custody and remained in the Soviet Union for next 21 months as the U.S. negotiated terms of his release.

Today in military history: German airship Hindenburg crashes
A U.S. Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady from the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron taxis to the runway for takeoff at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 2, 2010. The U-2 is a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft that reaches altitudes above 70,000 feet. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris)

Nearly twice as wide as she is long, the Dragon Lady still flies the skies today.  “We are not going away as a program and we are investing heavily to bring the U-2 into its new mission environment,” said Lockheed Martin U-2 program director Irene Helley. “In this new era there is no sunset date planned.”

Featured Image: The U-2 Dragon Lady is considered the leader among manned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. An aircraft such as this collected images over the Gulf Coast region after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Marines go ‘to the shores of Tripoli’

On April 27, 1805, the United States Marines went to the shores of Tripoli to take down some pirates.

For basically as long as it has been around, the United States Navy has had a pirate problem.

The United States Navy had been dealing with the piracy issue since independence had been achieved in 1776. American shipping had relied on British Naval protection, but following the Revolution, pirates began to see U.S. vessels as fair game.

The administrations of George Washington and John Adams had been paying tribute to the states on the “Barbary Coast” (what is now North Africa), who extorted the payments in exchange for not carrying out acts of piracy. Still, pirates harassed U.S. ships and often kidnapped sailors and their booty. 

The First Barbary War officially began in 1801, when then-President Thomas Jefferson sent U.S. Navy vessels to the Mediterranean in protest of the raids. 

Then in 1805, William Eaton, who had secured the sexy title of Naval Agent to the Barbary States secured permission to restore the deposed leader of Tripoli, Hamet Karamanli, to the throne. After recruiting over 400 mercenaries, Eaton and seven other Marines got the support of three naval warships and then made a 600-mile trek across the Libyan desert to the city of Derna.

Facing ten-to-one odds, Eaton and Marine First Lieutenant George O’Bannon led the Marines and mercenaries into battle, eventually taking the city after a bayonet charge. Two Americans and at least nine mercenaries died, but the far larger enemy force had been defeated. News of the defeat prompted the leader of Tripoli to seek a settlement with the United States rather than risk losing his throne. 

The battle was one of America’s first overseas military operations and, of course, it remains an iconic event in Marine Corps history, notably marked by a line in the Marine Corps hymn.


Featured image: Attack on Derna by Colonel Charles Watterhouse.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: CIA launches mind-control program MKULTRA

On April 13, 1953, CIA director Allen Dulles launched the psychedelic mind-control program Project MKULTRA.

During the Korean War, the U.S. learned that some American troops captured in Korea were being subjected to rudimentary mind control techniques in order to make them more susceptible to interrogation.

Worried that the U.S. would fall behind in the next frontier of interrogation and espionage, the CIA’s Technical Services Staff began the MK-ULTRA project. MK-ULTRA sought to explore how drugs, especially LSD, could affect enemy soldiers during interrogations.

But the program didn’t stop there. It expanded and expanded, eventually encompassing 149 sub-projects that looked at everything from hypnosis to sleight of hand, from the best ways to buy drugs to methods of controlling the actions of animals.

Sidney Gottlieb approved of a letter about mind-control program
Sidney Gottlieb approved of an MKUltra sub-project on LSD in this letter from June 9, 1953.

While MK-ULTRA is well-known for being the CIA’s crazy drug program, people in the 60s and 70s knew it best for its flagrant ethics violations. Many subjects were drugged without their knowledge or consent, some mental patients and drug addicts were used as test subjects, and at least a few people died from bad reactions to the drugs.

In one particularly outlandish scheme, the CIA hired prostitutes to administer the drugs to Johns without their knowledge and then agents watched the results through two-way mirrors. 

The program was shut down in 1964 and in 1973 then-Director of the CIA Richard Helms ordered that all surviving documents related to MK-ULTRA be destroyed. A few documents escaped the purge because they had been misfiled, but the extent of the human experimentation under the project is still unknown.

Featured Image: Sidney Gottlieb, the American chemist and spymaster best known for his involvement in MKULTRA. Sept. 21, 1977.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: The American Revolution begins

On April 19, 1775, the American Revolution began, with a “shot heard round the world.” 

The very first confrontation in the war for independence began with an early morning-hour standoff in Lexington. Seven hundred British soldiers had orders to confiscate a large cache of firearms and arrest Patriot leaders. They were greeted by a local militia who had no intention of handing them over.

At some point, a shot was fired from an unknown gun, triggering an exchange of fire. 

Today in military history: German airship Hindenburg crashes
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, leader of the British forces at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

The local militia at Lexington didn’t fare too well, suffering nine dead or fatally wounded at the hands of British soldiers.

But the alarm had been sent, and another British column at Concord Bridge found themselves in a much worse situation. This time, the militia was ready. In their first volley, they killed a number of British officers and sergeants. The exchange of fire ended soon after, and British troops paused to eat lunch. You know, like you do. The pause gave more militia time to arrive – and soon over 1,000 militia were in the field.

The British force soon came under some harassing fire. After a rear detachment of British troops fired in the general direction of the militia, the militia returned fire, this time with deadly effect. 

Today in military history: German airship Hindenburg crashes
National Park Service map showing the routes of the initial Patriot messengers and of the British expedition

By the time the day was over, the British had suffered 73 dead, 174 wounded and 53 missing. The militia’s hit and run tactics left them with far fewer casualties: 49 dead, 39 wounded and five missing.

So began the Revolutionary War – which would last six and a half years. To this day, nobody knows who fired that first shot.

Featured Image: The Battle of Lexington by William Barnes Wollen, 1910. (From the collection of the National Army Museum).

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Today in military history: Confederate invasion of Kentucky begins

On Aug. 14, 1862, the Confederate invasion of Kentucky began.

Wanting to draw the Union army away from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and hoping to win over Kentucky and the midwest for the South, Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith led ten thousand troops toward the Cumberland Gap and spent the month of August defeating Yankee forces throughout the state. 

Smith was joined by General Braxton Bragg’s forces, and throughout the fall the Confederates would repeatedly engage with Union General Don Carlos Buell, who finally secured a Yankee victory in October, causing the Confederates to retreat back to Tennessee. 

Often referred to as the Confederate Heartland Offensive, the Kentucky Campaign was a strategic failure overall. Though it would slow Union forces down, they would regain the lost ground within a year and Kentucky would remain in Union hands for the remainder of the war.

Featured Image: The Battle of Perryville as depicted in Harper’s Weekly. (Public Domain)

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Today in military history: US drops atomic bomb on Nagasaki

On Aug. 9, 1945, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan at the city of Nagasaki.

Three days earlier, the U.S. struck the Japanese city of Hiroshima with the first tactical use of an atom bomb in military history. 

Yet Japan continued to fight.

The city of Kokura was the original target but a layer of clouds concealed the area that morning, causing the B-29 Superfortress “Bockscar” to divert to its secondary target, Nagasaki, a major shipbuilding city with a large military port.

At 11:02 a.m., from 28,900 feet, Bockscar released the bomb, called “Fat Man,” destroying an area about 2.3 by 1.9 miles wide and causing massive damage. 

“Suddenly, the light of a thousand suns illuminated the cockpit,” remembered Bockscar co-pilot Fred Olivi. “Even with my dark welder’s goggles, I winced and shut my eyes for a couple of seconds. I guessed we were about seven miles from ‘ground zero’ and headed directly away from the target, yet the light blinded me for an instant.”

Somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000 people were killed, with tens of thousands more wounded. 

Finally, Emperor Hirohito gave his permission for unconditional surrender.

One man, Tsutomu Yamaguchi has the dubious distinction of having been within two miles of both blasts. 

Yamaguchi designed tankers for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. He was in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 finishing up a three-month business trip to the shipyards there when he was blown over by the blast and knocked unconscious. He woke up in time to see a pillar of fire over the city that eventually bloomed into the darkly iconic mushroom cloud shape of a nuclear explosion. He was less than two miles from the epicenter of the explosion.

He rushed to an air raid shelter where he found two of his colleagues who were on the trip with him. They rushed to grab their belongings and flee back to their hometown of Nagasaki.

He made it to the hospital in Nagasaki and was treated for the burns that covered much of his body. Despite his injuries, he reported Aug. 9 for work at Mitsubishi.

Again, Yamaguchi was less than two miles from the bomb when it detonated. The second blast blew off his bandages and severely injured the man he’d been talking to.

This time, the hospital that had treated Yamaguchi was destroyed so he simply ran home. He sheltered there, dazed by a bad fever until Aug. 15 when he heard that Japan had surrendered.

Yamaguchi went on to become an advocate against nuclear proliferation. In 2010 he died of cancer.

Featured Image: The nuclear cloud spreading over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. (Photo: Hiromichi Matsuda via Public Domain)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: The US enters WWI

On April 6, 1917, the United States of America finally entered World War I. After years of a formal position of neutrality, the United States declared war against Germany in response to their aggressive naval tactics, including Germany’s policy of unrestricted warfare against all ships that entered the waters surrounding the British Isles. 

The naval attacks began in 1915, including the sinking of the William P. Frye, a private American vessel; the sinking of the Luisitania on May 7, 1915, where 1,198 passengers were killed, including 128 Americans; and the sinking of an Italian liner in August 1915, which killed 272 people, including 27 Americans. 

Public opinion began to turn against Germany and by early 1917, President Woodrow Wilson was preparing Congress to strike. On Feb. 3, 1917, the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Germany. A few hours later, the American liner S.S. Housatonic was sunk by a German U-boat — although the German commander politely ordered the Housatonic’s crew to abandon the ship first, sparing their lives.

On Feb. 22, Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill in order to prepare the U.S. for war and by April four more U.S. ships had been sunk by Germany’s naval fleet. On April 2, President Wilson called for war. 

Four days later, Congress approved his request. U.S. troops would land in France by June in a war that would continue for another year and a half, killing nearly 20 million people across the globe including 2 million Americans.

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Today in military history: Patton wins race to Messina

On Aug. 17, 1943, U.S. General George S. Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery arrived in Messina and completed the Allied conquest of Sicily.

Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, was not without its flaws and screw-ups, but the Allied troops tore open a gap on the beaches and then pressed themselves against the Axis lines, driving back German and Italian troops as they attempted a massive evacuation.

U.S. Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and British Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery raced at the head of armored columns toward the port city of Messina on the island of Sicily’s east coast. 

For weeks, German and Italian troops dug into the mountains, fighting delaying actions. On Aug. 8, with the eventual collapse clear, Germany began secretly ferrying 60,000 Italian troops and about 40,000 Germans across to Italy.

The Allies knew by the next day that some sort of evacuation was underway. But just like how the Nazis failed to capitalize on the Dunkirk evacuation, so too did the Allies fail at Messina. Allied leaders remained focused on the ground fight. No ships closed the Strait of Messina, no planes took out the ports in Messina or mainland Italy.

This failure would come under scrutiny at the time and in the decades since.

Germany not only got approximately 100,000 Axis troops across, they were able to recover 2,000 tons of ammunition, 47 tanks, 94 heavy artillery pieces and almost 10,000 vehicles — a massive success of sealift capability.

Of course, this made liberating Messina much easier than it otherwise would have been for Patton and Montgomery. But just like the evacuation at Dunkirk meant that Germany would have to face those troops later, the evacuation at Messina allowed Germany to reinforce itself in Italy.

On Aug. 17, Patton’s 7th Army arrived several hours before Montgomery’s 8th Army, which earned him bragging rights for winning what history refers to as the unofficial “Race to Messina,” but Patton is also credited with out-commanding Montgomery. 

Yes. They were on the same side. But that’s how Patton rolled. I mean, he once slapped a hospitalized soldier in the face and accused him of cowardice.

Nonetheless, after a month-long campaign, Allied forces finally completed the battle for Sicily and began to prepare for the advance against the Italian mainland. 

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Hitler commits suicide

On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide by chewing a cyanide tablet and shooting himself in the head. Overkill? Or not enough kill? I’ll leave you to judge. His death marked the end of World War II on the Eastern Front — days after his death, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies.

Hitler had not been dealing with Germany’s losses well. His dreams of a ‘1000 year Reich’ diminished with each Allied victory in the devastating war. The Soviet Union delivered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, marking a turn in the tides for the Allied forces. In 1944, D-Day launched the beginning of the end for Hitler’s forces, pushing them west into a retreat toward Berlin. 

Even Hitler’s own officers were turning against him, hoping to assassinate him and negotiate better terms for peace. After multiple failed attempts, Hitler was growing paranoid and began executing anyone he suspected of betrayal.

Today in military history: German airship Hindenburg crashes
Hitler poses for the camera in 1930. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10460 / Hoffmann, Heinrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

By January, 1945, Hitler had retreated to a safety bunker, where he would grow increasingly unstable. One day before his death, he married his mistress, Eva Braun, whom he would poison before his death. 

Soviet forces commandeered Hitler’s bunker, taking his cremated ashes and dispersing them to prevent any of Hitler’s followers from creating a memorial at his final resting place. The bunker was demolished in 1947.

Featured Image: July 1947 photo of the rear entrance to the Führerbunker in the garden of the Reich Chancellery. The bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were burned in a shell hole in front of the emergency exit at left; the cone-shaped structure in the centre served for ventilation, and as a bomb shelter for the guards.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Today in military history: Legendary 5th Special Forces Group activated

On Sep. 21, 1961, the  5th Special Forces Group was activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The Cold War completely changed the way the U.S. planned to fight hot wars. Special Forces were designed to organize and train guerrillas behind enemy lines.

The U.S. Army’s 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces was formed to do just that as the war in Vietnam began to heat up.

President John F. Kennedy was a strong believer in the capabilities of Special Warfare. He visited the Special Warfare Center on Fort Bragg to review the training program there and authorized Special Forces soldiers to wear their distinctive green berets.

But how America’s premier unconventional warfare force got that iconic headwear is as much a testament to the force’s tenacity as it is a tribute to the founding soldiers who challenged Big Army’s authority.

The beret is said to be somewhat derived from America’s ties to the British Commandos of World War II, who wore a green beret as their standard-issue headdress beginning in 1941.

According to the official history of the Army Special Forces Association, America’s green beret was first designed by SF major and OSS veteran Herbert Brucker about two years after the unit was formed, likely due to the close work between the OSS — the predecessor to the Special Forces — and Royal British Commandos during the war.

The beret was later adopted by 1st Lt. Roger Pezelle and worn by his Operational Detachment Alpha team with the 10th Special Forces Group based in Germany. The SF troopers were reportedly not authorized to wear the berets, but being unconventional warriors, they basically gave Big Army the middle finger and wore them anyway.

“The berets were only worn in the field during exercises,” according to retired SF Command Sgt. Maj. Joe Lupyak. “The Army would not allow the wearing of berets in garrison.”

But that all changed in the early 1960s, when then-President John F. Kennedy adopted the Special Forces as America’s answer to the guerrilla wars that marked the first decades of the Cold War. Before a visit to Fort Bragg in 1961, Kennedy reportedly ordered then Special Warfare School commander Brig. Gen. William P. Yarborough to outfit his soldiers with the distinctive caps, arguing these unconventional warriors deserved headgear that set them apart from the rest of the Army.

The “Green Berets” – as they would become known based on that specific Army green “Shade 297” cap  – would deploy to Vietnam in 1964 to take control of all Special Forces in the country. 

They accomplished their mission of controlling Vietnam’s indigenous tribes and rallying them against the Communists. At the war’s height, the 5th SF Group controlled 84 of these Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, comprising some forty-two thousand men.

Featured Image: Vietnam-era 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) Soldiers participate in 5th SFG(A)’s flash changeover ceremony at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, March 23, 2016. During the ceremony, 5th SFG(A) reinstated the Vietnam-era beret flash, adding a diagonal yellow stripe with three red stripes to the existing black and white background. The stripes pay homage to the Group’s history in the Vietnam War and its crucible under fire.

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