Today in military history: The US enters WWI - We Are The Mighty
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: Rhode Island is first state to declare independence

On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island became the first state to declare independence.

Even before the official declaration, Rhode Islanders had spent more than a decade attacking British ships. The colony depended on rum to trade to the West Indies for cash and when Parliament passed the Sugar Act of 1764 — a law that attempted to curb the smuggling of sugar and molasses in the colonies by reducing the previous tax rate and enforcing the collection of duties — angry Rhode Islanders attacked a British customs ship. 

On May 4, 1776, a full two months before the other colonies got around to signing the famous Declaration of Independence, the General Assembly of the Colony of Rhode Island was near unanimous in its vote for independence from Great Britain. 

Two days after the May 4 vote, Rhode Island’s governor sent a letter to General George Washington informing him of the result. When Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4 of that year, he remarked, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.” 

Today in military history: The US enters WWI
Painting illustrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (Pixabay, unknown author.)

While Delaware was technically the first state in the Union after it ratified the modern Constitution, Rhode Island remains the first to cast off the shackles of British tyranny.

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APRIL 9: Today in military history: General Robert E. Lee Surrenders

On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the American Civil War.

America’s bloodiest war had raged for almost four years, and things were looking grim for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Today in military history: The US enters WWI
Robert E. Lee

A week earlier, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant had made a breakthrough at Petersburg, forcing Lee to make a desperate run to try to link up with Confederate General Joe Johnston, who had a substantial force.

The problem was that Lee’s 28,000 men had been chased by Grant’s force of about 150,000. Things had gotten worse when three supply trains had been burned by Union cavalry under George Armstrong Custer. Lee’s only hope was to fight his way to Lynchburg, Virginia.

Grant was not about to let Lee get there. He had already asked Lee to discuss terms of surrender twice. Lee had refused both times.

Grant was ready for another fight. However, Major General Phil Sheridan’s cavalry was already blocking Lee’s escape, and two more Corps raced to join them.

On the morning of April 9, Lee’s army realized they had been surrounded after a brief skirmish. 

He told one of his officers, “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” Lee said in response. He then asked Grant to meet to discuss terms. Within hours, the two generals met at Appomattox Court House.

General Grant famously told his officers, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.” It would be another two months before word reached Texas, where people were still enslaved in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation nearly two and a half years before.

After four violent years, the Civil War had ended, with over 624,500 Americans dead.

Featured Image: Lee’s surrender 1865. ‘Peace in Union.’ Reproduction of a painting by Thomas Nast, which was completed thirty years after the surrender.

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APRIL 8: Today in military history: The Japanese take Bataan

On April 8, 1942, the Japanese captured the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. The next day, the U.S. surrendered the peninsula to the Japanese, leaving the approximately 75,000 Filipino and American troops on Bataan to the mercy of their captors, who forced the brutal 65-mile trek to prison camps known as the Bataan Death March.

The Japanese Imperial Forces’ attack on Pearl Harbor in Dec. 1941 is perhaps the most infamous attack of a much larger campaign unleashed on U.S. and Allied Forces across the Pacific. The day after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched an invasion against the Philippines, capturing the capital within a month. 

Over the following months, U.S. forces fought desperately to hold the islands, but by April 6, they were fighting against overwhelming odds as defensive lines were destroyed or ordered to withdraw before they could be fully occupied. Crippled by disease, starvation, and lack of supplies, the U.S. defense was deteriorating.

On the morning of April 8, the U.S. was fortifying new positions on the Alangan River in an attempt to form one last safe space from which to fight when Japanese planes began hitting the line and forced the withdrawal of the infantry and tanks on the right side of the line.

That night, the U.S. dug a final line of defense at the Lamao River only to discover that the Japanese already held ground on their flank. 

Forces were redistributed to try and stem the tide, but U.S. Navy sailors were sent to destroy the remaining stockpiles of ammunition and other material before it could be captured. The siege of Bataan was essentially over — and the Japanese had won.

The next day, U.S. forces surrendered and the Japanese forced the survivors, including 12,000 Americans, on the cruel march to the prison camps in San Fernando. Thousands of prisoners died along the way at the hands of their captors, who starved, beat, and bayoneted the marchers. Thousands more would die from disease, abuse, and starvation in the prison camps.

Featured Image: This picture, captured from the Japanese, shows American prisoners using improvised litters to carry those of their comrades who, from the lack of food or water on the march from Bataan, fell along the road.” Philippines, May 1942.

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Today in military history: The M16 comes under fire in Vietnam

On May 23, 1967, the M16 went under fire for letting troops down in Vietnam.

The Army began to issue M16s to infantry units in 1965, but the rifle routinely failed when troops needed it most. The crisis gained national attention when Congressman James J. Howard went to the floor of the House of Representatives to read a letter from a Marine in Vietnam.

The letter claimed that many of the casualties suffered during the Battle of Hill 881 were due to malfunctions of the M16 rifle.

The resulting controversy spurred a Congressional investigation. The Army soon found many of the rifles were delivered without cleaning kits and that soldiers and Marines were told that the rifle was “self-cleaning.” The rifle had also received new powder in its 5.56mm cartridges that also caused problems. 

Troops hated the M16 so much, they started calling it the Mattel 16 “because it was made of plastic,” said Marine veteran Jim Wodecki. “At that time it was a piece of garbage.”

“We hated it,” added Marine veteran John Culbertson. “Because if it got any grime or corruption or dirt in it, which you always get in any rifle out in the field, it’s going to malfunction.”

The troops started using cleaning kits from other weapons to unjam their rifles.

“The shells ruptured in the chambers and the only way to get the shell out was to put a cleaning rod in it,” said Wodecki. “So you can imagine in a firefight trying to clean your weapon after two or three rounds. It was a nightmare for Marines at the time.

The M16A1 fixed the problems with a chrome-plated chamber among other improvements. The new rifles were even shipped with a comic-book style manual by legendary graphic novelist Will Eisner.

The improved model proved incredibly reliable, and the M16A4 is in service with our troops today.

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Today in military history: George Washington protests taxation without representation

On May 17, 1769, George Washington brought a list of resolutions to the Virginia colony legislature, subverting British taxation without representation. This act of protest would eventually lead to the armed uprising of the American Revolution.

Voicing frustration felt by many colonists at the time, George Washington brought a stack of retaliatory measures to the floor of the Virginia legislature. Largely in response to the Townshend Acts of 1767, a series of laws passed by the British government on the American colonies that placed new taxes on imports such as paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea. As the colonists had no representation in parliament, these restrictions began to chafe at the colonies.

George Washington’s “non-importation resolutions,” drafted by George Mason, proposed that Virginians should minimize their use of any of the imported goods in an attempt to force Great Britain to rethink the taxes.  

The royal governor dissolved the Virginia legislature but Washington and the other representatives simply went to the house of Alexander Hayes and passed the resolution there on May 18.

While the resolution itself was mainly symbolic, other colonies followed with their own resolutions to show solidarity with Massachusetts, where violent protests against the Townshend Acts had led to a British military occupation of Boston beginning in 1768.

The sentiment against taxation without representation would later snowball into physical protests such as the Boston Tea Party. Finally, tensions came to a boiling point and the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775.

Featured Image: The earliest authenticated portrait of George Washington shows him wearing his colonel’s uniform of the Virginia Regiment from the French and Indian War. The portrait was painted about 12 years after Washington’s service in that war, and several years before he would re-enter military service in the American Revolution. Oil on canvas by Charles Willson Peale.

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Today in military history: RMS Lusitania torpedoed by German Submarine

On May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat.

From the first shots of the Great War, Germany was desperate to gain an upper hand by any means necessary. They warned the world that their submarines patrolling the North Atlantic would target any ships belonging to Great Britain or her allies. Germany stated that anyone sailing in the waters around Great Britain did so at their own risk.

On May 7, at just after 2 PM local time, the Lusitania was bound for Liverpool from New York, when two German torpedoes hit the starboard side of the ship near the bridge. The Lusitania went down — and took 1,198 people to the bottom with her in under 18 minutes.

Despite the German warning, with 128 Americans dead aboard the sunken ship, President Woodrow Wilson rejected the German explanation for the sinking in a series of notes to the German government. 

Privately, the Lusitania incident turned the President against Germany, convincing him that America should soon be a British ally. It became a key motivator for America’s entry into World War One nearly two years later when, on April 2, 1917, President Wilson would ask Congress to declare war on Germany.

117,465 Americans would be killed in The War to End All Wars.

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Today in military history: Israel declares independence

On May 14, 1948, Israel declared independence, triggering an invasion from neighboring Arab states.

After World War I, the British and French divided the former Ottoman Empire territory in the Middle East. Legitimized by the young League of Nations, the British controlled what was then called the Mandate of Palestine. The day the British left, Israel declared its statehood.

After World War II, the British told the United Nations they intended to leave Palestine on May 14, 1948. British rule in the area was practically nonexistent at this time, and the UN’s partition plan intended to divide the area between its Arab and Jewish residents could not be enforced.

After the British left Jerusalem for Haifa, the future Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, declared the Jewish State of Israel. Over the next few days, thousands of Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Trans-Jordanian, and Egyptian troops poured over the borders to attack the young country.

Fighting raged until February 1949, when the UN brokered a ceasefire, ending the war, cementing Israel’s statehood, and starting decades of conflict and instability in the region.

Featured Image: David Ben-Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel) publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14 1948, Tel Aviv, Israel, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art building on Rothshild St. The exhibit hall and the scroll, which was not yet finished, were prepared by Otte Wallish.

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Today in military history: Germans ambush allies during secret Normandy landings practice

On April 28, 1944, German E-boats ambushed allied forces during a secret dress rehearsal for the historic Normandy landings called “Exercise Tiger.” 

Exercise Tiger was one of the largest scale training operations for the D-Day invasion, and for obvious reasons, it was a major hush-hush operation.

Still, nine German E-boats caught sight of the exercise in the early morning hours of April 28th and opened fire. 

They attacked a convoy of eight large tank landing ships, or LSTs, the vessels the allies would use to deliver vehicles and landing troops on D-Day. Only one of the two ships assigned to protect the convoy was present. The other was undergoing repairs.

The German E-Boats attacked four LSTs before they were driven away. 749 allied servicemen were killed in the attack. For perspective, only 197 servicemen were killed on Utah Beach during the actual D-Day landing. 

Additionally, ten officers involved in the exercise had intimate knowledge of the D-Day plan, but luckily, none were captured by the Germans.

Despite the tragic loss of life, many historians believe that lessons learned from the surprise ambush at Exercise Tiger contributed to the eventual success of the June 6th D-Day landing.

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Today in military history: Battle of Alamance preludes Revolutionary War

On May 16, 1771, the Battle of Alamance ended the War of the Regulation, a colonial war that some say was the start of the American Revolution.

By 1771, tensions were boiling in the colonies. A group of North Carolinian rebels calling themselves “the Regulators” began to openly fight against Crown officials they believed were corrupt. For decades, farmers had protested excessive fees and high taxes they were required to pay to local sheriffs and the colonial government. They demanded changes to the laws and began resisting and harassing local officials they deemed to be taking advantage of them.

On May 16, 1771, 2,000 Regulators met Royal Governor William Tyron and his 1,000-strong colonial militia at Alamance, in the western part of the colony. The Regulators demanded an audience with the Governor to discuss their differences; Tyron refused unless the Regulators agreed to disarm themselves. 

Governor Tyron’s goal was to end what he saw as open rebellion and a refusal to obey local laws. After sending two warnings to the Regulator army to surrender, Tyron marched his force forward. 

Today in military history: The US enters WWI
Only known likeness of Gov. William Tryon. (Public Domain)

The Regulators had zero training, little ammunition, and no cannons. Their best hope was to fight as they’d seen Native Americans fighting: avoiding lines and formations and shooting from behind tree lines. 

The battle lasted two hours. Tyron and the militia answered the Regulators’ bullets with cannon fire. The militia were organized while some of the Regulators were reported to have simply left the field of battle when they ran out of munition. Nonetheless, both sides suffered. 

Today in military history: The US enters WWI
Painting of the Battle of Alamance (YouTube)

The casualty count for the Regulators is unknown but nine militiamen died on the field of battle and over sixty more were wounded. In the immediate aftermath, leaders amongst the Regulators were given ad hoc trials. Fourteen were tried, twelve were convicted, and seven were hanged for treason.

The rest were promised amnesty on the condition that they took an oath of allegiance. In the next two weeks, 6,409 complied.

But many say that this was the beginning of the Jeffersonian-thinking that “a government that exercises the least control over its people governs best,” hinting at the earth-changing war to come.

Featured Image: Image From North Carolina Museum of History; “Battle of Alamance” Postcard Circa 1905-1915, by artist, J. Steeple Davis

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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: The US enters WWI
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)

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Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels

On April 3, 1776, Congress authorized Privateers to attack British vessels. 

Pop quiz: you’re the Continental Congress, and it’s 1776. There’s a bunch of British ships out there that need sinking, but you’re a young nation and you don’t have the dubloons to build a proper Navy. What do you do? You hire pirates.

Well, technically “Privateers.” What’s the difference between Pirates and Privateers? To the people they were attacking, not much… 

In a bill signed by President of the Continental Congress John Hancock, commanders of private ships or vessels of war were given authorization to capture British vessels and cargoes, with the exception of ships carrying new settlers and “friends of the American cause.”

Today in military history: The US enters WWI

Fun fact: Old manuscripts such as this 18th Century declaration made use of “the long s” — written as ſ — which is a ye olde variation of the lowercase s. You have my permission to pronounce “vessels” as “veffels” as much as it pleases you, but rest assured, our forefathers weren’t lisping in such documents.

Privateers were permitted to, “by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to the Inhabitants of Great Britain, on the high seas, or between high-water and low-water Marks, except Ships and Vessels bringing Persons who intend to settle and reside in the United Colonies, or bringing Arms, Ammunition or Warlike Stores to the said Colonies, for the Use of such Inhabitants thereof as are Friends to the American Cause, which you shall suffer to pass unmolested, the Commanders thereof permitting a peaceable Search, and giving satisfactory Information of the Contents of the Ladings, and Destinations of the Voyages.” 

The privateers would still board and capture ships by force, which happened pretty often. If they captured a ship, any and all booty was split between the privateers and the government that hired them. 

The main difference between privateers and run-of-the-mill pirates is that legit privateers had a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, which was an official document stating that they were acting on behalf of the United States. 

If captured, pirates were often executed, whereas privateers that held a Letter of Marque were treated as prisoners of war, instead of criminals.

By this time, the Revolutionary War had been waging since fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Tension would continue to rise until the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and officially separated from Great Britain.

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Today in military history: The War of 1812 begins

On June 18, 1812, the War of 1812 began.

Impressment of American sailors, a desire to expand American territory, and some good, old-fashioned high-seas fighting created enough tension between young America and Great Britain to spark the war that would almost become a footnote in the aggressors’ history books. Europeans wouldn’t even think of it as its own war — they think of the conflict as an extension of the Napoleonic Wars.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a significant conflict. Both sides suffered thousands of casualties and, notably, the White House was burned down two years after fighting began.

In 1812, Great Britain had been attempting to restrict American trade routes while also attacking and impressing U.S. sailors. No, not that kind of “impressing” — the kind of impressment that forced American men to serve in the British military.

One of the weaknesses of American society at the time was the institution of slavery, a weakness the British would attempt to exploit at every opportunity. The British Admiralty declared that any resident of the United States who wished to settle in His Majesty’s colonies would be welcome to do so. All they had to do was appear before the British Army or Navy. American slaveholders believed it was an attempt to incite a slave revolt, which it may have been. Nonetheless, the British transported thousands of former slaves back to Africa, the Caribbean, and even Canadian Nova Scotia. Some even joined the British Colonial Marines, a fighting force of ex-slaves deployed by the British against the Americans.

The war eventually ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. All occupied territory was returned and relations between the two countries remained peaceful until their alliance in World War I joined the two countries in a bonded relationship that lasts to this day.

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