Today in military history: Pat Tillman is killed in Afghanistan - We Are The Mighty
Today in Military History

Today in military history: Pat Tillman is killed in Afghanistan

On April 22, 2004, former Arizona Cardinals safety and decorated Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed in an ambush near the Afghan-Pakistan border.

After four seasons as a star safety with the Cardinals, Tillman decided to step away from his successful football career to enlist in the Army in 2002, eight months after 9/11. Meanwhile, his brother Kevin walked away from a professional baseball contract with the Cleveland Indians to enlist as well. Both Tillman brothers were pinned as Army Rangers in late 2002. 

Pat Tillman would take part in the initial Iraq invasion as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and then redeployed to Afghanistan where he would be based out of FOB Salerno with the Ranger Battalion and courageously go out on several combat missions. 

In April of 2004, Tillman and his squad took heavy enemy contact. Surrounded, he was heard giving his men instruction on how to take the fight to the enemy and ordering them to take up their firing positions. 

During the fight, Tillman was fatally wounded and killed. 

He posthumously received the Silver Star and Purple Heart, which were respectfully presented to his family. 

In his memory, the Pat Tillman Foundation was created by Tillman’s family and friends in order to carry forward his legacy of service. Their mission is to unite and empower remarkable military service members, veterans and spouses as the next generation of public and private sector leaders committed to service beyond self.

Today in military history: Pat Tillman is killed in Afghanistan
Airmen from the 39th Operations Support Squadron pose for a group photo before embarking on a 40-mile bike ride, April 22, 2020, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. The bike ride was held to honor former NFL player and U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who died in Afghanistan April 22, 2004. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrea Salazar)

$20 million have been invested to date in Tillman Scholars, military service members, veterans and spouses with a high potential for impact as demonstrated through a proven track record of leadership, the continued pursuit of education and the commitment of their resources to service beyond self. 

Today in Military History

Today in military history: 173rd Airborne Brigade deploys to Vietnam

On May 3, 1965, the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to South Vietnam. They were the first U.S. Army ground unit committed to the war that would rage on for eight divisive and deadly years for the United States and ten more years for Vietnam

In the 1950s, tensions were rising between the United States and Communist countries like the Soviet Union and North Korea. Working under the “domino theory,” which held that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, many other countries would follow, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy provided aid to South Vietnam and stopped just short of military intervention on the peninsula. 

After the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was hard-pressed to avoid war — he ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam and deployed Operation Rolling Thunder, a series of air strikes, the following year.

Finally, on May 3rd, 1965, the Airborne Brigade deployed to Vietnam from Okinawa. Their mission was to hold off Communist forces from reaching the Saigon-Bien Hoa complex. Over the next several months, the 173rd was involved in numerous airborne operations and fought a major battle at Dak against an entrenched N.V.A. Army Regiment on Hill 875 – capturing it on Thanksgiving Day. The victory earned them the Presidential Unit Citation for bravery in action. The Brigade withdrew from combat operations in country six years later.

Leader of173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam
U.S. Taiwan Defense Command Commander Vice Admiral Melson (left) and the officer presiding over the Tien Bing No. 4 exercise, General Williamson (right), are having a conversation on stage.
(Public Domain)

They suffered 1,606 killed in action while 12 of their paratroopers earned the Medal of Honor.

More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War, and more than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians. 

Featured Image: 173rd Airborne Brigade Paratroopers along the Song Be near War Zone D, March 1966.

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Today in military history: Americans and Soviets unite against Germany

On April 25, 1945, Eight Russian armies linked up with the American troops on the western bank of the Elbe river. Germany was, for all intents and purposes, Allied territory. The end of fighting on the Eastern Front of World War II was in sight.

This event signaled the first contact between Soviet and American troops after years of fierce fighting. Both forces successfully cut through multiple Wehrmacht divisions and met in the middle of Torgau, Germany.

The Allied powers had effectively cut Germany in two. 

By the 27th, the American and Soviet armies met for a photo op to reenact the meeting, and the Allied powers released statements in London, Moscow, and Washington, reassuring the world that the Third Reich was in its final days.

Although the date isn’t an official holiday, that doesn’t mean it isn’t celebrated. In 2015, 70 years after the original encounter, American and Soviet military units met up once again at the very site of the first meeting to reenact the historic event.

Happy Elbe Day!

Featured Image: In an arranged photo commemorating the meeting of the Soviet and American armies, 2nd Lt. William Robertson (U.S. Army) and Lt. Alexander Silvashko (Red Army) stand facing one another with hands clasped and arms around each other’s shoulders. In the background are two flags and a poster. (National Archives image)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: NATO is established

On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Alliance was founded in the aftermath of World War II. The Alliance served three main purposes: to deter Soviet expansionism, to promote peace and deter nationalist militarism in Europe, and to encourage European political integration. 

“The aftermath of World War II saw much of Europe devastated in a way that is now difficult to envision. Approximately 36.5 million Europeans had died in the conflict, 19 million of them civilians. Refugee camps and rationing dominated daily life. In some areas, infant mortality rates were one in four. Millions of orphans wandered the burnt-out shells of former metropolises. In the German city of Hamburg alone, half a million people were homeless,” reports official declassified NATO records.

Meanwhile, Communism was gaining momentum as history pointed toward the impending Cold War and the Soviet Union turned its attention on the weakened German capital of Berlin. Europe depended on strong North American support — and luckily, the U.S. was abandoning its former tendency of diplomatic isolation.

In April, 1949, several Western European democracies came together to implement various projects for a peaceful and stable European continent. The North Atlantic Treaty was the first step in this process, wherein the Allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all” and that following such an attack, each Ally would take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force” in response.

This would be put to the test during the Korean War from 1950-1953, where NATO members coordinated defenses and integrated attacks through a centralized headquarters. Throughout the 1950s and the Cold War, the threat of the United States’ nuclear arsenal helped deter large-scale nuclear attacks and perhaps even mitigated some Soviet aggression within Europe.

The Alliance started with 12 member countries in 1949 and today boasts 29 members, remaining the largest peacetime military alliance in the world. 

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Robert E. Lee resigns from US Army after Virginia secedes from the Union

On April 20, 1861, Col. Robert E. Lee resigned from the United States Army in response to his home state of Virginia’s decision to secede from the Union. 

Fort Monroe, Hampton Lee's early duty station
Fort Monroe, Robert Lee’s early duty station

Two days before, he was offered command of the Union Army, but Lee chose a different path. While he opposed secession, he remained loyal to the state of Virginia, though not without regrets. While many look back upon Lee as an honorable man and exceptional military commander, it cannot go overlooked that his deliberation had nothing to do with the plight of the enslaved souls in the South — only his loyalties to the country he would abandon and the men he served with.

In his letter to General Winfield Scott, Lee wrote:

General ,

Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance.  

It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life & all the ability I possessed.  

During the whole of that time, more than 30 years, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, & the most cordial friendship from my companions. To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness & consideration, & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation.  

I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me. Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.  

Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me most truly yours 

R. E. Lee 

Robert E. Lee around age 43, when he was a brevet lieutenant-colonel of engineers, c. 1850

On April 22, Lee was promoted to the rank of major general and appointed commander of Virginia’s forces. The following year, he would assume command of the Army of Northern Virginia and he would go down in history as one of the most renowned military tacticians and generals of all time — though others have likened him to “the moral equivalent of Hitler’s brilliant field marshal Erwin Rommel.”

After four long years of civil war, on April 9, 1865, General Lee would surrender his forces to Union General Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse, effectively ending the war at last.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: President Truman relieves General MacArthur of duty

On April 11, 1951, President Truman relieved General of the Army Douglas MacArthur of duty during the Korean War. 

MacArthur, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, was considered a master of the art and execution of warfare. And by many accounts, he had the ego and arrogance to match. He was best known for his brilliance in both the Pacific theater of World War II and the Korean War, but he also had his share of missteps. 

Meanwhile, Truman had had an exceptionally difficult six years in the White House, beginning with replacing the iconic Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and making the call to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. He was committed to limiting the scope of the Korean War — and that’s where the two started to butt heads. 

MacArthur, simply put, sought to win. In his mind, that meant pushing further North and bombing the MiG bases in Manchuria, even if that meant bringing in Chinese Nationalist troops.

Things came to a head when MacArthur ordered the launch of an offensive on April 5, 1951. Two days later, American ships were sent off Formosa, trolling China. After the offensive launched, Truman met with senior advisors, who agreed MacArthur had to go, but warned it would be controversial.

On April 11, Truman relieved MacArthur to preserve civilian control of the military. MacArthur would receive some hype as a possible candidate for President, but ultimately he wouldn’t run. Instead, after a speech to Congress where he said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” he went into retirement until his death in 1964.

Featured Image:  President Truman and General MacArthur shake hands at Wake Island, 15 October 1950. (Image courtesy of of the Harry S. Truman Library)

Today in Military History

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.

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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Today in military history: Union issues conduct code defining laws of combat for Civil War

On April 24, 1863, President Lincoln issued “General Orders No. 100: Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field.” Commonly referred to as the “Lieber Code” after its primary author Francis (Franz) Lieber, it dictated how soldiers should conduct themselves in wartime. The main sections concerned martial law, military jurisdiction, and the treatment of spies, deserters and prisoners of war.

The Lieber Code remains the basis of most regulations for the laws of war for the United States and many other countries who used it as a template for the codification of laws of war. Before the Lieber Code, the conduct of countries and combatants was mostly based on customs, which could vary widely from country to country. The Lieber Code is the first modern attempt to codify agreed upon laws of armed conflict and humanitarian law.

The Lieber Code was prepared by international lawyer Franz Lieber, who emigrated from Germany to the United States after being imprisoned as an “enemy of the state” due to his liberal nationalist views. In the United States, he became a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, where he soon began to feel like an outsider due to his opposition to slavery. He moved to New York to teach at Columbia University and Columbia Law School, where he lectured on constitutional questions relating to times of war.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, President Lincoln wanted to provide instructions to Union officers about the treatment of Confederate soldiers. He turned to Lieber for guidance about issues such as whether Confederates should be treated as traitors subject to the death penalty or as prisoners of war as well as the treatment of “fugitives” fleeing enslavement.
Lieber and a committee of four generals came together to draw up a manual to address these concerns; the instructions were endorsed by Lincoln on April 24, 1863, and distributed to all Union commanders in the field. According to historical records, the Confederate government would also adopt some of the rules in the Lieber Code as well.

Today in Military History

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: Pat Tillman is killed in Afghanistan
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.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Wilson asks Congress to declare war

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, bringing the United States into the first World War.

America had been committed to neutrality in the ‘Great War,’ but tensions between the United States and Germany were already high by 1917. At the start of the war, German U-Boats were aggressively attacking shipping vessels. In 1915, a U-Boat sank the British luxury liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 civilians — including 128 Americans.

Germany knew that American industrial might and manpower would tip the scales for the Allied powers, so they backed off on their attacks after sinking the Lusitania. But in 1917 they resumed their provocation, hoping to break the stalemate on the Western Front. 

President Wilson was not happy.

The German Foreign Minister then made matters worse for Germany by sending a telegram to the German Embassy in Mexico, instructing them to offer Mexico a military alliance in the event of a German-American war. The British intercepted the telegram, and their codebreakers decrypted this piece of political dynamite.

The United States had already broken off diplomatic ties with Germany in wake of the recent submarine attacks. The telegram was publicly released on February 28, and to everyone’s surprise, the Germans openly admitted the telegram was genuine.

Over the course of that month, five American ships were sunk by German U-boats. That led President Wilson to ask Congress to declare war on Germany. 

Wilson declared, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” 

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

Today in Military History

Today in military history: USS Joyce sinks German U-Boat off New York coast

On April 16, 1944, the Coast Guard-manned destroyer USS Joyce sank a German U-boat off the coast of New York.

On the morning of April 16th, the USS Joyce — a US Navy destroyer manned by the Coast Guard — was escorting a convoy leaving New York harbor and bound for the United Kingdom. The North Atlantic was fertile hunting ground for German U-Boats, and large convoys were particularly tempting targets. 

Today in military history: Pat Tillman is killed in Afghanistan
USS Joyce at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, CA (US Navy Photo)

Just the previous month, the Joyce braved two U-Boat attacks to rescue survivors from the USS Leopold, which was torpedoed while investigating a radar contact. Little did they know, they were about to get their revenge.

That afternoon, the gasoline tanker SS Pan-Pennsylvania was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-550, and set aflame while joining the convoy.

With all hands on deck, the USS Joyce headed west along with the USS Petersen to support the damaged ship. They picked up 31 survivors, including the tanker’s captain. Then they went hunting. 

At full speed, the pair of ships moved into position. The USS Joyce detected U-550’s sonar and deployed depth charges that bracketed the German submarine. 

Today in military history: Pat Tillman is killed in Afghanistan
A U.S. Navy Lockheed VW-2 flies over the radar-picket destroyer escort USS Joyce (DER-317), in the 1950s. (US Navy Photo)

One bounced off the submarine’s deck before it exploded, damaging the enemy vessel and forcing it to resurface.

The nearby USS Gandy opened fire and rammed the surfaced U-Boat, then all three destroyers opened fire. The U-550 surrendered, but the crew scuttled her before she could be boarded and seized. 

The Joyce rescued 13 survivors from the U-550, including the ship’s captain. The rest went down with the ship.

Featured Image: Aft plan view of Joyce at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, CA. March 9, 1951 (U.S. Navy photo).

Today in Military History

Today in military history: John Paul Jones sets out to raid British ships

On April 10, 1778, the Father of the American Navy John Paul Jones set out to raid British ships.

An accomplished merchant sailor, John Paul Jones volunteered for Continental Navy service in 1775. He was commissioned as an officer and quickly placed as lieutenant and second-in-command of Esek Hopkins’ flagship Alfred. Jones was extremely successful in early cruises, capturing 16 British vessels in a single cruise after taking command of the Providence.

But Jones had an ambitious plan for the young Continental Navy. Rather than fighting on the American coastline, ensuring that Britain would send additional ships to America where they could provide support to land commanders, he would sail to Europe and fight British ships there, forcing them to pull ships in the Americas back to England.

On April 10, 1778, Jones set his plan into action and sailed from France for the British Isles and the Irish Sea. Jones and his men attacked the British port of Whitehaven Harbor and then his former home in Kirkcudbright Bay, Scotland.

In Scotland, he attempted to abduct the local Earl, but contented himself with stealing the silver instead when he discovered that the Earl wasn’t home. The legend says he even stole the Earl’s teapot from his wife with her morning tea still inside.

Jones went on to fight legendary battles for the U.S., including his victory against two British warships escorting gold from the West Indies to Britain. He is remembered as the “Father of the American Navy” and is buried at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Featured Image: John Paul Jones seizing the silver plate of Lady Selkirk (Henry Davenport Northrop, Library of Congress)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: 3rd US Infantry troops enter Baghdad

On April 5, 2003, on the 18th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 3rd Infantry Division entered the city of Baghdad in a show of force that would leave hundreds of enemy soldiers dead and smoldering ruins of Iraqi vehicles and weaponry in their wake.

The 3rd Infantry Division, nicknamed “The Rock of the Marne” for its steadfast defense in the face of numerically superior enemy forces in France during World War I, was sent to the border of Iraq on March 20, 2003, and then served as the vanguard unit in the invasion of Iraq. Over the ensuing weeks, U.S. troops systematically dismantled the military of Iraq President Saddam Hussein in what is known as the Battle of Baghdad.

On April 3, the 3rd ID assaulted Baghdad International Airport as American forces prepared to seal off the city and make their final assault on Hussein’s last citadel, while Baghdad residents fled on foot or in packed cars.

On April 5, the historic division entered Baghdad through a series of coordinated attacks meant to “dismember the city zone by zone so that each of these zones [would fall] under the control of the U.S. Army,” according to CNN Correspondent Walter Rodgers. The footage of tanks and fighting vehicles entering the city were broadcast around the world.

Today in military history: Pat Tillman is killed in Afghanistan
(The statue of Saddam Hussein topples in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003.)

Days later, coalition forces tore down an iconic statue of the Iraqi dictator and continued pushing their way into the city.

For the next few days, the men and women of the 3rd ID and other U.S. forces enacted a siege of the city and hunted down the military resistance. By April 9th, the coalition was occupying the city, instead of sieging it.

While the city had fallen, a war with a criminal insurgency was just beginning and would rage until the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.

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