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

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)

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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.

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

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: Last US ground forces leave Vietnam

On Aug. 11, 1972, the last U.S. ground combat unit departed South Vietnam.

The American experience in Vietnam was a long and painful one for the nation. For those against the war, it appeared to be a meat grinder for draftees, unfairly targeting the poor, the uneducated, and minorities. For those in favor of the war and those who served in the military at the time, the American public and media were (and still are) misled about what happened during the war and so feel betrayed by many at home (Jane Fonda is the enduring symbol of the cultural schism).

After eight years of fighting the Vietnamese Communists, the United States withdrew the last of its combat units from the country, leaving behind some 43,500 advisors, airmen, and support troops, including nearby naval posturing.

As the war plummeted in popularity, President Nixon announced his intentions to “Vietnamize” the conflict. That is, enable South Vietnamese to assume more responsibility and gradually withdraw U.S. forces. 

The last of the American troops withdrew in 1973 and two years later, North and South Vietnam would be unified under Communist control.

More than 3 million people were killed in the conflict, including 58,220 Americans with another 150,000 wounded, in a war that divided the American public for decades. The war ended the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson and left a lasting impression on Richard Nixon’s. It was the backbone to the most tumultuous period in American history since before the Civil War one century prior.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Desmond Doss rescues 75 casualties one-by-one at Okinawa

On May 5, 1945, U.S. Army corporal Desmond Doss saved 75 men at the battle of Okinawa…all without the use of a weapon.

Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector in history to receive the Medal of Honor, went through a lot just to get the opportunity to serve his country. Since he refused to even touch a rifle, Doss had a tough time convincing his superiors to let him finish basic training, let alone ship off to war. 

Let’s just say there are at least 75 men that were glad the Army let Doss join up.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Doss was working at the Newport News Naval shipyard where he could have remained, had he requested a deferment. Instead, the Seventh-day Adventist volunteered to join the Army. His fellow soldiers weren’t too keen on having a conscientious objector in their midst — he was bullied, harassed, given extra duties, and even threatened by the other men in his unit. He remained steadfast: he just wanted to serve God and his country (in that order).

Through his expertise, however, the combat medic began to earn their trust. He answered the cry for “medic” on the islands of Guam, Leyte, and Okinawa, ignoring the danger of mortar shells and weapon fire around him.

On May 5, 1945, at the Battle of Okinawa, while Doss’ unit was fiercely attempting to capture the Maeda Escarpment — a final barrier to an Allied invasion of Japan — of an imposing rock face known as Hacksaw Ridge, enemy forces surprised the American troops with a vicious counterattack. The troops were ordered to retreat — but only less than one third of the men made it back down to safety.

Today in military history: Rhode Island is first state to declare independence
Two Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment during fighting at Wana Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa, May 1945. (Public Domain)

And one man defied orders completely. 

Doss single-handedly charged into the firefight to rescue as many of his fellow soldiers as he could. His determination and courage resulted in at least 75 lives saved that day.

Featured Image: President Harry S. Truman warmly shook the hand of Corporal Desmond Thomas Doss, and then held it the entire time his Medal of Honor citation was read aloud to those gathered outside the White House on October 12, 1945. “I’m proud of you,” Truman said. “You really deserve this. I consider this a greater honor than being president.” (Image via Desmond Doss Council)

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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: 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: 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.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: US troops land on Okinawa

On April 1, 1945, U.S. troops landed on the island of Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa would be the last major battle of World War II and — lasting until June 22, 1945 — one of the bloodiest. While it would result in an Allied victory, there were heavy losses on both sides.

After a long campaign of island hopping, the U.S. sought to seize Okinawa as a forward base for the planned invasion of mainland Japan. 50,000 troops from the 10th Army made the landing under the command of Army Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, whose father was a Confederate General during the Civil War. 

The 10th Army was a cross-branch force consisting of the 7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th infantry divisions of the U.S. Army with the 1st and 6th divisions of the Marine Corps.

Even before the landings, three American aircraft carriers were damaged and 116 planes were lost. The campaign to take Okinawa would last for 81 days and cost over 20,000 American lives. Among them would be General Buckner, who was the highest-ranking American officer killed during World War II.

Japan had over 75,000 troops defending the islands and also conscripted thousands of Okinawans, some of them as young as 14 years old. As many as 110,000 Japanese and Okinawans were killed.

Today in military history: Rhode Island is first state to declare independence

USS Idaho (BB-42), a New Mexico-class battleship, shells Okinawa on April 1, 1945. (United States Navy photograph, photographed from USS West Virginia (BB-48))

Seven Americans would receive the Medal of Honor for heroism during the campaign, including conscientious objector Desmond Doss, whose story hit the silver screen in Hacksaw Ridge, a film that won two Academy Awards.

The fierce struggle for Okinawa led the United States to reconsider plans to invade mainland Japan and look into options to either blockade Japan or starve it into submission. This led to the ultimate decision to use atomic bombs in August 1945 to force Japan’s surrender, finally ending World War II.

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Today in military history: US drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima

On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima.

U.S. President Harry Truman decided to use the atom bomb to force an unconditional surrender from Japan. At 8:16AM on Aug. 6, the B-29 bomber Enola Gay (named for her pilot’s mother) dropped the bomb known as “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, killing eighty thousand people instantly and another sixty thousand over the following weeks from the effects of the fallout.

Hiroshima was selected as a target to deliberately demonstrate the power of the weapon by causing the most physical destruction but also as a psychological attack against the people and decision-makers of Japan. 

The blast was so intense, human shadows are marked permanently on the ground and walls left standing. Radiation poisoning caused a significant number of deaths in the weeks following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The effects of radiation are varied, ranging from milder symptoms like gastrointestinal distress, fever, headaches and hair loss, but up to and including death. Because radiation can cause a drop in the number of blood cells produced, wounds heal more slowly than normal.

The effects were devastating but it would take a second atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki several days later before Emperor Hirohito finally surrendered, ending World War II. 

The pilot of the Enola Gay, Paul Tibbets, died in January 2007, after having retired from the Air Force in 1966. 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. 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 where he had flown so often during the war.

Featured Image: An atomic cloud rises over Hiroshima after the bomb is dropped. (509th Operations Group)

MIGHTY HISTORY

Today in military history: Battle of Antietam

On Sep. 17, 1862, Confederate rebels and Union troops fought the Battle of Antietam.

President Abraham Lincoln charged Major General George B. McClellan with the defense of Washington D.C. against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. 

Earlier in the month, Lee had divided his men, sending General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to capture Harper’s Ferry. After Jackson’s success, Lee decided to make a stand in Maryland at Antietam Creek. While nothing about Antietam Creek, located near Sharpsburg, Maryland, was of true strategic value, both commanders knew that the moment was crucial. Keeping France and England on the sidelines required a Union victory, while the Confederates needed a huge win to influence the Union elections.

The road to Antietam began when Lee marched his troops across the Potomac and into Union-aligned Maryland while attempting to influence the midterm elections of 1862. He was hopeful that a few decisive Confederate victories on Union soil could cause a surge in votes for candidates opposed to the war, potentially leading to the start of peace negotiations at home. He also had a shot at diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy from European powers, like England and France.

After two days of posturing, fighting began early in the morning on Sep. 17 and lasted well past sundown, with staggering casualties on both sides and no ground gained. The next day, both armies gathered their dead and wounded and Lee retreated south. 

It was the bloodiest one day battle in American history. When night finally fell, the two forces had suffered approximately 23,000 casualties with an estimated 4,000 killed, the worst loss of American life in a single day in history. To put that in perspective, approximately 2,500 Americans were killed taking Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day.

Featured Image: The bridge over Antietam Creek where much of the bloodiest fighting took place. (Library of Congress)

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