Today in military history: U-2 spy plane is shot down - We Are The Mighty
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: U-2 spy plane is shot down
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: Treaty of Paris formally ends Revolutionary War

On May 12, 1783, the Treaty of Paris took effect, ending the Revolutionary War and securing American independence from Great Britain.

While fighting had ended in 1781, the Treaty of Paris would take some time to complete. 

Negotiated between Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay of the United States and representatives of King George III of Great Britain over the course of a year, the treaty acknowledged the United States to be free, sovereign, and independent states (that is, the thirteen states listed) and it established the new boundaries of U.S. territory.

(Thomas Jefferson and Henry Laurens were also appointed to the negotiating committee, however Jefferson was not able to leave the United States for the treaty and Laurens had been held prisoner in the Tower of London until the end of the war, leaving Franklin, Adams, and Jay as principal negotiators.)

While England wanted to end the expensive (and failing) war, they resisted recognizing the independence of their colonies. The American delegation would accept nothing less than formal recognition of their new and independent country.

Today in military history: U-2 spy plane is shot down
Treaty of Paris, by Benjamin West (1783), depicts the United States delegation at the Treaty of Paris (left to right): John JayJohn AdamsBenjamin FranklinHenry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. The British delegation refused to pose, and the painting was never completed. (Public Domain)

The eight year war resulted in tens of thousands of deaths on both sides of the conflict, and while relations between the two countries would be tentative for the next century and a half, World War I would unite them in a special relationship that has been described as the “cornerstone of the modern, democratic world.”

Featured Image: Treaty of Paris, by Benjamin West (1783), depicts the United States delegation at the Treaty of Paris (left to right): John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. The British delegation refused to pose, and the painting was never completed.

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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: 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: U-2 spy plane is shot down
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: Paris liberated from Nazis

On Aug. 25, 1944, Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation.

In June 1940, Germany invaded France, and within two weeks, the French government fell and what remained signed an armistice with the Nazis, based in Vichy. 

However, General Charles de Gauille and Free French units who refused to join the Vichy kept fighting the good fight.

Four years later, after the Allied invasion of Normandy, de Galle convinced Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to employ the Free French 2nd Armored Division and 4th Infantry Division to liberate Paris, even though Hitler ordered that the city be leveled before allowing it to fall into Allied hands. 

The German defenders went so far as to lay explosives under Parisian landmarks and bridges, but General Dietrich von Choltitz ultimately refused, claiming he did not want to go be remembered for destroying the “City of Light.” 

Von Choltitz was arrested and formally surrendered Paris to de Galle, who would lead France intermittently until 1969. 

During the war, Hitler spent three hours in Paris, but spent four years occupying northern France until Allied Forces liberated Paris. During his brief tour, he instructed friend and architect Albert Speer to take note of the city’s design to recreate similar yet superior German buildings.

“Wasn’t Paris beautiful?” Hitler reportedly asked Speer. “But Berlin must be far more beautiful. When we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow.”

While sightseeing, Hitler also ordered the destruction of two French World War I monuments that reminded him of Germany’s bitter defeat. Thankfully, the Führer’s time in Paris — and on earth — came to an end.

Featured Image via German National Archive.

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: U-2 spy plane is shot down
(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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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: 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.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Abraham Lincoln is shot

On April 14, 1865, five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse and effectively ended the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer. President Lincoln would succumb to his wounds the next morning.  

Abraham Lincoln
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

The previous month, Booth and some fellow Confederate supporters hatched a failed plan to kidnap the president. As the South fell to the Union forces, Booth became more desperate and he devised a plan to assassinate the president in his private box above the stage of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. 

The president shared his box with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, army officer Henry Rathbone, and Rathbone’s fiancé Clara Harris. At 10:15pm, Booth snuck in and fired his .44-caliber single-shot derringer pistol point-blank at the president’s head and stabbed Rathbone in the shoulder before leaping on the stage and shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (The Latin translates to “Thus ever to tyrants” — it is the Virginia state motto). 

A doctor in the audience, 23 year-old Charles Leale, ran to the president, who was paralyzed and struggling to breathe. He was carried across the street to a boardinghouse where he was pronounced terminally wounded. He died the next morning at 7:22 am.

President Lincoln laid in state on a catafalque in the Capitol rotunda before he was interred on May 4, 1865, at Oak Ridge Cemetery near his home in Springfield, Illinois.

Booth broke his leg in the leap but hobbled to a horse and fled the scene. The resulting manhunt was one of the largest in history, with over 10,000 federal troops, police and detectives tracking him down. He was killed fleeing Union troops on April 26, while his co-conspirators were convicted and executed by hanging on July 7, 1865.

Lincoln Memorial
President Lincoln is immortalized in stone at the Lincoln Memorial, a treasured national monument.

President Lincoln’s legacy as the man who preserved the Union and set in motion the emancipation of all enslaved people in the United States endures to this day.

Featured Image: 4″x3″ slide depicting John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. 14 April 1865.

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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: 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)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: The B-52 BUFF makes its first test flight

The B-52 Stratofortress, also known as the Big Ugly Fat F*cker, or BUFF, first flew all the way back on April 15, 1952.

Yeah, that’s right. Today, the B-52 is old enough to collect Medicare. It’s dropped a lot of bombs, too, during the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and the War on Terror. 

Aviation historian Joe Baugher noted that the work on the BUFF started before the plane it was designed to replace, the B-36 Peacemaker, even took flight. The original design called for six turboprop engines and even then, the initial design wasn’t quite cutting the mustard.

Boeing kept at it, with help from legendary Air Force General Curtis LeMay. The advent of practical mid-air refueling also made the task easier. After several more iterations and more feedback from LeMay, Boeing finally came up with the Model 464-67, which was the genesis for the B-52 we know today.

On Feb. 14, 1951, the contracts were issued for the XB-52. The YB-52 (the Y standing for “prototype”) made its first flight on this date in 1952, just 14 months later. 

Today in military history: U-2 spy plane is shot down
A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker with the 927th Air Refueling Wing, Florida refuels a B-52 Stratofortress with the Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, on February 26, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tiffany A. Emery)

Even though the youngest B-52 in the Air Force rolled off the line in 1962, numerous upgrades have kept them flying and bombing with increased precision. The Air Force plans to keep them flying until at least 2040. 

Not bad for a Big Ugly Fat F*cker.

Featured Image: A B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 307th Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, La., approaches the refueling boom of a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base (U.S. Air Force image by Airman 1st Class Victor J. Caputo)

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Today in military history: Armistice ends the Spanish-American War

On Aug. 12, 1898, the Spanish-American War ended in armistice.

The Spanish-American War started after the USS Maine suddenly exploded in Havana Harbor in February 1898, an incident that was later found to be caused by faulty ship design but was blamed, at the time, on a Spanish mine. The resulting war was focused on Cuba, but the growing American military contested Spain across its empire, resulting in combat from the Atlantic to Pacific.

The conflict officially only lasted a few months, though its origins began three years before with Cuba’s rebellion from Spain. American sympathy for Cuba grew and U.S. intervention became inevitable after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor.

The battleship had been in Cuba to protect U.S. citizens and assets during anti-Spanish riots, and though Spain and Cuba soon after reached their own armistice, the U.S. Congress demanded more, including Cuba’s right to independence. 

The Spanish-American War began in late April, and in the following three months, the U.S. Navy would serve Spain a staunch defeat. Spain surrendered on July 17 and then on August 12, an armistice was signed. Finally, in December, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the three-month war, ceding Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the United States.

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