The Essex-class aircraft carrier is arguably one of the most successful carrier designs in the history of the world. None of these vessels were lost in combat, and the United States built 24 of these ships. Eight more were cancelled at the end of World War II, including two, USS Reprisal (CV 35) and USS Iwo Jima (CV 47) that had been partially completed.
Some of these ships had close calls. None more so than USS Franklin (CV 13). Even though she had the fifth hull number in the class, GlobalSecurity.org notes that she was the eighth to be commissioned.
According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, the Franklin just missed the Battle of the Philippine Sea, arriving to join the Pacific Fleet on the last day of June. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, she helped to sink the Japanese super-battleship Musashi, the destroyer Wakaba, and the carriers Chitose and Zuiho.
Shortly after that battle, Franklin was hit by a kamikaze, killing 56 of her crew and wounding 60. She ended up sailing back to Bremerton, Washington, for repairs. By February, she was ready to rejoin the fleet in time for the invasion of Okinawa. She arrived on March 15, 1945.
Four days later, the Franklin was hit again. This time, it would create a catastrophic inferno. Two semi-armor piercing bombs went deep into the ship, one detonating in the hangar deck, the other causing ammunition, bombs, and rockets to explode. Of the ship’s crew, 724 were killed, 256 were wounded. Many survivors were either forced to abandon the ship or were blown overboard.
But the 106 officers and 604 men who were left followed the Navy’s famous admonition: Don’t Give Up the Ship. Numerous acts of individual heroism by many individuals, including Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O’Callahan, ChC (SJ) USNR, the ship’s chaplain, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Donald A. Gary, got the ship back to New York, where she was repaired and remained in reserve until 1964.
You can see more about this gallant carrier’s epic tale of survival below.
On Jan. 23, 1943, an Italian POW named Felice Benuzzi, who was being held by the British in Africa, escaped.
But for a very peculiar reason.
Once free of the wire, Benuzzi and two other prisoners who escaped with him spent the next two weeks working their way up the south side of the nearby 17,000-foot Mt. Kenya, their only map a sketch of the mountain they found on a can of Oxo corned beef.
Then they returned to the POW camp.
A member of the Italian Colonial Service, Benuzzi was taken prisoner when the British liberated Ethiopia in 1941 and was imprisoned beneath Mt. Kenya in Camp 354, a camp for civilian POWs. There he encountered the mountain, the first 17,000-foot peak he had ever seen. In his 1952 book about the camp and the mountain, No Picnic on Mt. Kenya, Benuzzi said he “fell in love” with the mountain the first time he saw it.
Not so the camp.
He quickly became bored with the routine and the inactivity of Camp 354, a huge camp that could accommodate up to 10,000 prisoners.
“The sole activity for this host of people was to wander round the camp… They just walk and stop when they see other people talking. Then they stay for a while and join in the conversation,” Benuzzi wrote.
He quickly decided he had to take some action — do something to stay sane. He had been a mountaineer in the Alps before the war, and he decided the something he would do was climb Mt. Kenya.
He recruited another prisoner, Giuàn Balleto, a doctor and (like Benuzzi) a mountaineer before the war, and the two men set about making, buying, and stealing the equipment and food they would need to tackle the mountain.
They hoarded what they could from their rations and stopped smoking so they could use the cigarettes to buy supplies and food from other prisoners. They made crampons from steel taken from a scrapped automobile and an oven cover, ice-axes from hammers, and ax-handles that doubled as tent poles.
At the last minute, they recruited a third man, Enzo Barsotti, a non-mountaineer who would help with the escape and climb, but would not be in on the attempt at the summit.
“The only reason we decided to [recruit] him,” Benuzzi wrote, “was because he was universally thought to be mad as a hatter, and mad people were what we needed.”
When they were finally ready, they simply walked out of the camp through a gate that opened into the camp gardens using a key they had stolen and copied, accompanied by another prisoner disguised as a British officer. The three men holed up in a shed near the gardens until dark, dug up the supplies and equipment they had hidden there earlier, and began working their way up the mountain.
They had also left a note for the camp commander explaining what they were doing and promising to return.
They spent a week climbing to about 14,000 feet where they established a base camp and where Barsotti, who was by then suffering from altitude sickness, remained while the other two men headed to the summit.
But as Benuzzi and Balleto continued on, a storm blew in and the limitations of their homemade equipment became obvious. They made it to over 16,000 feet but could go no farther. There, they left an Italian flag they made for the purpose and a piece of paper with heir names sealed in an empty brandy bottle.
They then headed back to the base camp and – after a brief rest – began their descent, finally slipping back into Camp 354 as part of a work party.
When they were discovered, they were each sentenced to twenty-eight days solitary confinement, but were released after seven days, Benuzzi wrote, because the camp’s commander “appreciated our sporting effort.”
After the war, Benuzzi continued in the Italian diplomatic service at several postings, including to the United Nations in New York and as ambassador to Uruguay. He died in Rome in 1988.
No Picnic on Mount Kenya is considered a mountaineering classic.
As he slides his hands across the edges of the wings and walks from nose to tail, inspecting all aspects of the jet, a wave of emotion begins to hit Jim Harkins.
His weathered features appear calm and determined, but they hide the tears he is fighting back.
While he walks around the aircraft, he greets each maintainer and says, “Thank you.” Harkins rubs and taps the bulging nose of the QF-4 Phantom II, like an aged cowboy saying hello to a trusty steed, and then climbs into the cockpit.
“One last time,” Harkins says and the canopy closes around him.
For Harkins and the F-4, this is a day of lasts. For Harkins, it’s the last time he will fly for the Air Force and, for the Phantom, the last time it will take to the skies.
It’s their final flight.
“It’s not really sad, because in the military you get used to a lot of lasts, but it’s humbling,” Harkins said.
Harkins isn’t the only one feeling nostalgic and emotional about the aircraft affectionately referred to as “Old Smokey.” Hundreds of “Phantom Phixers,” “Phantom Phliers” and “Phantom Phanatics” gathered on the flightline at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to watch the final F-4 flight.
Some used to work on the aircraft, some are just fans and others, like retired Col. Chuck DeBellevue, had the privilege of actually flying the fighter.
DeBellevue flew the F-4 in Vietnam, where he had six confirmed kills – two against the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19 and four against the MiG-21, the most of any U.S. aviator during the war.
He’s not just saying farewell to an amazing machine, he’s saying goodbye to an old friend.
“A friend who got me home more times than I care to remember,” DeBellevue said. “Being back on the flightline today brought back a lot of memories, not all are good. I lost a lot of friends, but it was a great airplane. I loved to fly that airplane. It’s very honest and it got me out of a lot of tight spots during the war.”
DeBellevue recalls the Navy originally bought the F-4 to be a fleet interceptor and the Air Force bought it in 1963 to do everything – and it did do everything. It served as the primary air superiority fighter for both the Navy and Air Force, but it also served roles in ground-attack and aerial reconnaissance and, once taken out of active service, was designated the QF-4 where it flew as aerial targets.
The F-4 was a workhorse weapons system for the Air Force through the 1990s and it still hold the distinction of being the first multi-service aircraft. During it’s heyday, the F-4 set 16 speed and altitude records and demonstrated its effectiveness time and again throughout its lengthy career.
The Phantom looked cool doing it, too.
“You didn’t get into the F-4, you put it on, it became you,” DeBellevue said. “It was a manual airplane, not like an F-16 or F-15, they were aerodynamic and designed well. The F-4 was the last plane that looked like it was made to kill somebody. It was a beast. It could go through a flock of birds and kick out barbeque from the back.”
On the flightline at Holloman, the final flight of four F-4s prepare to take off for the last time. The engines rumble and smoke flies.
In his jet, Harkins looks over the crowd, dancing in the cockpit, revving up the on-lookers and saluting those in attendance. Everyone cheers as the final four F-4s begin their last taxi.
Harkins is first to pass the crowd, followed by pilots Eric “Rock” Vold, Jim “Boomer” Schreiner and finally Lt. Col. Ronald “Elvis” King, the last active duty F-4 pilot and commander of Det. 1, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron. Together these men will fly the Phinal Phlight demonstration before King officially retires the QF-4 program during a ceremony following the flight.
“I don’t want to sound cheesy, but every time I get into the F-4 I can’t help but think of all the stories of all the pilots and all the maintainers who made this aircraft great,” King said. “The history and the heritage to me is the biggest satisfaction of flying the airplane.”
King had no concept when he became the squadron commander he would be the last active duty pilot. It didn’t really set in until he and Harkins began taking the F-4 on a farewell tour during to air shows and aviation expos last year. King felt obligated to take the F-4 on the road, to give admirers the chance to see it, touch it and share their stories one last time. It was then he realized this tour piloting the F-4 would be something special.
“It’s going to be sad to shut those engines down for the last time, but she’s served our country well,” King said of the F-4. “It’s exciting too, because our mission is to provide full scale aerial targets and we are going to be able to do that now with an airplane that’s better suited, provides higher performance and is more representative of the threats we face today in the QF-16.”
King said it was getting more and more difficult to keep the F-4’s in the air, and the only reason the QF-4 lasted as long as it did was because of the maintainers of the 82nd ATS.
Unfortunately, he says, there is no longer a need for the F-4. All remaining aircraft will be de-militarized at Holloman and used as ground targets at the White Sands bombing range.
King says most people don’t like to hear the fate of the last F-4s, and he understands, but it’s too costly to maintain as a heritage piece or to preserve them for museums.
“At the end of the day, the Air Force isn’t real sentimental,” King said. “It will have a warrior’s death.”
Engines roar and a flume of dust and smoke signals to the crowd the final four F-4s are off. The first two jets, piloted by King and Schreiner take off in a two-ship formation. Harkins follows in the third position and Vold in fourth. The last two jets perform an unrestricted climb, staying low to the ground in afterburner before pulling into a vertical climb at the end of the runway. The crowd goes crazy.
The sound of the F-4 is distinct. As Harkins passes over the crowd in a low-altitude turn it sounds like the jet is ripping the sky.
Multiple passes are made in four-ship, two-ship and stacked formations over the crowd of hundreds in attendance. Camera shutters clicking at a furious pace can be heard down the tarmac.
Out of nowhere, the sky cracks open and multiple booms shake the ground, buildings and cars, setting off alarms across the base. The concussions signal the F-4s going supersonic high above.
Harkins swoops down out of the sky passing over the crowd multiple times, and makes his final approach. As his wheels touch back to Earth, Harkins enters the history books as the last pilot to fly 1,000 hours in the F-4.
“I can’t imagine a better way to go out than with the F-4, it’s a special moment and a special jet and then … done,” Harkins said. “Although I flew F-16s and I went down to the F-4, but I consider myself going out on top.”
As climbs down from his jet he’s doused with water from his comrades and sprayed with champagne. In the distance, King lands his F-4 and with the front landing gear touching the asphalt, the history books close on the aircraft’s legacy.
But while the Phantom’s time in the sky may be over, the tales of its exploits are far from done. For those who flew the F-4, there is always time to wax poetic about the good ‘ole days, tearing across the wild blue yonder on “Old Smokey.”
“I may be one of the few people in this room who remembers when Veterans Day was called Armistice Day, commemorating the armistice that ended the First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year in 1918,” Reagan said in 1982, repeating the memorable line about the end of World War I, a war so horrible that it was known for decades as “The War to End All Wars.”
British troops man their artillery piece while defending against German attacks during the Spring Offensive, a failed German advance.
(Imperial War Museum)
But that tidy line, “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year in 1918,” came at a cost. Thousands more soldiers, 1,100 of them in one unit, would die during the morning before the Armistice took effect.
See, the end of World War I, like the end of most large wars, was clear for months before it actually came. With the introduction of the tank in 1916 and of American troops in 1917, the stalemate in Europe turned slowly but inexorably in favor of the Allies. The Central Powers, including Germany, were doomed to eventually drown under the industrial might it faced.
But they would fight on for over a year after America entered the war, attempting counter attacks and bloody defenses in order to improve their position at the bargaining table. It was a messy and futile business. The creeping crush of American and Allied steel slowly slaughtered its way east.
British troops hold the southern bank of the River Aisne in May 1918 during Germany’s Spring Offensive.
(Imperial War Museum)
By October, 1918, the writing was on the wall. Germany hadn’t achieved a major victory since February, and the Spring Offensive that was supposed to shift the tide back in their favor had been utterly defeated. Berlin was starving under a British blockade and the front lines were quickly approaching the German border. Turkey surrendered at the end of the month and Austria-Hungary did so on November 3.
On November 7, 1918, the Germans sent a three-car delegation to the front lines and played a loud bugle call through the forest. The Germans informed some very surprised French troops that they were there to discuss terms of surrender with the French commander.
This is the first point where the top French and American officers, Field Marshall Ferdinand Fochs and Gen. John Pershing, could have slowed their advance. They could have ordered subordinate commanders to avoid costly advances against terrain or defenses that favored the Germans. In a war that generated over 2,000 deaths per day, a relatively calm November 7-11 could have saved thousands.
But Pershing and Fochs didn’t know, for sure, that Germany would actually go through with the surrender. The Germans had already committed a number of acts during the war that would’ve been beyond the pale before the conflict. They had introduced chemical gasses to the conflict, killed thousands of innocent, civilian ship passengers with their U-boats, and ignored multiple treaties and other legal agreements in their prosecution of the war.
They said they had come to hear the Allies’ proposal for surrender. Fochs replied that he had no proposals. Count Alfred von Oberndorff of the German foreign ministry told Fochs in French that his men sought the conditions for the Armistice. Foch replied, “I have no conditions to offer.”
The German and French delegation pose at Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch’s rail car after the November 11, 1918, armistice ending World War I was signed.
The Germans would have to beg, or Foch was prepared to push the front on to German soil. And so the German delegation, with added urgency as riots broke out in Berlin amid the ever-worsening food situation, begged. And it turned out that Foch did have conditions, and they were tough.
First, Germany had to cede dozens of ships, hundreds of submarines, and massive tracts of land to France including land then under control of German troops. And, Germany would have to give up massive amounts of transportation equipment, from planes to train locomotives to railway cars. When it came to the submarines and railways cars, France was actually asking for more than Germany physically had.
And the German government had to agree to the deal before November 11 at 11 a.m., or the offer would be withdrawn.
But Foch was unmoved by German pleas. In his and Pershing’s minds, the idea of stopping the war short of German soil was insane. If Germany was allowed breathing room, it could only serve German interests. Either they would be allowed to quit the war without suffering at home the way the French people had, or they would simply use the armistice to re-organize their forces and then resume their attacks without agreeing to a full treaty.
Finally, just after 5 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the German delegation agreed to the terms. They would later seek, in some cases successfully, to negate the most onerous terms of the agreement during the treaty process, though many of them stuck.
But that left the long morning from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., Foch’s original deadline for an agreement and the legally binding time that the agreement would go into effect. Until then, the war was still raging.
If the ceasefire had taken place immediately after the agreement was signed, then hundreds would have still died as word made its way to the trenches — but the alternative was worse. Commanders were told that an armistice had been signed and that it would take effect at 11 a.m. They were given little or no instructions on how to spend the remaining hours.
For some, the answer was obvious: you don’t get your men killed to capture ground that you can walk safely across in a few hours or days. But for others, this was one last chance to punish the Germans, one last chance to improve France and America’s place at the peace table, one last chance at glory, awards, and promotions.
And so, after the armistice was signed, some Allied forces launched new attacks or decided to continue ongoing ones. Marine Maj. Gen. Charles P. Summerall ordered the 5th Marine Regiment to conduct a contested crossing of the Meuse River, acknowledging, as he briefed his officers, that he would likely never see them again.
Two American soldiers run towards a bunker in a classic photograph that may have been staged after the actual fighting.
(Library of Cogress)
When word came down that the armistice had been signed, the general left his men on the attack, notifying them only that they must cease attacking at 11. And so they continued. Eleven-hundred Marines died at the crossing before the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month arrived. The artillerymen on each side reportedly increased their fire when they learned, at 9 a.m., that the war was almost over.
The 157th Brigade kept fighting, as well, when they learned about the armistice at 10:44. With only 16 minutes left in the war, the American brigade still had a chance at taking a tiny, insignificant French village back. The general gave the order that attacks would continue until 11.
A supply soldier assigned to the brigade went forward with the 313th Regiment and took part in an attack through the fog against a German machine gun. Most of the Americans stopped short as the first German rounds zipped overhead, but Pvt. Henry Gunther pressed on.
A captured German machine gun team moves their weapon.
(National Library of Scotland)
The German gunners, aware that the war would end in mere minutes, attempted to wave him off. They yelled, but Gunther came on. So, finally, the German gunner gave one, last tug on his trigger, sending a burst into the charging private. Gunther was killed, the last official American casualty of the war.
Another town was attacked, and successfully captured, in the final minutes. Stenay was taken by the 89th U.S. Division at the cost of 300 casualties.
Up and down the front, artillery batteries fired until the last seconds. All-in-alll, the belligerents suffered an estimated 2,738 deaths on the final morning. American forces are thought to have suffered over 3,500 casualties of all types. Congress would later look into the “inefficiencies” of American troops being sent to their likely deaths in the final hours of fighting.
Americans celebrate the signing of the armistice that ended World War I.
(Chicago Daily News, Public domain)
But, it’s important to remember that military leaders couldn’t be sure the war was actually over, and they saw Germany admitting weakness as a sign it was time to press home the final attack in order to guarantee peace. If the Allies had rested, it might have allowed Germany to solidify their forces and improve their defenses.
The Allied leaders had heard only rumors or nothing at all about the events eating Germany from the inside. The Kaiser had abdicated and fled into exile. German sailors were in mass mutinies that crippled the already under-powered fleet. The aforementioned riots in Berlin were threatening to overwhelm the new republic, only days old and formed in crisis.
But that doesn’t restore to life the thousands lost in the final days to ensure victory, men whose brave sacrifices didn’t gain a much ground, but did cement the peace that ended mankind’s worst conflict up to that point in history. Their sacrifice may feel more tragic, but is no less noble than the millions lost before November 11.
The P-38 Lighting was a superb long-range fighter in all theaters of the war. The plane is best known for the “Zero Dark Thirty” operation of the Pacific Theater – the shoot-down of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto by Capt. Tom Lanphier.
But the P-38 didn’t get there right away.
In fact, given its ground-breaking design, it was going through a lot of teething problems.
According to AcePilots.com, one of the biggest problems was compressibility. The P-38 was one of the first planes to deal with it due to its high speed (up to 420 miles per hour), especially when they dove.
This P-38 compressibility chart is taken from a USAAF P-38 pilot training manual. Pilots of early P-38s (ones without the 1943 dive flap retrofit) were advised against steep dives as compressibility would force the plane to dive more steeply as well as immobilize the controls, a situation that could prove fatal if initiated below 25,000 feet. (U.S. Air Force graphic)
What would happen is a shock wave of compressed air would form, keeping the plane’s elevators from working. The P-38s would be caught in a dive, and unable to pull out until they got to lower altitudes.
As a result, German fighters knew that diving was a way to escape. One pilot who had a close call was Air Force legend Robin Olds, who described his incident in an episode of “Dogfights.”
After a lot of work, Lockheed designed some flaps that would help address the issue by changing the airflow enough so the elevators would be able to function.
A number of kits were put together to be installed on P-38s in the field, but those destined to go to England never got there, hamstringing the P-38s there.
A Royal Air Force pilot mistook the United States Army Air Force Douglas C-54 Skymaster cargo plane carrying the kits for a Luftwaffe Fw 200 Condor maritime patrol plane. Given the Condor’s reputation, they were prime targets. The C-54 was shot down, and the kits were lost.
As a result, the P-38s went into combat unable to pursue a German fighter diving to escape the “Fork Tailed Devil” and fight another day.
A bit of far off Irish-American-Mexican history brings to light a lesser-known chapter of Irish military service – the time that 265 Irish service members defected.
Some called them heroes; others called them traitors. The Irish immigrants who joined the Army in the 1840s decided when the war broke out between the US and Mexico that they wanted none of it.
Right after the US annexed Texas in 1845, both Mexico and America sent military members to the newly created and shared border.
1845 America was a tumultuous place – Florida was admitted as a state, the Great Fire of Pittsburg destroyed much of the city, and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published.
Thoreau embarked on his two-year experiment to live in the woods at Walden Pond, a huge fire destroyed lots of New York, and the US Naval Academy officially opened its doors. Johnny Appleseed died in 1845, and Edmonia Lewis died.
A lot was going on, no more so evident than within the US Army. In 1845, the Army was a hodgepodge of service personnel, with diverse backgrounds, much like it is today. Service members were from all over the world, especially from western European countries, all of which had distinct and robust Catholic population groups. Many immigrant service members were blatantly disrespected and discriminated against by “native-born Americans,” which led to widespread unrest and low morale. Adding to that was most of the immigrant soldiers were Catholic, outliers in the very protestant America of the time.
So back to the Irish battalion. No one is quite sure exactly how it happened. Still, most historians agree that the widespread abuse of immigrant personnel coupled with the very low troop commitment levels led to a huge percentage of the Army feeling invisible, disenfranchised, and without appropriate ways to voice their frustrations.
Much of the American public felt that the annexation of Texas was useless – an expansionist war was nothing the young country needed. One of the most vocal about the uselessness of the expansion was Abraham Lincoln, who was quoted as not surprised that the Army saw so many deserters during this time.
While the Army was struggling to hold rank, the Mexican military saw an opportunity to infiltrate and spread propaganda, which is exactly what they did.
Several Mexican Army generals sent messages targeted toward immigrant personnel stationed at the Texas border. These messages crossed the Rio Grande River. All held one core focus – that immigrant service members should abandon their American Army posts and join their Catholic brothers in arms in the Mexican military. The messages offered Mexican citizenship and huge land grants – as much as 320 acres for privates.
More than 5,000 US soldiers would desert their posts throughout the war, and more than 40,000 simply disappeared in Mexico.
The Irish defectors were known as the St. Patrick’s Battalion, and their Mexican brothers-in-arms called them “The Red Company” because so many of them had red hair and ruddy complexions.
The battalion’s flag showed a winged harp, three-leaf clovers, and the motto, “Irish till the end of time,” written in Gaelic. The battalion fought alongside the Mexican Army as part of a rolling rearguard that worked to defend against as the US military advanced further into Mexico.
In the final days of the final battle, over 60 deserters were captured, and fifty of them were executed. The Mexican Army pleaded for mercy and leniency, but only a handful of the Irish deserters were actually pardoned.
But, of those who were pardoned, it wasn’t as easy as just walking away. The men had to receive 50 lashes on their backs while being tied to trees in the plaza at Churubusco, and their faces were branded with “D” for deserter. To this day, the Irish battalion is honored every year in festivals throughout Mexico and Ireland.
Aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky was designing bombers for the Russian Empire when World War I broke out. Nowadays, the company he founded in the United States makes the “choppers” that transport U.S. presidents. This is the story of how the “father of the helicopter” crossed the Atlantic and made it big — before designing the first aircraft to make regular flights across the major oceans.
Han-Ulrich Rudel was the kind of pilot that every soldier wants overhead. He was a close air support and dive bomber pilot who flew 3,500 combat missions and kept getting into the cockpit even after he was shot down 32 times and wounded five times.
Rudel began his career as a reconnaissance pilot in the Luftwaffe but entered dive bombing training as soon as he was allowed. After graduation in 1941, he was transferred to a Stuka dive bombing unit and flying in German blitzkrieg attacks. He would spend nearly all of his World War II career on Germany’s eastern front fighting the Soviets.
In Sep. 1941 he was sent against Soviet naval units and successfully sank the battleship Marat. In early 1943 he celebrated his 1,000 sortie. About a month later, in Apr. 1943, he took part in an attack against Soviet amphibious landing craft while flying a Ju-87. He sank 70 boats with the bird’s two 37mm cannons.
During the war, he pioneered a tactic where attack planes would hit the tanks from the rear. The primary benefit was that the planes could fire into the relatively thin armor over the tank’s engine, but it also meant that the planes were flying towards their own lines. That made it easier for pilots hit during an attack to make it back to friendly forces before bailing out.
Rudel’s willingness to fly low and slow to take out Soviet targets left him exposed to ground fire though, and he was shot down 32 times by anti-aircraft batteries. He was also wounded both on the ground and in the air.
His worst injury came while chasing a thirteenth tank kill in a fierce battle. After he fired off his final 37mm rounds, his right leg was shot off by anti-aircraft fire. Another pilot had to talk him through a crash landing and pull him out of the plane before he bled out.
Over his career, he destroyed 519 Soviet tanks, a battleship, a cruiser, a destroyer, 70 landing craft, and 11 airplanes. And he was famous for regularly landing and rescuing downed air crews. For his efforts, Rudel was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, the second highest level of the Knight’s Cross. He was the only recipient of the award.
The only version of the award that was higher than Rudel’s was one specially made for Hermann Göring, and Göring basically got it for being head of the Luftwaffe, not for bravery.
For anyone who is feeling pretty good about Rudel and maybe hoping he was a Rommel-type German, the career military men who turned on Hitler when it became clear he was a monster, sorry. Rudel really was a hateful racist. He spoke out regularly in support of the Third Reich and was a member of a one of the most abhorrent German political parties from 1953 to his death in 1982.
When it comes to aviation, aircraft are only as good as the pilots behind them, and in the beginning, one man was instrumental in getting military aviation off the ground.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois was one of the first in the military to assume the mantle of aviator as manned flight was still in its infancy, and according to Bob Barlow, U.S. Army Aviation Museum volunteer and former aviator, his efforts helped shape what aviation is today.
Foulois first enlisted in the Army to serve in the Spanish-American War in 1898, but only served for five months before being mustered out, said Barlow. He re-enlisted in 1899 at just 18 years old and quickly ascended through the ranks to become a second lieutenant by 1901.
He was sent to the Army Signal School in 1908 where he wrote the thesis, “The Tactical and Strategically Value of Dirigible Balloons and Aerodynamical Flying Machines,” showcasing his foresight that the future of warfare would be in aviation.
A quote from Foulois’ thesis read, “In all future warfare, we can expect to see engagements in the air between hostile aerial fleets. The struggle for supremacy in the air will undoubtedly take place while the opposing armies are maneuvering for position.”
“He said the military dirigible and the airplane would be responsible for gaining the upper hand in the skies before the battle took place — nobody ever really talked about that before him,” Barlow said.
Foulois was selected as one of three Signal Corps officers to receive flying instruction to become one of the first military aviators, and on July 13, 1912, he became the fifth Army officer to be rated as a military aviator.
“He was one of the first three selected, but he was the first military aviator to stay the course,” said Barlow. “He was taken up by the Wright brothers and sent to Fort Sam Houston to complete his training on his own.
“Around this time, as aviation started taking off more and more, there were a lot of ground commanders who thought it was a lot of nonsense,” he said. “But there were visionaries like Foulois who knew that it was the next big thing.”
Throughout his testing of aircraft in 1911, which included the Wright Military Flyer, he was instrumental and innovating and providing ideas, even inventing the first seat belt, said the museum curator.
“(Later in life) when asked what his inspiration was for creating the seat belt, he said he was getting tired of being thrown out of the aircraft and hitting his head,” said Barlow.
Foulois also could see that the Wright Military Flyer was incredibly outdated and wouldn’t be able to compete on the battlefield.
“The airplane at the time was a push propeller aircraft that was basically a box kite,” said Barlow. “At the same time, the French were way ahead of us with a tractor aircraft and central seating for the aircraft, which looks more like the proper airplane that we know today.”
After a series of crashes and accidents, Foulois, along with other officers in aviation. condemned the pusher propeller aircraft and began to lean toward the tractor aircraft. In 1913 he joined the 1st Aero Squadron, and by 1914 he was appointed as its commander.
In March of 1916, he reported for duty with Pershing’s Punitive Expedition, and along with Capt. Townsend Dodd performed the first U.S. aerial reconnaissance mission over enemy-held territory in Mexico.
“This was their first foray into getting their feet wet with military combat aviation,” said Barlow, adding that by the time World War I came along, Foulois was probably the most experienced officer in the military in regards to aviation.
Because of his experience, he was tasked with the procurement, production, and development and operations of aircraft.
Initially, the Army wanted several thousand aircraft, 4,800 pilots and twice as many mechanics, all within a year, but with the resources at the time it wasn’t possible.
“That didn’t’ happen,” said Barlow. “We weren’t ready for that. Our output was barely 40 aircraft a month on a good month, so, we had to borrow from the British and the French.”
Foulois later deployed to France doing the same job, and in 1917 he become chief of air services in the zone of occupation for the Army Expeditionary Force. It was during his time in WWI that eventually the U.S. produced its own aircraft, the JN-4 Jenny.
Following the war, he was later appointed as the chief of the Air Corps in 1931, and in 1934 then-President Theodore Roosevelt tasked Foulois to head the Army Air Corps Mail Operation, which ended in the Air Mail scandal of 1934 because the Air Corps was ill equipped to take on the mission, said Barlow.
“They flew about 1.4 million miles carrying the mail and they lost a lot of people doing it,” he said. As a result, Foulois ended up taking the brunt of the blame for the program’s failure and was forced into retirement in 1935 with 36 years of service.
Despite the scandal, Barlow said Foulois was instrumental in bringing military aviation to the forefront.
“This is a man who came in the military at 18 … and became one of the first three pilots in the U.S. military. He was there through the birth of all the doctrine, the changes and the clashes with the ground force,” he said. “What we’re doing now we owe to him. He was the first military aviator to stay the course, and he was Army aviator No. 1 as far as I’m concerned.”
In the last part of the 19th Century, the U.S. Army’s chief enemy was the scores of Native American tribes who still roamed America’s Great Plains and dominated the American Southwest, among other places. As sporadic attacks against settlers in those regions increased, the U.S. government decided it had to act. By the dawn of the 20th Century most of the tribes had capitulated and resigned themselves to their reservations.
And it all started with a lame cow.
Lameness describes an injury to the cows foot that adversely affects its life.
A cow can become lame for any number of reasons, such as a toe abnormality, something getting embedded in its hoof, or even just walking long distances regularly. When a cow’s hoof becomes bruised or worn down, the animal spends more time laying down and tends to eat less, adversely affecting its condition. A cow with this condition passed through Fort Laramie, Wyoming one day in 1855 along with a group of Mormon immigrants.
While the group of settlers rested at Fort Laramie, their lame old cow wandered off by itself. Eventually, it came across a group of Mniconjou tribesmen who were waiting for an annuity from the U.S. government. It was late, the men were starving and had no means to procure food for themselves. Naturally, once the cow was in sight, it became dinner.
The cow was allegedly worth four dollars, but when the Natives tried to trade a good horse for the lame cow (the one they already ate), the offer was rejected. Instead, the settlers demanded for the cow. At first, the Army was willing to brush the incident off as trivial and stupid, but the officer of the post was no fan of the Indians. He set out with some 30 troops and departed for one of the Indian Camps to confront them about the cow. After brief words were exchanged by a drunken translator that was also really bad at his job, the soldiers began to fire into the Indians.
The Indians fought back. By the end of it, the leader of the Lakota was dead along with all the Army soldiers. The Army retaliated by gathering 600 troops and assaulting the Lakota where they lived. The Plains Wars just began in earnest. The Army struck a number of tribes over the next few years, as President Ulysses S. Grant decided he’d had enough of the natives and it was time to pony up the resources to get them onto reservations.
All because of one lame cow.
The fighting began with the Lakota, then came the Cheyenne, the Kiowa, Apache, Arapaho, and eventually, even the dreaded Comanche tribe were systematically subdued by the Army and forced onto reservations. One by one the tribes were forced to abandon their traditional lands and ways of life, for life on the reservations. Most of the Indians never received anything promised by the government and fought on until they were forced to capitulate.
By early 1944, the Germany and the Luftwaffe were in a bad state. Allied bombing had a devastating effect on oil supplies and the new P-51 Mustang was killing German pilots faster than they could be trained. Though Germany was developing the twin-engined Me 262 jet fighter to combat the allied bombers, Hitler’s constant interference and the strain on resources delayed the program. Luftwaffe Supreme Commander Reichmarschall Hermann Göring and Armaments Minister Albert Speer proposed the alternative solution of a single-engined jet fighter that was cheap and easy to produce and could be flown with very little training. Their idea was approved and a contract was issued for the Volksjäger, or “People’s Fighter”.
The Volksjäger requirements called for a single engine to reduce cost and construction complexity. Its airframe would be made primarily of wood and non-strategic metals since Germany’s reserve of war materials was dwindling. Moreover, the design had to be simple and able to be constructed by semi and non-skilled labor, including slave labor. The contract also required that the plane be easy to fly with very little experience, though this was more a sign of Germany’s desperation. “[The] unrealistic notion that this plane should be a ‘people’s fighter,’ in which the Hitler Youth, after a short training regimen with clipped-wing two-seater gliders like the DFS Stummel-Habicht, could fly for the defense of Germany, displayed the unbalanced fanaticism of those days,” recalled the plane’s designer, Dr. Ernst Heinkel, after the war.
Heinkel’s design, the He 162 Spatz (Sparrow), was selected on September 25, 1944. Incredibly, the first prototype flew less than 90 days later on December 6. Though the first flight was successful, it was noted that some of the glue holding the wooden frame together started to fail. The second test flight on December 10 saw a similar glue failure that caused the aileron to separate from the wing and resulted in a crash that killed the pilot. Still, Germany was desperate and testing pressed on without addressing the glue issue.
Though the He 162 was supposed to be flown by Hitler Youth, the aircraft turned out to be too complex and required a more experienced pilot at the controls. A small number of training gliders were built and delivered to a Hitler Youth squadron at Sagan. However, the unit was in the process of forming when the war ended and did not undergo any training.
Despite the need for trained pilots, production of the He 162 began at Salzburg and the underground facilities at Hinterbrühl and Mittelwerk. The first operational unit received the He 162 in February 1945. Despite heavy allied bombing of German industry and air bases, I./JG 1 (First Fighter Wing) began training on the new jet in March and saw their first action with it the next month.
On April 19, the He 162 scored its first kill when Feldwebel Günther Kirchner shot down an RAF fighter. While on approach to land, the vulnerable jet fighter was shot down by another RAF fighter. Both the plane and pilot were lost. Though more victories were scored in April, I./JG 1 lost 13 He 162s and 10 pilots. However, only two were actually shot down. The other planes were lost due to mechanical failure, structural failure, or running out of fuel.
On May 5, the squadron was grounded following the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands, Northwest Germany, and Denmark. Unlike other German squadrons with experimental aircraft, I./JG 1 did not destroy their planes. Rather, they turned them over to the British on May 6 who distributed them among the other allied nations for evaluation.
After the war, allied research found that the He 162 was actually a capable and well-designed fighter. Its inherent problems were the result of its rushed production. If the Germans had the time and resources for proper testing and evaluation, the plane could have been a serious threat to allied air superiority.
Today, many examples of the He 162 survive in museums including the RAF Museum in London and the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The 14,000 Canadians and 200 tanks that landed at Juno Beach on June 6, 1944 fought bitterly to breach Fortress Europe and begin the long march to Berlin. Almost a year later Canada and the rest of the Allied powers celebrated the fall of Nazi Germany.
Soon after Bomb crossed into Germany near Emden, Bomb was sent to Kleve on the German side of the border with the Netherlands. In the early morning of Feb. 26, 1945 Bomb escorted a column of infantry in armored vehicles forward. German artillery opened up and pinned the column down in thick mud.
The Germans put up a smoke screen and continued their attack. But the Bomb led a counterattack that relieved the pressure. Surrounded by German anti-tank teams and under heavy mortar, artillery, and machine gun fire, Bomb and another Canadian tank held their ground for 20 minutes until infantry was able to reinforce them, stopping the Germans from destroying the Canadian column.
Neill was later awarded the Military Cross for the battle.
As the war wound to a close, the Bomb found itself in continuously heavy combat. On the last day of the European war, the Bomb was under the command of Lt. Ernest Mingo. He and his men faced off against a German officer who kept sending soldiers to try and Allied Forces.
“The land between us was covered with dead German soldiers,” he said, according to a Sunday Daily News article. “He must have known the war was over, but he just kept sending them out, I guess trying to kill Canadians.”
Despite being the only Canadian tank to serve every day of the war in Europe, the Bomb was nearly melted down as scrap in Belgium after the war. It was rescued and went on display in 1947. In 2011 the tank underwent restoration. It is currently at the Sherbrooke Hussars Armoury in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
As the towers fell and the nation reeled on Sept. 11, 2001, a team of New York Air National Guardsmen at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NADS) in rural Rome, New York were tasked with searching for missing plans and scrambling fighters in response to the attacks.
Since renamed the Eastern Air Defense Sector, Air Guardsmen there were at the center of the military’s air response on that day. On duty for a NORAD training exercise, Vigilant Guardian, they now have a unique view on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, thanks to their roles in the response.
New York Air National Guard Maj. Jeremy Powell was a 31-year-old tech sergeant taking part in Exercise Vigilant Guardian when 9/11 occurred. He was the first military person to learn about the hijackings after taking the initial call from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Boston center. Master Sgt. Stacia Rountree was a 23-year-old senior airman working as an identification technician. Vigilant Guardian was her first major NORAD exercise.
Like every other American, Powell and Rountree remember that day vividly. Here are eight things they recall about the day that you might not know.
After Sept. 11, 2001, this is what the NEADS operation floor looked like. Above the Q-93 (the large green radar scope) is the NORAD contingency suite that was installed immediately after 9/11 to provide radar data of the entire country.
(Master Sgt. Stacia Rountree, Eastern Air Defense Sector)
It was not a drill
It took some time for NEADS to realize 9/11 was a real-world scenario and not part of the exercise. Once they did, there was even more confusion trying to find the missing planes, which always seemed to be a step ahead of them.
“We were treating all the information we got as real-time, not understanding that it was coming to us late,” said Rountree, who basically became a liaison between the FAA and the military for the rest of that day.
“We were trying to figure out departure destination, how many people were on board, how big the aircraft actually was, and factoring all of that stuff in. That way the [F-15 and F-16] fighters, when they got airborne, would know that they had the right plane in sight,” she said.
“I stayed on the phone for 12-14 hours, just calling all the bases and asking how quick the fighters could get armed, get airborne, and if they could go to a certain location,” Powell said.
There was little time between FAA call and the first crash
Just 10 minutes elapsed between the time Powell took the first call to NEADS about the hijackings to when the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hit the North Tower — not enough time to get fighters into the air.
According to the 9/11 Commission’s report, the call from the FAA’s Boston center came into NEADS at 8:37 a.m.
“8:46 is when I scrambled the first fighters [from Otis Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts], and then 8:53 they were airborne,” Powell said.
But it was too late to help American 11, which hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower at 8:47 a.m.
There were several more reports of hijackings over the day
By the time the day was over, Rountree said there were probably 19 or 20 planes that she and the other ID techs had investigating as possible hijackings. Only the initial four — American 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77 and United Airlines Flight 93 — were the real deal.
At one point, there were reports that American 11 was still airborne. Air traffic controllers likely confused it with American 77, which was somewhere over Washington, D.C. air-space.
Rountree said she tried to contact the FAA’s Washington Center to get a position on it, while Langley Air Force Base fighters were trying to get to the capital.
New York Air National Guard Maj. Jeremy Powell, a tech sergeant on 9/11, was asked to play himself in the Paul Greengrass film “United 93” about the passengers who kept the fourth hijacked plane from reaching its destination in Washington, D.C. Powell, pictured here in a screen grab from the film, said he believed the movie was as spot-on as you could get, as far as what happened at NEADS was concerned.
“It was probably only a couple of minutes, but to me, it seemed like a lifetime. Then we got the reports that the plane hit the Pentagon,” Rountree remembered. “I was actively trying to find that plane, and I felt that we may have had some time. We didn’t.”
Fighter pilots were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice
The fighters were meant only to shadow potentially hijacked planes, but Rountree said there was discussion of those pilots making the ultimate sacrifice.
“In case their weapons were out, and if we would have had to use force, they were discussing whether or not those guys would have to go kamikaze,” she said, meaning some pilots were considering risking their own lives by using their planes to stop hijacked jetliners. “It was scary, when you thought about the possibility of them having to do that.”
There was a moment of hope for Flight 93
While all of the crashes were shocking, Rountree said that, for her, United 93 was the saddest. They had been trying to find the plane on radar and had called the FAA to get an updated position.
“They said, ‘It’s down,’ and we were thinking it landed,” Rountree remembered. But when they asked for landing confirmation, the info was clarified — it crashed. “For us, you had that glimmer of hope, and then… .”
NEADS was evacuated September 12
The day after 9/11, NEADS was evacuated because there was an unknown plane up at the time, and no one was supposed to be airborne.
“There were fighters coming back from air patrol over NYC … so our commander had them go supersonic over to where we were so they could figure out what it was. They thought it was heading toward us,” Rountree said.
It turned out to be a harmless floatplane, and it was forced to land.
9/11 changed the role of the air defense sectors
“Back then, the primary focus was that we were looking out at people coming to attack us from the outside,” Powell said. “We weren’t really focused on the inside.”
“Nobody thought that somebody would go ahead and utilize planes that were in the U.S. to do something, so our radar coverage was indicative of that,” Rountree explained. “Now, our coverage has definitely increased. It’s night and day versus then.”
The sector now has new and evolving technology.
“Our computer systems are bigger and better. … You should see all of the radars that are now hooked up. Everything the FAA sees, we see. We are much more actively involved in the identification of all aircraft in the United States,” Powell said.
Before 9/11, Rountree said they couldn’t always get in touch with critical personnel at the FAA centers. Now they can.
“We really didn’t have to talk to the various Air Traffic Control Center supervisors. Now, we have instant lines with everybody,” she said.
The military has been monitoring the skies over the U.S. ever since.
“A lot of people didn’t even realize that we were probably there, or what we even do, which could be a good thing,” Powell said. “It reinforces the idea that somebody’s always watching you, especially in the sky. The FAA’s there — that is their airspace — but the military is, too.”