The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

Homecoming for a naval vessel is a huge deal. After months at sea, the ship’s crew don their sharpest uniforms and stand on deck to catch a glimpse of their loved ones before they dock and are finally reunited. Homecomings were an even bigger deal in the days before email, phones, and video calls were more common aboard ships. Imagine, then, the frustration felt by sailors and family members alike when a ship ran aground right before it docked. That was the situation for the crew and family of the USS Enterprise in 1983.

Launched in 1960, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), was America’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. A technological marvel for the time, she served with distinction during the Vietnam War and survived a catastrophic fire in 1969 that killed 27 sailors and injured 314 more. In 1982, Enterprise made her 10th WESTPAC deployment. The ship sailed an eight-month tour before returning to San Francisco in April, 1983.

The carrier sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge at dawn. Enterprise was steered into port by a civilian pilot, but was turned back over to the hands of a Navy pilot before she ran aground. At about 9:30 a.m., the 90,000-ton ship missed the edge of a 400-yard wide, 40-foot deep ship channel while maneuvering through the morning overcast and wind. Enterprise was stuck on a sandbar just 1,000 yards from her berthing.

4,500 sailors and 3,000 family members could now just see each other, but were still far from being reunited. “It was a real drag, being so close and yet so far,” recalled Capt. Jack McAuley, “We couldn’t do anything but sit around and grin and bear it.” The ship’s skipper, Capt. Robert J. Kelly, sprung the crew into action to dislodge the carrier. In an effort to shift the ship’s center of balance, the crew assembled on the port side of the flight deck. Nine military and civilian tug boats joined the effort to free Enterprise. After nearly six hours of rocking, and with the help of the tide, Enterprise made it off the sandbar at 3:12 p.m.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
USS Enterprise in 1982 (U.S. Navy)

After another 90 minutes of maneuvering, Enterprise was finally docked and her crew was released ashore. Frustration turned to relief as sailors and family members embraced each other after months of separation. Sadly, many crewmen missed their flights out of San Francisco as a result of the ordeal. Ironically, there was one individual on board who was a crewmember of a different Enterprise.

Actor George Takei, best known for his role as Sulu on Star Trek, flew out on a Navy helicopter to join the crew of the Enterprise at 7 a.m. that morning and welcome them home. “Our vessel is the Starship Enterprise and this is the USS Enterprise,” he later said, “We’ve got a new drink—Enterprise on the Rocks.” Jokes aside, while Enterprise suffered no obvious damage, she underwent a thorough stress check to ensure her seaworthiness before her next deployment.

Capt. Kelly took full responsibility for the incident. “I am the captain and I was in control. I am totally responsible for what happened,” he said during a news conference. “Naturally, it’s embarrassing.” Although collisions and groundings are usually career-enders for Navy ship captains, Capt. Kelly, who had been selected for promotion to commodore, was eventually promoted all the way to four-star admiral and served as the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet from 1991 to 1994.

Eight months at sea, running aground in sight of loved ones, rocking the ship off of a sandbar, and all while George Takei was on board. The 1982-1983 WESTPAC tour was a truly unforgettable experience for the crew of the USS Enterprise.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
USS Enterprise listed 10 degrees to port when she ran aground (U.S. Naval Institute)
MIGHTY HISTORY

How legendary battleships could come back, and why they won’t

The battleships of yore maintain a special place in the hearts of Navy enthusiasts — and it’s easy to see why. Imagine the massive broadside salvos from the USS Iowa, each hurling 15 shells against an enemy force, smacking Communists with 18 tons of steel and explosives with each volley from as far as 20 miles away. Every few years, there’s a new call to bring these behemoths back. Today, the Navy could, but they won’t.

Why?


First, let’s look at the role battleships were intended to play in naval warfare. These ships were floating fortresses, equipped with massive, long-barreled naval artillery. The idea was that these ships would form “battle lines” at sea. Battleships would line up, present their broadsides, and overwhelm an enemy force with firepower.

During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, battleships proved this strategy could work. The side that typically won a fight during that war was the one that got their battleships properly lined up against the enemy’s formation first. The best success comes when one fleet can “cross the T,” sailing their line of ships perpendicular to the front of the enemy line so they can fire all broadsides while only a few enemy ships can fire from forward turrets.

Japanese success added fuel to an arms race already playing out across the world’s shipyards. The British launched the HMS Dreadnought in 1906, only a year after construction began. It was the most powerful weapon of war at the time and could fire 4-foot-tall shells at ranges of up to 10 miles.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

HMS Dreadnought underway

(US Navy)

It redefined naval warfare. All the powerful nations of the world began building copycats, leading to these ships taking on a huge role in World War I.

Except fights between battleships were actually fairly rare in World War I. This was partially because they cost so much to build that it was considered foolhardy to risk them when victory wasn’t essential. Instead, battleships were often used to support operations on shore or to secure trade and supply lines.

But there were clashes between battleships, the largest of which was the Battle of Jutland in 1916 — by some metrics, the largest naval battle ever fought. Over 250 ships participated, including 50 battleships. The British had more and better ships, but suffered from poor gunnery and debatably poor tactics. Germany won the tactical exchange but Britain was victorious strategically.

It was the golden hour of battleships, still the kings of the ocean. But during World War I, a new weapon was introduced that would change naval warfare: the carrier. It would take decades for bombers to be effective weapons against capital ships, but the change was already underway by the time Germany invaded Poland, and arguably complete by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

After landing a Royal Navy Grumman Martlet of 888 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm is seen taxiing along the flight deck of HMS Formidable (67) to the forward hangar.

Once naval aviation was capable of delivering repeated torpedo and bomb attacks hundreds of miles from their ship, the battleships’ maximum ranges,, which hovered around 20 miles, made them too vulnerable for front-line fighting. Even super battleships, like the Yamoto, and their support vessels were forced to turn back when they thought they were facing even a single carrier fleet.

In fact, the Yamoto only fired its guns against a surface target in one battle before it was sunk in 1945. It was sunk by… let me check my notes here… carrier-based aircraft. But its sister ship, the Musashi… oh, that also saw minimal fighting before sinking due to damage sustained from carrier-based aircraft.

Instead, battleships took on a role supporting amphibious landings, raining steel on enemy positions as Marines and soldiers pressed ashore.

And that’s the role battleships filled for decades, supporting landings in Korea, Vietnam, and even a fake amphibious attack in Iraq in 1991.

So, what role would a re-commissioned or newly built battleship play today? Not much of one. The Navy could re-commission a battleship, but they require tons of fuel and manpower — often needing over 1,500 crewmembers. And the best conventional naval guns still only shoot about 20 miles.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

The Office of Naval Research-sponsored Electromagnetic Railgun at terminal range located at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division.

(US Navy photo by John F. Williams)

There is one game-changing technology that could resuscitate naval artillery: railguns. They can provide massive firepower at ranges of over 100 miles and speeds of over mach 7, all without conventional explosives that increase the risk of catastrophic damage during a fight.

It’s not too hard to imagine a nuclear battleship with multiple railguns powered by the reactor and massive capacitor banks. But even then, the battleship wouldn’t have the range to hit Chinese shore installations without venturing deep into the defender’s anti-ship missile range.

So, the future is likely to lie in extended range missiles, carrier drones, and aircraft, all still capable of attacking targets hundreds of miles further out than even a battleship with a railgun could.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why Genghis Khan was so successful in his conquests

Blood oaths, prophecies, and brutal life lessons propelled Genghis Khan into conquest, amassing the largest land empire in the history of mankind. As a boy, he was the illiterate son of a murdered chieftain and had everything he loved torn away from him. As an adult, through merciless leadership, he united the steppe tribes and instilled discipline into his warriors.

Genghis Khan established dedicated trade routes, promoted religious tolerance, and got so many women pregnant that you may be related to him. The effects of his rule can still be seen today and few have come close to his level of greatness or ruthlessness.


Leadership based on merit

Temüjin, Genghis Khan’s birth name, loosely translates to ‘of iron‘ or ‘ironworker.’ His leadership style reformed Mongol tradition by replacing the nobility rank structure with a merit-based promotion system. Though much of his army was “recruited” by threat of death, he earned loyalty by promising the spoils of war to his troops rather than hoarding it all himself — after all, he believed that excessive wealth was a weakness. Sure, your home and everything you knew just got rolled over by Genghis Khan, but hey, now you have the opportunity to fight by his side — or die.

The Yassa, a code of law written by Genghis Khan, and its enforcement was a non-negotiable condition of joining the Khan’s empire. Soldiers had to swear allegiance to Genghis Khan, to not steal livestock, to not steal another man’s woman, and, generally, to not be a thieving POS. You could pillage the enemies of the empire, but not the people inside the empire itself.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

All hail the God Emperor

Adapt and overcome tactics

The Mongols learned mounted archery at an early age. They were taught to fire the arrow when the horse’s hooves were off the ground to achieve maximum accuracy. They adopted strategies against walls cities out of necessity because the steppes had no fortified towns. In China, the Mongols captured Chinese soldiers and tortured them until they gave them the knowledge to build the necessary siege engines.

Psychological warfare was the Khan’s bread and butter. His armies often used harassing techniques to lure the enemy into ambushes or tied sticks to the tails of their cavalry to exaggerate the size of cavalry charges. The night before battle, troops would burn five fire pits to further exaggerate their numbers.

He would give his opponents the opportunity to surrender and join him before murdering every living thing in their city. He tortured motivated his enemies to death by boiling them alive, had them suffocated, or, in the case of noble named Inalchuq, poured molten silver into the eyes and ears. Fear was an effective tactic that minimized loses in his conquest because cities would rather surrender than suffer the dire consequences.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

You could keep your God, but not your shoes.

Religious freedom

History remembers the Great Khan, mostly, as a warmongering sociopath, but his views on religious tolerance have influenced our own government’s Constitution. Thomas Jefferson’s view on the separation of church and state is eerily close to the Mongolian warlord’s idea of unifying the tribes (and subsequent territories), regardless of faith and orienting them toward greater ambitions.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

Kill all humans.

Safe trade routes

His protections also extended to merchants traveling within his empire in what is now known as the Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace). Some accounts go as far as to say that a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander without fear throughout the realm.

Alpha male genetics..?

Women’s rights

Let’s set something straight first. The Great Khan has 16 million living descendants as a direct result of his empire. And it was common for him to take many women from the vanquished. He, himself, was certainly not kind to women in general.

But his social policies supported women’s rights and, to this date, affect a woman’s role in Mongolian society. Though women were still subordinate to men in Mongol culture, they were less subdued than in other civilizations of the time. In fact, Sorkhaqtani, the wife of one of Genghis’ sons, was a trusted advisor played a crucial role in holding the empire together.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the secret story of South Dakota’s nuclear missile silo explosion

Bob Hicks was spending a cold December night in his barracks 53 years ago at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City when the phone rang.


It was the chief of his missile maintenance team, who dispatched Hicks to an incident at an underground silo.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
The personnel access hatch at a nuclear-missile silo site in South Dakota. Image from Library of Congress.

“The warhead,” the team chief said, “is no longer on top of the missile.”

Hicks eventually learned that a screwdriver used by another airman caused a short circuit that resulted in an explosion. The blast popped off the missile’s cone — the part containing the thermonuclear warhead — and sent it on a 75-foot fall to the bottom of the 80-foot-deep silo.

The courageous actions Hicks took that night and over the next several days were not publicized. The accident was not disclosed to the public until years later, when a government report on accidents with nuclear weapons included seven sentences about it. The report listed the accident as the nation’s first involving a Minuteman missile.

Further details are reported publicly for the first time here, drawn from documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by the Journal and others, and from Hicks himself, who is now 73 years old and living in Cibolo, Texas.

When Hicks was sent to the accident on Dec. 5, 1964, he was only 20 years old, and the cryptic statement from his team chief was the only information he was given.

“That was enough,” Hicks recalled, “to cause me to get dressed pretty quickly.”

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
A Minuteman I missile prepared for test launch. Photo from USAF.

Explosion

The trouble began earlier that day when two other airmen were sent to a silo named Lima-02. It was 60 miles northwest of Ellsworth Air Force Base and 3 miles southeast of the tiny community of Vale, on the plains outside the Black Hills.

Lima-02 was one of 150 steel-and-concrete silos that had been implanted underground and filled with Minuteman missiles during the previous several years in western South Dakota, where the missiles were scattered across 13,500 square miles. There were hundreds more silos in place or soon to be constructed in North Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska, eventually bringing the nation’s Minuteman fleet to a peak of 1,000.

The original Minuteman missiles, called Minuteman I, were 56 feet tall and weighed 65,000 pounds when loaded with fuel. The missiles were capable of traveling at a top speed of 15,000 miles per hour and could reach the Cold War enemy of the United States, the Soviet Union, within 30 minutes.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
A static display of ICBMs. From left are the Peacekeeper, the Minuteman III, and the Minuteman I. USAF photo by R.J. Oriez.

Each missile was tipped with a thermonuclear warhead that was many times more powerful than either of the two atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Japan during World War II. One government agency reportedly estimated that the detonation of an early 1960s-era Minuteman warhead over Detroit would have caused 70 square miles of property destruction, 250,000 deaths, and 500,000 injuries.

The two airmen who visited the Lima-02 silo on Dec. 5, 1964, were part of a young Air Force missile corps that was responsible for launching and maintaining the missiles. The two airmen’s names are redacted – as are many other names – from an Air Force report that was filed after the accident.

Read more: 6 weapons that allow the US to strike anywhere in the world

At noon that Saturday, the airmen received orders to troubleshoot and repair the Lima-02 security system. They made the long drive and arrived at 2 p.m.

The rectangular, north-south aligned, 1-acre silo site was surrounded by a chain-link fence that was topped with strands of barbed wire. The unremarkable-looking place consisted mostly of a flat expanse of gravel. Toward the south end were several low-slung tops of underground concrete structures.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
There were 150 silos located in South Dakota during the Cold War. They were man-less sights surrounded by 8 foot cyclone fences topped with barbed wire. Inside concrete and metal structures housed and protected the Minuteman missiles. This is Delta-09 at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Photo from National Park Service.

One of the structures was a 3½-foot-thick, 90-ton slab that covered the missile and would have been blasted aside during a launch. A couple of paces away from that was a circular, steel-and-concrete vault door, about the diameter of a large tractor tire. The door concealed a 28-foot-deep shaft leading to the underground work area known as the equipment room.

Working in 24-degree conditions above ground, the airmen began a series of steps with special tools and combination locks that allowed them to open the massive vault door. Next, they climbed the ladder down to the equipment room, which encircled the upper part of the silo and missile like a doughnut.

The airmen worked in the roughly 5 feet of space between the steel launch tube and the equipment-room wall, among racks of electronics and surfaces painted mostly in pale, institutional green. Though the launch tube was between them and the missile, the missile was not much more than an arm’s length away.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
A ladder extends into a 28-foot-deep shaft toward the equipment room that encircles the upper part of an underground missile silo. Image from Library of Congress.

According to the Air Force report on the accident, one of the airmen removed a fuse as part of a check on a security alarm control box. The report says the airman was “lacking a fuse puller,” so he used a screwdriver to pry the fuse from its clip.

When the fuse was re-inserted, the report says, it was supposed to click. The sound of a click indicated good contact with the holder. But there was no click, so the airman repeated the procedure. Still not certain he heard a click, he pulled the fuse out a third time and pushed it back into the holder again.

“At 1500 hours MST,” the report says, referencing 3 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, “simultaneously with the making of this contact, a loud explosion occurred in the launch tube.”

‘Broken arrow’

Hicks arrived at the silo later and heard a simpler story from his team chief. According to that story, it was merely the removal of the fuse with a screwdriver – not the pushing-in of the fuse – that caused the problem. Hicks said the metal of the screwdriver contacted the positive side of the fuse and also the fuse’s grounded metal holder, causing a short circuit that sent electricity flowing to unintended places.

“It would be just like you taking your car battery and you touch a screwdriver to the positive terminal on the battery and you touch the frame of the car,” Hicks explained in a recent interview. “You have just put voltage potential on your entire car.”

Hicks and the accident report agree that the wrong tool was used. In the language of the report, “The technician did not use the authorized, available tool to remove the fuse.”

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Racks of electronics in an underground equipment room in the upper part of a missile silo. Image from Library of Congress.

The resulting short circuit might not have been problematic had it not been for some wiring in one of the missile’s retrorockets that was later found to be faulty. According to Hicks, some weakly insulated or exposed wiring may have been in contact with the metal casing of a retrorocket, allowing for a jolt of electricity that caused the retrorocket to fire.

The retrorockets were housed below the cone of the missile. They were supposed to fire when the missile was in outer space, to separate the third and final fuel stage from the cone, allowing the cone and its warhead — which were collectively called the “re-entry vehicle” — to fall toward the target.

When one of the retrorockets fired inside the missile in the Lima-02 silo, pressure built up in the space where the retrorockets were housed, and the cone of the missile — which was about 5 feet tall, nearly 3 feet in diameter at its base, and about 750 pounds in weight — burst off and fell down in the few feet of space between the missile and the silo wall.

The cone hit the wall of the silo, bounced back toward the missile and grazed it in two spots along the second fuel stage, hit two of the three suspension cables that supported the missile, and finally crashed to the concrete floor of the silo and came to rest on its side. Luckily, the cone did not do enough damage to the missile to cause the missile to explode.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
A diagram outlining the different sections of a Minuteman I ICBM. Image from USAF.

Neither of the airmen immediately knew what had happened. The bureaucratically written accident report says they “expeditiously evacuated” after hearing the explosion, as the silo filled with gray smoke.

In later years, Buddy Smith, who now lives in Texas and is a friend of Hicks, received training about the South Dakota accident before working in the missile fields of Wyoming.

“I wasn’t there,” Smith said of the explosion, “but I know there were two technicians who ruined their underwear. ‘Cause that ain’t supposed to happen.”

Bob Dirksing, who was Hicks’ roommate at Ellsworth and now lives in the Cincinnati area, said the two airmen who were in the silo when the explosion happened were lucky to survive.

“It could’ve been a lot worse,” Dirksing said. “If the short had gone to the missile instead of to the retrorockets, it would’ve been a completely different story. I’m sure there would’ve been fatalities. The boys who were down there would’ve been fried.”

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Nuclear weapon test Bravo (yield 15 Mt) on Bikini Atoll. Photo from US Department of Energy.

The explosion triggered a flurry of activity over the next seven hours. A potential “broken arrow” was declared, which is military-speak for an accident involving a nuclear weapon. A strike team was deployed to set up a 2,000-foot cordon around the silo, including a roadblock. Medics were dispatched to the scene. Three sergeants were flown in by helicopter.

The sergeants went down to the equipment room after the smoke cleared and made two observations: Everything was covered in gray dust, and the missile was missing its top.

A radiation-monitoring team went down next and did not detect alarming radiation levels but did find the missile’s cone, which contained the warhead, damaged and lying at the bottom of the silo.

By about 10 p.m., the scramble to assess the situation was over. Nobody was injured. The missile was slightly damaged but otherwise intact. The warhead was safe inside its cone, although the cone was damaged. And except for some Vale-area residents who probably saw the commotion and wondered what was going on, the public knew nothing.

The emergency was over, and it was time to plan a salvage operation. Sometime before midnight at Ellsworth, the phone rang for Bob Hicks.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Minuteman I test silo. Image from USAF.

Into the silo

Hicks had enlisted less than two years earlier as a skinny, 6-foot-tall, 19-year-old farm boy from Somerset, Texas, a small town about 20 miles south of San Antonio. He was the youngest in a family of 13 children, which included six boys who served more than a combined 90 years on Air Force active duty from World War II to Vietnam and beyond.

After basic training, Hicks had been sent to nuclear weapons maintenance school in Colorado. By October 1963 – eight months after his enlistment – he was installing warheads and guidance packages atop Minuteman missiles in the silos of western South Dakota.

Also Read: North Korean nuke fears prompt interest in abandoned ICBM sites

The silos had been rushed into existence after a groundbreaking ceremony in 1962, with Americans still reeling from the shock of seeing the Soviets launch their Sputnik satellite in 1957. If the Soviets could put a satellite into orbit, American leaders reasoned, it would not be long until they could launch a missile on an arcing path through outer space to the United States.

When Hicks got the call about the accident on Dec. 5, 1964, he and another airman jumped into the specially equipped truck-and-trailer rig that they typically used to transport warheads. They sped into the night, traveling on the newly constructed Interstate 90 toward Sturgis. It wasn’t long before Hicks had to pull over when he saw a state trooper’s cruiser lights flashing in his rear-view mirrors.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Sputnik. Image from Wikimedia Commons user Lokilech.

“He said, ‘Ya’ll seem to be in a hurry,'” Hicks recalled.

Hicks did not divulge that he was en route to a potential nuclear disaster, and the trooper inquired no further.

But the trooper did mention some smoke emitting from one of the rig’s wheels. Hicks and his companion traced the problem to some bad brake hoses. They made an impromptu fix and sped off again toward Sturgis.

After passing through Sturgis and heading east, Hicks steered the rig north around the hulking, dark mass of Bear Butte and motored across the quiet countryside to Vale before finally reaching the silo.

There were perhaps a dozen people at the scene.

“As we later joked,” Hicks recalled in his slight Texas drawl, “They were standing around not knowing whether to scratch their watch or wind their butts.”

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Map showing the 44th Missile Wing of Ellsworth Air Force Base which was operational from 1963 until deactivation in the 1990’s. L2, encircled in pink, is the Lima-02 site. Map from National Park Service.

According to Hicks, the missile had not yet been rendered safe, and his team chief said somebody had to do it. Hicks volunteered.

When he saw the missile was fully upright, Hicks was relieved. If it had fallen against the silo, the missile might have been weakened to the point of a collapse and explosion. But that disaster had been avoided.

Incredible as it may sound to a civilian, Hicks said he spent no time worrying about the thermonuclear warhead. He had been convinced by his training that it was nearly impossible to detonate a warhead accidentally. Among other things, he said, the warhead had to receive codes from the launch-control officers, had to reach a certain altitude, and had to detect a certain amount of acceleration and G-force. There were so many safeguards built in, Hicks later joked, that a warhead might have been lucky to detonate even when it was supposed to.

That’s not to say his trip down the silo was without danger. The missile, which contained a load of fuel, had been grazed and damaged by the falling cone. And with only a few years of history behind the Minuteman missile program and no known nuclear accident involving a Minuteman until the one Hicks was confronting, he was heading into the unknown.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
A Minuteman II Missile resting in its launch tube. Image from National Park Service.

Nevertheless, he climbed down the shaft and into the equipment room that encircled the upper part of the underground silo. Next, he lowered the so-called “diving board,” which extended from the launch tube toward the missile and allowed Hicks to essentially walk the plank at a height of about 60 feet above the silo floor.

He also installed a work cage, which was a man-sized steel basket that could be hung from motorized cables on the inner wall of the launch tube. The cable assembly not only moved the cage vertically but could also move horizontally on a track around the launch tube, allowing airmen to access every part of the missile.

Hicks maneuvered the cage down the side of the missile and started the procedure to “safe” it. At each point between the missile’s three fuel stages, Hicks inserted a long metal rod with a socket-like head and turned the rod to break the electrical connections between the stages, rendering them incapable of firing.

With the missile “safed,” it was time to figure out what to do about the warhead.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
The Minuteman I missile in the Restoration Hangar at the National Museum of the USAF, broken into stages. Photo from USAF.

‘Up very slowly’

Hicks said there was a particularly high-ranking officer at the scene who’d been flown in by helicopter. After Hicks had rendered the missile safe, Hicks came back to the surface and heard the officer asking some other men how to retrieve the warhead.

Hicks heard no response, so he piped up. Cargo nets were sometimes used to move heavy equipment in and out of the silo, he said. He suggested that a net could be lowered to the bottom of the silo, and the cone with its warhead could be rolled into the net. The net could then be hoisted up on a cable by a crane.

Related: Watch the Air Force launch a Minuteman missile

The officer did not appreciate the boldness of Hicks, whose rank was airman second class.

“He said, ‘Airman, when I want an opinion from you, I’ll ask you,'” Hicks recalled.

Hicks retreated to his truck and awaited further orders. Later, Hicks said, he was recalled to the officer’s side and asked to explain the idea again.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Staff Sgt. Isaiah Miller, 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron, uses a guided missile maintenance platform May 7, 2010, to remove bolts securing the reentry system on a mock-up of a Minuteman III missile during a maintenance training exercise at Malmstrom Air Force Base’s T-9 launch facility maintenance trainer. USAF photo by John Turner.

The cargo-net method was eventually chosen as the plan, but Hicks said the Air Force wanted the procedure to be practiced in another silo. The practice proceeded over the next couple of days.

Following the practice, the operation was green-lighted, and a crew assembled at Lima-02 on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1964 – four days after the accident – to retrieve the damaged missile cone and its thermonuclear warhead.

First, some jagged edges on the cone that were caused by its violent separation from the missile were covered in padding, and the cone was hoisted about a foot off the silo floor while a mattress pad was slid underneath it. Next, two cargo nets, which were layered one on top of the other under the pad, were pulled up around the cone and hooked to the cable.

Then began the painstaking process of raising the cone up out of the 80-foot-deep silo, in the few feet of space between the missile and the silo wall, without hitting the missile and causing an explosion. The crane did the lifting, but three men also held tight to a hemp rope that was connected to the cone in case of any problems with the crane, cable or net.

“Up very slow,” reads a portion of a minute-by-minute account of the operation, as printed in the later accident report. “Dead slow. Stop. Up very slow. Stop. Up slow. Stop ”

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Restoration crews install the Minuteman IA missile in the Missile Space Gallery at the National Museum of the USAF.

And on it continued like that for about two hours until the cone emerged from the silo late that afternoon. The cone and its inner warhead were placed on top of some mattresses, Hicks said, in a truck-and-trailer rig. There the cone and warhead sat overnight, in the trailer.

The next day – Thursday, Dec. 10 – a convoy assembled to escort the truck to Ellsworth Air Force Base. According to Hicks, he drove the truck, in part because nobody else at the scene seemed to know how.

The warhead was eventually transported to Medina Annex at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for disassembly. The written record is not as clear about the fate of the missile, but the accident report indicates it may have been removed from the silo the next day, Friday, Dec. 11.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Air Force Commendation Medal. Image from USAF.

Aftermath

Also on Dec. 11, 1964, the Air Force appointed a board of officers to investigate the accident. The board filed its report seven days later, on Dec. 18, and listed “personnel error” as the primary cause. The report said the cost of the damage was $234,349, which would equate to about $1.85 million in inflation-adjusted 2017 money.

Large sections of the report’s findings and recommendations are redacted, and the non-redacted portions do not disclose the fate of the two airmen who were at the silo when the explosion happened.

Several months after the accident, in March 1965, Hicks was selected as the maintenance man of the month for his division. A short article about the honor in the base newspaper did not disclose that a missile accident had occurred, but it vaguely referenced Hicks’ role in rendering a missile safe and transporting “damaged components.”

That same month, Hicks was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal for acts of courage. The written citation with the medal briefly summarized the accident and the role Hicks played in responding to it.

“By his personal courage and willingness to risk his life when necessary in the performance of dangerous duties,” the citation said, in part, “Airman Hicks has reflected credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”

The accident did not scare Hicks away from dangerous jobs. Shortly after receiving his medal, he trained in explosive ordnance disposal and was eventually sent to Guam during the Vietnam War, where he disarmed and extracted bombs that failed to release from B-52 planes.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
A B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 419th Flight Test Squadron flies with eight PDU-5/B leaflet bombs connected to an external Heavy Stores Adapter Beam. USAF Christopher Okula.

Hicks went on to work for the Office of Special Investigations, which is the Air Force equivalent of the FBI. He retired from active duty during the 1980s and was hired to work as a civilian agent for OSI until his final retirement in 2005. Along the way, he and his wife, Janet, had two sons.

The missile silos in western South Dakota were decommissioned following the 1991 signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the United States and the Soviet Union. By 1996, all but one of South Dakota’s silos had been imploded. The last remaining silo, called Delta-09, is now host to an unarmed missile and is part of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which includes three attractions spread out along Interstate 90 east of Wall – the silo, a preserved launch-control center called Delta-01, and a visitor center.

The former Lima-02 silo site near Vale has passed into private ownership and is now home to a honey-extracting business. The fence that formerly surrounded the silo complex is still there, kept intact by the landowner.

Although South Dakota’s Minuteman missiles now belong to history, the United States still has 400 Minutemans ready to launch from silos in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. Each of the missiles is a Minuteman III – two generations advanced from the Minuteman I that was in the Lima-02 silo in 1964.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
The doors have been painted at the Delta-01 launch silo. Photo from South Dakota Public Braodcasting.

The Minuteman III fleet is just one part of the US nuclear-weapons triad, which comprises 5,113 nuclear warheads in all, including some in storage and others that are deployed and ready for use from land, sea, or air.

To opponents of nuclear armament, that’s a lot of accidents waiting to happen. The US government has officially acknowledged 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons since the 1950s, while additional accidents, incidents, mishaps, and close calls have been uncovered by journalists and activists.

And accidents continue to happen. In 2014, three airmen were conducting maintenance on a Minuteman III missile at a silo in Colorado when an accident caused $1.8 million worth of damage to the missile – roughly the same amount of damage, taking inflation into account, as the 1964 accident in South Dakota. The few known details of the 2014 accident were revealed only after persistent requests for information from The Associated Press.

None of the accidents suffered by the nation’s nuclear-weapons program has ever caused a nuclear detonation. That there was not a detonation at Lima-02 in 1964 is an indication of the safety and reliability of the Minuteman missile program, according to Bob Hicks, who did not sour on nuclear weapons after the accident.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. DoD photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley.

Hicks views the nuclear triad as a necessary and effective deterrent against attacks from nations such as North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un is provoking worldwide anxiety about his development of nuclear weapons.

As the future of nuclear weaponry unfolds, the world may need more unflappable people like Hicks, who considers himself lucky rather than unfortunate to have been called to the site of a nuclear missile accident.

“A career is made up of opportunities,” Hicks said. “Being in the right place, at the right time.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

8 amazing facts about General Douglas MacArthur

Few military leaders in history are as iconic as General Douglas MacArthur. He was a bigger-than-life figure who rose to five-star rank and grew to believe in his own myth so much that he thought he was above the Constitution and ultimately had to be brought down by the President of the United States.


Here are 8 amazing facts about the general known as the “American Caesar”:

 

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
MacArthur signing the articles of surrender aboard the USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay in 1945.

 

1. His parents were on different sides of the Civil War

MacArthur’s father, Douglas Jr., was a Union general, and his mother was from a prominent Confederate family. Two of her brothers refused to attend the wedding.

2. His father and he are both recipients of the Medal of Honor

Douglas MacArthur, Jr. was bestowed the Medal of Honor for actions at the Battle of Missionary Ridge in 1863. His son received the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt in 1942 for defending the Philippines.

3. His mom lived at a hotel on the West Point grounds the entire time he was a cadet

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

MacArthur’s mom told him he had to be great like his dad or Robert E. Lee, and she made sure he stayed focused by living on campus near him. The semi-weird strategy worked in that he was number one in his class by far. His performance record was only bested in history by two other cadets, one from the Class of 1884 and Robert E. Lee himself.

4. He puked on the White House steps

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
MacArthur riding between President Roosevelt and Adm. Chester Nimitz.

During a heated defense budget discussion with FDR in 1934, MacArthur lost his temper and told the Commander-in-chief that “when we lost the next war, and an American boy, lying in the mud with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat, spat out his last curse, I wanted the name not to be MacArthur, but Roosevelt.” He tried to resign on the spot but Roosevelt refused it. MacArthur was so physically upset by the exchange that he threw up on the White House steps on the way out.

5. He wanted to be president

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

Although he was still on active duty in 1944 he was drafted by a wing of the Republican Party to run against FDR. He even won the Illinois Primary before the party went with Dewey. He tried again in ’48 but quit after getting crushed in the Wisconsin Primary. His last attempt was in ’52 but the Republicans bypassed him for a less controversial (and more likeable) war hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

6. He didn’t return to the United States for six years after World War II

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

Because he was in charge of ensuring post-war Japan didn’t fall into chaos (and became a democracy) and then in command of the Korean War effort, MacArthur didn’t return to the U.S. between 1945 and 1951.

7. He got a ticker tape parade in NYC after he was fired by Truman

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

MacArthur was defiant in carrying out President Truman’s plan to end the Korean War, and the general carried out a campaign in Congress to authorize the complete takeover of North Korea. Truman was convinced that would result in World War III, and when MacArthur refused to back down the President had no choice but to remove him from command. Although disgraced, MacArthur was so popular he was treated like a hero on his way out, including having a ticker tape parade thrown in his honor down the streets of Manhattan.

8. He designed his signature look

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
(AP Photo/File)

His cover, shades, and corncob pipe were all part of a look MacArthur cultivated himself. The pipe company, Missouri Meerschaum, continues to craft replicas of the general’s customized pipe, and Ray-Ban named a sunglass line after him in 1987.

Articles

These Combat Tracker teams were America’s secret weapon in Vietnam

As American forces became embroiled in the conflict in Vietnam it was quickly apparent to commanders that they were fighting a war for which they were not prepared.


The guerrilla warfare and hit-and-run tactics of the Viet Cong were difficult to counter, especially for conventional forces. Luckily, our allies, the British, had already developed a tactic that they had used to great effect in Malaya.

Facing a communist insurgency of their own, but with limited resources, the British had developed specialized teams to track the enemy through the jungle and destroy them. This tactic was so effective the British would employ it against insurgencies all across the empire.

Knowing the French tactics had been insufficient, and not wanting to meet the same fate, Gen. Westmoreland sent observers to the British Jungle Warfare School in Malaya to see if the tactics could be adopted by American forces.

Impressed by what they saw the Americans made a deal for the British to train fourteen teams, to be known as Combat Tracker Teams, at the British Jungle Warfare School. Due to British neutrality, the soldiers to be trained traveled on official government passports and used only British gear while in training so as to maintain secrecy and low-visibility.

The basic organization of the Combat Tracker Teams consisted of two to four sections of five-men. The section was composed of a team leader, a visual tracker, a cover man, a radio operator, and a dog handler with a well-trained Labrador retriever. Not typical for combat operations the Labs were highly-effective in Vietnam. They were effective trackers, quiet in the field, and, most importantly, due to their even-temperament could more easily change handlers – a prized-quality for an army rotating men out of country, but often heart-breaking for their handlers.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Australian soldiers helped Americans train for combat tracking tactics in Vietnam. (Photo Bryan Campbell via Flickr)

The teams were in for intense training once they arrived in Malaya. For the dog handlers training was three months long, for everyone else it was two months. The cadre consisted of British and New Zealand SAS as well as Gurkhas, who usually played the enemy to add to the realism. Wash out rates were high.

The initial address to the trainees was often quite shocking to them. They were told the problem with the American army was that it was more focused on rank than knowledge. And that by the time they were done, they would feel more at home in the jungle than the North Vietnamese themselves.

After surviving the grueling training, the first teams returned to Vietnam in 1967 to be assigned to combat units. The team assigned to the 101st Airborne Division was told they must go through the division’s finishing school before they would be allowed in the field. Part-way through the first day it became obvious to the cadre that the trackers knew more than they could possibly teach them and they were passed through the course on the spot.

According to their group’s website, once in country, the Combat Tracker Teams were to “reestablish contact with the ‘elusive enemy’; reconnaissance of an area for possible enemy activities; and locate lost or missing friendly personnel.”

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Americans in Vietnam adopted a tactic used by the British for decades during their insurgent wars throughout the empire. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Once the troops hit the ground, they knew why their trainers had pushed them so hard – keeping up with a dog in the jungle while staying absolutely silent, as well as being alert and constantly ready for action is very hard work.

But that work paid off for the Americans. It was common to hear from the grunts about how the enemy could just “melt back into the jungle.” And that was where the trackers came in. Pushing out well ahead of the line infantry units no detail was too small for either the visual tracker or the working dog to pick up.

John Dupla, a combat tracker with the 1st Cavalry Division, said “we were taught to develop a sixth sense, utilizing methods Native American scouts used, such as looking for broken twigs and turned over leaves and rocks.”

Depending on the conditions and situation either the visual tracker or the dog handler and his lab would lead the team. Always right behind him was the cover man. Since the point person’s attention was focused on searching for trails and clues the cover man became his lookout, providing protection.

Although the unit’s mission was often not to directly engage the enemy, sometimes it was unavoidable. As one combat tracker related “if you got into something, you shot your way out.” Ideally, the trackers would locate the enemy and call the infantry behind them into the fight.

However, as the Viet Cong became aware of the effectiveness of the trackers they sought ways to counter them. Retreating groups would often send a contingent off in a different direction to draw the trackers away from the main force and into an ambush. One Combat Tracker Team lost their visual tracker and cover man to enemy snipers in this manner.

In a further effort to disrupt the trackers, and a sure sign of their effectiveness, the North Vietnamese put out bounties on their heads. The fear they struck in the enemy gave the trackers great pride.

Despite their effectiveness many American commanders simply did not understand how to properly employ the trackers. Their small size and the secrecy of their training meant few in the infantry understood how they operated. They were sometimes thought of as scouts and to simply walk point for a larger formation.

The program was disbanded in 1971 as American drew down forces in Vietnam. The trackers were broken up and folded into their parent infantry units. Veiled in secrecy and lacking the notoriety of Special Forces the legacy of the Combat Tracker Teams quietly faded away.

There is no doubt though that the Combat Tracker Teams were effective, saved lives, and made life much harder for the enemy.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Drones vs. Delta: Who do you think won the first round?

Master Sergeant George Hand US Army (ret) was a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. He is a now a master photographer, cartoonist and storyteller.

It was 1994 when my Delta Troop and I were training in the desert in preparation to deploy to the Mid-Eastern theater where there was much misbehaving going on. We spent a particular day primarily calling in anti-armor attacks from MH-60 Blackhawk (Hawkers) helicopters toting the venerable and extraordinarily deadly Hellfire missile.

We rotated ourselves onto a hilltop as Forward Observers choosing targets and directing the helo strikes. We used a Vietnam-era LASER designator called the MULE. The MULE “painted” the target with a LASER that the helo-mounted Hellfire could track all the way to the target.


The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

ANPAQ-3 Modular Universal Laser Equipment (MULE)

Some men laughed at the MULE, but theirs was a shallow laugh as none of us could find fault with the noble seeker, and “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I intentionally picked armor targets as far away as possible, some 8,000 meters and beyond, to challenge the Hellfire capabilities. The challenge was always accepted, and the missiles never missed.

In addition to calling in fire from aircraft, we also launched Hellfires from our six-wheel drive Austrian-made assault vehicles using an improvised launch pedestal welded by our mechanics. Success was enjoyed as well with that highly mobile platform.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

Vehicle-mounted Hellfire launch; we often joked that we got sleepy waiting for the Hellfire to reach its distant targets

Toward late afternoon our troop leadership introduced us to an Air Force lieutenant colonel who heard there was a group of Delta men training nearby and just had to come show off his latest Research and Development endeavor — a remote control pilotless aircraft. None of us really cared about him, or his drone but rank still had its privileges so ok…

He stood proudly amongst us and beamed as he bragged on his miniature airplane. He held his Ground Control Unit in his hands explaining that his drone was at the moment several kilometers to our southwest and that it had a ,000 instrument payload that included a pilot’s Situational Awareness (SA) camera focused ahead of the aircraft.

It was a gasoline-powered, propeller-driven drone with a wingspan of about 12′. Just as interest waned, he brought the drone in tight and had it scream a few feet over our heads. That was actually pretty cool, and questions started coming out for the colonel: how fast, how high, what duration, how many pounds payload… all measure of questions about the drone’s capabilities.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

This tragic friendly fire incident destroyed this Abrams tank with a Hellfire

“Sir, what’s the learning curve like on piloting that craft?” came my question.

“I’ll tell you what,” the colonel began as he stepped toward me. “I’ll let you see for yourself; give her a spin!” and he reached the ground control unit with its long whip antenna toward me. I immediately recoiled, not wanting to fool with all this expensive enigma.

“Fly it, a$hole!” the brothers started in on me.

“Yeah, get you some-o-that, chicken $hit!”

“Fly the damn plane, jacka$!”

And so it went, with the colonel thrusting the unit in my hands. All flight controls were there; all health inputs for the drone were displayed: speed, altitude, heading, fuel level, and others that I didn’t recognize. In the center of the unit was a screen displaying the done’s SA camera video feed.

It was very basic. All that was readily recognizable was black for the ground, and white for the sky. The black was toward the bottom of the screen with the majority of the screen white. There was a crosshair that cut across the screen representing an artificial horizon. I had seen similar instruments in the cockpit of an airplane, but as for flying these drones, I was fresh out of any experience whatsoever!

The true horizon on the screen was, of course, the line where the black (ground) met with the white (sky). The true horizon then should be under the aircraft’s artificial horizon for safe, unobstructed flight. To keep level flight like the colonel told me, all I had to do was keep the two horizon lines parallel… and not breathe.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

A representative artificial horizon from an aircraft cockpit. Here, brown represents ground and blue represents sky; where the two meet is the true horizon. The yellow horizontal line represents the aircraft’s artificial horizon as it appears with the aircraft parked on the ground.

“Just keep that baby flat and stable; just hold with what you got,” directed the colonel who then stepped back, turned and addressed the men in regard to how any plain-ol’ idiot could fly the thing, just not in those exact words. He really was proud of and loved his job so.

As he babbled to the boys, I imagined somehow that the amount of black seemed to be expanding into the white somewhat… and then I was sure that the black was indeed encroaching more on the white, headed up toward that artificial horizon line… “Hey, Sir…”

“Just keep her flat and stable,” the colonel yawned as he yapped to the yokels. Now the black rose up above the drone’s artificial horizon on the screen. It was time to hit the ejection lever!

“Sir I think you better see this!” I insisted as I stepped up and thrust the control unit in his face.

“Juuuust keep’r flaaaaa… DOH!!”

With that, the colonel snatched the unit from my hands and yanked back on the joystick with Ren and Stimpy bulging eyes. When the colonel had passed off the controls to me, there was flat terrain below. Unfortunately, while he was delivering his dissertation, the drone approached a hill mass that was taller than the drone was high. The video screen blipped out.

“OH MY GOD YOU’VE… YOU’VE… FLOWN IT INTO A MOUNTAIN!”

You see, that right there… that is why I did NOT want any part of the colonel’s toy. That thing was not such a piece of cake to operate as the man would have us believe. Let’s face it, all I was doing was standing with a box in my hand — I was not operating it at all!

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

A typical modern control unit for a drone; note the SA video feed screen and joy sticks

I was fire-spittin’ mad thinking about that ,000.00 waste. The boys were howling like banshees now which salted the wound. I knew as well as the next man you can’t bleed in the presence of sharks. Visions of myself in the squadron cartoon book filled my head. This event had certainly been most fitting fodder… ah, but as it is with photography, so it is with being the cartoonist: the photographer never has to be in the pictures.

The colonel could see I was mad as hell as he quickly called out:

“Ok, ok… it was absolutely not his fault, not his fault at all… he was just doing exactly what I told him to. It was entirely my fault!” That was true and gracious of him, but I was mad. I was mad at him, at myself, at that stupid airplane… and especially at that Goddamned mountain!

It was two days later my troop leader pulled up in a jeep and approached me carrying… a stick? He reached it out toward me and said:

“Hey, that drone colonel made it out to the crash site and wanted you to have this.”

I held in my hand a two-bladed wooden propeller about 18-inches long. I’m pretty sure that Colonel meant no dig or sarcasm by the gesture, but now I was mad at the world again, and didn’t like his little gift, not one little bit. I walked up to a trash dumpster near our tents. With a swoop of my arm, I cracked that propeller in two on the corner of the dumpster and flung the halves inside.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

So twenty-six years ago we scoffed at the colonel’s drone. What was it good for? What was the application? He was some boyish dude out playing with his toy. Little did we know at the time what an impact that research would have on the world, eh? Today the likes of drones are all but taking over in their application in our everyday lives.

Just yesterday my 13-year-old son and I went out to a nearby field to fly a remote Radio Controlled (RC) hobby airplane. After many successful laps my son reached the control my way and asked:

“Want to give it a try, Dad?”

…to which I replied to my now confused son:

“NO, DAMNIT… NO, NO, NO!!!”

Articles

This Marine came back to his family 5 years after he died

On Feb. 25, 1968, a patrol left the besieged Khe Sanh garrison — where U.S. Marines were outnumbered by North Vietnamese forces almost 4 to 1 — and was drawn into a well-executed ambush.


The patrol, conducted by two squads, was nearly wiped out and few survivors managed to crawl out of the jungle. It was later dubbed “The Ghost Patrol.”

One of the Marines listed as lost in the battle, Pfc. Ronald L. Ridgeway, actually spent the next five years in solitary confinement in a North Vietnamese prison camp before returning to the family that had “buried” him months after his disappearance.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Marine Pfc. Ronald Ridgeway (Photo: YouTube/Vietnam Veteran News Podcast)

The Battle of Khe Sanh began when the North Vietnamese attacked one of America’s northernmost garrisons near the border between Vietnam and Laos. Army Gen. William Westmoreland had predicted the attack months before and reinforced the base with additional men and munitions and ordered repairs and upgrades to the base’s airfield.

When the North Vietnamese attacked on Jan. 21, 1968, it quickly became clear that the preparations weren’t enough. The 6,000 troops were attacked by an enemy force that would eventually grow to an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 enemies, and the carefully hoarded supply of artillery and mortar rounds were 90 percent destroyed by an enemy artillery attack that hit the ammo dump.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
And the Marines needed that ammo. They went through it at a prodigious rate while trying to beat back the siege. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

Westmoreland convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that the base should be held at all costs, triggering a 77-day siege that required planes to constantly land supplies on the improved airfield.

The Marines and other troops on the base sought continuously to knock the North Vietnamese off balance and to relieve the pressure on the base. The February 25 patrol aimed to find North Vietnamese and either kill them or take them captive to collect intelligence.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
F-100 strikes close to the lines while supporting the Marines at Khe Sanh on March 15, 1968. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

It was led by an inexperienced lieutenant who, after his men spotted three enemy fighters who quickly fled, ordered a full-speed chase to capture or kill them despite advice to the contrary from others.

The three enemies turned out to be bait, and they drew the Marines into a nearly perfect crescent-shaped ambush.

The Marines fought valiantly, but they were taking machine gun and other small arms fire from three sides mere moments after the fight began. Grenades rained down on their position as they sought cover, concealment, and fire superiority.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Infantry Sgt. Kregg Jorgenson is rushed behind friendly lines during a firefight in the Vietnamese jungle.(Image: YouTube/CBS Evening News)

Under increasing fire, Ridgeway and another Marine attempted to break contact and return to the base, but they came across a wounded Marine on their way. Unwilling to leave an injured brother, they stopped to render aid and carry him out.

As they stopped, bursts of machine gun fire hit the three Marines, wounding all three. One was killed by a grenade moments later, another died of wounds that night, and only Ridgeway survived despite the enemy shooting him in the helmet and shoulder. He was later captured when a Vietnamese soldier tried to steal his wristwatch and realized the body was still breathing.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

That September, his family was part of a ceremony to bury unidentified remains from the battle and memorialize the nine Marines presumed dead whose bodies were only partially recovered.

But for five years after the battle, Ridgeway was an unidentified resident of the Hanoi Hilton, undergoing regular torture at the hands of his captors.

It wasn’t until the North Vietnamese agreed to a prisoner transfer as part of the peace process in 1973 that they released his name to American authorities, leading to Ridgeway’s mother getting an alert that her son was alive.

Five years after the battle and four years after his burial, Ridgeway returned to America and was reunited with his family. He later visited the grave and mourned the eight Marines whose names shared the list with his. A new memorial was later raised with Ridgeway’s name removed.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Veterans are writing eulogies to ‘the buddy they’ll never forget’

Few things in this world are stronger than the bonds forged by troops who fought together in combat. Those who survive life-threatening ordeals on the battlefield become closer in ways that others may never understand. When one of them loses their closest friend, it’s a tragedy that hurts forever.

What could be a more fitting for the coming Memorial Day than to write about what that friend means to you?


This memorial day, AARP is collecting stories about the friendships forged in war. Close friendships forged on the front lines of Vietnam and in the Nazi POW camps of World War II all the way to the remote combat outposts of Iraq. Veterans are writing stories of the best friends they met during these trying times. Two crewman stationed aboard the ill-fated USS Indianapolis, Marines fighting in the frozen wastes around the Chosin Reservoir, a young lieutenant and his radioman in the jungles of Vietnam.

Some survived the war. Many did not. What they have in common is that they’ll never be forgotten. Corporal Charles Thomas was that buddy for Lt. Karl Marlantes.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Marlantes in Vietnam after an eye injury.
(Courtesy of Karl Marlantes)

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Marlantes is the author of two books, What It Is Like to Go to War and the critically-acclaimed Matterhorn.

Marlantes was a newly-christened Marine in Vietnam when Thomas was assigned to be his radioman. Like any good young officer, Marlantes listened to his more experienced corporal when he made suggestions. The young man even saved his lieutenant’s life on a mission in the mountains near the DMZ. Marlantes told AARP The Magazine:

“In early December 1968, we were on a long mission, high in the mountains, and it was monsoon time. We couldn’t get resupplied and were without food for three or four days. It was also cold, but we had no extra clothes, just the stuff rotting on us. One night I got hypothermic, really hypothermic. I couldn’t think and started shivering. Everybody knew hypothermia kills you. And Thomas just laid me on the ground and wrapped a quilted poncho liner around us and hugged me. And then his body heat got me back. Saved my life.”

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Marlantes receiving the Navy Cross.
(Courtesy of Karl Marlantes)

Corporal Thomas was an outstanding Marine in combat and a talented radioman. Sadly, during an assault on an NVA position in 1969, Marlantes had to send Cpl. Thomas around the hill to set up an ambush. Following his orders, Thomas left the safety of his cover and made a dash for the objective with his squad. That’s when three rocket-propelled grenades struck, killing him and one other. Marlantes, now 73, recalled the moments afterward for AARP:

“I had to go through all the guys’ bodies to pull out, if you can believe this, anything like pictures of naked girls, so their parents wouldn’t be upset — it’s bad enough that their kid comes home in a body bag. And I pulled a letter out of Thomas’ pocket from his mother and remember it said, “Don’t you worry, Butch.” We knew each other only by last names and nicknames. I never knew he was Butch, that his mother called him that. “Don’t you worry, Butch, you’ll be home in just 11 more days.”

Watch Karl Marlantes look back and tell the story of Cpl. Charles Thomas.

MIGHTY HISTORY

VHA commemorates Black History Month

A look at the many “firsts” in Veterans health history


Today’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA) embodies the spirit of the many Black men and women who broke history and continue to inspire us today.

National home for disabled volunteer soldiers, the first to provide domiciliary and medical care to Black veterans

VHA’s first hospitals opened under its predecessor, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. The hospitals were racially integrated from the very beginning. The first African American Veterans, who served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, were admitted to the Central Branch (now Dayton VAMC) in Ohio in March 1867.

Dr. Howard Kenney, 1962

It was the first government-civilian institution to admit the nation’s first African American Veterans of the Union Army.

First racially segregated veterans hospital

After the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case decision, the practice of “separate, but equal” accommodations based on race took hold in American society. When the National Home opened its new Mountain Branch in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1903, the staff segregated Veterans by race.

A Veterans hospital established exclusively for African American Veterans opened in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1923, for those who served in World War I, caring for more than 300,000 Black Veterans

Pictured above is Dr. Henry Ward and staff at Tuskegee Hospital, 1924.

First African American hospital director

Dr. Joseph H. Ward, of Indianapolis, became the first director of the Tuskegee Veteran’s hospital in 1923. Dr. Ward served in that capacity at Tuskegee until 1936.

Dr. Howard Kenney, 1962

Racial segregation ends at VA

On July 29, 1954, VA announced that segregation of the races had officially ended at all hospitals.

First African American director to integrate VA hospitals

Dr. Howard Kenney was the first director to integrate the VA hospital system. On July 20, 1962, he became the first African American VA hospital director for the East Orange, NJ, facility.Long Description

Viola Johnson, director, Battle Creek VAMC, 1984

First African American VA regional medical director

After integrating executive leadership at VA hospitals in 1962, Dr. Howard Kenney went on to become the first African American appointed as a VA Regional Medical Director in 1969.

First African American nursing director

Vernice Ferguson was the first African American nurse appointed as VA’s Director of Nursing in 1980, and she held that position for 12 years, retiring in 1992.

Viola Johnson, director, Battle Creek VAMC, 1984

First African American woman hospital director

Viola Johnson became the first African American woman to lead a VAMC in 1984 when she assumed direction of the Battle Creek Michigan facility.

First VA hospital named for African American veteran

The first VA facility named after an African American was named after Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient PFC Ralph H. Johnson (Marines) in 1990.

First African American VA Secretary

Jesse Brown was the first African American VA Secretary. He served from 1993 to 1997.

MIGHTY HISTORY

‘You have to follow your heart.’ A WWII War Bride’s story of tragedy and love

An estimated 300,000 “war brides,” as they were known, left home to make the intrepid voyage to the United States after falling in love with American soldiers who were stationed abroad during World War II. There were so many that the United States passed a series of War Brides Acts in 1945 and 1946. This legislation provided them with an immigration pathway that didn’t previously exist under the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed quotas on immigrants based on their nation of origin and strategically excluded or limited immigration from certain parts of the world, particularly Asia.

Equipped with little but a feeling and a sense of promise, war brides left everything that was familiar behind to forge a new identity in the United States. Many spoke little to no English upon their arrival in the country, and they were introduced to post-war American culture through specially designed curricula and communities. To this day, organizations for war brides in the United States provide networks for military spouses and their children, helping them keep their heritage alive and share their experiences of their adopted home.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on September 2, 2020, We Are The Mighty is proud to collaborate with Babbel, the new way to learn a foreign language. Babbel conducted interviews with surviving war brides as much of the world endured lockdown. Many of these women are now in their 80s and 90s, and their oral histories celebrate the challenges and successes of adapting to a new culture and language, as well as reflect on the leap of faith they all took to travel across the world to an unknown country. Spoiler alert: there are few regrets.

War Brides is a 5 part series.

Huguette Coghlan

My maiden name is Huguette Roberte Fauveau, and I am now 95 years old. I was born in Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris, and grew up in a nearby suburb called Chatou. I moved to America with my husband in 1946, and I still live there now.

I had a happy childhood before the war. My parents eloped when they were about 20, and they had me and my younger brother, Serge. My dad worked in a factory as a tool and dyes maker. They did not have a lot of money in the 1930s. During the war, I remember bombs falling very close to my home. So close that my dad, my brother and I all lost our hearing. It eventually returned, but as I have gotten older, I have lost my hearing again.

We were blessed that we did not get hurt during the German occupation. My grandparents had a little farm, so food was not scarce. We always had food to eat, but bread was something we did not have enough of. At one point, the Germans took over the factory where my father worked. While we remained unhurt, I heard and saw terrible things.

I met my husband when I was on vacation with my grandparents. I was walking to a dance with my friend, Jacqueline. We had missed our ride, so we had to walk over a mile in our high heels. While we were walking, a large Jeep stopped next to us and asked if we wanted a ride.

Naturally, we said no. When we eventually arrived at the venue, our feet were a little bruised, but this did not stop us from dancing. I noticed that two soldiers came in, and after a while, one of them approached me. I knew it was one of the men from the jeep. He told me I had nice legs, and we talked for a long time after that. He told me he was part of the military police and was tasked with supervising the dance. His name was Rodger Murray Rusher and he was 20, like me. He asked me if I would go on a date with him the next day, so I told him where I lived and said yes, but I never thought he’d find my house. He did.

Photo of one of the war brides and her husband

My parents and my brother, Serge Lucien, liked Rodger straight away. My parents, and above all my brother, were extremely sad when I told them I wanted to move to America. But they loved and trusted Rod. His mother had written a letter to my mother, so they had faith that he and his family would take care of me.

I married Rod in Chatou on the 23rd of September, 1945, in the Sainte-Thérèse Church.

I had studied English for four years in school, so I could read and write English. I was pretty good at speaking it, but I spoke with a strong French accent. When I got to America, I discovered that some people had a hard time understanding me. Many still do! I became keen to learn English. I remember I read a lot, did lots of crossword puzzles, and always had my nose in a dictionary. It didn’t take me long to become fluent.

Rod and I first arrived in New York on the 19th of May, 1946. I spent my 21st birthday in New York. After that, we traveled to where Rodger’s family was from — a place called Roundup, Montana. My extended family made me feel very welcome when I arrived, and they hosted a party to introduce me to all their friends from around the town. They all wanted to hear about France, and all were very nice and welcoming. Up until then, I’d thought my English was good, but this is when I discovered that I had a hard time understanding them, and vice versa.

My in-laws had a four-bedroom log ranch. They did not have electricity, and their water came from a well. The bathroom consisted of two holes in a little outhouse. It was a very pretty ranch, but it was a shock for me. I came from a very modern house in a big city. But when you are young, you adjust easily to changes.

I have returned to France many times over the years. The first time was not long after Rod died. He wanted to be a pilot, and he was learning to fly under the GI Bill. When I was still pregnant with our second child, Rod was killed in a plane accident with his brother in 1948. A year or so after that, I returned to France. I stayed for six months, and then made the very difficult decision to return to America. It was hard to leave my parents and brother again, but by then I knew that I wanted my children to be American. I didn’t have any formal lessons to learn how to be an American, but I soon grew to love America very much.

In Roundup, I missed the symphony and the opera that I used to attend at home. But when I moved to a bigger city in Montana, Bozeman, I could start to enjoy them again. I spoke French with my children at home. My first two children were born in Roundup. I remember once overhearing some other children make fun of Gerald and Gregory for speaking French, so that’s when I thought, “No more French. They are American, they live here, and I want them to be American!” That was a mistake, but I didn’t know it then. It was difficult as a widow, and things were very different back then.

one of the original war brides

Three years after Rodger died, I remarried to a man named Terry James Coghlan. We had a girl, who we named Jacqueline. She speaks a little French, is very keen to learn, and is taking lessons now! I would tell people who were considering moving to another country for love to not be afraid, and to follow your heart.

Part I: Alice Lawson

Part II: Nina Edillo

Part III: Emilia Zecchino

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why gladiators of Rome didn’t die as often as you thought

Flamma, Spartacus, and Carpophorus are just a few of the deadly gladiators that saw many victories while fighting in Rome’s famous arenas.


The vicious sport of gladiator fighting was just as popular back then as boxing and MMA are today. Gladiator combat was much more gangsta, though. Crowds would swarm to see mighty warriors beat the crap out of one another until only one man was left standing — or the match ended in a draw.

Most people believe that once you stepped foot into one of Rome’s great arenas, chances were, you weren’t coming out alive.

That’s almost true.

Related: These 4 Gurkha stories will make you want to forge your own kukri knife

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic.

Some historians believe the gladiator games started as ceremonial offerings, as a way to provide entertainment at wealthy aristocrats’ funerals. It’s reported, that roughly only one in nine of the competitions ended in death. Many of the warriors who lost the bloody brawls were granted mercy — for financial reasons.

“If a gladiator was lost in the arena, that represented an enormous loss of an investment.” Professor Michael J. Carter explains.

If a rented gladiator was killed in the games, the sponsor was looking to forfeit nearly 50 times the cost of the rental.

Also Read: This soldier took on enemy troops with the sword that took off his arm

In fact, gladiators were the sports celebrities of their time and were awarded exclusive access to the best doctors and trainers to prepare them for the next bout.

Regardless of the quality treatment, however, a majority of gladiators would eventually fall in the arena — or they earned their freedom.

However, even in death, many of the gladiators lived on as stories engraved onto ancient Roman halls and statues.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming
Spartacus was a rebel gladiator who raised an army against Rome.

Check out the Smithsonian Channel‘s video below to get the complete breakdown of how these ancient warriors were treated.

 

MIGHTY HISTORY

This dog disarmed a bomb by marking it

Explosive ordnance disposal is an extremely dangerous business that requires the highest levels of intelligence, toughness and discipline. Only the best of the best in the U.S. military can make it through EOD School to earn the coveted “Crab.” Dogs sometimes accompany EOD techs in the field, helping to sniff out concealed explosives. During WWII, however, one dog decided to have a go at disarming a bomb herself.

In 1941, Britain was under constant attack by Germany during The Blitz. The Nazis conducted mass air raids on industrial targets, towns and cities. The bombing campaign resulted in the destruction of two million houses, over 40,000 civilian deaths and injured thousands more.


The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

Germany dropped 2,393 incendiary devices during The Blitz (Public Domain)

In April 1941, a German incendiary bomb fell through the roof of the house where a Great Dane named Juliana and her owner lived. Juliana reportedly walked over to the bomb, stood over it and urinated on it. By marking the incendiary device, Juliana extinguished it and prevented the fire from spreading. For her actions, she was awarded the Blue Cross medal. The first animals to be awarded the medal were horses that had served in WWI.

Three years later, Juliana came to the rescue again. In November 1944, a fire broke out in her owner’s shoe shop. Juliana alerted her owner’s family and everyone was able to evacuate the shop before any lives were lost. For this, she was awarded a second Blue Cross.

Tragically, Juliana died in 1946 after she consumed a poison that was dropped through her owner’s mail slot.

Juliana’s heroic actions were forgotten until a watercolor portrait and her second Blue Cross medal came up in a Bristol property clearance auction in 2013. The portrait had a plaque on it that recounted her disarming of the bomb and the medal described how she alerted her owner’s family to the fire in the shoe shop. Auctioneer Philip Taubenheim described Juliana as, “a Great Dane with a great bladder.” Expected to sell for £60, the portrait and medal ended up selling for an incredible £1100.

The time a nuclear aircraft carrier ran aground right before homecoming

Juliana’s portrait (Artist unknown)

Though she wasn’t a military working dog, Juliana’s fantastic story highlights the often-overlooked role that animals play in war and proves that dogs are indeed man’s best friend.


Do Not Sell My Personal Information