The United Kingdom’s highest award for valor in combat, the Victoria Cross, is notoriously difficult to earn. It is awarded for “conspicuous bravery… pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”
Like the United States’ Medal of Honor, not many survive earning their nation’s highest honor. Even more rare is earning two of such medals. Since the Victoria Cross was introduced in 1857, some 1,358 medals have been awarded. Only three recipients have been awarded two.
Only one of them survived earning his second.
Charles Upham enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces in 1939 at the age of 30. He was a seasoned soldier, a non-commissioned officer in New Zealand’s home army, then known as the “Territorial Force.” He signed on to the expeditionary army as a private, but his skills as a soldier soon saw him retain his previous rank of sergeant.
By July 1940, he was headed for Egypt and was placed in an officer’s training unit. The New Zealander’s first action in World War II was to reinforce the Greek Army in the face of an imminent Nazi invasion. That invasion came on Apr. 6, 1941, which forced the Kiwis to withdraw to the island of Crete.
It was on Crete that Upham earned his first Victoria Cross. The Battle of Crete was unique in the history of warfare in that it was led by a massive force of Nazi paratroopers. The British controlled the seas around Crete, but the Nazi luftwaffe maintained air superiority. The Nazis captured the island’s most important areas and soon they were reinforced by airlifted supplies and weapons. The British and Commonwealth forces would soon have to retreat to Egypt.
But first, 2nd Lt. Upham and his men were going to make the Nazi pay for evey inch of Crete they could.
In three separate actions, Upham destroyed four machine gun positions (often at close range), removed wounded men from the battlefield, and led his men to relieve a surrounded allied unit. Over the course of a week, he took out more than 70 enemy troops while wounded, exhausted, and suffering from dysentery. For this, he was awarded his first Victoria Cross.
He and his men retreated to Egypt, where he recovered and recuperated. He saw combat again in 1942, at Minqar Qaim and at the First Battle of El-Alamein, where he would earn his second Victoria Cross.
Here, the British and Commonwealth forces would fight the Nazis under Erwin Rommel to a draw. Now a Captain, Upham was leading a company of New Zealanders on El Ruweisat Ridge. They were part of the reserve force but soon lost communications with the headquarters. Not knowing what was happening, Upham himself went to assess the situation.
He found enemy machine gunners, which he was able to evade. Most importantly, he reestablished communications.
His unit was ordered to take their objectives at dawn on the second day of fighting, but found it was more heavily defended than they’d anticipated. His company was pitted against four machine gun nests and four tanks. Upham led the company in a flanking maneuver against the Nazi strongpoints.
Upham destroyed one of the enemy tanks on his own, taking a bullet to the arm for his trouble. That bullet broke his arm at the elbow. He then moved forward to cover the retreat of some of his men who had been cut off by an enemy counterattack. As they enemy retook the objective, he fought back as his men reconsolidated. One would think he had already earned a second Victoria Cross, but he wasn’t finished.
After being patched up at an aid post, he rejoined his unit, which again began to take heavy artillery fire, wounding him again. This time his position was overrun and he was captured. Only six men from his unit survived the battle.
Superior officers in Upham’s chain of command recommended him for another Victoria Cross for not only his actions at El-Alamein, but also his previous engagement at Minqar Qaim. Instead they rolled both events into the same recommendation to present to King George Vi.
The New Zealander recovered from his wounds and spent most of the rest of the war in POW camps, where he became known as an extreme escape risk. He eventually found himself in Colditz Castle, a prison for enemy officers from which escape was notoriously difficult.
In the 1950s U.S. forces were stretched dangerously thin. U.S. President Dwight D Eisenhower stated of this, “My feeling…remains, that it would be impossible for the United States to maintain the military commitments which it now sustains around the world (without turning into a garrison state) did we not possess atomic weapons and the will to use them when necessary.”
No surprise from this that, unsatisfied with the portability of their shiny new M65 nuclear cannons, which required a couple of very large trucks to transport, and further unsatisfied that firing it off in many tactical situations would be a bit like killing a mosquito with a hand grenade, in the late 1950s the U.S. military brass for once were thinking smaller. What they really wanted was a simple weapon that could launch a miniature nuclear warhead, could be carted around by a few soldiers, and be fired relatively quickly and reliably. This would allow a handful of soldiers to successful combat far superior forces on the other side, even at relatively close range, which none of the other nuclear weapons of the age could safely do — Enter the Davy Crockett.
Rumor has it the name was chosen in homage to the famed American politician owing to the legend that he once grinned a bear to death, with the idea referencing the association between Russia, and the Soviet Union in general, with bears.
Whether that’s actually the reasoning behind the name or not, the first prototype of the Davy Crockett was completed in November of 1958 and ultimately deployed about two and a half years later in May of 1961. Featuring a variant of the W54 warhead contained in an M388 round, the projectile was fired from an M-28 or M-29 smooth bore recoilless gun. This was capable of launching the 10 or 20 ton yield nuke as far as about 1.25 miles for the M28 or 2.5 miles for the M29.
As for portability, the Davy Crockett could be either deployed and fired from the back of a jeep for maximum mobility, or even broken down into its components, with the pieces of the weapon carried by five soldiers on foot.
The general procedure for firing the 76 pound nuclear round was quite simple. First a spotting round would be shot from an attached gun to ensure the weapon was aimed reasonably well. After this, in order to get the nuke to end up more or less where the spotting round did, the angle of the gun would have to be adjusted. To do this, a small book with pre-calculated tables was carried giving adjustment figures for said angle.
However, it turns out test firings with non-live nukes showed again and again that the Davey Crockett was an obscenely inaccurate weapon, possibly both because of the angle adjustment and that the weapon itself was smooth bore. Of course, the fact that the Davey Crockett was shooting a nuclear warhead helped make this inaccuracy issue not as much of a problem as would be the case with other similar weapons.
Once the target was mildly locked on, the propellant charge would be inserted into the muzzle with a metal piston placed in after as a sort of cap. This was followed by the M388 round itself containing the W54 warhead. As the M388 was far too big to fit inside the bore, instead a rod would be attached to the back, with the nuke sitting at the front.
As for how the warhead would know when to detonate, there was a timer dial that would be set based on estimated distance to the target, using figures given in the aforementioned book containing a spreadsheet of tables.
However, contrary to what is often stated, the timer was not actually the thing that triggered detonation. Rather, it simply armed the bomb once the time ran out. The actual trigger for detonation was a simple radar device in the back of the M388 that would detect how far above the ground the nuke was. There was also a high and low switch that could slightly adjust height of detonation based on the radar reading.
As you might have gleaned from all this, also contrary to what is often stated, this switch did not control the yield of the bomb, just what height it would detonate above the ground, roughly 20-40 feet AGL, depending on setting.
It should also be noted that, unlike many other nuclear weapons, this was an otherwise dumb nuke. Once the timer was set and it was fired, it would either go off or prove itself to be a dud. There was no aborting detonation after launch.
If all that is involved in firing the Davey Crockett sounds like it might take a long time, it turns out not at all given the destructive power of this weapon. One former Davey Crockett section soldier, Thomas Hermann, notes that they were actually trained and well capable of firing a nuke every two and a half minutes!
So just how deadly could this weapon be? While extremely low-powered as nukes go, the weapon nonetheless produced a blast in the ballpark of as large as the highest yield non-nuclear explosive devices of the era. But unlike many of these, it was relatively small and portable. More important than that was its potential for extended damage long after the initial blast. This was particularly useful when fired around critical routes that enemy soldiers would have to traverse. Not only would the initial blast do significant damage to any soldiers and enemy vehicles around at the time, but the radioactive fallout, which would almost certainly be fatal to anyone within about a quarter of a mile of the initial blast when it went off, would remain long after, making a given route, such as a mountain pass, impassable for several days after if one was interested in not dying of radiation poisoning. Naturally, the Soviets could defend against this simply by equipping each of their soldiers with lead-lined refrigerators, but for whatever reason they never seemed to have chosen to go this route.
On the other end of things, neither did the Americans. This was despite the fact that the Davey Crockett was also not terribly safe for those firing it. While 1.25-2.5 miles away is plenty of range to keep the soldiers who pulled the trigger safe from being harmed by the blast itself, in real world scenarios the enemy being fired upon could be closer and some of your own troops might also be even closer still.
Critical to all of this was also wind direction. With no wind, the radiation kill zone in the immediately aftermath of the blast was approximately 1,500 feet, but wind could easily blow dangerous radioactive particles towards one’s own troops. As such, crew were instructed to, if possible, only fire the gun when suitable cover behind a hill or the like was available to help reduce radiation exposure.
Photograph of a U.S. developed M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear weapon mounted to a recoilless rifle on a tripod
(Department of Defense)
That said, presumably to try to get the soldiers operating the weapon to be slightly less hesitant about firing it, the instruction manual notes that the leader of the troop should instill a great sense of urgency in the soldiers operating the Davy Crockett and to remember that, to quote, “The search for nuclear targets is constant and vigorous!”
On top of that, the manual states that if the nuke failed to detonate for some reason, the soldiers should wait a half hour and then go and recover the supposed to be armed and ready to detonate at the whim of a radar trigger nuke…
Needless to say, while the Davy Crockett was deployed everywhere from West Germany to South Korea, with well over 2,000 of the M388 rounds made and 100 of the guns deployed, it was never actually used in battle.
That said, the Army did do one test fire of the Davy Crockett with a live M388 round. This occurred during Operation Sunbeam in a test code named “Little Feller I”, which took place on July 17, 1962. The nuke flew approximately 1.7 miles and detonated successfully about 30 feet above the ground, with an estimated yield of 18 tons from the blast. Interestingly enough, this was the last time the United States would detonate a nuke in the air close to the ground thanks to the 1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water. (And, yes, that is the real name of the treaty).
In the end, as cool as having a portable nuclear gun is and all, within only a few years the weapon would become antiquated, and by 1967 the Army was already beginning to phase it out, with it going the way of the Dodo completely by 1971. No doubt to the eternal relief of the soldiers tasked with firing the things should the need arise.
The M247 Sergeant York was officially designated as a “self-propelled anti-aircraft gun” but was for all intents and purposes a tank chassis with anti-aircraft guns attached to the top. The vehicle was named for one Alvin York, a famous and highly decorated WWI hero who captured over 100 German soldiers pretty much single-handedly. Unfortunately for the U.S. tax payers who spent just shy of $2 billion on it (about $4.8 billion today or, humourously enough, after appropriately adjusting for inflation to make the dollar values match, about 1/11th what the entire Apollo program cost), the final version of the weapon ended up being so useless its automatic targeting system couldn’t distinguish between a toilet vent fan and a jet plane, the vehicle itself couldn’t keep up with the tanks it was designed to protect, and it was made obsolete by advances in enemy weaponry after only a few dozen faulty units were made. Here now is the story of the forgotten M247.
This particular weapon was developed by the defunct off-shoot of Ford known as Ford Aerospace in response to a contract put out by the U.S. Army in 1977 requesting what they referred to as an, “Advanced Radar-directed Gun Air Defense System.” This was later re-dubbed, “Division Air Defense” which was itself shorted to DIVAD in official documentation.
In a nutshell, the Army wanted a drivable anti-aircraft system that was to serve alongside their newly developed M1 Abrams and M2 Bradley tanks in battle. The contract was put out in direct response to a battle tactic known as “pop-up” which essentially involved helicopters harassing tanks from a distance by hiding behind cover and then popping up briefly to let loose a volley of anti-tank missiles (which themselves were a newly developed technology) before hiding once again.
The U.S. Army found that the tactic was almost impossible to counter with the ground-based weapons it had available at the time as their leading anti-aircraft weapons system, the M163 Vulcan, only had a range of 1.2 KM (3/4 of a mile), while newly developed anti-tank missiles, such as the 9K114 Shturm used by the Soviets, could hit from a range almost five times greater than that. To add insult to injury, the Soviets had no problem countering the pop-up attack method thanks to their ZSU-23-4 Shilka, which is essentially what the United States wanted to copy.
To minimize production time and cost, the Army specified that the basis of the newly developed system had to be mounted atop an M48 Patton tank chassis (something the Army had in great surplus). Further, the system had to more or less use off-the-shelf parts, rather than anything being developed from scratch.
As to the final specific capabilities it was supposed to have, it had to be able to keep up with the M1 and M2’s cruising speed and be able to lock onto any target within 8 seconds, all with a minimum 50% chance to hit a target from 3 KM (1.9 miles) away with a single 30 second volley. It also had to be able to continually track up to 48 moving aerial targets, automatically identifying enemy aircraft, and intelligently prioritizing which should be shot down first. All the gunner had to do then was to select the target from the generated list and fire.
Several companies responded to the request with proposed systems, with the Army ultimately narrowing it down to two entrants- one developed by Ford Aerospace and one by General Dynamics, with both companies given $79 million to develop prototypes.
After extensive testing of two prototypes made by each company, in which General Dynamics’ reportedly shot down 19 drones vs. Ford’s 9, Ford was awarded the contract…
As you might have guessed, this decision was controversial, not just because the General Dynamics prototype outperformed Ford’s by a considerable margin, but because, unlike every other entrant, the M247 used more costly 40MM shells instead of 35MM ones which were extensively used by NATO at the time. Rumour had it that Ford stood to make more money from the use of 40MM rounds due to a business deal they had with the manufacturer. However, it should also be noted that the Army may have had good reason to favour the 40MM given its larger size and a newly developed 40mm round that had a proximity sensing fuse built in.
Whatever the case, Ford Aerospace won the lucrative contract and began immediate production of M247s in 1981.
Every M247 Ford produced had problems, mainly centered around their automatic targeting system. This ultimately led one soldier to speculate that the only way the M247 would manage to take out an enemy would be by “driving over the top of it.”
As an example of some of the issues here, in 1982 Ford was set to demonstrate the M247 to a gathered crowd of VIPs and military brass. However, the moment the M247’s tracking system was turned on, it immediately targeted the stands the gathered people were sitting in, resulting in complete chaos as those present trampled one another to get out of the way. Of course, the M247 required the operator to tell it to fire, so there was no real danger here, but one can imagine staring down a pair of 40mm cannons in a live demo would be a tad frightening.
After a while, the engineers thought they’d managed to fix the issue and the demo resumed, only to see the M247 shoot into the ground rather than the drone target it was “locked on” to.
In the aftermath, a Ford Aerospace executive claimed the “glitch” had been caused by the M247 being washed before the demonstration, damaging the targeting system. This explanation didn’t sit well with military brass or the many journalists present, one of whom, Gregg Easterbrook, mused that perhaps Ford Aerospace didn’t realize that it rained in Europe where the M247 was to be deployed.
Other problems with the M247’s targeting system included its seeming inability to tell the difference between helicopters and trees and its penchant for locking onto random other ground-based objects as threats. The most infamous example of this was that time an M247 ignored a passing drone it was supposed to be targeting and instead locked onto a nearby latrine exhaust fan, marking it as a low priority, slow-moving target.
The M247’s targeting system was so poor that even when presented with an unrealistically favorable scenario, such as a helicopter hovering completely still in mid-air, it still missed and took an agonizing 12 seconds just to acquire the target.
How was this targeting system so bad, given that it was developed using off-the-shelf parts that were shown to be reliable already? Mainly because the radar was one designed for the F-16 fighter jet. (In fact, it worked very well in the open air.) However, despite the efforts of the Ford and Army engineers, the random objects on the ground continually wreaked havoc on the radar’s ability to track low flying aerial targets like pop-up attacking helicopters. It also had significant problems tracking high flying targets because when the turrets were raised up they got in the way of the radar… (*queue Yakety Sax*).
On top of all this, the M247’s turret also couldn’t turn fast enough to track fast-moving targets and the hydraulics leaked in even marginally cold weather. Not a problem, of course, given it’s always balmy in the regions that were once the former Soviet Union… (In truth, even if it was balmy, it turns out the tracking system also struggled in high ambient temperatures and had trouble dealing with vibrations, such as generated continually when the M247 moved over the ground.)
Another major problem, as previously mentioned, was that the M247’s top speed wasn’t sufficient to keep up with the M1 and M2’s cruising speed, meaning it literally couldn’t drive fast enough to travel with the things it was specifically designed to protect. You might at this point be thinking that one’s on the Army because they’re the ones that made Ford use the M48 Patton tank as the base, and that’s not an entirely unfair thought. However, it should be noted that the M48 was previously capable of keeping up here, but Ford added about 17 tons to the original 45 in their modifications of the turret, making the tank much slower than it had previously been.
Despite all these problems to units being delivered, the Army continued to pump money into the project, mostly because there wasn’t a backup option and there was a very pressing need for such a weapon. However, rumors of the Army faking positive results for the M247 via putting it in unrealistically favorable conditions (such as hovering the drones and attaching radar reflectors), including Oregon state representative Dennis Smith going so far as to publicly accuse them of this, ultimately led to something of an inquiry on the matter. Specifically, in 1984, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger decided to oversee a set of amazingly expensive tests costing $54 million ($144 million today) to better determine what this weapon could and couldn’t do.
The tests did not go well. When the system utterly failed to hit any realistically flown drones, they resorted to having them fly in a straight line. After further failures to actually hit a target, the drones were made to hold still and equipped with radar reflectors… (Rather ironic for a weapon named after a famed WWI soldier known for his incredibly sharpshooting ability.)
All was not lost, however. In one of the rounds of tests where a drone was moving the M247 did manage to slightly damage it, knocking it off course, at which point the safety officer remotely self-destructed it as he was supposed to do if a drone did such a thing. Nevertheless, this was interpreted by the press as the military trying to make it look like the M247 had actually managed a kill, leading to even more outcry that the Army was just trying to fake the results to make the massively expensive M247 look good.
(As to that cost, while it’s widely reported today that the project cost close to $7 billion (about $18 billion today), in fact, that number includes about three decades of anti-aircraft weapon development leading up to and including the actual figure of about $1.8 billion (about $4.8 billion today) spent on the development of the M247s.)
In any event, around the same time of the debacle that was the 1984 tests, the Soviet Union were deploying longer-range anti-tank missiles that were capable of being fired outside of the then current range the M247 could effectively counter the attacks, even if the system did aim properly.
Thus, despite the pressing need for such a system with little in the way of a backup, Weinberger, with support from Congress, some members of which had been present at the test, canceled the project rather than trying to sink more money into it to fix it. In the coming years, most of the M247s found their way onto target ranges where they were destroyed in various tests by weaponry that could actually aim properly. Today, only a handful of M247s still exist, one of which can be found at the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park.
This week in history, East German soldiers closed the borders between East and West Berlin. What started as a makeshift wall in 1961, pieced together with barbed wire, soldiers and tanks, eventually morphed into a 15-foot high symbol of division that blotted the landscape. However, the citizens of Berlin proved time and again where there’s a will, there’s a way. In its 28-year history, over 5,000 people risked life and limb to successfully across the border. For today’s history lesson, let’s take a look at a few more things you probably didn’t know about the Berlin Wall.
The wall was built to keep people in
At the height of the Cold War, Germany was politically divided. East Germany represented life under Communism, and West Germany held the promise of democracy. Consequently, between 1949 and 1961, over 2 million East Germans fled from East to West.
Initially, a hasty perimeter was set up, and the wall in the city center was made of men and armored vehicles. On the morning of August 13, 1961, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) soldiers laid down barbed wire and ripped up the street known as Friedrich-Ebert Strasse, to build a makeshift wall. More armed guards kept watch, ready to shoot anyone who tried to cross as the wall was erected.
Over time the Berlin wall was shored up, reaching up to 15 feet high in some spots, and barbed wire and pipes perched atop the wall made climbing over impossible.
Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous checkpoint, but do you know why?
Along the Berlin Wall, there were a few checkpoints where those with the proper documentation were able to cross between sides. Among them was Checkpoint Friedrichstrasse — more commonly known as Checkpoint Charlie. The U.S. Army maintained Checkpoint Charlie, and it was the only checkpoint where foreigners and allied forces were allowed to cross into East Germany.
Checkpoint Charlie also gained notoriety because it was the preferred crossing for prisoner swaps. The most notable prisoner swap occurred in 1962, on Glienicke Bridge, which stood only a short distance from Checkpoint Charlie. During this exchange American U-2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers was traded for Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy convicted of espionage.
Checkpoint Charlie has often been depicted in film and books as well, perhaps most notably in the James Bond classic Octopussy and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré.
You can own a piece of the wall
On November 9, 1989, East Germany announced relaxed travel restrictions to West Germany, and thousands gathered to demand passage. As East German guards opened the borders, the demonstrations reached a fever pitch. Berliners climbed the wall, defaced it with graffiti, and began chipping away at it, some keeping fragments as souvenirs. While East German guards began dismantling the wall on August 10, 1989, Germany was not officially united until 1990.
Today pieces of the Berlin Wall are available for sale on eBay. You can own a piece of history for .99 plus shipping and handling.
More than 100 people died trying to cross the wall
One enlisted Coastie mutt – no disrespect, Sinbad was a “mixed breed” – earned a reputation that rivaled any sailor’s in any war before or since. He was one of only two non-humans to reach NCO status, even making Chief by the time of his retirement.
Sinbad was arguably the Coast Guard’s most famous mascot. He was enlisted into the USCG by Chief Boatswain’s Mate A. A. “Blackie” Rother of the Campbell. Sinbad was supposed to be a gift for Blackie’s girlfriend, but her building didn’t allow pets, so Rother took the dog back to the Cutter George W. Campbell.
A full-fledged member of the crew of the Campbell, Sinbad had to fill out his paperwork, wear his uniform, and was given pay commensurate with his rank. When World War II broke out in the Atlantic, Sinbad wasn’t about to play dead when it mattered most.
The dog wasn’t just for fun. He had a watch, a general quarters duty station, and his own bunk. Sinbad certainly didn’t roll over for anyone. When the Coast Guard wanted to use him as a PR tool in allied ports, the pup raised hell from Morocco to Greenland.
The Campbell saw plenty of action. She once rammed an enemy U-boat and was also strafed by a Nazi aircraft in the Mediterranean. During a fight with U-606, the ship was severely damaged and the CO ordered that essential personnel only would remain on the Campbell. Sinbad stayed aboard ship.
Signing his enlistment papers with a pawprint, he served on Atlantic convoy duty with the rest of the Campbell crew. Just like a sailor, he had to be disciplined. One author wrote:
“Sinbad is a salty sailor but he’s not a good sailor. He’ll never rate gold hashmarks nor Good Conduct Medals. He’s been on report several times and he’s raised hell in a number of ports. On a few occasions, he has embarrassed the United States Government by creating disturbances in foreign zones. Perhaps that’s why Coast Guardsmen love Sinbad, he’s as bad as the worst and as good as the best of us.”
The precocious pup did earn medals, however. His awards include the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and Navy Occupation Service Medal.
The crew loved Sinbad, even if no one really took responsibility for the dog. They said he earned his enlistment by drinking coffee, whiskey with beer chasers, and having his own shore liberty. He was reportedly the first off the ship at every port.
He would hit the bars hard, hopping up on empty bar stools, where his whiskey and beer habit was tended to by every bar in the area. He never paid for a drink but returned the ship “bombed” every night, with only an aspirin to tend to his hangover the next day. Sometimes his drinking led to a Captain’s Mast. He was demoted in rank for actions that generally made him a bad dog. These include:
• Missing a sailing in Italy; captured by the Shore Patrol.
Captain James Hirschfield told the media that as long as Sinbad was aboard, nothing bad could happen to the ship. In a nod to Capt. Hirschfield’s statement, a statue of Sinbad is on the deck of the current Famous-class Cutter Campbell. It is considered bad luck for anyone below the rank of Chief to touch Sinbad or his bone.
In his retirement days, the aging pup was sent to Barnegat Lifeboat Station in northern New Jersey, After 11 years of service. He slept, watched the ocean, and waited for Kubel’s Bar to open in the mornings until he died in 1951.
It sounds like a big job description: “Queen’s Champion and Standard Bearer of England.” Although these days, the title seems more ceremonial than functional, it still sounds like a big deal. Since the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, whomever holds the Manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, England, also has to fight for the monarch at their coronation, should a challenger arise in the middle of it.
Francis John Fane Marmion Dymoke is the current champion, but this is his father, the previous champion. A World War II veteran, he died in 2015.
The Dymokes have been the standard bearers for the reigning English monarch since the mid-14th Century, and would ride into Westminster Abbey in full shining armor, on a horse, in full plumage and regalia. To repeat, they ride a horse into Westminster in the middle of a coronation. They then throw a gauntlet – they literally throw a gauntlet – on the ground and announce that whomever dares challenge the King or Queen’s right to the throne must face him in combat. When no one does, the new monarch then drinks wine from a golden cup to honor his or her Champion.
The King or Queen could not fight in such combat unless it were someone their equal who would challenge them, and that usually meant a war.
The tradition has taken a few different forms over the last few monarch coronations, and was left out of Queen Victoria’s coronation entirely.
And sadly, at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Champion did not get to throw the gauntlet or threaten the crowd, but he did his duty to carry the Royal Standard in the procession. When Prince Charles (or at this rate, William) takes the throne, this is a tradition we in America would like to see revived to its full former glory.
Lee was a veteran of World War I when he was sent with other American troops to Nicaragua in 1927 to assist the Nicaraguan National Guard in a long-running fight against a leftist rebellion.
The Marines, including Lee, took command of small groups of local soldiers, trained them, and led them in combat.
In 1930, Lee was a gunnery sergeant who led the Nicaraguans against superior enemy forces six times between Mar. 20 and Aug. 19, forcing the enemy to retreat each time. Lee’s men were thought to have killed at least 10 enemy fighters and wounded many more over the span of the ten battles. Lee was awarded his first Navy Cross for his leadership and valor.
In December of the same year, Lee led a 10-day patrol through the jungle and engaged in three heavy fights with the rebels. His men defeated the rebels in each of the firefights, twice while fighting against rebel forces with superior numbers. This action netted Lee his second Navy Cross.
Automatic weapons fire rained down on the Marines and Nicaraguans as rebels fired their rifles and threw grenades. Lee was hit in the arm and head almost immediately at the start of the fight. Puller led the Nicaraguans against the enemy to achieve fire superiority without knowing if Lee was alive or dead.
Luckily for them all, Lee was only unconscious and awoke approximately 15 minutes later as the battle continued. Despite his grievous wounds, he clawed his way to the Nicaraguans’ machine gun, moved it to a good firing position, and started raining hell on the rebels. He then returned to the main element and resumed his duties as the second in command on the final attack.
U.S. Marines holding the Nicaraguan rebel leader Augusto César Sandino’s Flag. Nicaragua, 1932. (Marine Corps photo)
The Marines and Nicaraguans then conducting a fighting withdrawal back to their base, engaging the enemy multiple times and defeating more ambushes.
Lee would go on to fight in China during the lead up to World War II. Soon after the war broke out, he and his men were captured by Japanese forces and taken as prisoners of war and tortured. Lee survived the ordeal and continued serving in the Marine Corps until his retirement in 1950. He died of cancer in 1998.
Even though the five-star general rank essentially died in 1981 with Omar Bradley, the idea of a five-star general rising above all others to command so much of the American and allied militaries is remarkably heroic.
The five-star general officer was born in WWII because American generals and admirals were often placed above allied officers of a higher rank. Someone elevated to that position could never retire and was considered an active-duty officer for the rest of their life.
That’s a lot of trust. The list of the 9 officers we deemed worthy of the honor rightly reads like a “who’s who” of U.S. military history.
1. Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy
Leahy was the first officer to make the rank. He was the senior officer in the U.S. Navy and the senior-most officer in the U.S. military. He retired in 1939 but was recalled to active duty as the Chief of Staff to President Roosevelt and then Truman until 1949. During the latter years of his career, he reported only to the President.
2. General of the Army George Marshall
George Marshall was a major planner of the U.S. Army’s training for World War I and one of Gen. John J. Pershing’s aides-de-camp. He would need those planning skills when World War II broke out, as he oversaw the expansion of the U.S. Armed Forces and the coordination of U.S. efforts in the European Theater. After the war it was Marshall who helped rebuild Western Europe with an economic plan that came to be named after the man himself.
3. Fleet Admiral Ernest King
King was the Commander in Chief of U.S. Naval Forces (the U.S. now only uses the term “Commander-In-Chief” to refer to the President) and the Chief of Naval Operations. Though he never commanded a ship or fleet during a war, as the Navy representative of the Joint Chiefs, he helped plan and coordinate Naval Operations during WWII.
4. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur
MacArthur graduated from West Point in 1903, fought in the occupation of Veracruz, World War I, and resisted the Japanese invasion of the Philippines for six months during WWII. MacArthur, despite having to retreat to Australia, oversaw the defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific and accepted their surrender less than four years later.
He would also orchestrate the occupation and rehabilitation of Japan, and the American counterattack during the early months of the Korean War.
5. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz
Nimitz was the Navy’s leading authority on submarine warfare at the outbreak of World War II. He would rise to be Commander-in-Chief of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet and eventually take control of all U.S. forces in the Pacific Theater. He served the Navy on Active Duty in an unofficial capacity until his death in 1966.
6. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Hitler! Macho Man Dwight Eisenhower coming for youuuuuu OHHHHH YEAHHHHHHH.”
Ike never saw combat as a soldier, but his planning skills were essential as Supreme Allied Commander of all allied expeditionary forces in Europe during World War II. He planned and executed the invasion of North Africa in 1943, and of course the D-Day invasion of France in 1944. After the war, Eisenhower was the first Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and was elected President in 1952.
7. General of the Army and Air Force Henry H. Arnold
“Hap” Arnold is the only officer ever to hold two five-star ranks in multiple branches and is the only person to ever to be General of the Air Force.
Before WWII, Arnold was the Chief of the Air Corps and became commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces when war broke out. He was one of the first military pilots ever, being trained by the freaking Wright Brothers themselves.
If Billy Mitchell is the Father of the Air Force, Hap Arnold helped raise it — he took a small organization and turned it into the world’s largest and most powerful air force during the WWII years.
8. Fleet Admiral William Halsey, Jr.
“Bull” Halsey started World War II harassing Japanese fleet movements in the Pacific in his flagship, the Enterprise. He was later made commander of all U.S. forces in the South Pacific and commander of the Navy’s third fleet. Halsey earned his status after the war ended but took the Navy on a goodwill cruise of friendly countries
9. General of the Army Omar Bradley
As mentioned, Omar Bradley was the last surviving five-star general, dying in 1981. He fought alongside the U.S. Army’s greatest all under the command of Dwight Eisenhower. He excelled during the D-Day landings and subsequent European campaigns. He eventually commanded 1.3 million fighting men as they invaded fortress Europe — the largest assembly of U.S. troops under a single commander.
* General of the Armies of the United States John J. Pershing
Pershing was promoted to this rank and title in 1919, though no official rank insignia existed at the time. It was made by Congress to recognize his role in the American entry into World War I in Europe.
* Admiral of the Navy George Dewey
Dewey received the title “Admiral of the Navy” by act of Congress in 1903. Admiral Dewey’s service during the Spanish-American War made him a national hero and celebrity.
* General of the Armies of the United States George Washington
President Gerald Ford promoted Washington to this rank and title — essentially a six-star general — in 1976 to always ensure Washington would be the senior-most officer of any group.
Few feats of engineering are as impressive as a military-grade helicopter. Today worth millions of dollars each, these high-tech birds are a formidable military asset, including, among many other uses, for rescue operations — all a fact US military personnel helpfully chose to ignore during Operation Frequent Wind when they pushed several dozen of them into the sea, in one case for no other reason than to save a mother, a father, and their five children.
For anyone unfamiliar with it, Operation Frequent Wind was the name give to the final phase of evacuations during the Fall of Saigon — effectively the final days of the Vietnam War. Noted as being one of the largest military evacuations in history and the largest involving helicopters as the primary means of evacuation, Operation Frequent Wind is celebrated as a logistical success for the US due to the fact that a few dozen helicopter pilots were somehow able to evacuate over 7,000 people in around 18 hours. This is made all the more impressive when you realize that the mass evacuation was never supposed to involve helicopters much at all.
A South Vietnamese helicopter is pushed over the side of the USS Okinawa during Operation Frequent Wind, April 1975.
(US Marine Corps photo)
You see, while Operation Frequent Wind is now famous for being the most successful mass helicopter evacuation ever organised, using helicopters as the primary means of evacuation was never the original plan — it wasn’t even the backup plan. It turns out that it was the backup to the backup to the backup plan.
Known initially as Operation Talon Vise until North Vietnamese spies heard whispers of it, the plans for a mass evacuation of Vietnam had been in place for several years and were originally supposed to involve the primary use of both commercial and military aircraft which would evacuate at-risk citizens and military personnel, with the total slated to be evacuated estimated to be about 2 million people.
Failing or in addition to this, the idea was to dock ships at Saigon port and load them with as many people as possible. In the event none of these options were possible, the final, Hail Mary plan was to instead use military helicopters to transport people to ships off shore.
Of course, evacuating the original estimate of 2 million people was never an option for the helicopter plan alone, nor even the extremely whittled down number of about 100,000-200,000 that military brass eventually reduced that figure to. Instead, at this point it was just as many people as they could as fast as they could.
So why did the US have to fall back to literally their least effective option if they’d been planning the evacuation for years? Well, much of the blame falls somewhat unbelievably to the actions of a single man — Graham Anderson Martin, the American ambassador to South Vietnam at the time who steadfastly refused to agree to start an evacuation for fear of mass panic and given his unshakable faith in the notion that the threat of the “superior American firepower” would keep the enemy at bay.
Despite this, recommendations did go out in advance of Operation Frequent Wind that at risk people should leave the country, resulting in a total of around 50,000 people, including a few thousand orphans, leaving via various planes in the months leading up to an actual evacuation being started. This was mostly done via supply aircraft who would bring supplies in, and then load up as many people as they could for the trip home. Yet an official full scale evacuation, which would have seen these efforts massively ramped up, was continually stalled by Martin.
Military brass tried and failed to persuade Martin to change his mind, with Brigadier General Richard E. Carey going as far as to travel to Saigon to plead personally with with the ambassador. This was a meeting Carey would later diplomatically call “cold and non productive” and should be noted took place on April 13th, 2 weeks after preparations were already supposed to have begun for the mass evacuation.
This back and forth continued until April 28th when North Vietnamese forces bombed the Tan Son Nhut Air Base, effectively eliminating any possibility of getting people out via large aircraft capable of mass evacuation. When this was pointed out to the Martin, he still refused to call for the evacuation, deciding to wait until the next day so he could drive out to the base and confirm the damage for himself.
Upon confirming that North Vietnamese forces had indeed destroyed the air base and the best option for a mass evacuation, he finally relented.
South Vietnamese refugees arrive on a U.S. Navy vessel during Operation Frequent Wind.
This was an order that was relayed to soldiers on the ground via the official Armed Forces Radio station by the words “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising,” followed by the playing the song I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas by Bing Crosby.
As a direct result of Martin’s stubbornness, the military had no choice but to rely on the least effective means of mass evacuation — via helicopter, with the operation officially commencing later that afternoon at 14:00.
Even as the operation began, Martin’s bullheaded refusal to prepare in anyway for an evacuation caused problems for certain helicopter pilots, most notably the ones trying to evacuate him and his staff.
Well there was a large tree in the embassy courtyard that military brass had “strongly advised” Martin cut down so as to better allow helicopters to land there should the worst happen. Martin, believing that doing so would be as good as admitting the war had already been lost, absolutely refused to do this. As Henry Kissinger would later note, “Faced with imminent disaster, Martin decided to go down with the ship.”
On that note, to his credit, Martin refused to leave once the evacuation had begun, though this was much to the annoyance of the pilot, Colonel Gerry Berry, sent to fetch him. Instead, Martin continually had refugees boarded while he simply waited with his staff in his office, knowing that as long as he was there, the helicopter would keep coming back allowing more lives to be saved.
It wasn’t until the 14th trip that an exhausted Berry finally reached his wits’ end. Said Berry, “I called the sergeant over. And he got up in the cockpit. And I said, ‘This is it. Get all these people off. This helicopter’s not leaving the roof until the ambassador’s on board. The President sends.'”
With an order supposedly from the President himself, though not actually in reality, Martin finally relented and allowed Berry to complete his mission by transporting Martin and his entourage.
Of course, what the military brass had failed to remember after this supposed last flight was that they’d accidentally left almost a dozen soldiers behind at the compound… This wouldn’t be realized for many hours, but all 11 Marines were rescued after being forced to barricade themselves on the rooftop for the night in case of an attack.
Leaving the evacuations as late as Martin did understandably resulted in mass panic across Saigon with many thousands of South Vietnamese citizens fleeing in everything from cars to stolen planes and helicopters.
In addition, lack of time meant that helicopter pilots had a laughable number of people to rescue, resulting in many ignoring the “recommended” weight limit of their craft and massively overloading them to the very extremes of what they could handle given the pilot’s assessments and weather conditions. In one case, one pilot noted he was overweight to the point that he could only hover inches off the ground, but no one was willing to get off as for many it would mean their life if they could not get out of the country.
He then stated he thought if he could get some forward speed he could get the additional lift needed, so simply pitched the craft forward and took a dive off the rooftop he was on, barely recovering before hitting the rooftops below and then managing to very slowly climb from there.
As for these pilots, they were instructed to ferry evacuees to waiting ships in the South China Sea, many of which quickly began to run out of space resulting in people sleeping double in the small bunks, as well as just anywhere on the ships there was available space for someone to sit or lie down on.
On top of that, any South Vietnamese pilots that could manage to get a hold of their own helicopters and flee to sea were also crowding the decks as they arrived. This resulted in the order to push some of these South Vietnamese helicopters overboard to make more space, or orders for some pilots to simply crash their helicopters into the ocean and await rescue after they’d dropped off any passengers.
This all brings us around to the incredible story of Major Buang Lee. Knowing he and his family — a wife and five children — would in all likelihood be executed if they couldn’t find a way out of the country immediately, the Major managed to commandeer a small Cessna O-1 spotter plane. Under heavy fire, he managed to take off and flee the country with two adults and five children jam packed aboard the tiny, slow moving aircraft.
A South Vietnamese UH-1H is pushed overboard to make room for a Cessna O-1 landing.
He then headed out to sea in search of a ship to land on or ditch the plane next to. About an hour and a half off the coast and with only about an hour of fuel left, he finally found one in the USS Midway.
The issue now was there was not sufficient room to land on the ship, owing to the number of helicopters on the deck. Unable to find the right frequency on the radio to talk to those on the Midway, Buang resorted to dropping notes.
The first two notes, unfortunately blew away before anyone aboard could grab them. Buang tied the third to his gun and dropped it. When the crew aboard retrieved it, they saw it read: “Can you move the helicopters to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me. -Major Buang, Wife and 5 child.”
The captain of the vessel, one Lawrence Chambers then had a decision to make. While it was possible to move some of the helicopters out of the way, there was no room to move them all. The young captain, only appointed to that post some five weeks before, decided that there was little chance the family would all survive if they tried to ditch in the sea next to the Midway and be rescued that way.
Said Lawrence of the event, “When a man has the courage to put his family in a plane and make a daring escape like that, you have to have the heart to let him in.”
So, thinking he’d likely be court-martialed for it, he made the call to move what helicopters could be moved and dump the rest in the ocean after stripping them of any valuable gear that could be removed quickly. In total, some million (about million today) worth of helicopters were ditched in this way.
There was another problem, however. The plane in question typically needs a minimum of a little over 600 feet of runway to land and come to a full stop. The Midway itself in total was about 1,000 feet long, but the runway deck was only about 2/3 of that, meaning there was zero margin for error here.
Thus, in order to land such a craft on the deck with enough margin of safety, the ship really needed to be moving as fast as possible to make the plane’s relative speed slow enough that it could stop in time before falling off the end. Using the cable system to stop the craft faster wasn’t deemed a good option as in all likelihood it would have just resulted in the landing gear ripping off and/or the plane flipping over in a spectacular crash.
Unfortunately, Chambers had previously granted the ship’s engineers permission to take the Midway’s engines partially offline for routine maintenance. After all, helicopters did not need nor want that relative wind, especially when landing on such a crowded deck.
Said Chambers, “When I told the chief engineer that I needed 25 knots, he informed me that we didn’t have enough steam. I ordered him to shift the hotel load to the emergency diesels.”
With this, the ship was able to achieve the requested speed and Buang’s landing was also helped by another 15 knots of headwind, further reducing his needed stopping distance.
With that done and deck cleared as it could be, Buang was given the greenlight to land, ultimately doing so with textbook precision and with plenty of deck to spare, becoming a rare individual in relatively modern times to land such an aircraft aboard a military carrier.
And, thankfully for Captain Lawrence, he was not court-martialed for ditching rather valuable military hardware to save Major Buang and his family, and instead enjoyed a continuance of his successful career, eventually retiring as a Rear Admiral.
In the aftermath of Operation Frequent Wind, the U.S. ships continued to hang around for a few days off the coast, trying to pick up as many refugees from the water as they could. Finally, the order was given to head home, forcing the commanders to leave many thousands of people that had been promised evacuation behind.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
Osama Bin Laden, the terror leader behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US, has gone down as one of the most vicious figures in history, but he admittedly lacked the courage to fight in an actual battle.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence for 24 years until September 1, 2001, told The Guardian that “there are two Osama bin Ladens… One before the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and one after it.”
Bin Laden got his first taste of warfare in Afghanistan during its 1970s war with the Soviet Union, but it turned out he wasn’t made of soldiering stuff.
“He was very much an idealistic mujahid [this word has a similar meaning to jihadist]. He was not a fighter. By his own admission, he fainted during a battle, and when he woke up, the Soviet assault on his position had been defeated,” Turki said.
2001 video of Bin Laden.
Bin Laden’s family portrays him as drifting towards radicalism and away from the family in the decades between that struggle and 2001 in The Guardian interview. The family has tried to distance itself from Bin Laden’s acts of terrorism, but his youngest son went to Afghanistan to “avenge” his death, they said.
Bin Laden famously led Al Qaeda and planned the 2001 attacks. Again, Bin Laden himself did not engage in the hijackings, and simply coordinated them behind the scenes.
When Bin Laden finally came face to face with US forces, taking the form of US Navy SEALs storming his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, initial US government reports said he hid behind women in the complex to use them as a human shield.
There are so many rich, incredible facts surrounding the World War II-era Netherlands American Cemetery near Maastricht. It lies along a highway that saw some of history’s most memorable names – Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, just to name a few. In the 20th Century, Hitler’s Wehrmacht also used the road to capture the Netherlands and Belgium and bring them into the Nazi Reich.
What rests there now is a memorial and cemetery to those who fought to liberate the country from the grip of the Nazi war machine. The locals have never forgotten who died there and, from the looks of things, they never will.
The cemetery is meticulously well kept. A memorial tower overlooks a reflecting pool and at the base of the tower is the stature of a mother grieving over her lost son. Elsewhere on the grounds is a list of the battles and operations fought by U.S. servicemen during World War II, the names of those 8,301 men buried on the grounds, and the names of those 1,722 who went missing while fighting in the Netherlands.
Among the honored dead are seven Medal of Honor recipients and a Major General. In all, it’s a remarkable site with historic significance. The most significant thing about the 65-acre Netherlands American Cemetery is who takes care of each American gravestone.
Since 1945, the Dutch people in the area have adopted individual graves, keeping the site clean and maintaining the individual memorials. They ensure that flowers adorn their adopted grave and that the name and deeds of the American interred there are never forgotten. They actually research the entire life of their adopted fallen GI. Some of them adopt more than one.
“Ever since the end of WWII, people have adopted the graves of these men and women out of a deeply heartfelt gratitude for the sacrifices that they made for our freedom,” local Sebastiaan Vonk told an Ohio newspaper. “They truly are our liberators and heroes.”
The American Cemetery is one of the largest in the world. Its upkeep and memory are so important to the locals whose families saw the horrors of Nazi occupation. Even those separated by the 1945 liberation of the Netherlands by a generation or more still hold those names dear and are taking their remembrance project one step further – remembering their face.
A new effort, The Faces of Margraten, seeks to collect photos of the men who died or went missing in liberating the Netherlands from Nazi occupation. On Dutch Memorial Day, the group displays personal photos of more than 3,000 of those interred in the cemetery, holding an event that “brings visitors face-to-face with their liberators.”
The early days of November bring more than just chilly weather and the beginning of a winter-long food and football hibernation cycle. That’s what Thanksgiving is for.
Come the 10th and 11th – the Marine Corps birthday and Veterans Day respectively – military towns and American Legion Halls all over the country begin shaking with the booming voice of Marines past and present, singing the Marines’ Hymn, a song about the Halls of Montezuma and the Shores of Tripoli.
If you’re a Marine, you definitely know what these are. If you’ve served in the military at some point, you’ve probably been able to pick up what they mean. But for a lot of civilians, military culture and tradition can be a black hole of knowledge – unless one of their history teachers was a Marine, there’s no reason for them to know this.
Can you imagine Marine Corps grade school?
The Halls of Montezuma
No, the Marines did not fight Aztec warriors. They were around 300 or so years too late for that.
The reference is to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire…which also happens to be modern-day Mexico City. In 1847, the U.S. and Mexico were engaged in a bit of a war and it wasn’t going well for the Mexicans. The Americans were in the middle of capturing the Mexican capital. But Mexico under dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna wasn’t going down easily – neither were its people.
To break the fighting spirits of the Mexican troops while capturing the city itself, Gen. Winfield Scott determined that he would have to capture Chapultepec Castle, a military academy on the heights overlooking the city. The hill leading up to the castle was a 200-foot slope ending in a 12-foot wall, designed to keep enemy troops from doing exactly what the Marines were about to do.
After the Americans made it through volley after volley of artillery and gunfire, the Mexican Army was waiting for them. They engaged in a good old-fashioned fistfight.
They then scaled the castle walls and entered the inside of the castle – known as the Halls of Montezuma. They raised the American flag and by the time Gen. Scott entered the castle, the streets were guarded by U.S. Marines.
The Marines captured the fortress in an hour, with a loss of 90 percent of the Marines’ officer and NCO corps. Legend has it the NCOs and officers added scarlet stripes to their pants to commemorate their lost brothers here. Today these are referred to as “blood stripes” to remember the Marine blood shed in Mexico City.
The Shores of Tripoli
Why do the Marines sing about the Shores of Tripoli when those particular shores have been pretty unfriendly to Americans for much of the time most active Marines have been alive? Because, like Chapultepec, this battle happened early on in Marine Corps history.
The wars with the Barbary pirates were an epic and underreported time in American history. The Marines got one of their first heroes when Lt. Presley O’Bannon and his contingent of Marines accompanied a force of Arab allies under U.S. agent William Eaton marched 500 miles overland to attack the city of Derne.
It was after the march that O’Bannon and the Marines, along with Eaton and his Greek and Arab mercenaries, captured the city against a much larger force. The Tripolitans sent reinforcements, but by the time they arrived, the city had already fallen. When that force tried to retake the city, U.S. Navy vessels and captured Tripolitan guns manned by Marines repelled the attack.
The capture of Derne forced the leaders in Tripoli to make peace with the Americans, stop raiding American shipping, and free American slaves. The Marines say Lt. O’Bannon was presented with an elaborate Mamluk-style sword by the Ottoman representative, which is now the model for those carried by Marine Corps officers.
The Navy’s tradition of honoring past American Presidents by naming aircraft carrier after them is alive and well. The USS Ronald Reagan, the Abraham Lincoln, and the Gerald Ford are all symbols of the projection of American naval power all over the world. There’s just one exception, one that goes unnoticed by many, mainly because it’s supposed to.
The USS Jimmy Carter is named after the 39th President of the United States, but it’s a nuclear submarine. And there’s a great reason for it.
Carter dreamed of attending the U.S. Naval Academy even as a three-year-old.
Like many 20th Century Presidents before him, Carter was a Navy veteran. Unlike Nixon, Bush 41, or President Ford, Carter’s contributions to the Navy didn’t happen primarily in wartime, however, it happened after the Second World War. Carter, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was immediately appointed as an officer aboard a Navy submarine, the USS Pomfret. He served aboard a number of submarines, mostly electric-diesel submarines, until it was time to upgrade them. All of them.
While the United States was embroiled in the Korean War, Carter the engineering officer, was sent to work with the Atomic Energy Commission and later Union College in Upstate New York, where he became well-versed in the physics of nuclear energy and nuclear power plants. He would use that knowledge to serve under Admiral Hyman Rickover, helping develop the nuclear Navy. Carter would have to leave the active Navy in 1953 when his father died and left the family peanut farm without an owner. In less than a year after Carter’s departure, Rickover’s team would launch the USS Nautilus, the world’s first-ever nuclear-powered submarine and the first ship in a long line of nuclear ships.
The USS Nautilus
According to President Carter, Rickover was of the biggest influences on the young peanut farmer’s life. Carter’s 1976 campaign biography was even called Why Not The Best? – after a question Rickover asked the young naval officer while interviewing to join the nuclear submarine program.
Rickover asked Carter what his standing was in his graduating class at Annapolis and when Carter replied, Rickover asked him if he did his best.
“I started to say, ‘Yes sir,’ but I remembered who this was and recalled several times I could have learned more about our allies, our enemies, weapons, strategy and so forth. I was just human. I finally gulped and said, ‘No sir, I didn’t always do my best.”
“Why not?” asked Rickover. It was the last thing the Admiral said during the interview.
Rickover (far right) with then-President Carter and his wife Rosalyn, touring a U.S. nuclear submarine.
Later, of course, Carter would become Hyman Rickover’s Commander-in-Chief, having taken in everything he learned from Rickover about nuclear energy and the U.S. Navy. The nuclear sub would become one of the pillars of American national security.
As President, Carter would restrict the building of supercarriers due to their massive costs, instead favoring medium-sized aircraft carriers, much to the consternation of the Navy and defense contractors. It would make little sense to have Carter’s name on a weapons program he discouraged as President – kind of like having Andrew Jackson’s face on American currency even though the 12th President was opposed to central banking.
But the Navy had to do something for the only Annapolis graduate to ascend to the nation’s highest office and serve as the Leader of the Free World. So naming the third Seawolf-class submarine after the former submarine officer and onetime nuclear engineer made perfect sense. The USS Jimmy Carter is the most secret nuclear submarine on the planet, moving alone and silently on missions that are never disclosed to the greater American public.