This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

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.”

The prestigious Victoria Cross award.

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 during his time of service. He would later go on to earn a Victoria Cross.

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. 

Charles Upham in his later years after earning two Victoria crosses.
Upham in 1984.

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.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This MoH recipient had the most impressive last stand at Heartbreak Ridge

Standing among the greatest warriors are the troops who go above and beyond the call of duty for their comrades when the odds are at their slimmest. This is the story of Medal of Honor recipient Pfc. Herbert K. Pilila’au.

Herbert K. Pilila’au was a native Hawaiian, born and raised on the island of O’ahu. Those who knew him growing up would describe him as a gentle kid who would spend much of his time reading the Bible and listening to classical music.


He was drafted into the Korean War at the age of 22 and attended Basic Training at Fort Shafter. His peers were in awe as they watched the stillest, quietest soldier in their company turn out to be the most physically fit and strong of the recruits. Despite being the most talked-about soldier, he remained humble and continually wrote home.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
A home not too far from the Pilila’au Army Rec Center, lateru00a0named in his honor.
(Photo courtesy of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation – Hawaii)

Very shortly after basic training, he was attached to Charlie Company of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division and entered the fray in Gangwon Province, Korea. He volunteered to be the squad’s automatic rifleman saying, “someone had to do it.”

He first showed his prowess in battle alongside the rest of the 23rd Infantry Regiment as they fought at the Battle of Bloody Ridge in August of 1951. This victory lead United Nations troops to march on what is now known as the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
The battle for these hills would end up costing the lives of 3,700 American and French GIs.
(Courtesy of the National Archives)

Pilila’au would meet his destiny on September 17th, 1951, when his platoon was tasked with protecting the ridge-line of Hill 931. After suffering a barrage of North Korean artillery strikes on their position, his platoon was forced to retreat. As they started to rejoin the rest of the unit, North Korean infantrymen descended on their position.

Pfc. Herbert K. Pilila’au volunteered himself to cover the retreat of the rest of his platoon with his Browning Automatic Rifle. He laid fire into every North Korean that came his way until he ran out of bullets. He then switched to throwing every grenade he had with him. When the grenades were gone, he pulled out his trench knife and carved into any attacker he could while punching them with his free hand. It was only after his platoon was safe that he would be surrounded and, finally, fall to an enemy bayonet.

When his platoon retook the position the next day, they discovered the bodies of forty North Koreans around his. He was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. On June 18th, 1952, Pfc. Herbert K. Pilila’au was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and became the first Native Hawaiian to receive the United States Military’s highest decoration.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This powerful speech will get you through deployment Groundhog Day

In 1992, Jim Valvano – a former basketball player, coach of the 1983 champion North Carolina State men’s basketball team, and broadcasting personality – was diagnosed with metastatic cancer that had spread to his spine.


Up until this point, the charismatic Queens, N.Y.-native was best known for his celebration after defeating the Houston Cougars in the 1983 NCAA championship game. You can see “Jimmy V” running onto the court about 9 seconds into the video below:

“Time is very precious to me. I don’t know how much I have left and I have some things that I would like to say. Hopefully, at the end, I will have said something that will be important to other people, too.”

It was just a decade later that his life was tragically cut short. But before he went, even knowing the end could be near, he was able to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the first annual ESPY Awards. It was a speech that echoed for years to come and remains one of the most memorable.

Those are words appropriate for fighting cancer, being the underdog in the country’s biggest basketball tournament, or even fighting alongside your brothers and sisters in arms, far from your family and loved ones.

“To me, there are three things we all should do every day… Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy… think about it: If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

But about a week or so before, Jimmy V gave a speech commemorating the Wolfpack’s 1983 NCAA championship to the team, current players, and Wolfpack fans. That speech was one for the ages. It will keep you shouting the mantra of, “Don’t give up! Don’t ever give up!” during any rough time in your life.

 

Jim Valvano died from the cancer he was determined to fight just a month or so after his legendary ESPY Awards speech. His name and spirit live on through the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

Jim Valvano, truly, never gave up.

Articles

3 foreign generals who became honorary U.S. citizens

For many Americans, military service was their pathway to citizenship. For their service during the Revolutionary War, three foreign generals have been declared honorary citizens of the United States. Citizenship can only be granted by an act of Congress or by a proclamation issued by the President. Although purely ceremonial, the awarding of citizenship highlights the enormous contribution that these men made to the United States of America in its struggle for independence.

1. Marquis de Lafayette

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
Generals Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge (Library of Congress/Public Domain)

Arguably the most important foreign national in American history, Lafayette was born into one of the oldest and most distinguished French families. Following family tradition, he commissioned as an officer in the Musketeers. In 1776, the 19-year-old Lafayette was put in contact with American agents by King Louis XVI. The French hoped to regain influence in North America and exact revenge against the British for the Seven Years’ War by covertly supporting America in its revolution. However, Britain learned of these backroom dealings and threatened France with war if support was provided to the colonies. Against the orders of his commanding officer (and father-in-law) and a decree by the king, Lafayette was determined to join America’s fight and bought a ship with his own money for the trip across the Atlantic. Agreeing to serve without pay, he was commissioned by Congress as a major general on July 31, 1777. During the revolution, Lafayette was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine and endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge. His commands at the Battles of Rhode Island and Yorktown were instrumental in America’s victory and independence. Lafayette was awarded honorary citizenship in 2002.

2. Casimir Pulaski

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
(Public Domain)

Another foreign military officer who served in the Continental Army, Casimir Pulaski was a Polish nobleman and skilled cavalryman. He was involved in the revolution within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for which he was exiled. Upon Benjamin Franklin’s recommendation, Pulaski traveled to America to help in its own revolution. After arriving in America, he wrote, “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.” Like Lafayette, Pulaski served alongside General Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. When the Continental Army was forced into a retreat, Pulaski led a charge that prevented a British encirclement and saved Washington’s life. For this action, Congress commissioned him as a brigadier general in the Continental Army cavalry. Pulaski was a strong believer in the superiority of cavalry over infantry. He organized the Continental Army’s cavalry units and wrote the first doctrine on its formations. For this, he is known as the father of the American cavalry. Pulaski was killed leading a charge at the Battle of Savannah on October 11, 1779. For his service to the nation, Pulaski was made an honorary citizen in 2009.

3. Bernardo de Gálvez

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
This portrait of Gálvez is on display at the U.S. Capitol (Public Domain)

Like France, Spain had strategic interest in helping America achieve its independence from Britain. On January 1, 1777, General Gálvez was appointed governor of Luisiana (the colony’s name under Spanish rule). Under his command, the Spanish practiced an anti-British policy by inhibiting British smuggling in the region and promoting trade with France. Moreover, Gálvez sold desperately needed supplies like gunpowder, muskets, uniforms, and medicine to Americans. Although the British blockaded the colonial ports, Gálvez allowed the patriots use of the Mississippi River via New Orleans. The city also served as a safe haven for American raiding parties after attacking British ships. Following Spain’s declaration of war on Britain in 1779, Gálvez carried out an impressive military campaign against the British. He scored major victories at Fort Bute, Baton Rouge, and Natchez that year. This campaign eliminated the British presence in the lower Mississippi Valley. At the Battle of Fort Charlotte in 1780, he recaptured Mobile from British control. His most important victory was the land and sea campaign that captured Pensacola. This left the British with no military bases on the Gulf Coast. Although his contributions are not commonly taught in American history, his campaigns against the British and support for the patriots on the Southern Front were vital in America’s victory over Britain. Gálvez was awarded honorary citizenship in 2014.

Feature image: Charles Henry Jeans/ Wikimedia Commons

Articles

This lone Gurkha rifleman stopped three Japanese tanks in their tracks

It takes a Gurkha to save a village.


In 1944, the Japanese were still advancing into British-dominated Burma-India theater. Their progress was slowed due to dense jungles, steep mountains, and the fact that they were trampling all over the backyards of the world’s best soldiers.

One of those was 19-year-old Ganju Lama. Lama was a Rifleman in the 1st Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles, an anti-tank unit. This training would soon come in handy. They were part of an effort to recapture the city of Imphal in eastern India, along the Burma border.

The Japanese rolled into the area with 37mm guns mounted on Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
Early model Chi-Ha tanks, like the kind Ganju Lama used to eat for breakfast.

In his first contact with the Japanese outside of Imphal, he used a projectile, infantry, anti-tank (or PIAT) rifle to disable one of the tanks. The Gurkhas then fell back, with Lama covering their retreat. Three weeks later, Ganju Lama met another company of Japanese tanks.

That fight would go a very different way.

Japanese artillery opened up on the Gurkhas in the morning of June 12th and rained death on them for more than an hour. As soon as the rain let up, enemy infantry supported by three tanks tore through the British lines near Lama’s position. The Gurkhas counter-attacked but were soon bogged down.

That’s when Ganju Lama picked up a PIAT and went to work.

Bleeding from one leg, as well as his left arm and right hand, he crawled within 30 yards of the enemy tanks. He took out the first tank and then the second, using one round apiece.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
This is a photo of the actual destruction Lama wreaked on the Japanese tanks. (UK Army Museum photo)

As the tank crews abandoned their vehicles, he launched a furious grenade attack, using only his teeth to pull the pin and his good arm to throw.

According to the Guardian, Lama wouldn’t allow himself to be evacuated until he killed or wounded the last of the enemy crewmen.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
Lama also earned the Military Medal for covering his unit’s fall back three weeks prior.

Ganju Lama was awarded the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest award for gallantry, for his actions that day. He would survive his wounds and the war, living to the ripe old age of 77.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Marine Corps wrote the book on ‘small wars,’ literally

As the United States came into its own as a world power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States Marine Corps became the primary tool for power projection into troubled areas. The Marines deployed all over the world, fighting everywhere from the Boxer Rebellion in China to the Banana Wars in Central America. During this time, the Marines and a few Army units gained valuable experience. A few USMC legends such as Dan Daly and Smedley Butler gained prominence. It makes sense that in the 1930’s, the Marines published the Small Wars Manual, documenting their experiences and providing guidance for units engaged in such conflicts. Unfortunately, just as the Marines were perfecting their craft, World War II broke out. With the ensuing Cold War, these ideas were very nearly lost to history.


This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
This group of U.S. Marines was part of the international relief expedition sent to lift the siege of Peking in 1900. (National Archives)

Operations known to the military today as “low-intensity conflicts” were deemed ‘small wars’ by the Marine Corps in the early 20th Century. In the Small Wars Manual, they defined small wars as “operations undertaken under executive authority, wherein military force is combined with diplomatic pressure in the internal or external affairs of another state whose government is unstable, inadequate, or unsatisfactory for the preservation of life and of such interests as are determined by the foreign policy of our Nation.” Also, due to the fact that special operations forces had yet to be conceived, those missions were carried out by the Marines, sailors, and soldiers deployed in small wars. Their missions often ran the gamut from direct action, bordering on conventional warfare to foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare. During the occupation of Haiti, Marines were instated as officers in the Haitian Gendarmerie, which included the likes of a young Cpl. ‘Chesty’ Puller and Smedley Butler.

During these various interventions around the world, the U.S. military gained a wealth of knowledge and experience. They not only learned how to conduct combat operations against weak states and guerrillas, but also how to properly support these operations and how the force could be self-sufficient while deployed for long periods of time in a foreign country. This included everything from what types of weapons troops should carry to how to employ horses and mules for transportation and logistics. The military even learned how to work with the state department and how to establish effective civilian-military relations. The manual also makes recommendations for the best composition for forces depending on the circumstances of the operation and how to employ those forces in all types of situations.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
U.S. Marines in the occupation of Haiti in 1915.

What makes the Small Wars Manual stand out is the practicality which it embodies and the way it almost comes across as a how-to book. Many of the recommendations are not only unique to the manual but also went against the conventional wisdom of the time. Some of it even went against what would have been good order and discipline. In fact, in its recommendations for outfitting infantry patrols, the manual states “personal comfort and appearance must always be of secondary importance as compared with the efficient accomplishment of the assigned mission” and goes on to say “the value of canvas leggings in the field is questionable. The woolen sock pulled over the bottom of the trouser leg is a satisfactory substitute.” Anyone who has served in the last decade and remembers the white sock crisis knows that such a suggestion from an official Marine Corps publication is borderline blasphemy. Beyond this, the manual describes in detail how to field the most effective and efficient fighting force in some of the most austere conditions. There are even details for how to modify equipment to be of the most use in small wars.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
Sandino’s Flag. Nicaragua, 1932. (Marine Corps)

After years of occupations, deployments, and fighting the Marines began releasing reports and studies in the 1920’s that would eventually lead to the publication of the Small War Manual. These reports and articles were collected into a single book, “Small Wars Operations” in 1935. An updated, and final, version was released in 1940 as the Small Wars Manual. The following year, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Even though much of what the Marines had learned fighting in small wars came in very useful in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, the shadow of World War II and the Cold War pushed the Small Wars Manual into obscurity. With the exception of a few efforts to at least keep the manual in the Marines repertoire of publications it was mostly lost to history. That is, until it reappeared on Gen. James Mattis’ reading list for officers deploying in the War on Terror. The truly unfortunate part of this is that with a few updates to the weapons and tactics, much of the material covered in the Small Wars Manual could have been used to inform operations in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Special Forces soldier gave his life to save his allies

Army Staff Sgt. Richard R. Arsenault was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross for valorous actions taken only two weeks apart in Vietnam.


The action that netted him the Distinguished Service Cross ended in his tragic death.

Arsenault was assigned to Advisory Team 43 supporting Republic of Vietnam forces opposing the North Vietnamese Army. On May 12, 1972, he accompanied a Vietnamese Regional Force unit in a combat operation in the Hua Nghia Province. Arsenault not only went on the mission, but he volunteered to act as the radio operator.

 

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
A U.S. Army Ranger and military advisor trains Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. (Photo: U.S. Army)

 

The radio operator is a high-value target for an enemy force. The antennas clearly point out who is carrying the system, and taking down a radio and its operator cuts the force off from certain battlefield tools like artillery and close air support.

Despite the risks, Arsenault carried the system into battle and maneuvered near the front under heavy concentrations of mortar, machine gun, small arms, and rocket fire, according to his Silver Star citation. Arsenault moved up with the senior American advisor to Vietnamese forces in the district and used his M16 to suppress enemy fire.

As the fight ground on, it become a closer and tighter affair until the two forces were within 40 yards of one another, throwing grenades and using pistols to try to gain the upper hand. When eight NVA soldiers tried to flank Arsenault’s element at close range, he took them out with hand grenades and his rifle.

 

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
Marines with Company G, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines, direct a concentration of fire at the enemy during Operation Allen Brook, 8 May 1968. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps).

 

The friendly Vietnamese forces were victorious, and Arsenault continued to work with them as a military advisor.

Exactly two weeks later, Arsenault and Army Capt. Ed Schwabe were accompanying 12th Regional Force Group soldiers as they searched out North Vietnamese soldiers in the province. The unit met light resistance from an enemy bunker, according to an excerpt from “Silence Was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages,” by Stuart Harrington.

Just a little later, Schwabe and Arsenault’s column was struck by a company-sized enemy ambush. Arsenault spotted the rocket being fired and tackled Schwabe to the ground while alerting others to the threat just before the rocket hit.

 

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
Staff Sgt. Richard R. Arsenault gave his life to safe others in Vietnam in 1972. (Photo: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Wall of Faces. Submitted by Shirley Arsenault.)

 

The friendly forces were able to dart to limited cover in a nearby graveyard, saving the lives of the 12th Group command element and allowing them to devise a response to the ambush.

Unfortunately, while Arsenault had saved Schwabe’s life, Arsenault was killed by the first rocket and Schwabe was wounded and knocked unconscious.

Schwabe was pulled to safety by his interpreter and Arsenault was later posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his actions on May 12 and the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on May 26.

MIGHTY HISTORY

7 troops who would get executed when captured by their enemy

War is brutal. It makes people do harsh things. Then, it makes the other side retaliate against those harsh things. But war is also a fight with rules and when sides don’t play by those rules, tempers flare, emotions run high, and that’s when the sh*t really starts to fly.

Now, the third Geneva Convention governs the treatment of POWs. No POW can be tried for fighting in war, though they can be tried for war crimes — but they certainly aren’t supposed to be executed immediately. Unfortunately, not everyone follows the laws of armed conflict like they should.

The following 7 troops would be executed immediately after capture.


7. Anyone with a trench gun.

During WWI, American troops used what came to be known as a “trench broom,” a Winchester model 1897, modified for trench warfare. The shotgun fired buckshot pellets and could be slamfired, meaning if the user holds the trigger as he pumps a new round in the chamber, the round will fire automatically. Needless to say, the trench broom killed a lot of Germans.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

The Germans lodged a formal protest against the use of the weapon, saying it was illegal under the 1907 Hague Convention definition of any “arms, projections, or materials calculated to cause unnecessary suffering.” When the American continued using it, the German High Command threatened that any POW found with a trench gun or trench gun shells would be shot on site.

6. Germans with flamethrowers.

General John Pershing didn’t get to be the highest-ranking military officer for life because he took sh*t from people that were trying to kill him. When Germany issued the aforementioned decree, Pershing declared that any German with a flamethrower or saw-bladed bayonet would be shot.

No one on either side was shot for these reasons. Pershing 1, Germans 0.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

 

5. WWII-era special operations commandos.

Hitler was so pissed after he heard the German commandos on the island of Sark were found with their hands tied up and shot that he ordered any commando caught by the Nazis to be interrogated and then immediately executed. He specifically mentioned that it didn’t matter if they were armed, in uniform, military, or civilian — their lives would all end the same way: with a bullet.

4. Soviet commissars.

This one’s another Hitler order. The man was not a fan of Communism and so issued the “Commissar Order,” which stated that Soviet political officers captured on the Eastern Front would be separated from their units and executed. He believed their sole purposed was to spread “Judeo-Bolshevism” and that they needed to be eradicated.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

The order extended to anyone in the Soviet service who either bought into Bolshevism or was there to spread the ideology.

3. Mercenaries.

Countries don’t like it when soldiers only fight for money. You at least need to have a flag to which you pledge your allegiance. It doesn’t matter if you’re an American — if you’re not fighting with the American army, you better not get captured.

In 1976, four mercenaries – including one American Vietnam veteran who was recruited in Soldier of Fortune Magazine — were captured fighting against the government in Angola’s civil war. When captured, then-President Agostinho Neto ordered their execution, ignoring clemency pleas from the Pope, Queen Elizabeth, and Henry Kissinger.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

 

The Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War would also execute civilians caught fighting in Civil War battles, whether they were paid or not.

2. Okay, pretty much anyone with a flamethrower.

Yeah, it’s on here twice. The flamethrower was a nasty weapon. If I were a troop where facing a flamethrower was a possibility, I’d be scared sh*tless, too. But the flamethrower guy didn’t ask to be given the flamethrower. I mean, I assume… who’s going to ask to carry around a very shootable tank full of explosively flammable liquid that only gives you about six or seven seconds of firepower?

There’s no “stop drop and roll” when you’re covered in napalm. So, it was pretty well-known that every side hated you so much they would shoot you just for being the guy with the flamethrower. For the Nazis, this extended to flamethrower tank crews.

1. The Waffen SS.

It was not an official order, but among the Allied ground troops, there is a ton of anecdotal evidence that captured Waffen SS members were usually “shot while trying to escape.”

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

The Russians hated them because they found many of their Eastern Front POWs in concentration camps, shot or slowly worked to death. The Canadians hated the SS for the Ardennes Abbey Massacre. The SS slaughtered American POWs at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge. British and French POWs were massacred numerous times by Waffen SS troops.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Green Berets stemmed the communist tide in El Salvador

The era of the 1980s through the mid-1990s was a great time to be a member of the U.S Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, 7th SFG(A). The unit had barely escaped the ax during the post-Vietnam drawdown. It had also survived the malaise of the Carter years, when Special Operations, and specifically Special Forces, was a four-letter word. (Being an SF officer in those days was the kiss of death for an officer’s career.)

Yet, during that time, a danger was looming: Latin America was close to being lost to communism.


Background

Latin America was a hot spot. Marxists had taken over in Nicaragua. They were looking, like the Cubans, to export their vision of communism to the rest of the hemisphere. El Salvador and Guatemala were embroiled in bloody civil wars, Honduras was going through a “latent and incipient” insurgency, which no one but the Group believed existed. Active civil wars were ongoing with insurgents in Colombia (FARC), Peru (Shining Path/Sendero Luminoso), and to a lesser extent in Bolivia. Compounding the problem, all three countries had issues with narco-terrorists that further destabilized the governments. Other countries, such as Argentina and Paraguay, seemed to have military coups far too frequently.

But all of that began to change in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was elected President. Reagan was not going to stand for that. Hence, there were plenty of places for the Green Berets of 7th SFG to practice their training, or as my first team sergeant said, “Do Green Beret shit.”

El Salvador was the first area where the President drew a line in the sand. The Salvadorian government was weak and ineffective. The military was backward, characterized by little professionalism, and was committing numerous human rights abuses. In 1980, the country was on the brink of falling. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), an umbrella organization formed in 1980 out of five separate Marxist-Leninist groups, had the government on the precipice.

In 1981, the Salvadorian Army numbered around 11,000. It was a poorly led, poorly equipped, and badly trained army. It was basically a static, defensive force. The FMLN was close to winning the war: Its forces operated freely in much of the country and owned the night.

Slow Beginnings and Limits on Troop Support

The U.S.’s first priority was to give the Salvadorian army updated vehicles and equipment; then improve the forces’ quality through training and better tactics. By 1990, the size of the Salvadorian military had quadrupled to more than 45,000. By the mid-1980s, the training of the troops had progressed to where the army was capable of conducting offensive operations. It, therefore, moved into previously FMLN-held areas and maintained a firm hold on the population centers. While doing so, it whittled the FMLN down to size, from a high of about 13,000 in 1980 to about 7,000 in 1990.

The FMLN resorted to kidnappings and assassinations. Town mayors were a frequent target: in 1989 alone 214 of 262 were threatened with assassinations. Twelve were assassinated and 90 resigned.

The FMLN launched a desperate country-wide offensive in November 1989 in a final attempt to take over by encouraging the citizens to rise up. It failed and lost over 2,000 guerrillas.

Beginning in 1983, following the recommendations of Green Beret trainers, the Salvadorian armed forces adopted better COIN tactics to deny the FMLN from gaining popular support. For example, the Salvadorians started attacking the insurgents’ sanctuaries, movement routes, and supplies. They started to deploy smaller, air-mobile units. And they used small units to patrol more frequently at night when most guerrilla activities occurred. But we have jumped ahead…

When it came to the trainers, the U.S. was in a vastly different place politically than it is today. We had just pulled out of Vietnam. Thus, the U.S. was not going to tolerate another long-drawn-out conflict with massive amounts of troops involved. Beginning in 1981, the first U.S. trainers in El Salvador were an A-Team of 12 Green Berets. They were “permitted” to only carry sidearms for protection.

Congress decided to cap the number of trainers at just 55. Two Americans would be assigned to each Salvadorian brigade. There were very strict rules for the training advisors. A-Teams and other conventional troops would be brought in for just the ridiculously short time span of two weeks. During that time, they had to conduct whatever training could be accomplished before they would be forced to leave.

But the SF community found ways around the Congressional limitations. It started bringing Salvadorian battalions to the United States to be trained by members of the 7th SFG. The first one to be brought to the U.S. was the Atlacatl Battalion. It was brought to Ft. Bragg, NC. The Atlacatl Battalion was a quick reaction, counter-insurgency unit. More battalions were later brought to the U.S.

But a better alternative awaited just over the border with El Salvador’s traditional enemy, Honduras.

The U.S. set up a Regional Training Center in Trujillo, Honduras. Salvadorian units could rotate through there for training. Later the training Honduran troops were trained as well.

The cost was high for a “peacetime” effort. During the war in El Salvador, 22 U.S. troops died defending the country. One SF advisor, Greg Fronius, is the subject of an earlier article.

In another engagement, a “not in combat” SF A-Team, ODA-7 from 3/7th SFG, defended a Salvadorian barracks. The battle was the subject of an excellent piece by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe.

Congress and the Pentagon, in an effort to snow the American public from what exactly the advisors in El Salvador were dealing with, refused to admit that the troops were in a combat situation, even though, combat pay had been authorized in 1981. Thus, Fronius was denied a combat decoration. He was instead given a Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) which is a peacetime award.

Human Rights Record

The Salvadorian Army had a terrible human rights record dating back to 1980. One of the things that the trainers accomplished was to incorporate human rights training in all levels of the military.

This also meant that at times, at peril to the advisors themselves, they’d report abuses by the military to the MILGP in San Salvador. Greg Walker, who was one of the 55 advisors on the ground there detailed one such incident.

“I was the Special Forces advisor who reported being shown a guerrilla’s skull (at the unit’s base in El Salvador) that had been turned into a desk lamp. My report was delivered to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador at the time through the proper chain of command.

The vast majority of SF advisors serving in El Salvador did likewise as this was part of the mission statement. For example, there was a senior Special Forces advisor at El Mozote the day/night of the massacre (and only one). He attempted multiple times to dissuade Colonel Domingo Monterosa to spare the victims. When Monterosa ignored him, the advisor departed by foot and made his way, alone, back to San Salvador. There he made a full report to embassy officials of what the unit and Monterosa were doing in El Mozote.”

The subject was a very touchy one. Yet the Green Berets made their reputation known even amongst the FMLN. In Walker’s book, titled “At the Hurricane’s Eye” he recounts when the FMLN asked for the U.S. SF to remain during the initial peace process to ensure that everyone was protected.

“At the conclusion of the war as brokered under a UN peace agreement, it was the guerrillas of the FMLN that requested US “Green Berets” remain with Salvadorian military units during the early stages of the accord. This because the guerrillas had learned of our commitment to human rights, and the sometimes dangerous reporting we made to the US embassy regarding thugs like Monterosa.”

Walker was one of several SF soldiers who led the fight for the men who did their time in El Salvador to finally be recognized for what were essentially combat tours. Everyone who rotated through there is now eligible for an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal while many are authorized CIBs and combat awards. The men of ODA-7 were finally recognized 14 years later. They were awarded CIBs, four Bronze Stars with “V” device, and an ARCOM with “V” device.

The 7th SFG’s record in El Salvador was one of great success. El Salvador was on the brink of falling. And through the combined military and political efforts of many Americans, it was saved. This one was an example of how a small group of dedicated SF soldiers can turn the tide in a brutal civil war.

This article originally appeared on SOFREP. Follow @sofrepofficial on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The last World War I soldier to see combat died at age 111

On Sept. 22, 1917, a British Lewis gun team was hit by an incoming German shell during the third Battle of Ypres, near Passchendaele, Harry Patch was a member of that team. He was blown away by the blast, but his other three teammates were completely vaporized. He never saw them again. Patch struggled for years to tell that story, which he finally did before he died in 2009.

At his death, the last British Tommy to see World War I combat was 111 years, one month, one week, and one day old.


This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

A Canadian soldier tests out a Lewis Gun similar to the one Harry Patch worked in World War I.

With Patch went our collective connection to a bygone era. While other Great War veterans outlived Patch, Patch was the last among them to fight in the mud, the wet, the disease-ridden trenches of World War I’s Western Front. He was born in 1898 and drafted into the British Army at age 18. After a brief training period, Private Patch was sent to the Western Front with the other members of his Lewis Gun team during the winter of 1916. The next year is when the German artillery round hit his position and killed his friends.

Patch was still wounded and recovering by the time of the Armistice in November 1918. For the rest of his life, he considered September 22 to be his remembrance day, not November 11.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

Patch with Victoria Cross recipient Johnson Beharry in 2008.

By the time World War II rolled around, Harry Patch was much too old to join the Army and served as a firefighter in the British city of Bath instead. Patch never discussed his wartime experiences with anyone, let alone journalists, so he declined interviews until 1998, when the BBC pointed out to him that the number of World War I veterans still alive was shrinking fast. His first appearance was World War I in Colour, where he recalled the first time he came face to face with an enemy soldier. He shot to wound the man, not kill him. Patch was not a fan of killing, even in warfare.

“Millions of men came to fight in this war and I find it incredible that I am the only one left,” he told the BBC in 2007.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

Six pall-bearers from the 1st Battalion The Rifles bear the coffin of World War I veteran Harry Patch into Wells Cathedral in 2009.

Before his death, Harry Patch returned to the fields of Passchendaele where his three best friends met their end. He was going to once again meet a German, but this time there would be only handshakes. At age 106, Patch met Charles Kuentz, 107-year-old German World War I veteran who fought the British at Passchendaele. The two exchanged gifts and talked about the futility of war.

Patch wrote his memoirs at 107, to become the oldest author ever, and later watched as World War I-era planes dropped poppies over Somerset in memoriam to those who served. He died in 2009, aged 111 years, one month, one week, and one day. The bells of Wells Cathedral in Somerset were rung 111 times in his honor.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The man who set himself on fire to stop Russian tanks

In 1969, during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, a student protester set himself on fire and triggered mass protests across the country, slowing Russian consolidation and setting off a slow burn that would eventually consume the occupying forces.


This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

Soviet tanks roll into Czechoslovakia in 1968.

(U.S. National Archives)

Czechoslovakia was firmly democratic for decades before World War II, but German forces partially occupied it during World War II and, in 1948, it was conquered by the Soviets. The Communists had supporters in the working class and a stranglehold of government leadership, but students and academics kept fomenting the seeds of unrest.

Even when most of the Soviet-aligned countries went through soul searching in 1953 after the death of Stalin, Czechoslovakia basically just marched on. But in the 1960s, leadership changes and an economic slowdown led to a series of reforms that softened the worst repressions of the communist regime.

The leader, Antonin Novotny, was eventually ousted in 1968 and replaced by Alexander Dubcek who then ended censorship, encouraging reform and the debate of government policies. By April, 1968, the government released an official plan for further reforms. The Soviet government was not into this, obviously.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

Czechoslovaks carry a national flag past a burning soviet tank in Prague.

(CIA.gov)

The biggest problem for the Soviets was the lack of censorship. They were worried that ideas debated in Czechoslovakia would trigger revolutions across the Soviet Bloc. So, in August, 1968, they announced a series of war games and then used the assembled forces to invade Czechoslovakia instead. The tanks crossed the line on August 20, and the capital was captured by the following day.

Initially, the citizens of Prague and the rest of Czechoslovakia were angry and energized, but they eventually lost their drive. But one 20-year-old student, Jan Palach, wanted to revitalize the resistance. And so he penned a note calling for an end to censorship, the cessation of a Soviet propaganda newspaper, and new debates. If the demands weren’t met, he said, a series of students would burn themselves to death. He signed the note “Torch Number One.”

The Soviet leadership, of course, ignored it, but on Jan. 19, 1969, he marched up the stairs at the National Museum in central Prague, poured gasoline over his body, and lit his match.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

Jan Palach

Bystanders quickly put him out, but he had already suffered burns over 85 percent of his body. He died within days. He was not the first man to burn himself in protest of the Soviet invasion, but his death was widely reported while earlier protests had been successfully suppressed by the Soviets.

Other students began a hunger strike at the location of Palach’s death, and student leaders were able to force the Soviets to hold a large funeral for Palach. Over 40,000 mourners marched past his coffin.

While the Soviets were able to claw back power through deportations and police actions, the whispers of Palach’s sacrifice continued for a generation.

On the 20th anniversary of his protest, mass demonstrations broke out once again in Czechoslovakia, and the weakened Soviet Union could not contain them. By February, 1990, the Soviets were marching out of the country, a process which was completed amicably in June, 1991.

Palach’s protest had taken decades to finally work, but in the end, Czechoslovakia was freed of the tanks Palach and others resented so much.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How this World War I doughboy was killed the day the war ended

The horrors of war are probably only fully appreciated by those who have served their countries in battles on land, at sea, or in the air. Nearly every history buff has watched Saving Private Ryan or read Unbroken, from which we glean a taste of what it might be like to kill or be killed for a cause–or to simply survive.

It’s all too easy to forget about the pure hell and random misfortunes that men and women are subjected to so that the rest of us can live free and safe. Sometimes, historical accounts from people who have experienced the burden of combat help us understand the sacrifices those soldiers and others have made. I am in possession of photocopies from a journal written by one of my wife’s relatives, a soldier who served at the end of World War I. He died in France on Armistice Day — November 11, 1918. He may well have been the last American killed in the Great War.


Private Joseph Sommers was born in Springfield, Illinois. After boot camp at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas, he was sent to fight for America and her allies on the front lines in France during the summer of 1918. What you are about to read are excerpts from Private Sommers’s journal: The soldier was my wife’s great-great uncle. Most of the spelling and grammar is presented as written, though some capitalization and periods have been added to improve readability. The images described within the 5000-word manuscript and the emotions they elicit might leave an indelible impression upon your mind, heart, and soul–they are deeply affecting.

While you read the following, try to place yourself in the French countryside walking along battle-scarred roads on a journey situated somewhere between beautiful and truly horrific. Become the imaginary comrade of Private Joseph Sommers, Company C, 124th Machine Gun Battalion, 23rd Division. A young soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice, so that others might live free.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
Pages from the journal of Private Joseph Sommers.

Left Camp Logan 5/4/18. Sunday. We always leave on Sunday.

Arrived in Hoboken, NY. 5/16/18. Sailed on SS Mount Vernon ship, formerly the pride of the Kaiser. Ship very crowded. Mess was bad. 132nd Infantry Wolves hogged the boat.

Arrived in Brest, France on 5/24/18 and debarked.

5/26/18 Harbor filled with transports. A beautiful site coming into the harbor. Hills studded with guns. Airplanes and dirigibles guard harbor from subs. Very hot, overcoats on.

Oisemont 5/29/18. Arrived at our present camp. We are expected to be called to the front most any time. Anti-aircraft guns fired at airplanes. White puffs of shrapnel. Elusive planes. The rumble of guns very plainly heard, never ceasing, 25 miles back of the line. Bombing of towns close by continues nightly. I expect ours to be bombed most any time.

6/18/18 Going to machine gun school today for 12 days. Boche [German] planes, 10 in one bunch, 11 another bunch. Antiaircraft guns firing, very few hits made. We are now attached to the British Army. A visit to the lines on the night of July 3. We approached within 3 miles of the front line. Shells began to burst and I wished at the moment that our helmets was large as umbrellas. It is surprising how small you can make yourself when shells are bursting all around you. Ammunition dump struck by airplane bomb near Amiens. The whole heavens lighted with red flare, a wonderful thing.

7/7/18 An observation balloon high in the air, a cigar shaped affair with elephant ears, sways with the wind. It is held in position by a big cable which is attached to a motor car weighing 6 tons. The cable winds around a drum, and the balloon is either brought down or rises in the sky. The observer cuts loose his parachute, it drops. It fails to open like an umbrella. He is finished.

7/20/18 A doctor was found at the operating table standing over a patient in the act of operating on him when the gas struck both and they died. The graveyard at Biere was shelled so much by the Germans that the caskets and bodies and tombstones were scattered all over. There are quite a few soldiers graves here, from all regiments.

7/29/18 Our home in the woods was visited by Fritz’s [German] planes. He dropped about 12 bombs, luckily no one was hit. I would rather dodge 100 shells then hear one bomb whistle through the air.

8/7/18 Arrived at our positions at 12:45 A.M. On our way to this place we met some trucks and ambulances loaded with wounded and gassed, also many wounded walking to the first aid station.

8/7/18, 4:30 A.M. The British opened a terrible barrage. The sound was deafening. The shells were bursting through the air with such speed as to liken the sound of Niagara Falls. Previous to that time Fritz had been sending over gas shells by the hundreds, Mustard Gas which is one of the worst gases Jerry [Germans] uses. We had to wear our gas mask for over two hours.

9/18/18 The trees split as under their naked trunks against the skyline. Nature itself seems to be dead. In that dreary space not a living thing moves, save an occasional bird. “Dead Man’s Hill” is close by. The bones, skulls of men still thickly cover the ground. The rats are tame enough in our dugout to eat out of your hand. They sit and wink at you.

9/24/18 Turned in all our surplus stuff in the A.M. We are now traveling light. The Stunt is near being pulled off and by the looks of things it is going to be a big one. The Germans dropped some Gas and High Explosives pretty close today. We are bringing up ammunition in great quantities. We are waiting for zero hour.

9/26/18, 2:15 A.M. Gen. Jack Pershing and our Captain bid us God Speed and good luck. Up and among them soon. We opened our barrage which lasted for one hour starting at 5:30 AM. We hopped over the top amid the hell of machine gun bullets and ducking big shells. We saw plenty of dead lying on the battlefield which had been a battlefield for four different battles.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal
Sommers’s obituary

9/27/18 We advanced three and half miles yesterday. The Germans left in a hurry. The water was still in the stoves that they were making coffee. Water was still hot. The Meuse River is about 800 yards in front of us.

10/2/18 Great artillery this A.M. on both sides. It was a little stronger than the usual morning song. Heard tonight that Bulgaria and Austria had surrendered.

10/5/18 Still in the line. Artillery still hammering away and also some machine gun firing.

10/9/18 Orders to move forward. Fired a machine gun barrage and orders came to remove guns and seek shelter in a deep dugout. Still waiting for orders to go forward.

10/10/18 Still in reverse. Got mail from Sister. Beautiful day, sun shining. The sky was full of airplanes, never saw so many. The sky was full of them just like birds. Have been in the line, for five weeks now. Still looking every day for relief.

This entry on October 10, 1918 was Private Sommers’s last. He died on November 11, Armistice Day, during an attack near Bougainville, France. While the armistice took effect at 11 a.m. on November 11, family lore has it that Sommers was actually killed later that day. I’ve thought about trying to help prove he was in fact the last American killed in the Great War. I struggle with whether that matters.

All photos courtesy of Ken Cruickshank

This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How ‘Hail to the Chief’ became the Presidential anthem

The song that many of us identify uniquely with the President of the United States has a surprisingly controversial history. Chester Arthur hated it, Ronald Reagan thought it was a necessary tradition for the office, and President Trump enters a room to Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA more often than not. But this essential piece of Presidential entrance music is almost as old as America itself.


During the President’s Inauguration, “The President’s Own” Marine Corps band plays Hail to the Chief after 45 seconds of four Ruffles and Flourishes. The song is also most traditionally played when the President of the United States enters an official event, but there are no real rules for the song outside of the inauguration. The Department of Defense only asks that the song isn’t played for anyone other than the sitting President.

You wouldn’t know it from the orchestral renditions, but the song actually has lyrics, written in 1900 by Albert Gamse:

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

The song itself can be traced all the way back to our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. At the time, the song was pop music, much like Greenwood’s song is to President Trump today. The Marine Band played it at the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1828, an event attended by President Adams. The first time it was played in honor of the Commander-In-Chief was for Andrew Jackson, at a similar canal event the next year.

Martin Van Buren was the first President to hear the tune played for his inauguration in 1837. John Tyler, who ascended to the Presidency after the sudden death of William Henry Harrison, was much derided during his term for the unelected way he came into power. To remind people who was in charge, First Lady Julia Tyler ensured the song was played whenever he arrived at events. The same was done for James K. Polk, who was a short guy. His wife Sarah wanted to make sure everyone knew when he arrived so he wasn’t overlooked.

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

Hail to that mullet, President Polk.

By the time Chester Arthur came to office in 1881, he hated the song so much, he opted to replace it with another song. Luckily for him, the leader of the Marine Band just happened to be the “American March King” John Philip Sousa. He commissioned Sousa to write a replacement, which the band leader did.

How well did that replacement go over? If you’ve never heard of Presidential Polonaise, you’re in good company — because most of America hasn’t either. The Presidents quickly went back to using Hail to the Chief.

By 1954, the Department of Defense made the song the official music of the President. Of course, that doesn’t mean they have to use the music. The President is the boss, after all.

He isn’t really bound by law or tradition to have the song played for him on every occasion. President Gerald Ford asked the U.S. Marine Corps Band to play his alma mater’s — the University of Michigan — fight song, Hail to the Victors, instead. Jimmy Carter preferred the tune Jubilation by Sir Arthur Bliss. Ronald Reagan, however, felt the office required more tradition and reinvoked Hail to the Chief.

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