In April 1944, an American B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down by flak over occupied France. Its navigator, Raymond J. Murphy landed relatively safely, and with the help of some Frenchmen, he was able to evade the Germans until August when he was able to make it back to England.
When he was debriefed by his leadership, he mentioned coming upon a village just a four-hour bike ride away from the farm where he was hiding. The village was eerily quiet and Murphy quickly discovered why. He saw more than 500 men, women, and children who had been massacred by the retreating Germans.
The village was Oradour-sur-Glane, a hamlet with a population of just under 650. Weeks prior, the townspeople became victims of the Nazi SS as they retreated in the face of the Allied invasion of Normandy.
On Jun. 10, 1944, SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann of the 1st battalion, 4th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment was told by informants that a captured SS officer was being held in a village nearby, along with other items intended to fight the Nazis in France..
The tip came from the Milice, an internal security force operated by Nazi collaborators in the Vichy French government. 110 soldiers of the “Der Fuhrer” Waffen SS tank Regiment approached the town and prepared to raid it, going house by house. They were looking not just for a German officer, but also a supposed arms and ammunition cache being concealed in the bourg by the French Resistance. Things were about to go from bad to worse for the people of Oradour-sur-Glane.
The women were herded into a church and locked inside. The men were taken to a barn, where they were mowed down by machine guns, covered in fuel and then set on fire. The church was set ablaze as well, with the women locked inside. Six men managed to escape from the barn, and only one woman survived the church.
The SS soon departed but returned later to destroy the rest of the village. Survivors of the massacre had to wait days to come back and bury their neighbors.
Even the Germans were shocked at the atrocity. Both the Nazi military command and the French Vichy government opened an investigation into the incident, but Diekmann would never face a courtroom. He was killed as the Allies advanced into France. Much of the battalion was killed as well. 65 more were charged years later, but many were safe behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.
In 1983, one surviving member of the unit who escaped justice was finally caught by the East German secret police and brought to trial in Berlin. Then 63, Heinz Barth was given a life sentence, of which he served 14 years.
After the war, President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the village never be rebuilt, in case the rebuilding should conceal what happened there. A new village called Oradour-sur-Glane was built near the massacre site.
Today, the village sits the same way it did in 1944, half-destroyed but lying in state as a permanent memorial to the 642 people who died there.
For over 75 years, USDA scientists have been developing ways to protect the U.S. military around the world from powerful adversaries — mosquitoes and other biting arthropods that cause disease. Their work began in 1942 in a small USDA field laboratory in Orlando, where scientists made key discoveries about new chemicals for controlling these pests. At the time, the most effective repellents lasted only 2 hours, and the U.S. military needed a repellent that could protect for 10 hours. In 1952, testing in Orlando confirmed DEET was an effective repellent; it was soon adopted for use by the U.S. Army, became commercially available by 1957 — and is still used widely today.
Scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA’s chief in-house research agency, have continued their search for better repellents ever since. They used the USDA database of 30,000 compounds to develop a model that used chemical structure data for predicting how long a repellent would keep pests away. This model predicted that some compounds would be more effective than DEET, and subsequent research confirmed some compounds did indeed repel pests more than three times longer than DEET.
In 2004, the Department of Defense initiated a partnership with USDA and others as part of the Deployed War-Fighter Protection (DWFP) program. Its’ mission: to develop and test management tools for pest and vector species that transmit diseases to deployed U.S. troops. ARS scientists in Gainesville, Florida; Beltsville, Maryland; and Oxford, Mississippi, have contributed discoveries about repellent as part of the DWFP research and accomplishments. ARS has also collaborated with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center since 2003 to optimize the arthropod bite protection of factory-produced permethrin-treated uniforms. Treating uniforms became standard practice in the 1950s, first with a miticide, and starting in 1991 with permethrin.
ARS National Program Leader Uli Bernier has been responsible for developing protocols to evaluate uniform protection against mosquitoes, and in 2015 conducted a study that led to the registration of etofenprox as an alternative clothing repellent. He recently staffed an ARS information table at the 5th USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo, where he said visitors wanted to learn more about a new pest-resistant tropical lightweight uniform on display. Visitors were also fascinated by a cage of mosquitoes used for research — but unlike USDA researchers, they were reluctant to place their hand in a cage full of mosquitoes!
This Military Appreciation Month, we pay special tribute to the efforts of our servicemen and women. USDA honors our military and will continue to support their work.
The Smithsonian Institution is one place you’d think relics from America’s founding were safe. The security there must be pretty good, right? Well, tell that to a pair of George Washington’s dentures.
According to a 1982 New York Times article, the false teeth were discovered missing on June 19, 1981, by a curator who had gone to the basement of the American Museum of Natural History. The lower portion of the dentures turned up in a secure area of the Smithsonian in May, 1982. They were made of gold, lead, elephant ivory, and possibly human teeth — not wood, as many people believe.
“We never made any effort to have the value of the gold appraised,” Lawrence E. Taylor, a spokesman for the Smithsonian said. “It would be minuscule compared to the historic value of the teeth.”
According to Smithsonian magazine, Washington needed dentures because he’d lost most of his teeth from a combination of bad genes and worse dentistry practices at the time. This lead Washington to take measures to correct the tooth loss, including purchasing teeth from African-Americans, according to the official web site of Mount Vernon.
That site also notes that Washington was sensitive about the state of his teeth and tried to keep his dental condition a secret. Documents show he was particularly embarrassed to find out that the British had intercepted a letter in which he asked for a set of tooth scrapers to be sent to him in New York. That said, the intercepted letter helped mislead the British as to his intentions, ensuring the success of the Yorktown campaign.
Sitting in the White House reading the citation for the Medal of Honor doesn’t give the real flavor of why retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer and special warfare operator Britt K. Slabinski is receiving the award.
The nicely air conditioned room with comfortable chairs, impeccable floors, historic artwork and gilt on many surfaces isn’t right, somehow.
The dispassionate words on the award talk of Slabinski’s heroism in assaulting bunkers, rallying his men, and going back into the center of the firefight.
The White House is literally half a world away from a mountain in Afghanistan in 2002, where Slabinski — and America — lost seven good men.
When the master chief talks of the action, you realize he is reliving his time atop Takur Ghar — a 10,000-foot mountain near Ghazni, on March 4, 2002. He is remembering his decisions. He is remembering what he felt. And he is remembering his brothers who were killed.
He speaks in present tense, because in his mind’s eye. It is still happening.
‘I Was Just Doing My Job’
He believes he did nothing special. “I was just doing my job that day,” Slabinski said during an interview.
Slabinski — then a senior chief petty officer — and his men were just supposed to set up an overwatch position on the mountain to support the conventional forces in the valley below. “Now the enemy gets a vote,” he said. “We plan, we train, we rehearse and we rehearse some more for every possible contingency, but sometimes the fog and friction of war is just out of your control and a leader has to adapt.”
The team was aboard an Army MH-47 helicopter and as it was landing, well dug-in al-Qaida fighters opened up. “When we land, the ramp goes down,” he said. “I’m standing on the very back of the helicopter … and almost immediately take an RPG rocket to the side of the aircraft. It goes off, fills the aircraft full of smoke and we are getting shot up right away. There’s bullets flying through the aircraft the size of your finger [from] 12.7 machine guns that were up there.”
The pilot was able to take off, but the bird was wounded and experienced what Slabinski called “the worst turbulence you could imagine.”
Those gyrations caused Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts to fall off the ramp. The crew chief grabbed Roberts’ pack, and the weight of the SEAL pulled him off the ramp, too. But the crew chief was tethered into the aircraft and was able to get back in. Roberts fell 10 feet into the meter-deep snow.
“It happens that fast,” Slabinski said as he snapped his fingers.
He told the pilot that he had lost a man, but with the chopper’s hydraulics shot out, there was no way the bird could circle and retrieve him. “[The pilot] was flying a brick,” Slabinski said. “It was basically a controlled crash into the enemy-held valley.”
The master chief assessed the situation. “Now my mission originally was to support the overwatch, then my teammate Neil fell out, and now I have a downed helicopter I have to deal with,” he said.
Calling For Support
The first problem he dealt with was the helicopter, and he called in a second aircraft to take the crew and team to a safe place. Once there, Slabinski was able to focus his attention on Neil.
The information he received was Roberts was alive. “I knew there was a superior enemy force up there and they had heavier weapons than I had,” he said.
The enemy, the cold, the altitude — “Everything that could be stacked against us, was stacked against us going back, and I had the feeling that this was a one-way trip,” he said. “I knew though, that if I go now, there’s a chance I could rescue Neil. I knew if I tried to develop a battle plan more on my terms, it would certainly be better, but I knew Neil didn’t have that time.”
The weight was on Slabinski’s shoulders. “I remember sitting in the helicopter,” he said. “The [rotors are] turning, it’s cold, trying to sort through the tactical piece of it … and this thought keeps coming back to me: If I go now what’s the cost going to be versus the cost if I wait. If you are the leader and you have peoples’ lives that you are responsible for, the decisions don’t come easy.”
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Matthew R. Loken)
This was Slabinski’s loneliest moment. He was sitting in the chopper with a headset on and people are talking to him. He was thinking of all the tactical problems and the lives. “And this thought kept coming back to me, and it’s the first line of the Boy Scout Oath … ‘On my honor, I will do my best,'” said Slabinski, who attained the rank of Eagle Scout at his hometown troop in Northampton, Massachusetts “The only thing that is in the back of my mind is, ‘On my honor I will do my best, On my honor I will do my best, On my honor I will do my best.’
“That’s when I said, ‘I’m gonna go do this.'”
The master chief assigned his men jobs, and the pilot of the first aircraft, Army Chief Warrant Officer Al Mack, went up to Slabinski and told him he would be flying them back in the new MH-47, even though he had just survived a harrowing experience with the first helicopter.
There was no other place to land, so the team had to go right back to the place the first bird took the fire. As the chopper took off, it got quiet for Slabinski and he thought of his son, who was 6 years old at the time. “I remember saying, ‘I love you. Sorry for what’s to come. Be great,'” he said. “Then I put it in another room in my brain and went on with my duties.”
This Chinook also took fire coming in to the landing area, and as soon as the ramp went down, the team went off the back of the ramp. Two men went to the right, two to the left and the master chief and Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, an Air Force combat controller, went out together.
Slabinski and Chapman were hit by a burst of automatic weapons fire. “The burst hit John and he went down,” Slabinski said. “The bullets from the same burst went through my clothes on each side, and I jumped behind a rock.”
The belt-fed weapon kept firing at them. “I looked for John and he is lying in a very odd position, and I look to my other guys and they are engaged with another dug-in position and the two to my left are engaged there. There are enemy muzzle flashes on three sides.”
There is no cover, and Slabinski tosses two grenades at the bunker, but the position is too well dug in. He looks to his men and sees Chapman still in the same odd position and the others engaging the enemy. His M60 gunner is next to me. “I have a 40mm grenade launcher … and I have six grenades,” he said. “I’m too close to the big bunker because they won’t go off. They have to spin to arm.”
He fired at the farther bunkers and silenced those, but the big bunker remains a deadly problem. He has the M60-gunner fire on the bunker and he wants to charge to the bunker to clear it under the cover of that automatic fire. Before he could do that, a grenade flies out of the bunker and explodes right in front of the barrel of the M60, wounding the gunner.
Slabinski again assesses the situation. “The gunner is down. John hasn’t moved and my other two guys are still engaged in contact,” he said. “The plan in my head isn’t working so I have to do something different.”
(Painting by Keith Rocco)
He decided to get his small band out of direct fire. As he is doing that another SEAL was hit in the leg from the same machine gun Slabinski was trying to take out. “I sent the wounded over first and I crawled over to John, looking for some sign of life from John and didn’t get anything,” he said.
The place he chose to seek shelter from the fire was just about 30 feet away over the side of the mountain.
Slabinski called for support from an AC-130 gunship to hit the bunkers. At the same time as the aircraft was hitting the mountain he noticed shell fragments were landing around the team. Slabinski thinks at first it is the AC-130, but it is from an enemy mortar that is ranging his position.
He moves again to a more protected area and now the U.S. Army Ranger quick reaction force is coming in. The first chopper is hit and crashes on the top of the mountain. Slabinski contacted the second bird and it lands on another spit of land and the Rangers work their way to the SEAL position and attack up the mountain to secure the top.
The master chief can’t move his wounded to the top of the mountain, so he moved to a place he could secure and await medevac, which came that night.
Estimates of the number of al-Qaida fighters on the top of that mountain range between 40 and 100. They had heavy weapons galore with automatic machine guns, mortars, RPGs and recoilless rifles. It was the headquarters for al-Qaida operating against U.S. forces engaged in Operation Anaconda. The SEAL team went in to try to rescue Roberts with six men.
Footage taken by a remotely piloted vehicle and examined later showed that Chapman was not dead. The technical sergeant regained consciousness and engaged the enemy killing two of them — one in hand-to-hand combat. “I was 100 percent convinced that John was dead,” Slabinski said. “I never lost track of John.”
He never would have left the airman on that mountain, he said, if he thought for an instant that Chapman was alive.
For his actions that day, Slabinski received the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. As part of then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s directive to the services to re-examine all of the valor awards beginning in 2001, the Navy recommended upgrading that award to the Medal of Honor. The master chief — who retired from the Navy in 2014 — received a call from President Donald J. Trump in March telling him of the decision.
The master chief is conflicted about the award. He believes he was just doing his job and still feels the loss of the seven men — Navy, Army and Air Force — he served with that day. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about them,” he said. “If I could give up this medal to have them back, I would.”
American-style taco – shell + sushi rice = a dish to heal the wounds of WWII. (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)
Kon’nichiwa, TACO RICE.
Meals Ready To Eat explored the advent of one of Japan’s most popular street foods when host August Dannehl traveled to Okinawa in search of taco rice, a true food fusion OG.
If you were to suggest that spiced taco meat dressed in shredded lettuce, cheese, and tomato, would seem a bastard topping to foist upon sushi rice, Japan’s most sacred and traditional foodstuff, well, in Okinawa at least, you’d find yourself on the receiving end of a lesson in local history.
Taco Rice is the result of two post-WWII cultures: that of the Japanese and the American troops stationed in Okinawa, finding a way to transcend their differences through the combination of comforting foods.
An influx of American delicacies, most notably Spam, flooded the island following the cessation of hostilities and led to a heyday of culinary cross-pollination. Spam is still featured in many now-traditional Okinawan dishes, but taco rice is, for modern Okinawans and American military personnel, the belle of the mash-up Ball.
‘Empire’ is such a great word. It evokes images of lasting power, strength, and historical importance — even when it has nothing to do with an actual empire.
When it does have to do with an actual empire, you expect some kind of lasting imprint on humanity — some kind expansive reach; some kind of anything, really. Empires aren’t supposed to just rise for no reason and collapse like the Cowboys in the playoffs.
6. The Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire has a glorious 600-year history of basically just scaring Europeans about the spread of Islam. If you look at the current state of affairs, it’s obvious that Europe never needed the help in the first place. When it came to actually spreading Islam, the Caliphate wasn’t quite so good at it.
At its height, the Ottomans didn’t even have full control over the lands they supposedly ruled. As soon as they reached a period of peace and prosperity in the 18th century, they kinda let the whole Empire decline. And even when Ottoman military power recovered, they still suffered losses in territory and in wars. After choosing the wrong side of WWI, they became modern-day Turkey. At only 100 years old, it already has a history and culture more unique than the Ottomans ever had.
5. The German Empire
Another victim of poor decisions during WWI, the German Empire only lasted 47 years. That’s not even long enough for the Kaiser to have a mid-life crisis.
Even though it saw a lot of technological and industrial achievements, it pretty much squandered those on a couple of World Wars that it somehow lost. It was late to the game of creating a colonial empire — one with a plan that can be best described as “oh yeah, me too,” as they simply took what Britain and France left behind.
4. The Galactic Empire
As dramatic as the changeover from Republic to Empire might have been (as painstakingly recounted in the Star Wars prequels), their biggest achievements include getting beaten by a fleet of space fighters that resemble your Uncle Todd’s Camaro after spending all their time enslaving and killing entire populations.
Not to mention their big goal was trying to build the same space station twice and they got trounced in their efforts both times. They left no cultural legacy on the people of the galaxy except for “I’m so happy they’re gone.”
3. The Russian Empire
This was an empire that was constantly trying to keep up with everyone else. The few Tsars who managed to drag Russia, kicking and screaming, into being competitive, had to do it by some extreme means — like publicly cutting off beards.
Peasants in parts of Russia were essentially slaves from the 11the century until the 19th century. They weren’t emancipated until 18-goddamn-61. With all that free labor, Russia still struggled to keep up with the rest of the world. And we wonder why the Soviet Union was so popular at first.
2. The Holy Roman Empire
What is it? No, seriously. WHAT IS IT? French philosopher Voltaire once said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Like an early European Union, a group of small kingdoms and principalities chose their Holy Roman Emperor to operate out of any city he wanted. He ruled basically nothing and the smaller kingdoms could ignore him at their will.
Sure, individual emperors could get things done, but that was because of who they were outside of being the Holy Roman Emperor, not because actually being Holy Roman Emperor. It’s especially sad for the Holy Roman Empire that a family or dynasty could overshadow the whole history of the empire.
1. Austro-Hungarian Empire
Besides the Herculean effort to stop the Ottomans at Vienna (we went over that), Austria-Hungary is most famous for getting kicked around by Napoleon and losing the World War they dragged everyone into.
Imagine a family of really dumb, inbred, rich people who owned a huge plot of land and put an army on it. Then they hired their stupid friends to command the army because uniforms are cool. Then, that family’s neighbors always come bail them out when they’re losing wars because they don’t want the neighborhood going to shit.
The first American to visit Afghanistan decided he was going to take the wild land by force. That’s just what Americans did back then, I suppose. The young man was born into a privileged life for the time, and lived a life of globetrotting adventure as a young man. When the love of his life decided to marry another man, Josiah Harlan decided to make his world a little more interesting.
But so were the Afghan rulers and warlords.
Having grown up learning Greek and Latin and reading medical books and journals for fun, Harlan decided to join the British East India Company’s expedition to Burma as a surgeon, even though he had never attended medical school. But he didn’t stay for all of the company’s wars. He left the company in 1826 to live in an Indian border town called Ludhiana. That’s where he met Shuja Shah Abdali Durrani, the deposed ruler of Afghanistan that would shape Josiah Harlan’s future.
The two men hatched a plan to oust the leader who deposed the Shah, Dost Mohammed Khan using a coalition of Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim fighters, then foment a full-scale rebellion in Afghanistan. Once the Shah was back on the throne, he would make Harlan his vizier. Things did not go according to plan. Khan defeated Shah at Kandahar and was forced to flee once more.
Dost Mohammed Khan can sleep soundly knowing the British got what was coming to them.
Harlan next fell in with Maharajah Ranjeet Singh, a great warrior king who had conquered most of what is today Northwest India and Pakistan. Singh, it turns out, knew how to party unlike anyone since the good ol’ days of insane Roman emperors. He was also a hypochondriac, one that “Doctor” Josiah Harlan could treat. Harlan did treat the Maharajah, earning his trust and the governorship of Nurpur, Jasota, and later, Gujerat. But he eventually fell out of Singh’s favor and turned to Dost Mohammed Khan – the man he tried to usurp in the first place.
Acting as a special military advisor to Khan, Harlan took to the battlefield against armies allied to the Maharajah, having taught the Afghans the “Western way of war,” which basically meant using numerical superiority to your supreme advantage. With Khan, he was made royalty and led armies against the Sikhs in India, against Uzbek slavers, and even led punitive expeditions in the Hindu Kush. But upon returning from those raids, he found Khan was deposed, and the British occupied Kabul and had replaced Khan with ol’ Shuja Shah.
The Maharajah’s life was so great it gave him Forest Whitaker Eye before that was even a thing.
Even though Harlan was the Commander-In-Chief among all Afghans by Khan’s decree, Khan was out and Shah was in. All the tribes and their warlords were now allied with Shah – that was just the Afghan way. Khan already fled, so it was time for Harlan to return to America and to his life in Pennsylvania.
Unsurprisingly, Pennsylvania had a marked lack of exotic spices, royal orgies, and international intrigue, so Harlan found himself trying to drum up American support to challenge Russia and Britain for supremacy in Afghanistan. America, however, had enough problems back home around the time the man returned in 1841, and there was little interest in it. Josiah Harlan moved to San Francisco where he spent the rest of his days practicing medicine.
The morning of March 19, 2003, marked the beginning of the Iraq War that would eventually lead to devastating loss for both countries. With its roots in the first Persian Gulf War, some argue that the Iraq/U.S. conflict was inevitable, while others consider it an unnecessary war.
After dictator Saddam Hussein’s refusal to abandon Iraq in 2003, U.S. and allied forces launched a full-scale attack. What followed were years of American occupation, a large number of Iraqi and American casualties, and a growing tide of opposition to the seemingly unending war. The Iraq War spanned nearly the entirety of two presidential administrations in the United States, leading to shifting strategies and new technologies. Eventually, the Obama administration withdrew the final troops in 2011, but the long years of warfare continue to affect the Iraqi nation. These Iraq War books recount, analyze, and revisit the effects and experiences of a war that some have deemed preventable.
(The Feminist Press at CUNY)
1. Dreaming of Baghdad
By Haifa Zangana
A humane approach to Middle Eastern affairs, Dreaming of Baghdad is a hauntingly beautiful memoir that will leave you with a new perspective on the “War on Terror”. We follow Haifa Zangana’s experience as a political activist during Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq. She — along with a small group who resisted Saddam’s rule — was eventually captured and imprisoned at Abu Ghraib.
There is a stark illumination on the psychological disturbances experienced by individuals under dictatorship. Zangana is brutally honest when retelling her story of exile and incarceration; she experienced the agonizing loss of friends and comrades through torture and death in prison. A first-hand account that shifts between time, place, and subjectivity to comment on how the trauma of power and war affect our memory.
2. Packed for the Wrong Trip
By W. Zach Griffith
The relatively unknown prison at Abu Ghraib garnered global attention once photos of the abuses inflicted on prisoners were released. Abu Ghraib quickly became the focal point of a worldwide scandal. Just a few months after the photographs were released, the 152nd Field Artillery Battalion of the Maine National Guard arrived to serve as guards. Originally trained and meant to serve in Afghanistan, the soldiers were deeply unprepared for the scrutiny they would receive and the attacks they would soon endure. The group of citizen-soldiers were forced to rely on each other in order to survive one of the darkest prisons in the world and change it for the better.
(Open Road + Grove/Atlantic)
3. The Finish
By Mark Bowden
Get inside the political choices that brought down Osama bin Laden. Bowden’s narrative takes the reader all the way back to President Clinton’s administration to discover the many seemingly minor actions that allowed al-Qaeda to grow. After Bin Laden’s terrorist organization wreaked havoc through the 1990s and early 2000s, taking him down became a top priority for foreign intelligence services around the world.
4. Why We Lost
By Daniel P. Bolger
Firsthand experience and understanding brings a new perspective to American actions in the Iraq War. With a career as an army general that spanned over 35 years, Daniel Bolger provides a candid look into U.S. led campaigns with an insider look into the meetings, strategies, and key players of the war.
Bolger’s main argument is that we lost the Iraq War because the American forces never knew who they were truly fighting. As Bolger puts it, “Every man shot by U.S. soldiers wore civilian clothes. If he had an AK-47, was he getting ready to shoot you or merely defending his family? If he was talking on a cell phone, was he tipping off the insurgency or setting off an IED, or was he phoning his wife?”
(Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
5. The Iraq War: The Military Offensive, from Victory in 21 Days to the Insurgent Aftermath
By John Keegan
His background as a military historian with extensive knowledge on warfare gives Keegan’s discussion a refreshing, objective perspective. Keegan collated a well-detailed look into Iraqi history, from its origins in the Ottoman Empire to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The Iraq War, despite its broad title, primarily recounts the 21-day invasion by the United States and allies that removed Hussein from power. As an explanation of the factors that led to the war, this is an unmissable resource.
(Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
6. The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
By J. Kael Weston
This powerful 2016 book examines the relationship between warfare and diplomacy. Like many of the other authors on this list, Weston had an inside look into the U.S. government during the Iraq War. Weston was a State Department official — serving over seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Weston uses this experience to show both the war and his own personal journey throughout the narrative. As a firsthand witness, he saw the sacrifice and casualties caused by a devastating war. The book follows Weston as he visits families, memorials, and the grave sites of 31 soldiers who perished in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2005 — an operation he personally ordered. This deeply affecting tale reckons with Weston’s and the country’s actions in Iraq.
7. Run to the Sound of the Guns: The True Story of an American Ranger at War in Afghanistan and Iraq
By Nicholas Moore
This eyewitness account of the Iraq War is presented through a series of vignettes as Nicholas Moore recounts the development of the Ranger Regiment. He chronicles the challenges troops had to face and adapt to while hunting for Iraq’s Most Wanted. Serving in an elite special operations unit, Moore was intimately involved in the war on terror, spending over a decade with the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.
Moore discusses the search and rescue of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and the devastating loss of the Chinook helicopter crash, which killed 38 men and one military working dog. Moore sees the events both as a soldier and as a husband and father who nearly lost his life in a global war against terrorism.
(Random House Publishing Group)
8. The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq
By Bing West
This is a straightforward recapitulation of the Iraq War that reconfigures the reader’s understanding of the long-lasting conflict. Whatever your political stance, West puts it all under the microscope and leaves you questioning what you thought you knew. From the United States’s entrance into the war to the brink of defeat in 2006, to the unimaginable turnaround in 2007, West criticizes the Bush administration and Army generals as he travels between the Pentagon and Ramadi. In the end, West asks us to reflect on our mistakes to avoid repeating history.
This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.
American troops have never shied away from taking the fight to the nation’s enemies, no matter the season.
But it’s a particular downer when U.S. forces are deployed to battlefields during the holidays. Here are six of the worst places the American military had to fight during Christmas.
1. Valley Forge (1777)
Just a year earlier, on Christmas Day 1776, Washington had led his troops across the Delaware and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Trenton.
Washington at Valley Forge. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
When Washington marched that same army into Valley Forge on December 19, 1777, the 12,000 Continentals were weary, under-fed, and under-equipped. Only about one in four still had shoes after the many long marches had literally worn them right off their feet.
The weather was also bitterly cold, which combined with the other problems facing the army led to over 2,500 soldiers dying due to starvation, disease, and exposure.
The bright spot of the army’s stay at Valley Forge was the training received by the Prussian drill master Baron Von Steuben. Thanks to his efforts, the Continentals began 1778 a much more professional fighting force than they had been.
2. The Winter Line (1943)
Central Italy may not be known to most for terrible winters. But for the American and Allied troops facing the German Winter Line at the end of 1943, it was far from favorable.
Fighting in the Italian Alps during Christmas during World War II. (Photo from 10th Mountain Division history page)
Stiff German defenses in the Apennine Mountains had brought the Allied advance to a standstill with tremendous numbers of casualties. To make matters worse, bitter winter weather had moved in dumping snow on the weary troops and dropping visibility to near zero.
Despite the weather conditions and determined German resistance the men of the 36th Infantry Division, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the 1st Special Service Force fought on — particularly on Christmas Day, when the 1st Special Service Force captured a strategic hill on the Winter Line with heavy casualties.
3. Bastogne (1944)
When American troops think of a terrible Christmas this one usually tops the list.
The Battered Bastards of Bastogne (the 101st Airborne Division, elements of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, and other support elements) had arrived to hold the key crossroads against the German onslaught just in time for Christmas 1944.
As the Battle of the Bulge progressed, the paratroopers and soldiers were surrounded, short of supplies, and desperately lacking in winter gear to battle the freezing temperatures they had to endure. Despite the conditions they faced when the Germans requested the Americans’ surrender Gen. Anthony McAuliffe simply responded with “Nuts!”
After fending off a German attack on Christmas Day the defenders were relieved by elements of Patton’s Third Army.
4. Basically anywhere in Korea (1950)
Christmas 1950 in Korea was an ignominious affair. After the brilliant victory at Inchon and the drive towards the Yalu River, China had entered the fray and handed the UN Forces their first defeat since breakout of Pusan.
In response, MacArthur launched the Home-by-Christmas Offensive to bring a quick conclusion to the war. But the Chinese were ready for it and decisively defeated American forces. The 1st Marine Division had narrowly avoided annihilation at the Chosin Reservoir, but many other units weren’t so lucky.
For the Eighth Army in Korea morale was low and the temperatures were even lower. Not only were they not going to be home by Christmas, but New Year’s didn’t bring better tidings either.
Another Chinese offensive sent the demoralized Americans reeling and recaptured the South Korean capital of Seoul. Christmas 1950 was one of the lowest points in the war for the Americans.
5. Operation Linebacker II (1972)
By the end of 1972 the war in Vietnam was supposed to be all but over. President Richard Nixon’s program of Vietnamization had allowed large numbers of U.S. troops to withdraw from the country.
However, negotiations in Paris were not going well for the Americans, so Nixon ordered a massive bombing campaign against the North in order to extract concessions from North Vietnam. Massive formations of B-52’s escorted by fighters took to the skies over North Vietnam in what became known as the Christmas Bombings.
From December 19 to December 29, 1972 the bombers flew 729 sorties against targets around Hanoi and Haiphong.
Unfortunately these bombings claimed 16 B-52s and numerous fighter aircraft, with the surviving crewmembers being interred as POWs just in time for Christmas. In all 43 airmen were killed and another 49 captured with a total of 28 aircraft lost to enemy action in the span of just over a week.
For a war that was drawing to a close flying into highly-contested airspace was a miserable way to spend the war’s last Christmas.
6. The lonely Combat Outposts of Afghanistan and Iraq (2001 – present)
As the War on Terror approaches its 15th Christmas with who knows how many more ahead, the soldiers stationed in the remote reaches of those war torn countries have to be included on any list of worst places to spend Christmas.
With the unprecedented length of these wars, there are likely American troops spending yet another Christmas overseas. In World War II even the first units to deploy would have only spent three Christmas’s in a combat zone; there is a good chance that thousands of troops have spent more than that at this point since 9/11.
Those holidays are even more difficult at the tiny combat outposts in the middle of nowhere. If the troops are lucky, there might have been something resembling a Christmas dinner flown in that they can eat while standing guard in a cold little shack or tower.
If they aren’t so lucky, Christmas dinner is just another MRE and the best gift they can hope for is a quiet day.
In World War II’s Pacific Theater, the United States had a big problem: the operating area was humongous. In one sense, it’s no surprise — the Pacific is the world’s largest ocean and they needed to get across that ocean in order to defeat Japan. But Japan had also occupied a lot of bases in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands during the inter-war period (and illegally fortified them). Finally, the Allies needed a way to deal with the fierce Japanese force, but they needed to do so without endangering the “Germany first” grand strategy for defeating the Axis.
This problem proved extremely difficult. The Japanese, at Guadalcanal, in the Philippines, and elsewhere, had proven to be fierce fighters on the ground. It was painfully obvious that fighting island to island on a campaign across the Pacific would take a lot of time and cost many lives. But at the same time, the Japanese bases had to be neutralized.
In 1943, after Guadalcanal had been cleared, Admiral William F. Halsey and General Douglas MacArthur began planning the next phase of the offensive in the massive ocean, with the ultimate objective of taking out Rabaul, Japan’s major base in the south Pacific.
The first plan they came up with would have required additional forces drawn from efforts in Europe. That, of course, didn’t fly with politicians.
Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers fly over an atoll in the Pacific during the island-hopping campaign.
Instead, the answer to the Pacific question was to grab a few key bases and then use air power and submarines to cut off the other Japanese installations from resupply and reinforcement. The term for this was “island hopping” or “leapfrogging.”
There were two primary benefits to this strategy: First, it could be accomplished with fewer troops. Second, it meant the cut-off enemy forces couldn’t be pulled back to reinforce important objectives, like the Philippines.
Bases seized by the Allies were used to launch strikes that targeted enemy supply lines. One of the most famous actions was the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.
The targeted bases in the island-happen campaign were selected for two purposes: First, they were the jumping-off points for the next “hops” towards Japan. Second, they served as bases for forces that had the job of plastering the now-isolated garrisons left behind. This was what John Glenn did while serving in World War II.
While plans originally called for capturing Rabaul, the decision was made to bypass it after successfully seizing some other locations where Allied forces could build airfields.
John Glenn’s World War II service included a combat tour striking bypassed Japanese garrisons in the F4U Corsair.
The island-hopping strategy worked. In less than four years, the United States had forced Japan’s surrender. While much of history focuses on the hotly-debated use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ability for America to deliver those weapons hinged on some very strategic leapfrogging.
With a distinguished history dating back to the end of American Civil War, the men and women of the elite Secret Service take on one of the world’s toughest tasks — protecting the U.S. president and other government officials from assassination attempts.
Originally designated to control the issue of combating US currency counterfeiting, it wasn’t until after the assassination of former President William McKinley when the Service Secret was assigned to protect the POTUS in 1901.
The Secret Service’s mission is to prevent life-threatening incidents well before they occur. They scope out meeting locations days before their clients show up and map out vantage points and escape routes if the situation goes pear shaped.
In the sniper world, the mission is the same. Highly-trained sharpshooters are always on the alert, completely focused and ready to strike at all times.
Working in teams of two, you can usually spot them posted on the White House’s rooftop examining your every move.
Usually armed with high-powered rifles, each team is equipped with a shooter and a spotter. These snipers go through intense training learning how to react to any situation that they may face.
Remarkably, no sniper team has ever had to fire a shot since the unit was formed in 1971.
Garlin Conner charged alone into the cold abyss, toward the massive silhouettes of German tanks in the distance.
Clutching a telephone, radio and wire, the first lieutenant carried himself through the frigid January air, toward 600 encroaching Germans and the enemy rounds he knew were coming.
Conner could not turn back if he wanted to.
His company needed a guide to cut into the surging German infantry or risk getting overrun. The Kentucky marksman always fought in front of his men, and his fellow soldiers trusted him to lead. Conner often fired at the opposition standing while others ducked for cover.
Conner could see the enemy before they spotted him, fellow soldiers wrote.
The thunder of the German rifles didn’t rattle him. His father had raised him to be fearless while hunting wild game in the woods of southern Kentucky. A bullet wound in his left hip could not keep him from returning to the front lines, nor could orders to remain at a military field hospital. On a frigid winter morning in 1945, Conner would once more put himself between his fellow soldiers and the onslaught of enemy fire.
This time, in a snow-covered forest, 5-foot-6-inch Conner faced the full brunt of German forces. On Jan. 24, the Nazi-led German army mounted a desperate surge to split American units near the French-German border.
Conner headed toward the flurry of bullets until he ducked into a shallow, snowy ditch.
Here in the frozen French countryside, amid rampant automatic fire, Conner would make what could be his final stand, guiding American artillery toward the German infantry. Here, Conner would remain until American forces stopped the Germans, or until a bullet stopped him.
When locals in the rural farming town of Albany, Kentucky, would ask Garlin “Murl” Conner about his time in World War II, he’d hush them quickly.
“I’d done what I had to do,” Conner said in soldier accounts, “and that’s all there is to it.”
After returning to Clinton County following the war and starting a tobacco farm, the decorated Army veteran decided he had seen enough of the world and the horrors of armed combat. Conner had found peace plowing fields in the shadows of the Appalachians.
Conner never boasted about his acts of bravery.
For more than 53 years until his death in 1998, he rarely spoke about the war again — not to his wife, Pauline, or even to a fellow soldier.
During the two decades since Conner died of complications related to heart and kidney failure, others took up the cause the farmer so adamantly declined. Former Army Green Beret Richard Chilton, with the support of seven retired generals, presented Conner’s bid for the Medal of Honor to the Army’s personnel records office.
The curious case of Conner, who held a war record so compelling that it rivals the accolades of the more famous veteran Audie Murphy, baffled those who knew him. In all, Conner spent more than 800 days on the front lines in World War II. He suffered seven combat wounds while earning four Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, the French military decoration Croix de Guerre, and the Distinguished Service Cross.
And yet, in an effort to get Conner recognized with a Medal of Honor, Chilton and his team endured a difficult quest that spanned decades. A federal district court rejected Conner’s initial bid for the award. In the 2014 ruling, a federal judge in Kentucky told a heartbroken Pauline that she had not filed her husband’s paperwork in time.
Conner had for decades shied away from talk of the award, much like he avoided any conversation of his four years in the Army. Still, his family continued to cling to hope that one day Conner would earn the U.S. military’s highest distinction.
Old Kentucky home
A curving paved road leads to Murl and Pauline Conner’s red brick farmhouse wedged near the foothills of the Appalachians in southern Kentucky, two miles north of the Tennessee state line.
Blue skies hang over Albany’s green rolling landscape, as plowed fields seem to shine under the midday sun. Cardinals outside the one-story house chirp as a light wind sweeps by. This farm, cradled in the hilly terrain of Clinton County, hid the story of a man whose steely courage withstood the gravest circumstances.
Just footsteps down the road from the farm, Murl’s son Paul, and his wife Kathy, live in a modular home that was built to replace their home that had been destroyed by a tornado. Paul took over the farm after his father suffered a heart attack on a spring day in 1979.
He spent long hours planting tobacco plants before the farm transitioned into raising cattle as its primary product.
Born nine years after Conner returned from the war, Paul contrasts his dad in appearance. Burly and stout, he sports a much larger frame than his father, who had been thin and wiry, at 5-foot-6-inches tall, and weighing only 120 pounds during active duty.
Paul shares his father’s love of animals. And Paul raised his four children with the same grounded morals he learned from his father. Paul said his father offered sound advice that Paul would later instill in his children. “Be a man of your word,” Paul recalled his dad saying. “Do what you say. If you can’t fulfill a promise, don’t make it. Be mindful of people around you because everyone has feelings.”
In the family’s living room, Paul sits next to a black and white portrait of Murl as a young soldier, flanked by faded portraits of Paul’s children and grandchildren. Decorated with beige ceramic lamps, rustic wooden chairs and shelves, the room has changed little since Pauline and her husband moved into the home more than 50 years ago.
For decades the photo loomed over the room. As a boy, Paul occasionally would stare at the black and white picture in awe.
When he asked his father about his time in the Army, he’d receive the same cold response: “We went over there, we did what we had to do,” Paul recalled his father saying. “And it needs to stay over there.”
Paul grew up without knowing the full extent of his father’s achievements on the battlefield. And for the most part, so did Pauline.
Generations have passed since the soldier with only an eighth-grade education used wit and intelligence to thwart enemy advances. But buried in eyewitness accounts and in the testimonials of fellow soldiers, Conner’s heroic deeds remained etched in history, unknown to his family and many of Albany’s residents.
“I just thought he was a farmer and he did a little something in the war,” said Walton Haddix, a family friend of the Conners. “But he never would talk about it. He never mentioned anything he did in the military.”
Outside of his war medals, this 200-acre farm on the lower east end of Clinton County is Conner’s lasting legacy. The family purchased the plot of land in 1949, after the government bought the family’s previous farm to make way for the Wolf Creek Dam and Lake Cumberland Reservoir. With his time in service long behind him, Conner turned his attention to his farm and raising Paul.
He never boasted about his wartime achievements, telling his wife he didn’t want to appear to be bragging. After all, Conner’s five brothers also served in the military: four in World War II and one in the Korean War.
As a farmer, he took pride in working on his farm, where he could often be found in his long-sleeved khaki shirt, farmer’s billed cap and overalls, riding a tractor or teaching Paul how to grow tobacco from the soil.
But the war never truly left him. Sometimes, at night, Conner would wake, gripped with tension and reliving moments from the battlefield, said his wife. Instead of returning to bed, Conner would retreat to the family’s wooden porch, where he lingered for hours smoking cigarettes.
The episodes at times became so traumatic, Pauline declines to talk in detail about them. Pauline said her husband suffered symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness that had not yet been widely identified until the Vietnam War.
“If anyone had PTSD, it was Murl,” Pauline said.
Conner carried the burden internally, never voicing his anguish to his family. The last time Conner had spoken publicly about the war, it happened to be the same day Pauline laid eyes on her future husband for the first time.
A hero’s welcome
On a bright spring day in May 1945, the Wells family heard that a war hero, a native of Clinton County, would be returning after four years overseas.
The local American Legion post organized a parade in the town square to welcome back a war veteran whose bravery had townspeople talking. They traveled from surrounding counties, some by wagon. Others drove in by car, while some came on foot.
Garlin Murl Conner, a farmer’s son who voluntarily joined the Army in 1941, had come home from the war.
Pauline Wells, still in her teenage years, climbed into the back of the family’s horse-drawn wagon along with her two brothers, two sisters and her parents at the family’s farm in northern Clinton County. They drove the wagon along a dirt trail, 10 miles to the town square. The county’s schools dismissed classes early so students could attend the parade.
Pauline’s family learned that following the parade, Conner would be speaking to the crowd about the war. So townspeople crowded into the second floor of the old courthouse. Sergeant Alvin C. York, the most decorated soldier of the First World War, also attended, beginning what became a lifelong friendship with Conner. Pauline leaned onto the wooden bench in the back row to hear Conner speak.
“I was expecting a giant of a man,” Pauline said.
When Conner finally emerged before the crowd, his appearance stunned Pauline. Wearing his olive-colored military dress uniform, the lieutenant’s small stature underwhelmed the young Pauline. With narrow shoulders, and a slender frame, Conner hardly appeared like heroes in storybooks.
“That little wharf rat,” Pauline said to her mother, Tressie. “He couldn’t have done all the things they said he’d done.”
But unbeknownst to Pauline and her family, Conner had long proved his mettle to U.S. forces, the Allies, and fellow soldiers, his commanding officer would say.
Conner was a quiet man of few words. The native of nearby Aaron, Kentucky, stood before the crowded courtroom and said what would be his last public statements about his time in the war.
“It gives me great pleasure,” Conner began, “to be able to come out here today. I am not a speaker, and did not come here to make a speech.”
“But,” Conner continued, “I will try to explain to you a small part of the war in Europe and some of the things I saw.”
Conner didn’t mince words. He talked first about the early November morning in 1942 when his unit first landed on the shore of Fedala, Morocco, in support of Operation Torch. American and Allied forces wrested control of North Africa from the Axis powers in only three days.
He moved onto the invasion of Licata, Sicily, a war-ravaged city that lay in tatters after 38 days of continuous fighting. Through his 10-minute testimony, Conner didn’t talk about his medals, or the times he fought on the front lines ahead of his men. Instead he spoke of his unit’s achievements, and how they survived the changing elements and terrain.
Finally, Conner touched on his unit’s trek into southern France and a difficult battle in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. But he didn’t say a word about any of his selfless, valorous acts. Nor did he mention a fateful January morning near a small French village during the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge, when for three hours in the winter of 1945, he risked his life so his unit could survive.
At any cost
On the morning of Jan. 24, 1945, the men of the K Company, 7th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division entered the Brunwald Woods near Houssen, France.
As U.S. troops scrambled to reinforce their position in the small village near the German-French border, a bitter cold swept over eastern France, creating a stinging chill.
As the frigid wind stung their faces, K Company’s soldiers marched into the snow to take on a Battalion of desperate German soldiers.
Conner had rejoined his unit in the French countryside while still recovering from a sniper bullet wound in his left hip. Conner, knowing a crucial battle loomed, had earlier slipped out of the field hospital in northern France and returned to the front lines.
Upon his return, Conner learned that his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Lloyd Ramsey, had made arrangements to send him home. Conner had earned eligibility to return to Kentucky based on his time served and accolades earned. Ramsey removed Conner from the front lines and reassigned him to serve as his intelligence officer in battalion headquarters for his own safety.
Hitler’s army, facing looming defeat, countered American forces with desperate barrage after barrage, attacking U.S. forces with ruthless resolve. The German assaults gravely concerned Ramsey. The day before, the Germans had rallied for a fierce offensive against another company, costing the Americans 25 men.
Ramsey needed a patrol team to scout the enemy’s position, but resources ran thin.
Conner, still ailing from his hip injury, once again volunteered to take a patrol and said he would attempt to use direct artillery to halt the German offensive. Ramsey, knowing the weight of Conner’s previous contributions and his pending return home, reluctantly agreed.
“No words can express the outstanding leadership qualities that Lt. Conner had,” the late Ramsey wrote. “(He was) always willing to do more than his part.”
Conner had built a reputation as an expert scout and marksman. The soldier from the Bluegrass State had earned the respect of his fellow soldiers by fearlessly confronting the enemy and taking dangerous missions. Maurice Williams, a soldier who served under Conner, said Conner’s background as a Kentucky outdoorsman helped prepare him to go undetected in combat. Raised on a farm during the Depression era, Conner learned to become a skilled marksman and hunter.
“He could go through the woods unnoticed,” Haddix, the family friend, said. “And if a squirrel (was) in a tree somewhere and move its tail, he could see it.”
While other soldiers would go on night scouting missions with team members, Conner operated alone.
Conner had fostered such a respect from his fellow soldiers, and had performed with such distinction, that he earned a battlefield commission at Anzio. Conner, along with the highly-decorated Murphy, both served in the 3rd Infantry Division, which suffered more casualties than any other during World War II.
“He always led from the front,” wrote Williams, who fought alongside Conner earlier in the war. “And his platoon felt safe following him.”
At about 8 a.m. on Jan. 24, a sudden barrage of light artillery swept on the American troops. Six German Panzer tanks emerged from the frigid air, flanked by a battalion of 600 German soldiers descending on K Company. The powerful, 9-foot tall tanks nearly spanned 27 feet across and 12 feet wide.
“The Americans, the Allies, had nothing like it,” said Luther Conner, President of Clinton County’s historical society. “It was the most potent war weapon at that time. It was just a monster. It caused fear just for a soldier to see the size of it.”
Two thirds of the battalion pushed toward K Company, attempting to split and divide the Americans. A week earlier, a German Panzer division attacked Second Battalion’s 600 soldiers. About 100 returned to their units. Germans killed or took the remainder as prisoners.
Near Houssen, K Company faced similar odds. Conner knew his unit’s only chance in the wintry conditions rested in his hands. He needed to guide artillery fire on the Germans.
Conner saw the towering frames of German Panzers barrelling through the forest. Without a moment’s hesitation, the soldier sprinted straight toward tanks, carrying a telephone, radio, and wire reel.
Conner uncoiled the wire as exploding shells and wood splinters from the surrounding woods showered upon him. Conner ran nearly 400 yards toward the enemy, ignoring warnings from his unit, said Chilton.
He did not stop until he had advanced 30 yards past the American Infantry front line.
There, in a shallow ditch beneath the January snow, Conner planted himself before the oncoming German fire. And for three hours, Conner laid like immovable rock under a violent wave, directing artillery rounds onto the German infantry. As swarm after swarm of German soldiers came like an avalanche upon him, Conner, barked directions and coordinates to battalion headquarters.
“Although he was in a prone position, the ditch only covered part of his body,” wrote 1st Lt. Harold Wigetman, who served as the S-3 in 3rd Battalion. “He was wedged in there so tight, that it was almost impossible for him to move or shift his position.”
The Germans soon grew aware of the lone figure in the snow guiding the American artillery. German soldiers began to swarm and surround Conner and the Americans. The German army mounted a final surge to overwhelm the American forces.
Conner, seeing the enemy close, made a lasting, drastic choice to defeat the German infantry.
Conner directed American artillery rounds toward his position, and the surrounding Germans. As the enemy attack continued to unfurl, Conner put himself in peril so that his unit could achieve victory.
“He cared about his men more than he cared about himself,” Chilton said.
With bullets flying toward him from both directions, Conner never wavered. At one point, a German soldier ran within five yards of Conner clutching a grenade before an American stopped him. Haddix said Conner dispatched German soldiers with his submachine gun.
“With icy self-control, he kept telephoning his directions,” Wigetman wrote, “although he must have seen that the (Germans) would have killed him before he could get on his feet.”
The American onslaught led by Conner overwhelmed the German attack. By the time the final rounds fell, Conner’s actions had resulted in killing 50 German soldiers and leaving more than 150 wounded. American munitions destroyed the six German tanks.
“I saw elements waver … their fighting spirit broken by the deadly concentration of (American) fire,” Wigetman wrote.
Conner paid a heavy toll for his valor during the war. The injury to his left hip would hamper his mobility for the rest of his life. Like many veterans of his generation, Conner did not think highly of anything he had achieved in Europe, his wife said.
“He was always very humble,” Pauline said. “He did what he felt like he had to do to protect our freedom to vote and our freedom of speech, which we have truly earned from what he did and others like him.”
Ramsey called Conner the greatest combat soldier he had ever seen. Troops who remembered him noted Conner’s cool resolve under the most difficult conditions.
Wrote Williams in his journal, “I had such confidence in (Lt.) Conner. I would have followed him anywhere he wanted to go.”
In the years after Conner’s heart attack in 1979, he found a new calling. He listened with concern to stories of soldiers who had not received their veteran’s affairs benefits. Some servicemen struggled with living expenses after they left the service.
Conner and his wife would drive across Clinton County’s 196 square miles of rolling hills and farmland to meet with vets. They extended their travels to 10 neighboring counties. Once a month they would place their paperwork and a suitcase in their Buick sedan and travel to veterans’ homes or meet them at their office in the courthouses. Pauline acted as his secretary, fielding phone calls and helping her husband coordinate his appointments with the veterans in need.
The night episodes continued through the years, Pauline said. And Conner still struggled to sleep on some nights. But helping other veterans, she said, helped him find peace.
“(Assisting veterans) became his life,” Paul said.
But listening to the tales of other soldiers and hearing about their struggles awakened a longing in Conner he thought that he had long buried.
Throughout his four years in the Army, Conner’s concerns rested with his soldiers, never seeking personal glory, but always on the lookout for how he could help, whether scouting the enemy position, or finding ways to help retired vets file their military records. But hearing their stories, Pauline said, she noticed for the first time regret.
That regret became clear in 1996, his wife said.
Chilton, a former Army Green Beret from Wisconsin, wrote a letter to Conner in search of information on his late uncle, Pfc. Gordon Roberts, who was killed after landing at Anzio. Conner, no longer able to speak or write, invited Chilton to his Albany home.
Chilton visited Conner on a fall day in 1996. He sat with Conner in the family living room, and asked him questions about his uncle and the war, while Conner nodded his answers from his wheelchair.
Chilton learned that Conner had indeed served with his uncle, and that Conner had carried his uncle in his last moments to a medical aid station. Conner, reliving a moment from 50 years prior, began to weep.
Pauline suggested that she could sort through her husband’s old war records to search for documentation of Roberts’ service. She carried her husband’s weathered, military green duffel bag out of the living room closet and pulled out old paperwork, records and medals contained inside a cardboard box.
As Chilton skimmed through the pages, his eyes widened. Chilton saw the decorations: the Purple Hearts and Bronze Star and Silver Stars. The Kentucky native had participated in eight major campaigns and had been wounded in each of the countries he toured.
“My God,” a stunned Chilton said to Pauline. “This man should have been awarded the Medal of Honor.”
Chilton, feeling sudden inspiration, asked Pauline and Garlin if he could pursue an application for the medal on Murl’s behalf. Pauline turned to her husband.
“I looked at [Garlin],” she said. “And he was looking at me so straight with tears in his eyes.”
Conner nodded his head yes. After 50 years, he was finally ready to apply for the honor that he had for so long been reluctant to seek.
“He’s my hero,” Pauline said, sitting in the Conner family’s living room, clutching the brown picture frame holding her husband’s black and white service photo. “He always has been.”
Wearing a black blazer and rose-colored blouse, her once-blonde locks have faded into gray. Now 89 years old, her voice wavers when she talks about the life of her late husband. She fondly recalls his humility and his quiet way of voicing his approval.
Finally, she talks about that spring night in 1945, when she and Garlin slipped away from Clinton County in his convertible with nothing but a homemade dress to get married at a courthouse in Rossville, Georgia. They would stop at a neighboring town on the way to Georgia to purchase clothing for Pauline. Pauline said Garlin’s patience and understanding swayed her to marry him after two weeks of dating.
Though their early marriage suffered the occasional bumps, Pauline stood by her husband’s side for more than five decades. Conner suffered a heart attack in 1979, after falling ill riding on the tractor. He underwent open heart surgery later that year, and a second surgery 11 years later.
In the years before his death, Garlin had battled numerous illnesses, including kidney failure, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. He suffered a stroke that left him bedridden and no longer able to speak. Pauline took on the role of caretaker, cooking his meals and driving him to his medical appointments. She took a part-time job for additional income.
Conner passed mercifully on a November day in 1998. He was 79.
“The last few years my dad was alive, he wasn’t really alive,” Paul said. “It progressively got worse. I wish I hadn’t have had to see that part of it. But we can’t choose how we’re going to live and how the last days are going to be.”
At the Weldon Haddix Funeral home along Business Route 127 in Albany, hundreds waited in line to view Conner’s remains. In the rectangular, brick building nestled between local businesses on the north side of Albany, farmers, neighbors and veterans paid their respects. Veterans whom Conner had helped approached Pauline to express their gratitude for Conner’s assistance years ago. Neighboring farmers whom Conner helped as president of the Clinton County Farm Bureau also attended. To this day, Pauline said, veterans still greet her.
“They come up and hug me for what I’ve done, for what [Garlin] has done,” Pauline said. “And I always hug them and tell them I love every one of them.”
Conner’s acts left a lasting impression on Ramsey. The two remained in touch for decades through letters and phone calls. Ramsey later retired as a major general and suffered five combat wounds during his time in service. He encouraged Conner to apply for the medal over the years, Pauline said. But each time, Conner declined and the medals and decorations remained mostly untouched inside the duffel bag, in the living room closet.
Ramsey, whose 34-year career spanned three wars, wrote in 2006: “One of the most disappointing regrets of my career is not having the Medal of Honor awarded to the most outstanding soldier I’ve had the privilege of commanding.” The Army medically retired Ramsey in 1974.
A final plea
Chilton continued to press on Conner’s application for the Medal of Honor, writing letters and contacting politicians.
New evidence had been uncovered by Congressman Ed Whitfield’s office in the National Archives in Washington, including three eyewitness accounts written by fellow soldiers who fought on the front lines with Conner. The three affidavits painted in vivid detail accounts of Conner’s acts in January 1945. But even the affidavits would not be enough.
The Army Board for Correction of Military Records rejected Chilton’s original application for Conner’s eligibility for the medal. Haddix assembled a legal team, headed by Dennis Shepherd of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs as lead trial counsel, and included Luther Conner, who also serves as the Conner family’s lawyer, to begin work on a lawsuit which was filed in federal court. That lawsuit would obtain a ruling ordering the Board to grant Pauline a new hearing and to consider the new evidence.
In 2014, U.S. District Judge Thomas Russell ruled that the statute of limitations to correct Conner’s military record had expired and that the family could no longer continue to seek the award.
After the judge dismissed Pauline’s case in 2014, she said she had lost hope. She returned to Albany and resigned herself to the idea that her husband’s decorated service record would remain as it was, without the addition of the honor that Conner’s family and friends felt he deserved. Despite the backing of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, several generals and Congressman Ed Whitfield, Conner’s chances for the Medal dimmed.
But then, on March 2, 2015, Conner’s case reached a turning point at the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. During the appeal for Conner’s Medal of Honor bid, Assistant U.S. Attorney Candace Hill was assigned to represent the government’s stance against Conner’s case. For 15 minutes, Hill defended the Army’s previous stance during the proceedings, saying the case should be left alone.
But then, in a closing moment of abject candor, Hill revealed her true feelings.
Hill broke into tears, as she discussed her father’s service as an officer in the same unit as Conner during World War II. She said her father suffered a severe leg injury on Jan. 25, 1945, one day after Conner’s heroic acts.
“For all I know,” she said. “Garlin Conner may have … helped save his life.”
Hill’s words, according to an Associated Press report, convinced the panel to submit Conner’s case to a federal mediator. The mediator then directed the ABCMR to grant a new hearing and to consider all evidence, including the recently discovered eyewitness accounts. The following October, the Board granted “full relief” to Pauline’s request to upgrade Conner’s Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor.
Still, Conner’s bid for the medal needed further approval from the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of Defense, and the president.
Last March, Pauline received a call from a military officer at the Pentagon who told her to expect an important phone call from a high-ranking DOD official regarding her husband. Could this be the phone call she had been waiting for? It must be a trick, Pauline thought, and she called Luther Conner, the family’s attorney, to confirm its validity. When Luther gave his assurances, Pauline still asked Luther, and his wife Susan, to sit with her for the important call.
The following Monday the phone rang.
“Is this Lyda Conner?” asked a man with a gruff, New York accent.
“I go by Pauline,” she said.
“You sound just like an old country gal,” the man said.
“I am,” Pauline said, soon realizing the caller was the president.
“It’s a beautiful place down there where you live,” President Trump said.
“Yes it is,” Pauline said, as she sat in the family’s tidy living room, amid family photos of Conner, her son, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Outside, redbirds chirped in the cool spring air.
“You are the widow of Lieutenant Garlin Conner?” Trump asked.
“I am,” she confirmed.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Trump said, “Well I’ve got some good news for you. He has a wonderful military record — one of the best I’ve ever seen. I am going to award him the Medal of Honor.”
The news soon spread to the rest of the Conner family, Conner’s legal team and Clinton County’s residents. Chilton, who spent much of his own time and money on Conner’s journey, could breathe a sigh of relief. Chilton traveled across the country in his quest to bring the Medal of Honor to the Conner family. He’d conducted dozens of interviews with former veterans who knew Conner. Nearly all have since passed. Chilton also penned what he said could be hundreds of hand-written letters to congressmen and to the Army.
A 22-year quest for a man who left everything on the battlefield had finally ended. Conner will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony June 26.
“It gets you kind of numb, you know?” Chilton said. “It sinks in and you understand it. You realize how long you’ve been after it and how long you’ve been doing it. I was just kind of numb … I felt good for him. I felt good for his wife; she suffered through all this stuff. I felt good for (Paul). They’ll all know this forever: (he’s) a hero.”
Pauline was asked what she thought her husband would say if he was still alive. Pauline thought for a moment. And she recalled how her husband might not want the honor, and might brush it aside once more. He might defer credit to the men he fought alongside. But Pauline said she sensed her husband’s attitude toward the honor had changed during his waning years. She remembered his regret in the 1996 meeting with Chilton.
Maybe, Conner might just tip his cap, and smile.
“More than anything I miss him,” Pauline said wistfully. “And I wish he was here so he could go get the Medal himself. Because I think he would have been proud of it. I know he would have.”
“I always kept thinking he didn’t want it in his younger days. And he didn’t really. … When he got older, he wished he had.”
The story of Garlin Conner doesn’t lie in his heroic acts or in his courage under the grimmest of odds. His family says it lies in his unending desire to help others, whether guiding soldiers on the battlefields of Western Europe, or helping veterans in the rolling hills of Clinton County, Kentucky.
Chilton, a military veteran of 20 years, traveled the world with both the U.S. Army and the Israeli Army during Desert Storm. Perhaps the Wisconsin resident put it best.
“I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve seen a lot,” Chilton said. “But I’ve never met anyone like Garlin Conner.”
Editor’s note: Garlin Murl Conner will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House June 26, 2018. President Trump will present the Medal to Conner’s widow, Pauline, at the ceremony.
The S-72 from the 1970s can be seen as a sort of spiritual predecessor to today’s Future Vertical Lift program. It was all about creating a vehicle that could take off and land vertically like a normal helicopter but could also fly fast and far like a plane. But while the FVL’s top contenders are logical new versions of existing aircraft, the S-72 Rotor Systems Research Aircraft was a plane and a helicopter duct-taped together and filled with explosives.
Sikorsky S-72 Helicopter (RSRA) Rotor Systems Research Aircraft
The RSRA was a joint effort by the Army and NASA, and the Sikorsky Aircraft company was the primary developer. Sikorsky is the company behind the new SB-1 Defiant, and they’ve long searched to push the envelope when it comes to helicopter design.
You can actually see some elements of the SB-1 Defiant in the S-72. The S-72 was basically another Sikorsky helicopter, the S-67, with wings and turbofans added. It packed two TF34 engines, the same things that keep the A-10 in the air. Strapped to an S-72 with stubby wings, these engines could send the aircraft through the sky at 345 mph.
But the S-72 was also a helicopter with five rotor blades, so it could take off and land vertically. These blades were not propelled by the TF34s, though. Nope, those were powered by the original two T-58 turboshafts from the S-67.
But that’s a lot of engines to strap to one small aircraft. What if something goes wrong? What if you need to suddenly escape?
Well, that’s where your ejector seats come in. Yup, you could rocket yourself out of this bad boy in an explosive chair. And if you’re thinking, “Wait, didn’t you just say there are five rotor blades spinning above the pilots?” Then, congratulations on paying that much attention! But also, don’t worry, because Sikorsky strapped explosives to those rotor blades, and they would blow off before the pilots flew out.
It’s all pretty cool, if not exactly practical. The program eventually fell apart for the normal reasons. It was simply too expensive and technologically advanced for its time. It did fly multiple times, but always in either a full helicopter configuration or full jet configuration with the rotor blade removed. It never flew at 345 mph with that rotor blade flapping in the wind.
The S-72 configured for the X-Wing program.
Without getting too heavy into the physics in an article written for you to read on the bus or in bed or whatever, there’s a very real reason that high-speed flight with rotor blades spinning up top is tough. Helicopters have what are called advancing and retreating blades. The advancing blade is the one moving in the same direction as the aircraft, and the retreating blade is the one spinning to the rear.
The advancing blade would generate a lot more lift because it’s moving so much faster through the air, and this effect is increased the faster the helicopter is flying. Engineers have a few ways of getting around this problem, but it gets trickier the faster the helicopter flies. That’s part of why Chinooks top out at about 200 mph in level flight. So, a helicopter flying 345 mph would face a huge problem with “dissymmetry of lift.”
The S-72’s method around this was a system that would stop the blades and hold them in place as part of the X-Wing concept. Basically, the aircraft would’ve gotten a new rotor blade with four large blades instead of its normal five. When the aircraft was flying as a jet, the rotor blades would be locked in position and would generate lift like traditional wings. One S-72 was modified as the X-Wing version, but it never flew.
Meanwhile, if the SB-1 Defiant lives up to its design promises, Sikorsky thinks it will fly at almost 290 mph. If so, it will be the fastest production helicopter and still be 55 mph slower than the S-72 that preceded it.