The book character Dracula is based on Vlad Dracula, a 15th-century royal often known as Vlad the Impaler for his tendency to place human beings on spikes, largely because of a stunning June, 1462, attack on the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.
Vlad III, the ruler of Wallachia who would be known as “The Impaler” and “Dracula.”
First, let’s acknowledge that Vlad is world famous because he was a literal monster who would later be immortalized as a fictional vampire. His actions, including the ones discussed herein, were horrible — some of which would be considered war crimes today. So, you know, don’t keep reading if you don’t want to hear about Vlad the Impaler’s war crimes. (Also, in the future, don’t click on articles about Dracula’s brutal attacks. There’s no way these articles won’t be monstrous.)
Vlad was the son of a smart and capable ruler of the realm of Wallachia, a small territory on the Black Sea that was trapped between the then-large and powerful Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Vlad and his brother were taken by the Ottoman Empire as hostages when young, growing up in the sultan’s court. Vlad’s brother took to Ottoman life and converted to Islam, but Vlad developed a deep hatred of the sultan and his kingdom.
When Vlad ascended to the throne, Sultan Mehmed II sent envoys to demand a tribute from the young ruler. Vlad, giving a hint as to how he would also rule his own people, ordered the two Ottoman men executed and their heads impaled with long nails. The sultan was understandably angry at this treatment and sent a top general to exact revenge.
But Dracula, which translates to “Son of the Dragon,” was an heir to a successful military leader and a smart tactician in his own right. He led his own forces against the sultan’s army and set a successful ambush, capturing many of the Ottoman soldiers sent against him.
Mehmed II had been engaged in a lengthy siege, but he abandoned it to answer this new threat. Vlad had marched into the sultan’s lands and laid waste, poisoning water, burning villages, and yes, impaling soldiers and civilians. Some were even impaled alive, and the sultan’s men began finding some still breathing and gurgling on the spikes as the Ottoman army closed on the forces of Wallachia.
It was these attacks on Turks and Bulgarians that would cement Vlad’s status as the “Impaler.” By his own estimates, Vlad and his men killed 23,844 people, not counting those who burned in their homes rather than come out and face the Wallachians’ spears and swords.
Mehmed II was a great military leader of the Ottoman Empire.
Mehmed II ordered mercy killings for those who were on spikes but still alive, and the sultan prepared to go on the warpath within Wallachia. But Vlad had continued his devastation within his own country. Vlad had done many of the same things to his own people while withdrawing ahead of the much larger Ottoman army.
The scorched earth campaign worked; the Ottomans could find little food or water for them or their horses. Any foragers who strayed too far were killed by Vlad’s men. The rest of the Ottoman army were forced to make camp and resupply.
But they did so near the fortress of Targoviste, and Vlad was waiting for the sultan. When he saw the large tents going up, he disguised himself as a senior member of the Ottoman army and walked right up to the gate guards, using his accent-free Turkish that he had gained as a hostage in the Ottoman court to get in unchallenged.
Unfortunately, the sultan was absent from the tent, so Vlad burned it to the ground, attacked the tent of the sultan’s top advisers, and pulled out before the Ottomans could launch a proper counterattack. Luckily for them, the Ottomans spent the first couple of hours fighting each other in the confusion caused by the raid.
Over the following days Mehmed regrouped his forces and marched to the fortress of Targoviste, where there worst horror of the whole campaign waited for them.
Vlad and his men had erected a massive forest that covered a square mile outside the fortress. It was made of 20,000 sharpened stakes, and each stake had at least on body impaled on it. While many were prisoners of war, some were women and children. The worst were the mothers whose babies were attached to their bodies. Birds had made nests in some of the corpses.
Mehmed II had the numbers and the experience to lay siege to the fortress, but in the face of these horrors, he pulled back. Vlad ruled Wallachia off and on until 1477, when he was killed in battle. Wallachia would survive as a principality until merging with Moldovia in 1859. It would eventually become part of modern-day Romania.
Following the Spanish-American War, the Philippines ceased to be a Spanish colony. Instead, the islands became the largest colonial commonwealth of the United States. Alongside American units from the states, Filipino soldiers formed native units trained and equipped to defend the islands from foreign invasion…mostly.
Despite the economic and strategic importance of the Philippines, military preparedness stagnated following WWI. In fact, despite the widespread use of steel helmets during WWI, the Philippine Constabulary and Commonwealth Army were not issued such protective gear. Rather, their helmets were made of the pressed fibers of coconut husks.
Called the guinit, or Filipino Sun Helmet, the headgear resembled a European pith helmet. The guinit featured a domed center and a broad rim that went all the way around. Its rim narrowed at the sides and extended over the front and back. Although the coconut husk construction offered little to no protection from bullets and shrapnel, the guinit helmet shielded its wearer well from the scorching Filipino sun.
Though historians have not pinpointed the exact origin of the guinit helmet, it was likely developed parallel with the first Philippine Commonwealth Army uniforms in 1935. By the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941, it was standard issue in most Philippine Army units, including the fledgling Army Air Corps and Navy torpedo unit. One exception were the Philippine Scouts. Under the command of U.S. Army officers, the Philippine Scouts were issued more modern gear like steel helmets and even the M1 Garand.
Notably the guinit helmets were part of Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon’s efforts to boost the Filipino economy and make the Army self-reliant with locally produced gear. “That’s why the garrison belts used for training were made of abaca, the blankets came from Ilocos, the guinit hat from Quezon,” said Resty Aguilar, Executive Director of the National Historical Commission. Like British pith helmets, the officer version of the guinit helmet sported a colored puggree. The cloth band denoted the branch of service: blue for Army and red for Constabulary.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t the only time the Japanese struck U.S. soil during World War II. In response to the Doolittle Raid — the successful penetration of Japanese airspace and the bombing of strategic targets in Tokyo from the allies — the Japanese executed their revenge. The date of the launch was chosen for the birthday of former emperor Meiji, Nov. 3, 1944.
However, instead of using airplanes, the Japanese used fusen bakudan, or balloon bombs, that each carried four incendiaries and a 33-pound, highly explosive anti-personnel fragmentation device. The Fu-Go balloon bombs traveled 7,500 miles along the Pacific Ocean jet stream at altitudes between 20,000 and 40,000 feet. Witnesses described these large, white balloons as “giant jellyfish” floating in the sky. Their main objective was to start forest fires, create security doubts among the civilian populace, and cause upheaval.
The all-black Triple Nickles battalion was ultimately responsible for combating the slow-moving, round balloon bombs, which had no escort or protection and had been spotted by the U.S. Navy patrol off the coast of California only two days after their initial launch. The patrol alerted the FBI, and investigations were conducted to find the origin of these mysterious flammable balloons traveling over the Pacific Northwest and into Canada.
A Japanese Fu-Go balloon with its payload of charges suspended below. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
Paratroopers from the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions suffered heavy casualties in the European Theater (ETO) during the Battle of the Bulge and the courageous siege of Bastogne; they were in a desperate need for replacements. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, or the “Triple Nickles” as they became known, trained to fulfill this capacity. However, as with other all-black units of the time, African-American soldiers weren’t treated equally. “We were relegated to serving in menial units such as truck drivers, port companies (loading ships), mess halls (waiting on tables) and guard duty,” wrote Walter Morris, a Triple Nickle veteran.
Although no Triple Nickles completed a combat jump or deployed to Europe, these trendsetters provided another example of how an elite all-black unit could be employed in a combat or peacetime environment. The Triple Nickles participated in a top-secret project fighting forest fires as the U.S. military’s first smoke jumping paratroopers over the Pacific Northwest.
The Triple Nickles, a name derived from the parachute regiment’s designation, was created in the winter of 1943 and consisted of 17 of the original 20-man platoon from the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division. These men were hand-selected to create the first “colored test platoon.” A few months into 1944 saw newly minted paratroopers who completed training jumps at Fort Benning, Georgia. The first all-black parachute infantry battalion in history had formed but were still brand-new and lacked manpower. The paratroopers honed their skills and became experts in small-unit tactics.
Several went to the best schools the U.S. Army had to offer. Some became riggers and jump masters while others learned the metrics in communications, the skills to navigate difficult terrain as pathfinders, and the intricacies in demolitions.
They were the cream of the crop — college graduates, professional athletes, men of high character and extraordinary intellect. One Triple Nickle veteran, “Tiger” Ted Lowry, entered the ring to face world champion boxing legend Joe Louis, who came to Lowry’s base in 1943. He was accompanied by Sugar Ray Robinson — who Muhammad Ali coined as “the king, the master, my idol” — when the duo toured military camps to entertain soldiers. “Stay in the middle of the ring,” Robinson advised Lowry, “don’t let him get you on the ropes.” Lowry already had 70 fights to his name and somehow survived the three-round exhibition with one of the greatest boxers in history.
“You can’t imagine what that did for my ego,” Lowry reflected. “I had just been in the ring with the champion of the world, the greatest fighter in the world, and he was unable to knock me down. My confidence was inflated.” His fighting days halted when he joined the Triple Nickles but resumed when he faced Rocky Marciano, the Brockton, Massachusetts, undefeated heavyweight champion. Not only did he stun Marciano, but he shocked crowds of hometown Italian-Americans by going the distance twice with the Brockton Blockbuster, the only fighter ever to do so.
The men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment march in the New York City Victory Parade on January 12, 1946. Maj. Gen. Jim Gavin ensured the “Triple Nickles” not only marched in the parade, but wore the insignia of the 82nd Airborne Division. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
When World War II was nearing a close and as the Germans were losing ground, the Triple Nickles’ focus shifted from Europe to the homefront. The Triple Nickles were the size of a “reinforced company” but expected to reach battalion size by 1945. The threat from the Japanese balloon bombs was imminent, and they were diverted to Pendleton, Oregon, and Chico, California, under secret orders to the 9th Services Command.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) received help from the U.S. Army when 400 paratroopers from the Triple Nickles were tasked with the difficult job. They turned in their rifles, hand grenades, and rucksacks. In that equipment’s place they donned football helmets with wire face masks, equipped 50 feet of nylon rope for lowering themselves from trees, and packed firefighting tools such as axes and handsaws on their person for parachute jumps.
The smoke jumping program was in its sixth firefighting season, but the war dwindled their resources, and the Triple Nickles provided a welcome skillset. Pilots flying C-47s needed no additional training and had prior results in properly managing smokejumper assets in remote regions where fires were often inaccessible by roads. The response and defensive strategy against the Japanese balloon bombs was a little-known secret called Operation Firefly.
Later reports suggested that the Japanese launched over 9,000 helium balloons. Damage from these balloons was rare but noteworthy. One balloon exploded after it hit high-tension power lines that were connected to a plutonium plant in Hanford, Washington. It caused a temporary blackout to the community, and the plutonium plant was ironically responsible for developing the fuel for the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan.
Triple Nickle member Jesse Mayes prepares to jump from a C-47. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
Vincent “Bud” Whitehead, a U.S. Army counterintelligence officer, used to track and chase the balloons in the air from his plane. In March 1945, a balloon had landed on the ground but didn’t ignite. “They sent a bus up with all of this specially trained personnel, gloves, full contamination suits, masks,” Whitehead said in an interview with the Voices of the Manhattan Project. “I had been walking around on that stuff and they had not told me! They were afraid of bacterial warfare.” Biological and bacterial warfare fears were not exaggerated because it was later revealed that the Japanese had scrapped an operation at the end of the war for weaponizing the bubonic plague.
Another notable tragedy that involved these balloon bombs was the devastation of almost an entire family while they picnicked near the Gearhart Mountain in Bly, Oregon. On May 5, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife, Elsie, and five children from their Sunday School class were victims of the balloon’s lethality. The children went to investigate the strange object that had floated to the ground, but they got too close and were killed when the balloon did what it was designed to do. Archie Mitchell was the only survivor.
The Triple Nickles went to work to prevent additional American civilian casualties. First Lieutenant Edwin Willis, a brilliant planner and training specialist, put his paratroopers through a three-week crash course to learn proper firefighting knowledge and techniques. Willis received assistance and guidance from USFS smokejumpers and forest rangers as well.
Frank Derry, Parachute Instructor-Rigger, instructing prospective smoke jumper in the use of the “drop rig.” Simulates landing from chute caught in a snag or other obstacles by use of landing rope. Lolo National Forest, Montana. Photo by W.J. Mead, courtesy fo the National Archives and Records Administration.
This course included “demolitions training, tree climbing and techniques for descent if we landed in a tree, handling firefighting equipment, jumping into pocket-sized drop zones studded with rocks and tree stumps, survival in wooded areas, and extensive first-aid training for injuries — particularly broken bones,” said Morris.
Frank Derry, a master civilian parachutist, issued the Triple Nickles his “Derry-chute,” which was known for its maneuverability and steering capabilities. “Snag trees, those were the worst. I didn’t like those dudes at all,” Derry said, referring to the nuisances found in their path. “But landing in the trees was just as soft as landing, better than landing on the ground. The thick trees […] you just come into them like sitting down on a pillow, nothing to it.”
The Triple Nickles were also assisted by demolition experts from the 9th Services Command and USFS rangers. “Learning the touchy business of handling unexploded bombs, as well as how to isolate areas in which a bomb, or suspected bomb, was located,” Morris wrote. The incedinaries and chemicals were an additional pucker factor to their already challenging task.
Then-1st. Sgt. Walter Morris, right, prepares for his first jump with the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak/3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, courtesy of the U.S. Army.
The Triple Nickles also learned to live off the land and avoid costly mistakes that could derail their mission. “They could walk up the hills like a cat on a snake walk,” Morris wrote, discussing the expertise of USFS rangers. “They taught us how to climb, use an axe, and what vegetation to eat. At the same time, we underwent an orientation program with Forest Service maps. And, above all, our morale and spirit of adventure never sagged in the face of this unusual mission.”
The Triple Nickles became fully operational smokejumpers, but the numbers on how many fires and fire jumps they completed have been skewed over the years. Chuck Sheley, the editor of Smokejumper Magazine, states they completed 460 to 470 jumps on an estimated 15 of 28 forest fires, while they drove or hiked into the other fires. The National 555th Parachute Infantry Association consensus estimates the Triple Nickles answered 36 fire calls with 1,200 individual jumps across seven Western states.
Private First Class Malvin Brown was the only casualty of the Triple Nickles. Brown was a critical component of the team because of his medical expertise. Any injuries, accidents, or potential concerns went through the fire medics. When 15 Triple Nickles paratroopers boarded their C-47 on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Brown wasn’t supposed to be there. However, he volunteered to replace another medic who was sick. Hours later he jumped into a fire in Umpqua National Forest in southern Oregon’s Cascade Range and landed in a tree. Moments later he slipped and fell more than 150 feet to the ground below. He died instantly.
Brown’s fellow smokejumpers changed their mission from fighting the fire to bringing home their teammate’s body. After an arduous search in rocky terrain, they located him and carried him more than 3 miles through the backcountry. Their first sign of civilization was a trail, but it took another 12 miles for them to find a road to get help.
The soldiers of the Triple Nickles weren’t respected while they were in service, but their contributions in a long lineage of elite all-black units are remembered as if they were legends. The Triple Nickles disbanded after World War II, but many of the soldiers continued to serve, including Lieutenant Colonel John Cannon, who was a combat medic during the Korean War. John E. Mann served as an Army Special Forces advisor in Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, three Legions of Merit, and a Distinguished Flying Cross. Mann served in the military for 33 years and later authored four detective novels.
“If you want to know what I think of him, all I can say, Tom ought to have been the general and I the captain,” so says Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who was probably right.
Custer’s famous last stand is one of the defining moments in the Indian Wars of the late 19th century. The name Custer evokes the memory of a legendary failure. If you don’t believe it, just read “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young.”
Retired Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commanding the 7th Cavalry at Ia Drang, worried he’d be just like the infamous 7th Cavalry commander Custer and lead his men to certain death.
“Casualties were beginning to pile up. As we dropped behind that termite hill, I fleetingly thought about an illustrious predecessor of mine in the 7th Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and his final stand in the valley of the Little Bighorn in Montana, eighty-nine years earlier. I was determined that history would not repeat itself in the valley of the Ia Drang.”
Thomas Ward Custer would die with his big brother at Little Bighorn and wouldn’t achieve the rank and notoriety of the elder Custer. He was a good soldier (to put it mildly) enlisting at age 16 to fight in the Civil War and fighting in the major battles of Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and in the Atlanta Campaign. He was enlisted for most of the war before earning a commission in October 1864.
Barely six months later — April 3, 1865 — the younger Custer captured a Confederate Regimental flag at Namozine Church. He did it after being wounded and thrown from his horse. He also took at least a dozen prisoners to boot.
Capturing an enemy flag was a big deal at the time of the Civil War. If a unit’s flag was captured, there was a good chance the unit’s cohesion would just fall apart. They were held in the middle of the unit and troops looked to them for assurance during the fighting – the assurance that the rest of the unit was still fighting with them.
Three days later, Thomas Ward captured another regiment’s colors at Saylor’s Creek, jumping from his horse during a cavalry charge, over and into the enemy lines. He was wounded in the face for his trouble and awarded his second Medal of Honor. General Charles E. Capeheart, an eyewitness, reported:
“Having crossed the line of temporary works on the flank of the road, we were encountered by a supporting battle line. It was the second time he [Tom] wrestled the colors. He received a shot in the face which knocked him back on his horse, but in a moment was soon upright in the saddle. Reaching out his right arm, he grasped the flag while the color bearer reeled. The bullet from Tom’s revolver must have pierced him in the region of the heart. Captain Custer wretched the standard from his grasp and bore it away in triumph.”
Just three days after Thomas Ward captured his second enemy regimental flag, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, ending the Civil War.
When the Civil War ended — at 20 and a brevet lieutenant colonel — Thomas decided to stay on in the Army. His exploits on the American frontier were the stuff of legend, including a tussle with the Western lawman “Wild Bill” Hickok.
It was following his brother George to Little Bighorn that would prove the younger Custer’s fatal mistake.
The site of Custer’s last stand in 1877. All that remained were the skeletons of cavalry horses. (Worst. Family Reunion. Ever.)
Thomas Ward Custer was slaughtered there during his brother’s infamous last stand, along with another brother, Boston Custer and their nephew, Henry Armstong Reed.
Marine Corps snipers struck fear in the hearts of their enemies in the jungles of Vietnam. The exploits of three sharpshooters, in particular, are legendary.
Charles “Chuck” Mawhinney, Eric England, and Carlos Hathcock had almost 300 confirmed kills combined and even more unconfirmed. They were masters of their craft, and their skills in battle, as well as their silent professionalism and humility, made these men examples for the Marine snipers that followed.
“The Marines who go forward and work to put 120% into it and let their accolades speak for themselves are the guys that we encourage [Marine snipers] to emulate,” Staff Sgt. Joshua Coulter, a Marine Corps Scout Sniper instructor, recently told Insider.
As skilled marksmen capable of putting precision fire down range at a distance, snipers excel at providing overwatch and gathering intelligence, eliminating enemy officers, and demoralizing opposing forces, among other things.
In many conflicts throughout US history, Marine Corps snipers have proven to be valuable assets on the battlefield. But when the fighting finished, the Corps time and time again failed to build the kind of lasting programs needed to preserve the skills. That finally changed with the Vietnam War.
“Vietnam was the foundation for our modern program,” Coulter said. He explained that the remarkable capabilities demonstrated by Marines like Mawhinney, England, and Hathcock during the conflict highlighted the value of snipers in a very visible way.
“The only reason there is still a sniper program today is the guys who came before us, the quiet professionals who worked their assess off, went down range, and came home,” Coulter said.
They didn’t try to tack their names into the legends of the Corps, but by giving it their all, these snipers left their mark on history.
Gunnery Sgt. Carlos N. Hathcock:
In Vietnam, Hathcock had 93 confirmed enemy kills and several hundred unconfirmed. He also set the record for the longest combat kill shot in 1967 at 2,500 yards — a distance of about 1.4 miles. The record held until the early 2000s.
The Arkansas native deployed to Vietnam in 1966 as a military policeman, but because he had previously distinguished himself as a marksman, Hathcock was recruited by Edward James Land, another talented Marine sharpshooter who had been tasked with building a sniper program from scratch to counter the enemy’s irregular warfare tactics.
As a sniper, Hathcock inflicted such tremendous pain on enemy forces that the North Vietnamese army placed a $30,000 bounty on his head, putting him in the crosshairs of elite enemy snipers.
One of his most memorable battles in Vietnam was with a notorious sniper nicknamed “Cobra” who was sent to kill him. The enemy sharpshooter had been purposefully killing Marines near Hathcock’s base of operations to draw him out. It worked, but not the way Cobra had intended.
As the two expert snipers stalked one another, Cobra made a mistake. He moved into a position facing the sun, causing his scope to reflect the light and give away his position. Hathcock fired, shooting clean through the enemy’s scope and killing him.
The nature of the shot suggested that had Hathcock not seen the glare or been faster than Cobra on the trigger, his enemy would have shot him instead.
Among Hathcock’s famous kills was also a woman nicknamed “Apache” who tortured captured Marines and a North Vietnamese general. He pulled off the latter on a secret one-man mission deep into enemy territory.
For many years, Hathcock was believed to have the most confirmed kills of any Marine Corps sniper. That never mattered to him though, according to Charles Henderson’s book, “Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills.”
“You can take those numbers and give ’em to someone who gives a damn about ’em,” Hathcock is said to have told a fellow Marine during a discussion about his kills.
“I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody,” he said. “It’s my job. If I don’t get those bastards, then they’re gonna kill a lot of these kids dressed up like Marines. That’s the way I look at it.”
Hathcock left Vietnam in 1969 after suffering severe burns while rescuing Marines from a fiery vehicle that struck a mine.
Although his injuries prevented him from serving as he once had, he remained active in the sniper community, providing instruction even as his health failed later in life.
Hathcock died in 1999 after a long and painful battle with multiple sclerosis, but his memory lives on. Though he does not actually hold the record for the most confirmed kills as previously thought, Hathcock is widely regarded as one of the finest snipers in the history of the Corps.
Master Sgt. Eric R. England:
England is one of two Marine Corps snipers who had more confirmed kills than Hathcock during the Vietnam War, though not a lot is known about his service.
Before the war, he had proven himself to be an excellent marksman in shooting competitions. Once in Vietnam as a sniper with the 3rd Marine Division, he continued to excel. In a period of just seven months before he had to be medically evacuated, he had 98 confirmed kills, with possibly hundreds more unconfirmed.
“About Vietnam, well, like all wars, it ain’t no good feeling, especially some of the jobs you have,” England said, explaining that shooting at human beings in war is different from shooting at targets in competition, though snipers can’t focus on that.
“When you go to get that one shot off, you have to put yourself in another world,” he said. “You try to put yourself in a little bubble. You cut the world out, and you just concentrate on those things you got to do to get a good shot off because if you don’t, you could be dead.”
He told the Marine Corps that he did not not brag about his kills because he was not seeking glory. He did, however, say that he considered himself better than the average Marine because a good shot makes a better Marine and he could shoot better than most.
Despite his legendary status, England is not very well known outside the US military sniper community, but Hathcock once said that “Eric is a great man, a great shooter, and a great Marine.”
Sgt. Charles “Chuck” B. Mawhinney:
Mawhinney spent almost a year and a half in Vietnam, but when he returned home to Oregon in 1969, he kept the details of his service a secret. No one outside a small circle of Marines he served with knew the truth: he was the deadliest sniper in Marine Corps history.
Mawhinney’s story went untold for two decades, but in 1991, friend and former Marine sniper Joseph Ward published a book that credited Mawhinney with 101 confirmed kills, a new record.
Ward’s book triggered an investigation into Marine Corps records, and it was found that the number he reported was incorrect. It turns out that Mawhinney actually had 103 confirmed kills. He also had another 216 “probable” kills.
With the release of Ward’s “Dear Mom: A Sniper’s Vietnam” and the end of Mawhinney’s quiet life of anonymity, this outstanding sharpshooter came out of the shadows and shared parts of his story publicly.
In one particularly intense engagement, Mawhinney put 16 bullets in 16 enemy troops in just thirty seconds, and he did it in the dark.
“I got 16 rounds off that night as fast as I could fire the weapon,” Mawhinney said in an interview for a documentary on Marine scout snipers. “Every one of them were headshots, dead center. I could see the bodies floating down the river.”
Vietnam, as it was for many, was hell for Mawhinney, but he extended his tour of duty because he knew he had the abilities to keep his fellow Marines alive.
One of the things that haunted Mawhinney after Vietnam was an enemy soldier that got away after an armorer had made adjustments to his rifle. He fired off multiple shots. All of them missed.
“It’s one of the few things that bother me about Vietnam,” he previously told The Los Angeles Times. “I can’t help thinking about how many people that he may have killed later, how many of my friends, how many Marines.”
Mawhinney left Vietnam after being diagnosed with combat fatigue. He is still alive, and his M40 rifle is on display in the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
The only US military sniper with more confirmed kills than Mawhinney in Vietnam was Army sharpshooter Adelbert Waldron with 109 confirmed kills.
Examples for modern Marine snipers
There is a lot that modern-day Marine scout snipers can learn from legends like Mawhinney, England, and Hathcock. For Staff Sgt. Coulter, who instructs future Marine snipers, what stood out as most impressive was their attention to detail down to the smallest level.
“Their attention to detail was unparalleled,” he said.
“Those guys back in the day were handloading their own rounds,” Coulter continued. “They went to great depths to understand the equipment they used, the ammo they used, the effects of their environment.”
“They understood you are naturally at a disadvantage walking into someone’s backyard,” he said, explaining that they thought carefully about how they camouflaged themselves, the routes they took, the positions they held, and so on.
“They went into such nitty-gritty detail, and that was kind of the definition of success for them,” he told Insider.
As part of their training, Marine Corps scout snipers are required to take time to study their history and the outstanding snipers who came before them. It’s a reminder, Coulter explained, that “the only thing that kept our program alive was performance.”
During the Vietnam War, snipers proved their worth. It is said that for every enemy killed, the average infantryman expended 50,000 bullets. For snipers, with their “one shot, one kill” approach, it was an average of 1.3 rounds per kill.
When British General William Howe landed 20,000 Redcoats on Long Island, the situation looked grim for the young Continental Army. General George Washington’s Continentals seemed to be pinned down as Howe simultaneously attacked the Americans head-on while he moved his troops behind Washington’s position.
In his book, “Washington’s Immortals,” Patrick O’Donnell describes how their only way out was a small gap in the British line, somehow being held open by a handful of Marylanders.
Well before the signing of the Declaration of Independence put the nascent United States on a war footing with the world’s largest, most powerful empire, Col. William Smallwood started forming a regiment of men for the coming conflict.
Smallwood formed nine companies of infantry from the north and west counties of the Maryland Colony. Though they would be reassigned multiple times, the 400 men of the 1st Maryland Regiment took part in many major battles of the American Revolution, most notably covering the American retreat out of Long Island through a series of brave infantry charges.
British forces occupied “The Old Stone House” with a force that outnumbered the aforementioned Marylanders. While the rest of the Americans retreated in an orderly fashion, the few hundred Maryland troops repeatedly charged the fortified position with fixed bayonets.
American forces survived mostly intact — except for the Marylanders. Only nine of them made it back to the Continental Army.
Their rearguard actions against superior British troops in New York City earned them the nickname “The Immortal 400.” Their stand against 2,000 British regulars allowed Washington’s orderly retreat to succeed so he could fight another day.
The Immortal Regiment went on to fight at the pivotal battles of Trenton, Princeton, Camden, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and Yorktown. The unit continued its service long after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War.
Maryland earned one of its nicknames, “The Old Line State,” because Washington referred to Maryland units as his “Old Line.” The U.S. Army National Guard’s 115th Infantry Regiment could trace its origins back to the Immortal 400, but the 115th is now merged with the 175th Infantry Regiment.
Peter Francisco was born into a wealthy family in June, 1760, on an island in the Azores archipelago of Portugal. When Francisco was just 5 years old, he was abducted by pirates. The future patriot was ripped from his home and carted off to a nearby ship. Approximately six weeks later, a dock worker saw a boat maneuver up the James River in Virginia. There, the pirates dropped off the young Francisco and left as quickly as they’d arrived.
Nobody’s entirely sure why the abductors snatched him up only to later drop him off without seeking payment, but historians have their theories. Some say that Francisco’s father orchestrated the kidnapping in order to spare Peter from the wrath of his family’s political enemies.
Whatever the case, locals took the abandoned Francisco to a nearby orphanage soon after he arrived. There, he was taken in by Judge Anthony Winston. He took the young boy back to his plantation to learn English. Due to his dark, Mediterranean complexion, however, Francisco lived near the slaves and never received a proper education.
Francisco spent many of his early years working on Judge Winston’s plantation, learning how to be a blacksmith. Winston invited Francisco to join him at the Second Virginia Convention in 1775, where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry were all in attendance. After several days of intense debate between loyalists and patriots, Patrick Henry delivered his famous quote,
“Give me liberty or give me death.”
As the teenage Francisco watched through a window, he chose liberty.
Nearly a year and a half later, Francisco finally convinced Winston to allow him to join the Continental Army. At just 16 years old, Francisco was officially a member of the 10th Virginia Regiment and stood six feet, six inches tall and weighed 260 pounds — truly a giant of his era.
Soon after, Francisco fought in several famous battles, including Brandywine and Valley Forge. During the Battle of Stony Point, George Washington recruited 20 elite troops to be first in line to assault the British fort. Francisco was selected as one of those men.
Francisco was tasked with scaling a 300-foot wall and reaching the fort’s flagstaff. Of the 20 who led the charge, 17 were either killed or wounded — a large slash across the abdomen put Francisco among them. Despite his injury, he killed his adversaries and reached his destination. He lay, wounded, at the base of the flag as the British surrendered. From then on, Francisco was known as the “Hercules of the American Revolution.”
During the Battle of Camden, Francisco noticed a 1,100-pound cannon in a field next to some dead horses. According to legend, he managed to lift the canon and take it, saving it from falling to British hands. For this courageous act, the U.S. Postal Service design a stamp in Francisco’s honor.
As Francisco continued to fight the war, he continuously remarked on the tiny size of the swords with which they fought. Eventually, Washington gave Francisco a six-foot broadsword — not unlike the sword famously used by William Wallace in his own battles against the English.
By the time Francisco was done serving, he had been wounded six times, but never stopped fighting. He was later elected by the Senate to work as the sergeant-at-arms.
Later, Francisco died from appendicitis. He was 71-years-old.
Throughout the Cold War, as the nuclear arms race became more frantic, a nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union remained a major concern.
With intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and air-dropped bombs, both countries had several options when it came to nuclear warfare.
But the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II made clear the destructive capability of nuclear arms and the danger of a full-blown nuclear conflict.
As a result, US strategists sought ways to use nuclear weapons without triggering an all-out nuclear war.
The tactical nuclear option
In the 1950s, the US military came up with the tactical nuclear option, using weapons with a lower yield and range than their strategic counterparts.
These weapons would be used on the battlefield or against a military-related target to gain an operational advantage. For example, the Air Force could drop a tactical nuclear bomb on a Soviet division invading Poland to stop its advance without triggering a disproportionate response — such as a nuclear attack on New York City.
There were two types of tactical nuclear munitions: The Medium Atomic Demolition Munition (MADM) had a medium-yield payload and required several troops to carry it. The Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM) had a low-yield payload but could be carried by one soldier.
The order to use tactical nuclear weapons would still have to come from both political and military authorities. SADMs were subject to the same command-and-control procedures as other tactical nuclear weapons and meant to be used only if there were no other means of creating the desired effect.
Specially trained Green Berets were assigned to Green Light Teams. Their purpose was to clandestinely deploy in NATO or Warsaw Pact countries and detonate their SADMs in a conflict with the Soviets. The Pentagon later included North Korea and Iran on the target list.
Green Light Teams’ main targets were tunnels, major bridges, mountain passes, dams, canals, ports, major railroad hubs, oil facilities, water-plant factories, and underground storage or operations facilities.
In other words, SADMs were intended to either slow down the enemy by destroying or significantly altering the landscape or target the logistical, communications, and operations hubs that are vital to an army, especially during offensive operations.
Green Light Teams primarily carried the MK-54 SADM. Nicknamed the “Monkey” or “Pig,” the device weighed almost 60 pounds and could fit in a large rucksack.
In each team, there was a chief operator who was primarily responsible for the activation of the SADM. He and other members of the team held the codes required to activate the bomb.
Like every Green Beret team, Green Light teams were trained in various insertion methods, including parachuting — both static line and military free fall — skiing, and combat diving.
Free falling was probably the most realistic insertion method other than ground infiltration, but doing it with the device was tough.
During parachute insertions, the chief operator seldom got to jump with the device because it had a high probability of injury for the jumper, and the chief operator was key to mission success.
An operator would have to strap the SADM between his legs like a rucksack, but the device would work against him as he tried to stabilize in the air before deploying his parachute. Even in static-line parachuting, when the ripcord is hooked to the plane, there would still be issues.
Paratroopers will release their rucksacks or other heavy cargo attached to them via a line moments before landing to prevent injuries. But the SADM tended to get stuck between the jumper’s feet in the crucial seconds before landing, resulting in several sprained ankles and broken legs.
Everything closely associated with Green Light Teams was top secret, and the seriousness of the mission followed Green Light operators outside work. They were instructed to travel only on US airliners and never to fly above a communist country in case the plane had to make an emergency landing, which could lead to them being held by local authorities.
No one is coming for us
A common thread among successive generations of Green Light Teams was their distrust of leadership when it came to their specific mission.
“During training, the instructors had told us we had about 30 minutes to clear the blast radius of the device. We never really believed that,” a retired Special Forces operator who served on a Green Light Team told Insider.
“In every other mission, teams would have an extraction plan. We didn’t. It was all up to us to get the hell out of dodge. But that’s not how the Army works. So that’s why we never really believed that we could get out alive in case we had to use one of those things. It was a one-way mission,” the retired Green Beret added.
There were Green Light teams forward deployed in Europe — even in Berlin — always on standby to launch. Some Green Light Teams even sought to forward deploy inside East Germany to be ready in case the Soviets unleashed their military on Western Europe.
Green Light Teams also deployed to South Korea at different times and were on standby in case tensions with North Korea turned into war.
With the end of the Cold War, the Green Light Teams were deactivated. They were never used in a real-world operation.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
Over 200 vehicles provided to the Afghan government by the United States have fallen into the hands of the Taliban in Badakhshan province. That shocking claim comes from a former Afghan intelligence chief who claims that the vehicles include High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles.
“We lost 200 Humvees and Rangers in two or three months as the result of incompetence. Imagine what has happened to the people in those two or three months,” Rahmatullah Nabi told TOLO News. Faisal Bigzad, the governor of Badakhshan province, has urged that NATO assist the Afghan government by destroying the stolen vehicles.
The story might sound familiar for another reason. Humvees and other vehicles provided to the Iraqi government were captured by ISIS when the terrorist group seized control of portions of Iraq. American air strikes have since destroyed some of that equipment. However, ISIS and the Taliban aren’t the first American enemies to get their dirty mitts on American military gear.
Artists rendering of the capture of the USS Chesapeake. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Way back in the War of 1812, several American vessels, including the frigates USS Essex, USS Chesapeake, and USS President were among those captured by the British in the fighting. The U.S. Navy, of course, captured or sank a number of British ships as well.
At the end of the Age of Sail, the Civil War saw some American ships captured. Most famous was the USS Merrimac, which was repurposed into the ironclad CSS Virginia. But the USS United States, one of the original six frigates ordered in 1797, was also captured by the Confederacy and briefly used until it was scuttled.
In World War II, Japan captured the four-stack destroyer USS Stewart (DD 224). The Stewart had fought in the Dutch East Indies campaign in January and February 1942 before being damaged. As Japanese forces neared, Allied personnel used demolition charges to try to scuttle her.
Despite the scuttling attempt and a hit from a Japanese bomber, the Stewart’s wreck was captured and the Japanese fixed her up and put her into service as Patrol Boat 102. The ship would be notable for assisting the sub chaser CD 22 in sinking the USS Harder (SS 257). After Japan surrendered, the old USS Stewart was recovered, although the name had already been assigned to an Edsall-class destroyer escort, DE 238. The ship was eventually sunk as a target.
Germany, though, takes the prize for its acquisition of American gear. Perhaps its most notable coup was the way the Luftwaffe was able to either capture or cobble together as many as 40 B-17 Flying Fortresses.
The captured planes were often used by Kampfgeschwader 200, sometimes for inserting agents or for reconnaissance. But some were used to infiltrate Allied bomber formations.
Even after World War II, American gear fell into enemy hands far too often. In 1975, a lot of American equipment fell into Communist hands when South Vietnam fell, including F-5E Tiger IIs, C-130 Hercules and C-123 Provider transports, and A-37 Dragonfly attack planes.
In 2005, Hugo Chavez threatened to give China and Cuba F-16 Falcons that the United States had sold to Venezuela in the 1980s. The Soviet Union acquired an F-14 Tomcat from an Iranian defector. In 2006, Marines in Iraq killed a sniper team of two insurgence who were trying to carry out a sniper attack, and recovered a M40A1 sniper rifle that had been lost in a 2004 ambush.
American gear falling into enemy hands is not new — there has been a long history of that happening in the past. Infuriatingly, it will happen in the future, despite the best efforts of American military personnel.
There’s an old Yakov Smirnoff joke that goes something like, “in Soviet Russia, it’s freedom of speech. In America, it’s freedom after speech.” And if there was anyone who knew this first-hand, it was Smirnoff himself.
He and all other comedians who used to live under the Soviet regime could have faced jail time or death for any joke deemed “unfit.” In order for this to work, there would be absolutely no improvisation. All comedians would need to run each and every joke they planned on telling in a given year through the Ministry of Culture of the USSR.
Within the Ministry, there was an elaborate department dedicated to jokes and humor. The process of telling a timely joke without angering the committee was exhausting. Any joke that was actually funny against the communist ideology was banned. Even being remotely anti-communist meant the joke was banned.
Smirnoff told The Guardian one of his jokes that didn’t make it through and you can see how “humorous” of a place the Department of Jokes was.
“An ant falls in love and marries an elephant. They have an amazing honeymoon, a night of wild passion that is so passionate, in fact, that the elephant collapses and dies in the middle – the ant, however, is even less lucky. He is forced to spend the rest of his living days digging the elephant’s enormous grave.”
Apparently, that’s anti-communist and needed to be banned.
Because jokes were so generally unfunny, scarce, and hard to get approved, any joke that was both permitted and remotely humorous was immediately borrowed by every other Soviet comedian. Talk show hosts were heavily vetted before being allowed on air, so their works were free game and any joke they told would end up in every comedy club a week later.
This doesn’t mean that rebellious citizens didn’t tell their own jokes. Ukrainians held a deep resentment towards their Russian overlords so their jokes were more common — if not darker.
“A Soviet newspaper reports: Last night the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station fulfilled the Five Year Plan of heat energy generation… in 4 microseconds.”
The British monarchy has a long tradition of military service, but there has only been one woman from the British royal family to ever serve in the Armed Forces. That’s right, Queen Elizabeth II served in WWII.
When WWII ravaged Europe, nearly everyone stood up to defend their homeland. Men, women, farmers, and businessmen did their duty alike. This includes then-Princess Elizabeth. Like her father, who served in WWI, she enlisted on her 18th birthday despite being in the line of succession for the throne and her father’s reluctance.
Princess Elizabeth enrolled in the Women’s Auxilary Territorial Service (ATS), similar to the American Women’s Army Corps, where many women actively served in highly valuable support roles. Responsibilities of the ATS included serving as radio operators, anti-aircraft gunners and spotlight operators, and, her occupation, as mechanics and drivers.
It wasn’t a lavish position, but despite the grit and grime, she didn’t symbolically change a single tire and call herself a mechanic. She took her duties very seriously and she was spectacular. She took great pride in her work and loved every moment of it. Collier’s Magazinewrote at the time that “one of her major joys was to get dirt under her nails and grease stains on her hands, and display these signs of labor to her friends.”
She learned to drive every vehicle she worked on, which includes the Tilly light truck and ambulances. On VE Day, The Princess Elizabeth slipped away with her sister to cheer with the crowds. The war was finally over and no one recognized the Princesses as they walked through the crowds incognito.
Less than a decade later, she would be crowned the Queen of England. Her independent spirit has endured to this day, as she isn’t a fan of being chauffeured around when she can drive herself.
To watch some archival footage of Her Most Excellent and Britannic Majesty, Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her Other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith in her younger, WWII days, watch the video below:
The Barrett M82, known by members of the U.S. military as the M107 .50-caliber semi-automatic rifle, is one of the military’s most beloved weapons in use today. Its service history is as storied – and as American – as the history of its inventor, Ronnie Barrett.
Before his name became synonymous with American military supremacy, Barrett was a professional photographer in his home state of Tennessee. He never studied science or engineering in college – in fact, he didn’t go to college at all. He went to Murfreesboro High School before going out and starting a photography studio.
That all changed during the course of his usual work.
And many, many U.S. and allied troops are better off for it.
In 1982, Barrett was snapping a photo of a river patrol gunboat during a military exercise on the Stones River near Nashville, Tenn. Mounted on that boat were two M2 Browning .50-caliber machine guns. The size of the ammunition cartridge got Ronnie Barrett thinking. He was “wowed” by the Ma Deuce, but he wanted to know if the .50-caliber cartridge could be fired from a shoulder-mounted sniper rifle.
He was out on the water that day to snap promotional photos for the Browning Firearms Company, but he ended up starting a rival firm, one that would become as closely-linked with the U.S. military as Browning.
The photo also won a first-place award from the Tennessee Professional Photographers Association. No joke.
(Photo by Ronnie Barrett)
Barrett went home and began work on a 3D sketch of what would soon become the Model 82A1 – M107. Within just seven years, Barrett was able to sell his powerful sniper rifle to the Swedish military and eventually the United States Marine Corps, then the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force.
Not bad at all for someone with no college education, but a whole lotta vision. Welcome to Ronnie Barrett’s America, folks.
Flying missions out of Takhli Air Force Base, in Thailand, Maj. Harold Johnson served as an Electronic Warfare Officer of an F-105 Wild Weasel, which due to its dangerous, top-secret missions had about a 50 percent survival rate.
“Everyday you were shot at very severely,” Johnson states in an interview. “I’d have a lot of the electronics there and hopefully do the job that I’m supposed to do to protect the rest of the flights.”
In April 1967 — and just seven missions shy of rotating back home — the North Vietnamese fired a heat-seeking missile that struck Johnson’s Wild Weasel. While both crew ejected safely, they were later captured.
Before being taken to a POW camp, the Vietnamese paraded Johnson through a village where the locals poked and prodded him with sharpened bamboo sticks.
“I still got scars on my legs. The kids were the worst, they could slip through the guards and get at you,” Johnson calmly admits. “I had a lot of holes in me when I got to the camp.”
After eight days of intense daily beatings, torture, and hallucinations from lack of sleep, Johnson began falsely pointing out targets on a map.
Due to Johnson being constantly isolated in his cell, he learned to secretly communicate with other prisoners using an alphanumeric tapping system. “If you can picture a box with five units that you put your letters in, one would be your first line, and then you go ABCDE,” Johnson states.
After six long agonizing years, Harold Johnson was released from the prison camp and sent back to the US.
“Well, it finally happened, when you’re being interrogated that was the thing that gave us strength was you’re gonna to have to stay here, one of these days I’m going out of here.”