Sometimes in life, the guy with the drunken, so-crazy-it-just-might-work ideas hits one out of the park and saves the day. This is clearly what happened in 1942 aboard the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, the last Dutch warship standing after the Battle of the Java Sea.
Originally planning to escape to Australia with three other warships, the then-stranded minesweeper had to make the voyage alone and unprotected. The slow-moving vessel could only get up to about 15 knots and had very few guns, boasting only a single 3-inch gun and two Oerlikon 20 mm canons — making it a sitting duck for the Japanese bombers that circled above.
Knowing their only chance of survival was to make it to the Allies Down Under, the Crijnssen‘s 45 crew members frantically brainstormed ways to make the retreat undetected. The winning idea? What if the warship pretended to be an island?
You can almost hear crazy-idea guy anticipating his shipmates’ reluctance: “Now guys, just hear me out…” But lucky for him, the Abraham Crijnessen was strapped for time, resources and alternative means of escape, automatically making the island idea the best idea. Now it was time to put the plan into action.
The crew went ashore to nearby islands and cut down as many trees as they could lug back onto the deck. Then the timber was arranged to look like a jungle canopy, covering as much square footage as possible. Any leftover parts of the ship were painted to look like rocks and cliff faces — these guys weren’t messing around.
Now, a camoflauged ship in deep trouble is better than a completely exposed ship. But there was still the problem of the Japanese noticing a mysterious moving island and wondering what would happen if they shot at it. Because of this, the crew figured the best means of convincing the Axis powers that they were an island was to truly be an island: by not moving at all during daylight hours.
While the sun was up they would anchor the ship near other islands, then cover as much ocean as they could once night fell — praying the Japanese wouldn’t notice a disappearing and reappearing island amongst the nearly 18,000 existing islands in Indonesia. And, as luck would have it, they didn’t.
The Crijnssen managed to go undetected by Japanese planes and avoid the destroyer that sank the other Dutch warships, surviving the eight-day journey to Australia and reuniting with Allied forces.
Salamo Arouch literally fought for survival during World War II. But he wasn’t a soldier, he was a boxer of Jewish-Greek descent. That means the All-Balkans Middleweight Champ ended up in Auschwitz when the Nazis rolled into his home city of Thessalonica, Greece, in 1943.
That’s where he started fighting for his life.
Before his internment in the Nazi death camp, Arouch’s boxing record was an undefeated 24-0. He likely never imagined how high that number would climb during his life — or what was in stakes throughout the 200-plus bouts he would have to fight. When the Nazis captured Thessalonica, they rounded up the city’s 47,000 Jewish citizens and shipped them away. A young Salamo and his family ended up at Auschwitz.
Almost the moment he arrived, a car drove up and out stepped the commandant, who asked if any of the new prisoners were boxers or wrestlers. Dutifully, the young Arouch rose his hand. He had been coached by his father and won his first fight at age 14. But the Nazis didn’t take the young fighter at his word. They drew a circle in the dirt and gave him gloves before ordering he and another Jewish boy to fight on the spot.
Arouch squared off with boy. Both were exhausted and frightened, but the Greek came out on top, knocking out his opponent within minutes. Immediately, the guards presented him with another opponent. This time, it was a six-foot-tall Czech man. Arouch knocked him cold, too.
This was the first of hundreds of fights that Salamo Arouch would have to endure in the coming years. He would be led to a smoky warehouse two or three times a week and forced to fight anyone they could pit him against in a cockfight-like ring.
“We fought until one went down or they got sick of watching. They wouldn’t leave until they saw blood,” he recalled. For his part, Arouch managed to keep his strength up because he was given light duties as an office clerk and was fed more and better food than the other prisoners. He managed to eke a win out of every battle, with only two draws due to suffering from dysentery. Soon, he began to realize he was leading each defeated opponent to their fate.
“The loser would be badly weakened,” Arouch told People magazine in 1990, “and the Nazis shot the weak.”
As he fought for his life, his brother and father perished at the hands of the Nazis. His father was gassed because he grew weak. His brother was shot because he refused to remove gold teeth from the bodies of corpses. The young Salamo continued to box, but soon found himself at Bergen-Belson, a camp that killed some 50,000 people. He would not be among those.
The British 11th Armoured Division liberated the camp on Apr. 15, 1945, one year and 11 months to the day after he and his family were first shipped to Auschwitz. It was there he met Marta Yechiel, who would become his wife. The two moved to Palestine to start a new life, but war came quickly and the onetime member of the Greek Army joined the armed forces of a new country, Israel, and fought to keep it a free and safe homeland for Jewish people — especially those like himself, scarred by the Holocaust.
He came to run a successful shipping business out of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. When his life’s story was made into a movie, Triumph of the Spirit, starring Willem Dafoe in 1989, he served as an advisor to the film. Since it was shot at Auchwitz itself, it was not a good experience for the old survivor.
“It was a terrible experience,” he said of returning to the ruined camp. “In my mind, I saw my parents and began weeping. I cried and cried and could not sleep.”
Arouch suffered from a stroke in 1994, one from which he never fully recovered. He died on Apr. 26, 2009 at age 86.
A sudden flash. A mushroom cloud. A sudden expanding pressure wave. In the event of a thermonuclear attack, seeing these things means its probably too late to survive. So the U.S. developed warning systems to give Americans a heads up before the bombs landed. But that begs the question: What do you do if you have just an hour or so until your city blows up?
Coordinating protection and relief for civilians in war falls to civil defense workers, and America’s civil defense program underwent an overhaul after World War II. Many of the funding and legislative changes were focused on responding to atomic and nuclear threats.
But hearings in 1955 revealed that civil defense was, uh, let’s say, far from robust. How far?
Well, Administrator Val Peterson told Congress that Americans should learn to dig holes in the ground and curl up in them to escape nuclear fallout. But he did also offer that the government could dig trenches next to highways for about .25 per mile and then cover the trenches with boards and soil for additional protection. In some areas, the boards and dirt could be replaced with tar paper.
Even at the time, the public realized a huge shortcoming of this plan: Ditches don’t last. They have to be dug for a specific attack, and the diggers would need at least a few days notice to provide shelter for a significant portion of a city.
And people in the 1950s were also familiar with pissing and pooping. These trenches would have no sanitation, water, or food, and people would have to stay in them for days. At the time, it was believed that a few days might be enough time for the radioactivity to fall to safe-ish levels. We now know it’s a year or more for the longer-lasting radioactive isotopes to get anywhere near safe.
But meanwhile, even a few days in trenches is problematic. For the first few hours, radiation is at peak strength, and any dust that makes its way from the surface into the trench is going to have levels of radiation high enough to threaten imminent death. This dust needs to be washed off as quickly as possible, something that can’t happen in a trench surrounded by more radioactive dust with no water.
Oh, and, btw, canned food and bottled water will become irradiated if not shielded when the bomb goes off.
But there was another plan that, um, had many of the same problems. This called for laying long stretches of concrete pipe and then burying it in a few feet of dirt. Same sanitation and supply problems, worst claustrophobia. But at least less irradiated dust would make it into the civilians huddling inside.
Most of this information was learned by the public in 1955 during those public hearings. Though, obviously, portions of the hearings were classified, and so the public wouldn’t learn about them for decades. One of the items that came out in closed session was that the irradiated zone from a hydrogen bomb would easily stretch for 145 miles with the right winds. A serious problem for the farmers who thought they were safe 40 miles from the city.
Things did get better as the Cold War continued, though. Government agencies, especially the Federal Civil Defense Administration, encouraged the construction of hospitals and other key infrastructure on the perimeters of cities where it would be more likely to survive the blast of a bomb (though it still would have certainly been irradiated if downwind of the epicenter).
Educational videos gave people some idea of what they should do after a bomb drop, though, like digging trenches next to highways, most of the actions an individual could take were marginal at best. Those old “Duck and Cover” cartoons from 1951? Yup, ducking and covering will help, but not enough to save most people at most distances from the bomb.
What you really need to do is find a nice, recently dug trench.
“Big Wind” is a 92,600-pound beast made from a tank chassis and two turbojet engines that are powerful enough to blow out oil fires like candles on a birthday cake.
While it looks ridiculous and would be nearly useless in a tank fight, this modified military hardware fought some of the largest fires set by Saddam Hussein‘s withdrawing army in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
When oil wells are on fire, the pressure under the earth’s crust keeps the oil rushing to the surface until the well is capped. Crews can’t cap the well until the fire is put out.
Once there, the crew begins pumping water into the exhaust of the idling jet engines before ramping up the jet power. The result is a thick, fast-moving steam that cuts through the oil and smothers the fire. The fire, robbed of oxygen and separated from its fuel, quickly goes out. The “Big Wind” stays in position for another 20 minutes, spraying steam on the hot oil to cool it down.
Then, oil workers begin the dangerous job of capping the well.
For the 2017 Army-Navy Game, the Army’s jerseys celebrated the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), the predecessor to the current 10th Mountain Division. Even with the spotlight on one of the most versatile units of WWII, many people don’t understand the bad-assery of the “Pando Commandos.”
After witnessing ski-mounted Finnish soldiers successfully take on and destroy two Soviet tank divisions, founder of the National Ski Patrol, Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole saw for the need ski troops in the U.S. Army. After much convincing of the Department of Defense, the 10th Light Division (Alpine) was formed from the combinations of the 85th, 86th, and 87th Infantry Regiments assembled, 9,200ft above sea level, at Camp Hale in Pando, Colorado on July 13, 1943.
The goal here was to train a rugged, mountain soldier, acclimated to the harsh mountain tops of the Alps and the frigid north of Scandinavia. Soldiers needed to be trained in both skiing and ice climbing. The 10th Light Division (Alpine) was soon ready to fight and was re-designated as the as the 10th Mountain Division, complete with unique tab and official unit patch.
Meanwhile, the Germans had just set up defenses across the Alps, making travel from the south nearly impossible — a perfect task for the Pando Commandos.
The Germans at Riva Ridge on Mount Belvedere assumed that the near 1,500-ft vertical cliff would be impossible to scale and scarcely manned the position. The 10th Mountain, under the cover of night, blizzard, and complete silence, made the climb and assaulted the Germans as they slept. It was a complete success. The surprise attack grabbed the attention of Germans, who tried to make seven counterattacks to reclaim the peak. None were successful.
At the time, skiing was mostly a college thing. As a result, their division had more degrees and were smarter than anyone else — a fact most 10th Mountain guys would happily tell you today. (Image via Boston Globe)
Today, the legacy continues on as the 10th Mountain still trains in the icy hell known as Fort Drum. The high-altitude training is perfectly suited for the mountains of Afghanistan.
Aircraft carriers are the largest warships on the sea, and the U.S. Navy’s carriers are considered the world’s most elite. They’re so big they have their own ZIP code, and their reach and technological sophistication are unrivaled across the world.
On this date 96 years ago, the first aircraft carrier – the USS Langley – was commissioned in Norfolk, Virginia. The carrier had been converted from the collier USS Jupiter, which was the Navy’s first surface ship propelled by electric motors.
The Wright connection
Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting was the Langley’s executive officer. He was a submarine commander turned aviator who was one of the last to take personal training from famed aviator Orville Wright, one of the two brothers credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first airplane.
The Langley was named for Samuel Pierpont Langley, a former U.S. Naval Academy assistant professor who eventually became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was also a massive aviation enthusiast. Ironically, Langley had the same spirit as the famed Wright brothers, but never quite had their success. He built his own airplane that he tried on several occasions to launch off ships.
While he didn’t succeed, he did inspire the Navy’s desire to launch and land aircraft from ships at sea. Sailors took up where he left off.
USS Langley’s career
The Langley was built primarily for testing and experimentation for seaborne aviation in the Pacific. It became the test platform for developing carrier operation techniques and tactics, notably helping the Navy learn to better land and launch aircraft more quickly.
Fifteen years after its commissioning, in 1937, the Langley was reclassified as a seaplane tender because newer aircraft carriers were available. It stayed stationed in the Pacific to support seaplane patrols and aircraft transportation services during the early months of World War II.
On Feb. 27, 1942, the Langley was transporting U.S. Army P-40s off the coast of Indonesia when it was attacked by nine Japanese dive bombers. The escorting destroyers surrounding the carrier tried their best to help, but it wasn’t enough. The Langley’s crew was ordered to abandon ship, and the escort destroyers eventually torpedoed the Langley so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.
More fun facts
• Despite being an aircraft carrier, the Langley didn’t have a control tower – now known as “the island” – as the modern-day carriers do.
• It was nicknamed the “covered wagon” because its flight deck, which covered the entire ship, resembled a giant canopy.
• The first plane launch from the flight deck of the Langley was Oct. 17, 1922. The first landing was nine days later.
For troops on the frontlines, receiving mail from home is a welcome reprieve from the stress and dangers of combat. During WWII, it was the job of units like the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion to make sure that mail sent from the states got to the troops overseas. What made the 6888th unique was that it was the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps to serve overseas during the war.
Because of the high demand for frontline troops, the Army had a significant shortage of soldiers who could manage postal services in theater. In 1944, Black civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune lobbied First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for “a role for Black women in war overseas.” Her efforts were joined by Black newspapers who called for the Army to give Black women the opportunity to support the war effort in a more direct role.
The Army responded by creating the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in the Women’s Army Corps. Nicknamed the “Six Triple Eight”, the unit’s motto was “No mail, low morale.” The battalion was made up of 855 women, both officers and enlisted. Most of them worked as postal clerks. However, the women also filled other positions like cooks and mechanics. Because of this, the 6888th was a self-sufficient unit.
The 6888th left the United States for Europe on February 3, 1945. Twelve days later, the women arrived in Birmingham, England where they found the backlog of mail that they were responsible for. In the temporary post office, a converted aircraft hangar, mail was stacked to the ceiling. Some letters were postmarked as early as 1943. Part of the problem was that mail was commonly addressed with only a soldier’s first name or even a nickname.
The Army gave the 6888th six months to sort through the backlog of mail and sent a white officer to the unit to tell them how to do the job right. The 6888th’s commander, Major Charity Adams Earley responded by saying, “Sir, over my dead body.” The women devised their own system to sort the mail. Working in three shifts, seven days a week, each shift handled an estimated 65,000 pieces of mail. They completed their six-month tasking in just three months.
After they cleared the enormous backlog of mail in Birmingham, the women of the 6888th were sent across the Channel to France in May, 1945. The unit was camped in Rouen where they given another backlog of mail, some of which was postmarked 1942. According to Army historians, the military police of the 6888th were not allowed to carry weapons. As a result, the MPs were trained in jujitsu to deter “unwanted visitors.”
In May 1945, the women of the 6888th marched in a parade ceremony in honor of Joan of Arc through the marketplace where the saint was burned at the stake. By 1945, the women had cleared the Rouen backlog of mail and were sent to Paris. Upon their arrival, they marched through the city and were welcomed enthusiastically by the Parisians. They were even housed in a hotel where the staff treated them like top-tier guests.
With the war over on all fronts, the 6888th was cut by 300 women with 200 set to be discharged in January 1946. In February 1946, the women that remained were sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey where the unit was disbanded. There was no public recognition for the unit’s service.
In 2009, the 6888th was honored at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Seven years later, the 6888th was inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame. In 2018, a monument to the women of the 6888th was erected at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. When asked about her service by the American Veterans Center, 6888th veteran Anna Mae Robertson said with a chuckle, “I was doing the best I could.”
These incredible women weren’t the only ones to break new grounds during WWII. To learn about some of our country’s first Black Marines, keep reading here.
When most Americans think of the World War II battle for Iwo Jima – if they think of it at all, 75 years later – they think of one image: Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest point.
That moment, captured in black and white by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and as a color film by Marine Sergeant William Genaust, is powerful, embodying the spirit of the Marine Corps.
But these pictures are far from the only images of the bloodiest fight in the Marines’ history. A larger library of film, and the men captured on them, is similarly emotionally affecting. It can even bring Americans alive today closer to a war that ended in the middle of the last century.
Take for instance, just one scene: Two Marines kneel with a dog before a grave marker. It is in the final frames of a film documenting the dedication of one of the three cemeteries on the island. Those two Marines are among hundreds present to remember the more than 6,000 Americans killed on the island in over a month of fighting. The sequence is intentionally framed by the cinematographer, who was clearly looking for the right image to end the roll of film in his camera.
I came across this film clip in my work as a curator of a collection of motion picture films shot by Marine Corps photographers from World War II through the 1970s. In a partnership between the History Division of the Marine Corps and the University of South Carolina, where I work, we are digitizing these films, seeking to provide direct public access to the video and expand historical understanding of the Marine Corps’ role in society.
Over the past two years of scanning, I have come to realize that our work also enables a more powerful relationship with the past by fostering individual connections with videos, something that the digitizing of the large quantity of footage makes possible.
The campaign within the battle
Iwo Jima, an island in the western Pacific less than 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, was considered a key potential stepping stone toward an invasion of Japan itself.
During the battle to take the island from the Japanese, more than 70,000 Marines and attached Army and Navy personnel set foot on Iwo Jima. That included combat soldiers, but also medical corpsmen, chaplains, service and supply soldiers and others. More than 6,800 Americans were killed on the island and on ships and landing craft aiding in the attack; more than 19,200 were wounded.
More than 50 Marine combat cameramen operated across the eight square miles of Iwo Jima during the battle, which stretched from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945. Many shot still images, but at least 26 shot motion pictures. Three of these Marine cinematographers were killed in action.
Even before the battle began, Marine Corps leaders knew they wanted a comprehensive visual account of the battle. Beyond a historical record, combat photography from Iwo Jima would assist in planning and training for the invasion of the Japanese main islands. Some Marine cameramen were assigned to the front lines of individual units, and others to specific activities, like engineering and medical operations.
Most of the cameramen on Iwo Jima used 100-foot film reels that could capture about two and a half minutes of film. Sgt. Genaust, who shot the color sequence atop Suribachi, shot at least 25 reels – just over an hour of film – before he was killed, roughly halfway through the campaign.
Other cameramen who survived the entire battle produced significantly more. Sgt. Francis Cockrell was assigned to document the work of the 5th Division’s medical activities. Shooting at least 89 reels, he probably produced almost four hours of film.
Sgt. Louis L. Louft fought with the 13th Marines, an artillery regiment; his more than 100 film reels likely resulted in more than four hours of content. Landing on the beach with engineers of the 4th Division on Feb. 25, 1945, Pfc. Angelo S. Abramo compiled over three hours of material in the month of fighting he witnessed.
Even taking a conservative average of an hour of film from each of the 26 combat cameramen, that suggests there was at least 24 hours of unique film from the battle. Many surviving elements of this record are now part of the film library of the Marine Corps History Division, which we’re working with. The remainder are cataloged by the National Archives and Records Administration.
While military historians visiting the History Division in the past have used this large library, the bulk of its films have not been readily available to the public, something that mass digitization is finally making possible.
For many decades, the visual records made by Marines have been seen by the public only piecemeal, often with selected portions used as mere stock footage in films, documentaries and news programs, chosen because a shot has action, not because of the historical context of the imagery.
Even when they are used responsibly by documentary filmmakers, the editing and selection of scenes imposes the filmmaker’s interpretation on the images. As a historian and archivist, though, I believe it is important for people to directly engage with historical sources of all types, including the films from Iwo Jima.
The ‘highest and purest’ form
After the battle, the Americans buried their dead in temporary cemeteries, awaiting transportation back to the U.S. The film segment just before the graveside scene shows a service honoring the Americans of all backgrounds who had bled and died together.
At that service, Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, the Marines’ first-ever Jewish chaplain, gave a eulogy that has become one of the Marine Corps’ most treasured texts. Noting the diversity of the dead, Gittelsohn said, “Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor … together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color.”
After the dedication ceremonies, Marines walked the 5th Division cemetery, looking for familiar names. The photographers were there, and one recorded the footage of the two Marines – names not known – and the dog, at a grave with only the number 322 as a visible marking.
The image stood out. The two Marines looking directly at the camera seemed to reach across the decades to compel a response. Researchers at the History Division identified the Marine beneath marker 322 as Pfc. Ernest Langbeen from Chicago. It felt appropriate and important to add his name to the online description for that film, so I did.
I then located members of the Langbeen family, and told them that this part of their family’s history existed in the History Division’s collections and was now preserved and available online after more than seven decades.
Speaking with the family, I learned more about the Marine in grave 322. One of the two Marines in the picture may well be his best friend from before the war, a friend who joined the Corps with him. They asked to serve together and were assigned to the same unit, the 13th Regiment.
Now, family members who never knew this Marine have a new connection to their history and the country’s history. More connections will come for others. The digital archive we’re building will make it easier for researchers and the public at large to explore the military and personal history in each frame of every film.
The visual library of more than 80 online videos from Iwo Jima carries in it countless Pfc. Langbeens, ordinary Americans whose lives were disrupted by a global war. Each film holds traces of lives cut short or otherwise irrevocably altered.
The films are a reminder that, 75 years after World War II, all Americans remain tied to Iwo Jima, as well as battlegrounds across the world like Monte Cassino, Peleliu, Bataan and Colleville-sur-mer. Americans may find their relatives in this footage, or they may not. But what they will find is evidence of the sacrifices made by those fighting on their behalf, sacrifices that connect each and every American to the battle of Iwo Jima.
It’s a common misconception that Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of Mexican Independence day. The May 5th celebration is actually the marking of a win by a small faction of the Mexican Army over the French during the French-Mexican war.
A Cinco de Mayo celebration in Washington, D.C.
In reality, Americans actually do have a cause to celebrate and commemorate the Texan-born Mexican general, his ragtag battalion of enlisted volunteer troops and their unlikely defeat over the French Army at the battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862. Despite being outnumbered 3-1, the Mexicans obliterated the French, forcing a retreat after the French sustained over 500 casualties, compared to the Mexican’s mere 100 deaths in the battle.
What many people might not know was that the French were planning a lot more than just a one-off takeover of the small Mexican city of Puebla. Along with this mounted offensive, Napoleon and his Army were planning to exchange their superior and advanced artillery with the American Confederate Army in exchange for southern cotton; a commodity that was growing quite sparse across the pond in Europe.
Had the French won the battle of Puebla and made that deal with the Confederates, our Civil War most-certainly would have turned out quite differently. At the time France was known to have some of the most technologically advanced and deadly firepower in the world. And if they had supplied their weapons to the Confederates, the Union Army’s fight would have become exponentially more difficult, causing more deaths and perhaps even resulting in a Union defeat; an outcome that would have changed the course of US history.
So be sure to have a celebratory margarita this Cinco de Mayo and when someone asks you why we Americans tend to celebrate this holiday in more numbers and with more gusto than our neighbors to the south, just smile and pour one out for the warriors that won the Battle of Puebla and saved us from a significantly bloodier and potentially-disastrous end to the American Civil War.
Saying that World War I was really bad for Russia is like saying Hitler was a somewhat unstable veteran of the Great War. While the Tsar fielded the largest army in the world at the time and should have been able to trounce the Germans, years (maybe decades) of neglecting modernization hampered the Russians. Roads were impossible and railways were inadequate. Casualties were heavy and the conditions were deplorable. Even drafting men for the war was difficult. Life in the Russian Empire was so bad, the Tsar would be toppled and replaced by the Soviet Union.
Before the Tsar was forced to abdicate, the Russian Empire tried a last-ditch effort to fill its ranks: hiring women.
Congrats, you’re hired.
When the Great War first began, Russians were only too happy to serve in their country’s military. It was (on paper, at least) one of the most vaunted fighting forces on Earth at the time. But Tsarist Russia’s poor infrastructure, the indecision of the Russian high command, and the lack of adequate food, supplies, and other war resources soon made life miserable. When word got out about the deteriorating conditions on the front, good men suddenly became hard to find. Women, on the other hand, had been trying to join the regular army since day one. These women soon demanded the government form all-women’s military units.
The Tsarist government, facing an increasing manpower shortage, finally gave in. It formed 15 all-women’s battalions in an effort to replace its missing manpower with womanpower. They included communications battalions, a naval unit, and the aptly-named Women’s Battalion of Death. Of the 5,000 women who served in these units, 300 of them would join the Battalion of Death and march to the front in 1914.
Maria Bochkareva was awarded multiple medals after stabbing Germans to death in the trenches.
Led by the peasant fighter-turned military leader Maria Bochkareva, the women were highly-trained and tightly-controlled by Bochkareva. While her harsh (sometimes brutal) leadership kept a majority of potential volunteers from joining, the 300 or so who did stay became some of the most hardcore Russian troops of the First World War. They first saw action in the Kerensky Offensive of 1917. It was a terrible loss for the Russians, who lost 60,000 troops in the fighting. But it was a stunning victory for the Women’s Battalion of Death.
When ordered to go over the top and storm the enemy trenches, the women never hesitated, even when the men at their side did. In one instance, the Russian women made it through three trench systems before the lack of reinforcements necessitated their retreat. Bochkareva, though wounded twice, earned three medals for bravery in combat. With the effectiveness of the women in combat proven on the front, other women were deployed back home.
Back in St. Petersburg, things weren’t going so well for the Tsar and his government. Another women’s battalion had to be deployed to the Winter Palace to defend government ministries and the people who were running them. This is where history could have been made or turned back. When the Bolshevik fighters attempted to take the city, the women weren’t at the Winter Palace, they abandoned the government ministers to their fate and went to guard the supplies. Eventually, they were overcome by the Bolsheviks and forced to surrender. When the Bolsheviks officially took power, these women’s units were disbanded, with varying success.
Women who wanted to fight the Bolsheviks stayed in their units, joining the White Russian forces in the Russian Civil War. Others went home and became Soviet citizens. Many would live long enough to see women conscripted once more when Russia was again threatened from the outside, taking up arms against the Nazis and forming an essential element to the resistance of the Soviet Union – many of whom would go on to earn the title Hero of the Soviet Union.
England also had a lengthy track record of success in competitive shooting, including winning the Leech Cup — the oldest competitive shooting trophy in the United States.
England rates as perhaps the most obscure of the snipers who out-shot Hathcock. Aside from some photos taken during the 2011 Memorial Day Parade in Union County, Georgia, few, if any, photos of this legend are publicly available.
Second Place: Chuck Mawhinney – 103 confirmed kills
Chuck Mawhinney served from 1967-1970 in the Marine Corps. According to a 2000 Los Angeles Times article, he spent 16 months in Vietnam. After leaving the Marine Corps, he worked in the United States Forest Service.
Mawhinney’s youth was spent hunting, and he chose the Marines because they allowed him to delay his entry until after deer season. Some Marine recruiter did his country a service with that call.
Mawhinney noted that every one of his kills had a weapon — with one notable exception: A North Vietnamese Army paymaster who he took out from 900 yards away.
Today, Mawhinney is talking about what he has done, seeking to dispel the many stereotypes of snipers that are in people’s minds.
1st Place: Adelbert Waldron — 109 confirmed kills
America’s top sniper of the Vietnam War wasn’t a Marine. He served with the 9th Infantry Division of the United States Army. Yeah, you read that right. Marines got all the press and the glory, but an Army guy was the top sniper shot of the Vietnam War.
Waldron had served in the United States Navy for 12 years before going to civilian life. In 1968, he enlisted in the Army. SniperCentral.com noted that Waldron spent 16 months in Vietnam. Waldron primarily used the M21 Sniper Weapon System, a modified M14.
Waldron was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross twice. He also was awarded the Silver Star and three Bronze Stars. Still, he never talked about his service with the media, and died in 1995. His total would be the top score for an American sniper until Chris Kyle totaled 160 during the Global War on Terror.
So, when it comes to Vietnam War snipers, the legendary “White Feather” ranks at number four.
During World War II, The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were tasked with ruining the days of any and every Nazi submarine they could find, but those underwater dongs of death were notorious for staying hidden until they spied a convoy of merchant ships and oil tankers moving on their own.
The USS Big Horn fires Hedgehog depth charges, an anti-submarine warfare system.
(Navsource.org courtesy Coast Guard Cmdr. Douglas L. Jordan)
How were the big, bad naval services supposed to counter the insidious “wolf packs?” By dressing up as sheep until the wolves got close, and then revealing themselves to be sheepdog AF.
The Navy purchased used merchant vessels, mostly oil tankers, and converted them for wartime service. Anti-submarine weapons were cleverly hidden across the deck while the holds were filled with additional ammunition as well as watertight barrels to provide additional buoyancy after a torpedo strike. The resulting vessels were known as “Q-ships.”
(Navsource.org courtesy Coast Guard Cmdr. Douglas L. Jordan)
One Q-ship, the USS Horn, carried five large guns on the deck of which only one was typically visible. There was a 5-inch gun visible, four 4-inch guns concealed behind false bulkheads, and “hedgehogs,” depth charge systems that would quickly fire a series explosives into the ocean.
In 1944, the ship was transferred to Coast Guard control and assigned to weather patrols, still heavily armed to challenge any U-boat that exposed itself. The new Coast Guard crew sailed across the Atlantic, looking for targets and relaying weather information until March 1945, when they were sent to actually move oil across the Pacific, supporting operations like the capture of Okinawa.
U.S. Navy sailors conduct gunnery drills on the USS Big Horn.
Unfortunately, the Coast Guard crew never got to go on a true submarine hunting mission like their U.S. Navy brethren, but they were able to contribute to victory in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters by safeguarding convoys and moving oil to where it was needed.
All Q-ships were released from the fleets in the years following World War II. While the modern Coast Guard has some anti-surface capability, it lacks any weapons effective against long-endurance diesel-electric or a nuclear submarines. Either type could dive well outside of the cutters’ ranges, fire torpedoes, and sail away without ever exposing themselves.
Basically, if it’s more dangerous than a narco submarine, the Coast Guard has to be careful about attacking it.
Sen. John McCain, a giant of American politics who died on Aug. 25, 2018, at 81, was perhaps most profoundly shaped by his military service and more than five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
And McCain’s survival through years of nearly fatal torture and hardship in the Hanoi prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton” was made more impressive by his refusal to be repatriated before the release of all the American POWs captured before him.
President Donald Trump, whom McCain criticized extensively, has repeatedly disparaged McCain’s military service, suggesting at a rally in July 2015 that the senator didn’t deserve the title of war hero.
“He was a war hero because he was captured,” said Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
But McCain’s military service and suffering have made him as something of an anomaly in American political history, and a hero in the eyes of many.
McCain was offered an early release — but he refused it
A graduate of the US Naval Academy, McCain followed his father and grandfather, both four-star admirals, into the Navy, where he served as a bomber pilot in the Vietnam War.
On Oct. 26, 1967, when McCain was a US Navy lieutenant commander, his Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down over Hanoi. Shattering his leg and both arms during his ejection from the fighter plane, McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese and spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war.
Lieutenant McCain (front right) with his squadron and T-2 Buckeye trainer, 1965.
(US Navy photo)
Less than a year into McCain’s imprisonment, his father was named commander of US forces in the Pacific, and the North Vietnamese saw an opportunity for leverage by offering the younger McCain’s release — what would have been both a propaganda victory and a way to demoralize other American POWs.
But McCain refused, sticking to the POW code of conduct that says troops must accept release in the order in which they are captured.
“I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America’s class-conscious society,” McCain later recalled.
The North Vietnamese reacted with fury and escalated McCain’s torture.
‘Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.’
McCain soon reached what he would later describe as his lowest point in Vietnam, and after surviving intense beatings and two suicide attempts, he signed a “confession” to war crimes written by his captors.
“I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine,” McCain wrote in a first-person account published in US News World Report in May 1973.
For the next two weeks, McCain was allowed to recover from his debilitating injuries — a period he later described as the worst in his life.
“I was ashamed,” he wrote in his 1999 memoir, “Faith of My Fathers.” “I shook, as if my disgrace were a fever.”
For the next several years, the high-profile POW was subjected to prolonged brutal treatment and spent two years in solitary confinement in a windowless 10-by-10-foot cell.
President Richard Nixon Greets Former Vietnam Prisoner of War John McCain, Jr. at a Pre-POW Dinner Reception,1973.
McCain’s courage bolstered his political bona fides
In March 1973, two months after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, McCain and his fellow prisoners were released in the order in which they were captured. An emaciated 36-year-old with a head of white hair, McCain returned home to continue his service in the Navy.
McCain retired from the Navy in 1981, moved to Arizona, and began his political career in the Republican Party, serving two terms in the House of Representatives. In 1986, he won a landslide election to the Senate, where he served for 30 years, during which time he launched two unsuccessful presidential bids.
McCain’s courage during his brutal captivity bolstered his political bona fides. As David Foster Wallace wrote in a profile of McCain in 2000, when he was a presidential candidate, the former Navy captain commanded the kind of moral authority and authentic patriotism that eludes the average politician.
“Try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down,” Wallace wrote of McCain’s decision to remain in Vietnamese captivity. “Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go?”
McCain, a military hawk, forever remained a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War, during which 58,000 Americans and nearly 3 million Vietnamese were killed. But he worked closely with John Kerry, a Democrat and fellow Vietnam veteran who advocated against the war, to normalize relations between the US and Vietnam in the 1990s, bringing the devastating conflict to a close.
Amanda Macias contributed to this report.
Featured image: Lieutenant Commander McCain being interviewed after his return from Vietnam, April 1973.
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