Flamma, Spartacus, and Carpophorus are just a few of the deadly gladiators that saw many victories while fighting in Rome’s famous arenas.
The vicious sport of gladiator fighting was just as popular back then as boxing and MMA are today. Gladiator combat was much more gangsta, though. Crowds would swarm to see mighty warriors beat the crap out of one another until only one man was left standing — or the match ended in a draw.
Most people believe that once you stepped foot into one of Rome’s great arenas, chances were, you weren’t coming out alive.
Some historians believe the gladiator games started as ceremonial offerings, as a way to provide entertainment at wealthy aristocrats’ funerals. It’s reported, that roughly only one in nine of the competitions ended in death. Many of the warriors who lost the bloody brawls were granted mercy — for financial reasons.
“If a gladiator was lost in the arena, that represented an enormous loss of an investment.” Professor Michael J. Carter explains.
If a rented gladiator was killed in the games, the sponsor was looking to forfeit nearly 50 times the cost of the rental.
“To you all from us all for having the guts to try.”
These were the words written on the cases of beer waiting for American special operations troops in Oman on Apr. 25, 1980. They were gifted to the U.S. service members by British civilians working at the airfield.
The British didn’t know for sure who the American troops were, but what they did know came from news reports in Iran and the United States that a group of Army Delta Force troops, United States Marines, and Air Force aircrews flew out of their base to an unknown destination and returned many hours later.
British airfield operators also knew that not everyone had come back.
By the time President Jimmy Carter gave Operation Eagle Claw the green light, hostages being held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran had been held for 174 days. The operational ground force commander was also the legendary founder of Delta Force, Col. Charlie Beckwith – and no one was more eager to get going.
A new documentary from Filmmaker Barbara Koppel, “Desert One,” explores the leadup and fallout of Operation Eagle Claw, the U.S. military’s failed attempt to rescue the hostages. It also details every angle of the event from people who were on the ground, with interviews from those who were there.
The interviewees include veteran member of the Eagle Claw mission and their families, Iranians who were holding Americans hostage at the embassy, a handful of the hostages, an Iranian who was part of a group of locals who came upon the landing site in the middle of the night, and even remarks from President Carter and Vice-President Walter Mondale.
Carter, dedicated to achieving the release of the hostages through diplomatic means, still charged Beckwith with creating a hostage rescue plan. Carter exhausted every channel before giving Beckwith the go-ahead, but Beckwith was ready.
The plan was an incredibly complex one, and with so many moving parts, many felt then that it had little chance for success – a statement even many of the Deltas agreed with.
Coming into a remorse desert location near Tehran, called “Desert One” 3 U.S. Air Force C-130s would deliver 93 Delta force operators destined for the Embassy, 13 Special Forces troops to retrieve hostages from the foreign affairs ministry building, a U.S. Army ranger team, and a handful of Farsi-speaking truck drivers. “Desert One” would be the staging area for the planes and refueling bladders, guarded by an airfield protection team.
Eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters from the USS Nimitz would be dispatched to Desert One to refuel and take soldiers to another desert site, “Desert Two” where they would hide until nightfall. CIA operatives would take trucks to Desert Two and drive soldiers to Tehran. There, the rangers would capture an abandoned air base outside of the city as a landing place for two C-141 Starlifter aircraft.
During the assault, the helicopters would fly from Desert Two to a soccer stadium near the embassy in Tehran to kill the guards, pick up the hostages, and fly them to the Starlifters. The helicopters would be destroyed on the ground, and everyone would fly aboard the C-141s to Egypt.
The rescue mission never made it past Desert One. A number of unforeseen incidents, including Iranian citizens, an intense dust storm, and mechanical failures contributed to the failure of Eagle Claw. After a tragic accident at the airfield claimed eight lives and the mission lost the minimum number of helicopters needed, Carter ordered them to abort.
To this day, Carter accepts responsibility for the failure of the mission, as he did on Apr. 25, 1980, making a televised address to the American people.
President Jimmy Carter – Statement on Iran Rescue Mission
“I ordered this rescue mission prepared in order to safeguard American lives, to protect America’s national interests, and to reduce the tensions in the world that have been caused among many nations as this crisis has continued,” the president said. “It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation. It was my decision to cancel it when problems developed in the placement of our rescue team for a future rescue operation. The responsibility is fully my own.”
When looking back on his time as President, whenever Carter is asked what he would do differently in his administration, his answer is always the same:
“I would send one more helicopter.”
When the Americans returned to Oman and the British civilians realized who they were and from where they’d just come, they rounded up any beer they could and left the now-famous note.
The names Elmer Keith, Jeff Cooper, and Jack O’Connor are legend in the shooting world. If you Google “famous gun writers,” they’re among the top results. If you scroll a good ways, you’ll come to a fella named Ed McGivern. The only thing he ever wrote of note is a tough-to-find book called Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting, published in 1938. However, a lot of police officers and federal agents across the US back in the 1930s knew McGivern well from the training they received from this one-time trick shooter and legendary pistol expert.
When it came to pistol shooting, especially revolvers, there were few who wielded a hand cannon with more speed and skill than McGivern. His shooting feats were nothing short of superhuman: The man clearly had eyesight and reflexes that were far keener than the average person’s. The fantastical shooting and quick-draw abilities of fictional pistoleers were present in the very real-life McGivern, though he didn’t exactly cut the typical figure of a gunslinger. At just 5-foot-6, he was a small, barrel-shaped man who was the fastest gun on the planet during the years between the two world wars.
A traveling trick shooter
McGivern bolstered his income performing as a trick shooter in the 1920s and ’30s, traveling all over the United States to put on astonishing displays for giddy crowds. He routinely shot at an assortment of stationary and airborne targets, like clay pigeons and lead disks the size of a quarter. You want to really understand how good McGivern was? Go to a safe shooting area, throw a tin can in the air, and see if you can draw and hit it before it lands on the ground. Unless you’re Jerry Miculek or Julie Golob, you probably didn’t even get close.
McGivern could hit the can six times before it hit the dirt, on the draw. He could also throw playing cards in the air and cut them in two, edgewise, with a bullet. He could hit two aerial targets with two revolvers at the same time. Like I said, he was superhuman.
He set a revolver world record while on tour in 1932 that remains unbroken to this day and got him into the Guinness Book of World Records, until Guinness removed all shooting records a few years ago. McGivern fired two consecutive, five-shot groups from a revolver at a distance of 15 feet that “could be covered by a half-dollar piece” in a blinding 0.45 seconds (as clocked by shot timer). The diameter of a half-dollar was a hair over 1.2 inches.
But this pistol prodigy went largely unnoticed for much of his life, working primarily as a sign painter in the small Montana town where he lived for 30 years.
Unfortunately, arthritis eventually put an end to McGivern’s trick shooting career in his late 50s, so he decided to travel around and spread his knowledge instead of entertaining folks.
He worked with law enforcement personnel all over the country. He taught marksmanship to police officers and federal agents from various LE agencies, including at the FBI’s training headquarters in Quantico, translating his exhibition-shooting experience into practical skills that focused on putting a lot of rounds on a target, accurately and quickly, under varying circumstances. At the time, most law enforcement in the US were still carrying double-action revolvers, McGivern’s specialty.
When it came to training law enforcement, McGivern taught them how to shoot fast and accurately at close targets, but he was a firm believer that a .357 Magnum revolver, with proper technique, could be used to effectively engage man-sized targets with repeatable accuracy at distances of 600 yards. He preferred to use a gun outfitted with a small-diameter rear aperture sight with a gold bead front sight for this kind of shooting, though he experimented with various peep sights and telescopic scopes.
In fact, McGivern was friends with Elmer Keith and was instrumental in creating the earliest magnum revolver cartridges. While Keith was (most likely) integral to the creation of the .357 Magnum, he ultimately went on to deride it when he developed the .44 Special into what would become the .44 Remington Magnum, a superior cartridge in his mind. McGivern, on the other hand, believed the .357 Mag was the ultimate revolver cartridge and devoted a whole lot of his time and effort to pushing the round to its limits with what would have been considered a service revolver at the time, both in terms of speed and close- and long-range accuracy.
Time has proved that McGivern may have ultimately been correct in his assessment of the .357 Magnum. Despite Keith’s proselytizing, the .44 Mag was always considered too overpowered for law enforcement use, while many departments and agencies adopted .357 wheelguns as replacements for or as an alternate option to .38 Special revolvers.
Today, despite a foray into use of the more powerful .40 S&W for semi-autos, the 9 mm chambering, with modern ammunition, reigns supreme in the LE and military worlds—and the characteristics of a 9 mm +P cartridge are more similar to a .357 load than they are to a .44 Mag. Perhaps McGivern was more on the money because he focused on volume of fire and LE applications, whereas Keith was more hunting focused.
Here’s a quick list of some of McGivern’s most famous shots with a double-action revolver. Think you could pull off any of them?
Hang a target, like a clay pigeon or lead quarter, from a string. Cut the string with the first shot, and hit the falling target with a second before it hits the ground.
String up three clays, one stationary, and set the other two swinging back and forth so they cross in front of the stationary target. Break all three clays with a single shot.
Drop a coin from shoulder height, and with the same hand, draw and fire as many shots as possible before the coin lands. (McGivern could fire two to three shots.)
Lay 10 revolvers on a bench with five rounds loaded in each. Proceed to shoot them in succession in double action for a total of 50 rounds in less than 21 seconds, with no misses on the target. McGivern could also do this with 20 guns, 100 shots, and 47 seconds.
McGivern did this reaction-time display with real guns and blanks, but if you want to try it,definitely use airsoft guns, safety glasses, and protective clothing. Face an opponent who is holding an aimed, cocked airsoft revolver at about 5 yards. Draw and fire from a regulation holster before your opponent can pull the trigger.
Balance two clays on top of each other with their edges facing the shooter. Break the bottom clay with the first shot, and break the top one with the second before it hits the bench.
Throw a target in the air, have a friend toss you a pistol, and hit the target before it hits the ground.
Shoot a 5-inch bull’s-eye pasted on a 24-inch square of plywood that’s tossed in the air at distances of 25 to 50 yards.
Draw, fire, and score a lethal hit on a man-sized target 15 to 18 feet away in 0.4 seconds or less. McGivern set a one-time record with this often repeated mainstay.
McGivern died on Dec. 12, 1957, at the age of 83 in Butte, Montana.
Jerry Miculek is one of the most remarkable competition shooters of our day, and it’s a privilege to see him shoot in person, as I imagine it must have been to see McGivern put on one of his trick-shooting displays.
Miculek has broken several of McGivern’s long-standing records, but there’s one he can’t beat. When Miculek tried to top the record of 10 shots in 0.45 seconds, he couldn’t score a better time than 0.57 seconds. McGivern set that record back in 1932 when he was 57 years old — and if Miculek can’t beat it, I don’t know who can.
The dapper young Hungarian revolutionary named József Tibor Fejes holding a captured AK-47 in what is believed to be the first widely distributed photo of the weapon. (Public domain photo.)
Sixty years ago the weapon that became a symbol of Cold War guerrillas and current day insurgents made its debut in a most unlikely way.
The AK-47, arguably the most widely used assault rifle in the world, first appeared in the hands of both Communist troops and Hungarian revolutionaries during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The revolution against the nation’s communist government began on October 23 but was ruthlessly crushed by Hungarian secret police and Soviet troops by Nov. 10.
In particular, one photo from the revolution gained worldwide attention – and it is arguably the first time the Kalashnikov entered the public consciousness.
C.J. Chivers, former Marine Corps infantry captain and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote in his book The Gun that nobody knows which Hungarian revolutionary first picked up a captured AK-47.
But a LIFE Magazine photographer snapped a picture of József Tibor Fejes – “22-years-old, fresh-faced, sharp-eyed, purposeful, and seemingly unafraid” – whose costume as an insurgent always included a bowler hat. “The Man in the Bowler Hat” was also hefting an AK-47, making Fejes the first known revolutionary carrying what became widely known as a revolutionary’s weapon.
“The AK-47 was destined to become a symbol of resistance fighters almost everywhere, a weapon with innumerable spokesmen,” Chivers wrote. “Fejes had nonchalantly assumed the requisite pose and begun to flesh out this historical role. He did so before Fidel Castro, before Yasir Arafat, before Idi Amin. He was years ahead of the flag of Zimbabwe, which would expropriate the AK-47 as a symbol. He was ahead of Shamil Basayev and Osama bin Laden, who would convert the product of an atheist state into a sign of unsparing jihad. József Tibor Fejes was the first of the world’s Kalashnikov-toting characters, a member of a pantheon’s inaugural class.”
Although the Soviet Union had first publically acknowledged the rifle’s existence in 1949, firearms experts and military intelligence analysts in the West knew little about the weapon.
In fact, it was not until 1956 that the Army’s Technical Intelligence Office issued a classified report about the AK-47 – a report that mistakenly labeled the rifle a submachine gun and led to Pentagon brass dismissing the effectiveness of the weapon.
Eventually, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and a host of Soviet satellites and licensees manufactured more than 100 million AK-47s. First encountered by U.S. fighting men during the Vietnam War, the robust construction of the weapon and its reliability soon made believers out of Americans who faced it in the hands of their enemies.
To this day, U.S. soldiers and Marines continue to face adversaries armed with some version of the Kalashnikov.
As for József Tibor Fejes, his fate was sealed. Charged with the execution of a State Security Forces officer by gunning him down in the streets of Budapest, a Hungarian court found Fejes guilty and sentenced him to death.
Despite an appeal, authorities hanged Fejes on April 9, 1959, his punishment for what the court said was an attempt to overthrow the Hungarian people’s republic, the murder of a police officer, and the theft of state property – namely an AK-47 assault rifle.
(Writer’s note: This article contains descriptions of real-world violence and there is a video embedded that shows attack helicopters firing on insurgents on the burning outpost. Obviously, viewer/reader discretion is advised.)
View of the 120mm mortar at COP Kahler days before the Battle of Wanat.
(U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Queck)
The attack on the U.S. forces near Wanat in Afghanistan centered on Kahler, a combat outpost in the area. COP Kahler was a strong position, but it faced a number of defensive weaknesses. First, it wasn’t the high ground in the valley. That’s a compromise military leaders sometimes have to make, but you really don’t want to have to defend a position where an enemy can fire on it from above.
Another problem was that civilian buildings came close to the outpost. This included a mosque that the attackers would misuse as a fortress to get an advantageous position against the defenders.
Finally, and probably most importantly, COP Kahler was not yet done. Engineers had been working for weeks to prepare for construction, but the actual building only began on July 9, four days before the attack would come. And a number of important defensive measures wouldn’t be complete for weeks or potentially months.
Some of the defensive positions on July 13 were still just concertina wire and guns, though some positions were protected by boulders, HESCOs, or hasty earthworks. The task force had planned for the possibility that an attack would come early, while the outpost was still vulnerable. But the intelligence estimates did not anticipate an attack by hundreds, and the assets at the base didn’t either.
But Chosen Company of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment was holding and building Kahler, and they had prepared well for an attack with what they had.
The defenders’ TOW missile launcher was mounted on a HMMWV that could be driven around the site, but a platform was quickly built to give it better fields of view and fire. And there were two mortars, a 120mm and a 60mm, to provide additional muscle.
And the Americans had built observation posts in the territory around the outpost. These would allow American forces to inflict casualties from higher ground, but it would also deny the enemy a chance to occupy those three positions, meaning that was three fewer positions the insurgents could attack from.
And the engineers were busy from July 9 to 13, filling as many HESCOs and digging out as many fighting positions as they could. They were able to provide significant protection to the 120mm and many fighting positions before the attacks came. The 60mm mortar had a pit and a few sandbags, providing some protection. (Some of the defenses and fighting can be seen in this video.)
There were signs in the buildup to the attack that it was coming. Men in the nearby bazaar were seen watching the Americans and seemingly doing pace counts to figure out distances. The number of children in the village slowly dropped, and Afghan contractors refused to bid on some services for the base.
So when Capt. Matthew Myer saw five shepherds traveling together near the base he immediately prepared for a complex attack, using his TOW and mortars to hit the men shifting around the base. Five shepherds will rarely travel together because that many shepherds signals that there are either too many shepherds or too many goats in one area for normal grazing.
But before Myer could give the order to attack, two bursts of machine gun fire signaled the enemy forces, and then a rain of rockets came onto the U.S. warriors. The Battle of Wanat was on, and the enemy had seized the initiative.
A Army graphic shows the defenses at COP Kahler during the Battle of Wanat. Notice OP Topside which is physically separated from the rest of the defenses. The hotel and mosque were key buildings controlled by insurgents during the battle.
(U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute)
That first volley came in the first hours of July 13, and it contained a very large amount of RPGs. While the Army history of the battle gives no official number to the rockets that hit the base, quotes from the men who fought in the battle described an absolute rain of rockets that left dozens and dozens of tail fins on the ground around the Americans. A radiotelephone operator later said that the “RPG fire was like machine gun fire.”
The insurgent forces had sneaked up close to the outpost and unleashed hell, and the volume of fire indicated that there had either been a major buildup of rockets at these positions or else runners were keeping the shooters well supplied. This rain of explosions took the TOW launcher out of the fight and suppressed a mortar and some machine guns and grenade launchers.
Myers and his men were suddenly struggling to achieve fire superiority. The mortar crew got at least four high-explosive rounds off despite the incoming fire, but were driven back from the weapon by the RPGs and machine gun fire. Rounds were flying in from buildings and trees near the outpost, and the fire was concentrated on the mortarmen.
But they weren’t the only ones in trouble. Another main objective of the enemy force was cutting one of the observation posts, OP Topside, off from the main force. While the OPs provided protection to the COP, they would also be vulnerable to enemy attack until the engineers were done clearing vegetation from the fields of fire.
A mortar crewman was injured by an RPG, and then another was hurt while dragging the first casualty to safety at the command post. The TOW launcher and HMMWV exploded, and it injured an Afghan soldier, knocked out some American communications equipment, and dropped two unexploded but unstable missiles back onto the defenders.
The artillery assets supporting the outpost sent death back at the attackers whenever they could, but they were firing 155mm howitzers at high angle. Danger close starts at just over 700 yards, and anything closer than 600 yards in rough terrain is simply too risky to fire. The automatic grenade launchers on the base had a similar problem.
Defenders at Kahler the day before the Battle of Wanat.
(U.S. Army soldiers)
The weapons that were available were fired at such a high rate that many of them began to overheat, and then the only .50-cal went down after an enemy round struck it in the feed tray cover.
But the worst of the fighting for the Americans took place at OP Topside. Only nine Americans were there at the start of the fighting, and the insurgent activity made reinforcing them a dangerous and tricky task, though the paratroopers would do so successfully multiple times.
The OP had its own artillery observer, but he was wounded in that first RPG volley. A paratrooper at Topside was killed in that same volley, and another died just moments later while attempting to throw a grenade. Another was wounded so badly that he could not fight.
The six men able to fight, including the forward observer, were forced to work through their own injuries and beat back the attack. Fortunately, the observer had sent a list of pre-planned targets back to the gun lines days before, and so artillery was able to send some assistance despite the fact that the observer could not conduct the calls for fire.
The defenders attempted to get the upper hand, but their own crew-served weapons went down from overheating or ammo shortages, and then one gunner was killed while firing his M4.
Finally, reinforcements from the main COP moved out. But the three-man team lost one soldier en route to a wound in the arm. Soon after they arrived, the enemy made it through the wire.
The attack was repulsed, but the two reinforcements were killed, and so was another soldier. A short time later, a sergeant moved forward to suppress fighters in a nearby building and was killed. Only one soldier was left in fighting shape with another three seriously wounded.
The defender managed to take out an enemy position with a light anti-tank weapon, giving most of the survivors just enough time to fall back to another position. But in their haste, they missed that the forward observer was severely wounded but still alive.
This artilleryman grabbed a grenade launcher and fired every round he had and threw every hand grenade he could reach. Just before he was forced to make a last stand at the OP, four men from the COP reinforced him, and Topside remained in American hands.
But a new attack, once again led by RPGs, strained this control. Every paratrooper on the OP was wounded, and one would die soon after. A platoon sergeant gathered a new force of seven paratroopers and two Marines and once again reinforced the OP, arriving shortly before the Apache attack helicopters.
Gun runs by the helicopters with their 30mm cannons finally drove the attackers back and allowed this larger force to protect the OP. Another platoon from Chosen Company arrived to help out their brothers-in-arms. This force brought multiple machine guns and two automatic grenade launchers with them on HMMWVs as well as multiple anti-tank rocket launchers.
The quick reaction force assaulted into the bazaar, driving the enemy from nearby buildings while suppressing other positions with the trucks. QRF fighters threw out smoke to mark insurgent positions and the Apaches eliminated them. Slowly, the volley of RPG fire lessened and, four hours after the attack began, the terrorist forces finally began to retreat.
Medical evacuation crews landed under fire to get the wounded out, in at least one case evacuating a casualty while an Apache made a gun run just 30 yards away. This limited American losses to the nine paratroopers already killed. A massive surge in U.S. and Afghan forces occurred July 13 with Afghan commandos coming in to clear the nearby village house-to-house and gain intelligence.
The biggest surprise for the Afghan commandos came when they searched the Afghan National Police station near the compound. A massive cache of weapons was there with most of them having been recently fired. But the evidence was that they had fired in support of the insurgents, not against them. The police chief and others were arrested.
Over the following days, American air assets pummeled insurgent positions, and future Chief of Staff of the Army Mark Milley set up operations in Wanat. An estimated 20-50 enemy fighters were killed in the fighting.
Despite the hard-won tactical success, senior leaders decided that holding Wanat was simply too costly and drained resources from more fruitful fights elsewhere. Chosen Company was pulled out.
In 1862, the Merrimack and the Monitor fought the famous naval battle at Hampton Roads where ships with iron armor fought each other for the first time. That clash is often cited as one of the moments where warfare changed overnight. Suddenly, it was clear that most cannons couldn’t penetrate iron hulls, and so every navy rushed to armor their hulls.
Just four years later, two fleets of wooden and iron-hulled boats clashed in the waters near Venice, and this first clash of iron fleets got weird, fast.
The Battle of Lissa was fought near an island of the same name in the Adriatic Sea, sometimes known as Vis, its Croatian name. A large Italian fleet of about 26 ships, including 13 ironclads, faced off against about 26 Austrian ships, but only seven Austrian ships were ironclads.
But the ironclad numbers weren’t the end of the Italian advantage. The ships that took part were powered by a mix of sail and steam. Like, each ship used both. Some ships were predominantly steam-powered but had sails to make them more efficient on long voyages, and some were sail-powered with small steam engines and paddles to help them quickly turn in combat. The ships predominantly powered by steam were generally more effective in combat, and Italy had a higher mix of those. And the Italian ships were generally larger, as well.
But most importantly, the Italian ships had larger guns and more rifled pieces. At the time, rifle-fired rounds and exploding rounds were about the only thing that could pierce iron armor. And by larger guns, we mean the largest Austrian guns were 48-pounders, and every piece of Italian naval artillery was larger.
So, the Italian ships were larger, better armed and armored, and technologically advanced. Guess the Italians won. Cool. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.
The Austrian wooden battleship Kaiser rams an Italian ironclad in the Battle. The ship left its figurehead behind after the clash.
Except, nope, just wait. Italy sent ships to capture the island of Lissa from an Austrian garrison on July 16, 1866. This assault was repelled, and the Italian ships returned on the night of July 19 to try again. The next morning, July 20, 1866, was rainy and the waters were covered in mist.
But the Italian fleet used the weather as a cover for their coming bombardment and landings right up until a dispatch vessel ran back to elements of the fleet with news that Austrian ships had reached the island. The Italian fleet had been split up to bombard multiple targets and land troops. They were not properly massed for a naval battle.
The Italians were unimpressed, though, and continued to focus on landing troops. With the technological and numerical advantage, it must have seemed that they could bat away any attempts at disturbing the landings.
Ships are designed with long bodies to minimize resistance and to give stability, but artillery works best when it’s deployed side-by-side with all the guns firing in support of one another. So, when one group of ships charges on another, the group firing broadsides can typically fire many more cannons than the group that is charging. So, seemingly, this would work to the Italians’ advantage.
But then the Italian admiral did something completely baffling. He changed flagships as the Austrians bore down on him. He would later claim that he did this so he would be on a faster ship that could more efficiently relay orders, but the Italian ship crews didn’t know about the change and so would look to the wrong ship for direction for most of the battle.
And then the Austrians got a second break. Their headlong charge was obscured as the naval guns opened fire and began to emit those huge clouds of smoke. The Austrian commander, Rear Adm. Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, charged through the smoke with most of his ships and suddenly realized that he had unwittingly passed through the Italian line of battle.
So the Italian fleet was receiving no clear orders from what the captains thought was the flagship, was obscured by smoke, and suddenly had an enemy literally sailing through their lines. The battle quickly descended into a tight mass of ships circling and firing on one another with little real coordination. As the smoke filled the air and everyone lost sight of nearly everything, it became tough for combatants to tell who they were supposed to fight.
An illustration shows Rear Adm. Wilhelm von Tegetthoff during the Battle of Lissa.
Von Tegetthoff, though, had issued an order that worked perfectly in this insanity. Remember, Austria’s largest guns in the battle were nearly useless for firing at armor plating. The 48-pound shells that were his most powerful projectile would still need a lucky shot to seriously damage an Italian ironclad. So, von Tegetthoff had ordered his ships to ram Italian vessels whenever the opportunity arose.
And so the spinning, chaotic, smoke-filled brawl that morning was perfect for them. It softened the impact of the Italian artillery advantage, and Austrian crews began ramming everything that looked vaguely Italian.
Yeah, the first clash of iron fleets descended into a battle of naval ramming, a tactic that had lost favor in the decades prior because rammings were hard to pull off as the ships required a lot of time and space to build up speed, but easy to avoid as the targeted vessel could pull out of the way or turn so that an otherwise lethal blow would be a glancing hit instead.
In the melee of Lissa, ships of both sides rammed each other, and gun crews fired on ships that they were locked into combat with. An Austrian battleship rammed an Italian vessel and left its figurehead, a statue of the emperor, in the enemy’s iron armor. The Austrian ship even caught fire when one of its masts broke, landed on its own smokestack, and then became overheated by the exhaust.
The Italian ship Re d’Italia sinks at the end of the Battle of Lissa.
(Carl Frederik Sørensen)
When the ships were exchanging shells, the Italians generally got the better of the exchanges as they could lob 300-pound shells from some guns. But the Austrian proficiency at ramming claimed a greater toll.
The heavy Italian ship rolled away, rolled back, and then sank in less than two minutes as sailors and marines struggled to escape the suction of the quickly sinking iron.
The fleets disentangled themselves. The Austrian forces had lost no ships, had only one badly damaged, and had suffered almost 200 casualties including 38 killed. The Italians had lost a prized ironclad and hundreds killed. Worse, a fire was spreading on another ironclad, the Palestro. Despite heroic efforts by the crew to save the ship, including flooding its powder magazines, a separate store of shells and powder was ignited.
The ship blew up like a massive bomb, sending parts of its plating and hull high in the air. Hundreds more Italian sailors died, and the wreckage sank within minutes. Italy had lost a second ironclad, and its death toll for the battle rose to 620. Not to mention, the shores of Lissa were now safe from the threatened Italian amphibious assault.
The aftereffect of Lissa was even weirder than the battle, though. The success of rams led to new ship designs that emphasized the weapon for decades, so even in World War I modern-ish battleships and many smaller vessels still carried iron rams at the waterline. And, maybe even more surprising, the Austrian success at Lissa had become moot before it was even fought.
The Austrian Empire had been decisively defeated on land at the Battle of Königgrätz by Prussian forces on July 3. Prussian forces on the continent kept pressure on Austria for the rest of July, and the war came to an end with Prussian victory.
Germanic tribes, and their Italian allies, were allowed to consolidate their peoples into new nations separate from the Austrian Empire. That empire renamed itself the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and, 48 years later, one of its archdukes was killed while riding in a car in the town of Sarajevo, less than 130 miles northeast of Lissa.
(Today, the island is part of Croatia and is known by its name in the Croatian language, Vis.)
Lt. Col. Cordelia “Betty” Cook was the first woman to earn both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
In an era when women were still protesting to earn the right to vote, Lt. Col. Cook rose through the military ranks to become one of the most highly decorated female service members of WWII. At a time when few women were serving, and those who were serving in active duty positions were segregated into “women’s only” units, her actions in combat highlighted not only her strength and resilience, but her dedication to duty and country. Here’s the story of how she earned both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
Born in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Cook was the middle of five children. Historical accounts of her early life are sparse, but it’s been suggested by military historians that Cook showed an aptitude for nursing early on. Her family encouraged her to pursue her education, so Cook attended Christ Hospital School of Nursing in Cincinnati, Ohio. She studied there for three years before becoming a surgical nurse and commissioning with the Army. Immediately after her commission, Cook was sent to Europe to aid and assist the medical corps already in place there.
Cook quickly became immersed in her work and was said to refuse time off, even when she was offered leave. She gained a reputation as being a kind and compassionate nurse who would go above and beyond the call of duty.
At the outset of the landing of Allied troops in Italy, the German forces were at a distinct advantage. Battles in the region were fierce and brutal, and the terrain favored the Germans, who used the Apennine Mountains to their advantage.
It was at her first duty station that Lt. Col. Cook’s field hospital where she worked was bombed. Despite the apparent danger to her own life, Cook did everything she could to administer medicine to the wounded.
In 1944, following the bombing of the field hospital where she worked, Cook was transferred to the 11th Field Hospital in the Presenzano sector of the Italian front.
The Presenzano sector’s importance
Allied personnel landed in Italy in September 1943. Within a month, they liberated Naples and crossed the Volturno River, effectively pinning down the German forces. However, by the end of the year, the German Army’s 23 divisions were reinforced and consisted of 215,000 troops in the south and 265,000 in the north. South of Rome, Germany had three major defensive lines: the Barbara Line, which stretched from Monte Massico to Presenzano; the Reinhard Line, forty miles north of Naples; and the Gustav Line, which interlocked defenses and spread along the narrowest point of the country.
Being stationed at the 11th Field Hospital in Presenzano meant that Lt. Col. Cook was at risk every time she reported for duty. Cook was awarded the Bronze Star for her work at the hospital. Shortly after being awarded the Bronze Star, Cook sustained a shrapnel injury from German artillery fire. Even though she was on duty, Cook completed her shift. For this, she earned the Purple Heart.
First woman to receive both awards
The Purple Heart Medal is presented to service members who have been wounded as a result of enemy actions. Since its creation in 1782, more than 1.8 million Purple Heart medals have been awarded to service members.
Like the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star Medal is awarded to service members for heroic or meritorious deeds performed while in armed conflict. The Bronze Star dates to WWII and is the fourth-highest ranking award a service member can receive.
After the war
Following the end of WWII, Cook returned to the Midwest, where she settled in Columbus, Ohio. She married Harold E. Fillmore, an Army Captain. Together, they had three children, a daughter and two sons. Lt. Col. Cook worked for almost thirty years as a nurse at Doctors Hospital North in Columbus, Ohio.
Lt. Col. Cook certainly paved the way for women of future generations and has helped inspire female service members across all military branches. The fact that she has been recognized for her valor during a war is a good start in bringing to light the valuable contributions of female service members.
It was Prussian philosopher and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in On War who said, “the culminating point of victory” is when an army has achieved its maximum possible gains relative to its political aims and the resources available. Everything that comes after that point is unnecessary and runs the risk of incurring a devastating, strategic loss.
It was Chinese philosopher and general Sun Tzu who said the first essential to victory is knowing when to fight and when not to fight. The second essential is knowing what to do when encountering an inferior force.
It was American philosopher and “Gambler” Kenny Rogers who said, “you got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
There have been a lot of amazing upsets in military history, but these losses were especially humiliating because they came at the hands of an ideological or geopolitical rival or just turned the bigger country’s military into a joke.
Arab Allies vs. Israel in the Yom Kippur War (1973)
Israel’s Arab neighbors, taking a page from Israel’s playbook, launched an all-out surprise attack on Israeli positions during the Jewish day of Atonement — the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Since it was also Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims, it was the most unlikely time to launch an attack.
Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and even freakin’ Cuba sent troops to fight the Israelis, effectively fielding three times as many soldiers and twice as many tanks and artillery pieces, all armed with the latest Soviet weapons. So, naturally, they crushed the IDF — right? Wrong.
Within a goddamn week, Israel’s artillery was shelling parts of Damascus. By the time the UN brokered a ceasefire (19 days later), the IDF was 99km from Cairo.
Soviet Union vs. Finland in The Winter War (1939)
Comrade Stalin was feeling pretty good about his chances of occupying Finland at the end of 1939. All the other dictators were invading smaller neighbors, so why not him? Well, the “why not” is the Finnish Army who really, really hated the Red Army. So, despite being outnumbered and facing down thousands of tanks with their paltry 32, the Finns went to work.
Most importantly, the Finns were ready to fight in waist-deep snow and freezing temperatures while the Russians, surprisingly, were not. Rather than use good equipment with superior tactics, Stalin threw thousands of troops at the Finns – who promptly killed as many as they could. When all was said and done, the Soviets took three times as many casualties as Finland and only “won” the war because they forced territorial concessions.
When World War II broke out, Finland immediately sided with Germany, invaded those concessions and inflicted another 305,000 deaths upon the Red Army.
India vs. Pakistan at the Battle of Longewala (1971)
In 1971, Pakistan also tried to take a page from the Israeli playbook, launching an all-out surprise attack on India. They moved 2,000 troops, a mobile infantry brigade, and 45 tanks to secure an Indian border post at Longewala. Unfortunately for the Pakistanis, there were 120 Indians at Longewala who would have none of it. They had one recoilless rifle and strike aircraft that couldn’t fly at night.
For hours, Pakistani artillery pummeled the Indians as tanks and infantry advanced. But the recoilless rifle was the perfect weapon against the T-59 tanks Pakistan was fielding – it turned the thin armor into Swiss cheese. They made easy targets, too, often getting stuck in the soft sand at the border post.
The advancing infantry got caught up in barbed wire and, thinking they’d walked into a minefield in the dark, flipped out. They waited two hours for minesweepers to clear the field of mines that didn’t exist. By that time, air support was on the way and the Pakistanis were lit up in full retreat.
Han Xin vs. Zhao Armies at the Battle of Jingxing (205 BC)
What happens when you put 30,000 troops against a force of 200,000? It should be a total rout. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
Sun Tzu’s fourth essential for victory is,
“He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.”
In this case, Han Xin prepared himself. The night before the battle, he sent 2,000 men, each carrying a red Han Xin battle flag, to the rear of the Zhao Army’s camp. Their orders were to occupy the camp as soon as the Zhao pressed their attack.
Xin also dug earthworks on the “wrong” side of a river, putting his back up against the natural feature. The position gave his men fortifications, but also left them no retreat. He marched his army out to meet the Zhao forces. When the fighting began, the Han forces feinted back to the earthworks. With no retreat, they fought like madmen.
Seeing that they weren’t going to take those fortifications right away, the Zhao called for a temporary fallback to regroup. When the Zhao Army saw the thousands of battle flags in their camp, they thought they were being flanked from the rear and promptly fell apart. The Han slaughtered 150,000 Zhao soldiers.
Romans vs. Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)
A wealthy, young Roman politician named Crassus allied himself with two of the biggest Roman military leaders — perhaps two of the biggest of all time: Julius Caesar, who needs no introduction, and Pompey the Great, who really earned that title. Not content with being just a political ally, Crassus wanted to make a name for himself militarily as well.
He did. But not how he expected he would.
Crassus, then Governor of Syria (conquered by Pompey), led an army of 43,000 legionnaires against the Parthian Empire, running them with no food or rest in order to surprise a mounted force of Parthians in the middle of Mesopotamia. He ran into 10,000 horse archers and some 1,000 heavily armored horsemen, called cataphracts. To defend his army, he formed them into a hollow square, the best defense against mounted units at the time.
Well, after a few hours of raining arrows on the Romans, the Parthians broke and ran, but it was a feint. As a part of the Roman Army broke off to pursue them, the Parthians (again) shot them with arrows. When the Romans were far enough away from the main force, the cataphracts slaughtered them.
When night fell, Crassus retreated to the nearby town of Carrhae. Parthians killed all the stragglers then cut off Crassus’ head during the next day’s “peace negotiation.”
This loss is particularly humiliating due to the fact that we still reference this battle to this day, with terms like “crass stupidity” and “parting shot.”
International diplomacy is a sort of constantly evolving, tangled mess. So much so that, in some cases, we could technically still be at war with a country that we’re now allied with. For instance, America never ratified the treaty that ended World War I, but invading Germany to finally settle the century-old grudge match would get fairly complicated since it’s now a NATO member. Here are three wars that we never bothered to wrap up on paper (but please don’t try to go fight in them):
U.S. Army infantrymen fight during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of World War I.
America never agreed to the final terms of World War I
Yup, we’ll just go ahead and knock out this one that we hinted at in the intro. America signed, but never ratified, the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.
Oddly enough, though, this wasn’t because of issues with the lay of the land in Europe as the war closed, or even land claims or military restrictions around the world. The actual issue was that American President Woodrow Wilson wanted to establish the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, and he used the treaty to do it.
But isolationists in Congress didn’t want America to join the league, and so they shot down all attempts to ratify the treaty at home. And America only officially adopts treaties when ratified, not signed, so America never actually agreed to the final terms of World War I.
Gurkha troops march to escort Japanese prisoners of war at the end of World War II in 1945.
(Imperial War Museums)
Japan and China never made peace after World War II
There are a number of still-simmering tensions between combatants from World War II, including the Kuril Islands Dispute between Russia and Japan.
(This author even once made the error of saying that Russia and Japan were still at war, which is only sort of right. While the two countries never agreed to a treaty ending the conflict, they did agree to a Joint Declaration in 1956 that had a similar effect. Essentially, it said they couldn’t yet agree to a treaty, but they were no longer fighting the war.)
But there was an Allied country that never reached peace with Japan: China. And China arguably suffered the worst under Japanese aggression. But, because of the civil war in China at the time, there were two rival governments claiming to represent China, and no one could agree on which government to invite. So China didn’t take part in the peace process at all.
So China and Japan never technically ended their hostilities, and Japan’s almost-peace with Russia is not quite finished either.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visits the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula in 2015.
(Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro)
The Koreas are, famously, still at war.
The ongoing state of conflict on the Korean Peninsula is probably the most famous issue on this list. The Korean War sort of ended on July 27, 1953, when the United Nations and the Delegation of the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers signed the Korean Armistice Agreement which instituted a truce between North and South Korea.
But, importantly, no national government agreed to the armistice or the truce. The militaries involved essentially agreed to stop killing each other, but the larger governments never came together to hash out the real peace. And this is a problem since the two countries have a much more tense relationship than any other group on this list.
America and Germany are not suddenly going to revert back to 1918 and start killing each other again. But South and North Koreans at the border still sometimes shoot at one another, and people have died in border clashes.
By 1944, the tides of the war in the Pacific had turned against the Japanese Empire. The United States and its allies repelled the Imperial Japanese Navy in critical battles like Midway, Milne Bay, and Guadalcanal. The stage was set for the U.S. to retake the Philippines in 1944, but the Japanese were getting desperate. Low on ships, manpower, and material, they turned to the one thing they had in abundance — zeal for the Emperor.
That zeal led to the surprise kamikaze attacks that have come to define the war in its closing days. The amazing video producers at AARP are dedicated to keeping the memory of veterans of every American war alive and their latest offering is the story of Phil Hollywood aboard the USS Melvin at the Surigao Strait in incredible 4K video.
The Melvin was a Fletcher-class destroyer, part of the U.S. 7th Fleet Support Force moving to help the Allied landing at Leyte. But first, they had to get through the 47-mile Surigao Strait. Waiting for them was a fleet of Japanese battleships ready to halt their advance and stymie the allied landing — and the famous return of General Douglas MacArthur to his beloved Philippine Islands.
Phil Hollywood was a young sailor who enlisted after Pearl Harbor at age 17. He was aboard the Melvin at Surigao and talked to AARP about his role as a Fire Controlman 2nd Class during what would become the last battleship-to-battleship combat in the history or warfare. The Melvin was his first assignment, a ship made of, essentially, engines, hull, and guys with guns.
“It was everything I ever wanted in a fighting ship,” he said. “Facing the enemy was everything. I didn’t think of anything else.”
Former U.S. Navy FC2 Phil Hollywood, a World War II Pacific veteran, looking at photos of destroyers from that era.
The Melvin was supposed to be looking for flights of Japanese planes via radar and alert the main landing area at Leyte. It was not safe to be on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II, even by the standards of that war. Some 77 destroyers were lost in the war and 17 of those were from kamikaze attacks. Hollywood’s battle station was at the top of the director, moving guns on target.
“There were moments I was afraid, not sure if I was going to live or die,” he told AARP. “But one thing’s for certain, I wanted to fight and save our ship. The patriotism was raging in my blood.”
World War II veteran Philip Hollywood enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 years old. He was just 19 when he took part in one of history’s greatest naval battles.
Hollywood recalled what it was like to face the kamikaze pilots in battle. The pilots were not well trained. For many, it was their first and last flights, and the planes were loaded up with weapons so traditional flight profiles weren’t really able to be used by the enemy pilots. It was a frightening experience. It seemed like no matter how much they threw at the pilots, they kept coming.
“During a kamikaze attack, being in the main battery directory, we were on telescopes,” he recalled. “It looked like he was coming down our throats. I was frightened, my heart was pounding, one looked like it was gonna hit us. We kept hitting him and hitting him… until I could see the flex of his wings breaking up.”
That was the moment he looked death in the face. Luckily, the plane crashed into the ocean. For Hollywood, it was both a sigh of relief and a moment to think about. Maybe the first thought other than avenging Pearl Harbor – which says a lot for the salty combat sailor Hollywood was by this time.
“It was a new experience,” he said. “Trying to kill an opponent who only wanted to kill you and not survive. Anyone at that time who says they weren’t scared… I don’t think they’re telling the truth.”
The Destroyer USS Melvin.
The Battle of Surigao Strait was really a part of the greater Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in military history. It put 300 American ships against some 68 Japanese ships. The Japanese had always believed that one great naval battle could knock the United States out of the war and win it for Japan. This was a must-win battle for both sides, and it showed. The fighting at every level was intense but only one side could come out on top, and it wasn’t the Japanese.
Surigao was just the beginning of the greater battle, and sailors like FC2 Phil Hollywood and the crew of the Melvin started off the biggest naval battle of all time, a battle that would rage on for three full days.
Soldiers and commanders are usually stuck with whatever equipment the procurement officers and civilian leaders are willing to buy for them, sometimes forcing troops to go into combat with outdated and inferior equipment.
But sometimes, those “outdated” weapons are actually just perfect for the fight. Here are five times that a supposedly obsolete weapon system saved the lives of its users:
1. Bayonets in Afghanistan and Iraq
Bayonets, most often associated with fighting in the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, actually played a key role in battles during the modern Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
But the A-10, a low and slow platform, made its operational debut in 1976, three years after the Yom Kippur War supposedly closed the books on them. Despite that, the A-10 has fought and survived in a number of contested environments, most notably Iraq where it has twice been a key part of American forces breaking the back of armored and anti-aircraft ground forces.
The women of Soviet Russia’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment, the Night Witches, flew in plywood and canvas biplanes through the best defenses that Nazi Germany had to offer, conducting multiple bombing missions per night to break up attacks against Soviet ground forces.
Their planes, the Polikarpov U-2 biplane, were underpowered and outgunned compared to the Luftwaffe’s modern air force. But the Night Witches used the biplanes to fly over German defenses nearly silently and drop bombs — they could only carry two at a time per plane — on Nazi positions.
On January 7, 1970, Lt. Cdr. Michael Hoff flew his Sidewinder A7A Corsair off the USS Coral Sea on an armed reconnaissance mission over Laos. After completing a strafing run near the city of Sepone, he came under heavy enemy automatic weapons fire and went down. An observer reported seeing a flash, which may have been the ejection seat leaving the aircraft, but search teams located neither a parachute nor a survivor.
Lt. Cdr. Michael Hoff was pronounced MIA that same day, promoted to commander while missing, and, sadly, was declared dead on November 16, 1978. His grieving wife, Mary Hoff, wanted the world to know that he and every other troop captured or declared missing in action would not be forgotten.
Who says randomly cold-calling the right people to get what you want never works?
Soon afterward, Mary Hoff joined the National League of POW/MIA Families, an organization founded by two wives of POW/MIA troops, Karen Butler and Sybil Stockdale. The group was quickly gaining traction in Washington, fighting for the U.S. government’s recognition of the importance of returning troops listed as either prisoners of war or missing in action.
As the group grew larger, Mary noticed that they were missing a symbol — something easily identified and immediately understood. She had an idea: a flag. Instead of going through the proper channels, she simply cold-called Annin Flagmakers, the oldest and largest flag-making corporation in the United States.
As prominent as the flag is in military culture, it only took two revisions from the original to get the version we know today.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)
The vice president of sales at Annin, Norm Rivkees, had no clue who the League of Families were at the time. During the phone call, Hoff explained everything, from who they were to what the flag should look like. Rivkees was impressed by her dedication and brought it up to the president of the company who immediately gave the idea the green light.
Rivkees contracted the job of designing the flag to Hayden Advertising who gave the task to graphic artist Newton F. Heisley. Heisley was an Army Air Corps veteran himself who flew a C-46 twin-engine transport during World War II. He drafted several designs, all in black and white, of a man’s profile with guards behind him.
His son, Jeffery Heisley, was serving in the Marine Corps and had recently returned home on leave. The younger Heisley had unfortunately been struck with hepatitis and was looking very sickly. The elder Heisley turned the misfortune into a positive as his son would make the perfect model for his design. The frail male profile that adorns today’s flag is that of Jeffery Heisley.
Newton, as a pilot, remembered his own fears from his flying days. He added the famous words, “You are not forgotten,” to the flag, to offer the reassurance he wished he had while serving. The design was then ready for approval.
That also makes the POW/MIA flag the only non-national flag to ever fly over a nation’s capitol building.
(Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson)
Mary Hoff and the League of Families loved the design and adopted it in 1972. Keep in mind that at this point, the flag was only intended to be used for the organization. Its prominence quickly grew within the military community throughout the 1970s and, by 1982, it was flown over Ronald Reagan’s White House.
The flag became an official national symbol through the 1998 Defense Authorization Act, which requires that the flag be flown outside most major government buildings, all VA medical centers, and all national cemeteries on POW/MIA Recognition Day, Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day.
A strange story about the Aussies facing off against Stinger missile-wielding kangaroos started circulating around the internet in 1999. The most interesting development was that the story proved to be true. Mostly.
The original story was about the Defence Science and Technology Organization’s Land Operations/Simulations division in Australia developing the realism of their exercise scenarios. As the story tells it, the programmers were supposed to add mobs of kangaroos to the simulation, making sure to program how they might scatter from low-flying helicopters.
Supposedly, the Australian programmers reused object code from a simulated infantry unit on the marsupials. The new kangaroos scattered from the helicopter, as programmed. Then, they reappeared behind a hill, armed to the teeth with Stinger missiles. The programmers apparently forgot to deprogram their infantry training.
Snopes, the website dedicated to investigating internet rumors, picked up this story in 2007. They found that the internet actually had the basic story right.
Dr. Anne-Marie Grisogono, head of the Simulation Land Operations Division at the Australian DSTO, told Snopes that programmers knew what they were doing. Heavily armed kangaroos became part of the simulation, weapons and all.
The Aussies thought it was hilarious, and not at all embarrassing.
“Since we were not at that stage interested in weapons,” Dr. Grisogono told Snopes, “we had not set any weapon or projectile types, so what the kangaroos fired at us was, in fact, the default object for the simulation, which happened to be large multicolored beachballs.”