Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’ - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

In the hours following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the forces of the Empire of Japan also struck a number of other strategic targets. But those weren’t surprise hit and run attacks. Japan’s army and navy invaded Thailand, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, the Gilbert Islands, Borneo, British Hong Kong, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. 

That was just in 1941. The following year, Japan also invaded New Guinea, Singapore, Burma, India, the Solomon Islands, Timor, Christmas Island and the Andaman Islands. 

The defenders of these Pacific possessions had mixed success in holding off or repelling their attackers, but many fell to the surprise attacks. In all the Japanese took 140,000 Allied prisoners during the war. An estimated 36,000 were sent back to Japan but many would not survive the trip.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
The Lisbon Maru was being used to transport Allied POWs when it was attacked, killing over 800 British prisoners.

One of the biggest reasons for this were the transports they were packed into. These notorious transports were called “Hell Ships” by the prisoners aboard them – and for a good reason. 

Prisoners taken by the Japanese were beaten and starved, if not killed outright when captured. Those who did survive captivity were often pushed into forced labor, used in mines and factories all over Imperial Japan and its newly-acquired territories. 

When prisoners were taken at any one of the battles fought to “acquire” the new Japanese possessions, Allied forces expected treatment in line with the rules regarding POWs under the 1929 Geneva Convention, which forbade their use in wartime production and hostilities against their home countries. The agreement before 1949 was intended not to punish those prisoners for being taken captive, but only to prevent their further participation in the war. 

When captured by the Japanese, however, POWs were not treated humanely as the Geneva Convention prescribed. The Japanese saw surrender as a dishonorable act and treated their prisoners as if they were dishonored. 

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Death March starting point marker in Mariveles, Bataan. During the Bataan Death March, many Allied POWs were beaten and killed by Japanese captors. (Image by Ramon F Velasquez, Wikipedia)

As a result, an estimated 40% of American prisoners taken by Japan died in captivity. The Hell Ships that transported them to all regions of the empire are indicative of why. Like the Bataan Death March and the conditions of tropical prisons on land, prisoners on hell ships endured the harsh treatment of their overseers, a lack of food and water, and all the diseases found among large groups of forcibly incarcerated people.

Unlike the prison camps and the death march, the prisoners aboard hell ships also had to contend with little access to air and proper ventilation. They had to endure the extreme heat of being held in a cargo hold. Worst of all, the ships also carried war supplies and auxiliary troops so they couldn’t be flagged as a non-combatant ship. 

As a result, hell ships were frequently targeted by Allied air and naval forces, meaning they (and the prisoners of war aboard them) could be strafed, torpedoed, and sunk but aircraft, submarines and other Allied naval ships.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Attack on Oryoku Maru on December 15, 1944 by a Hellcat fighter from USS Hornet (CV-12).

These attacks happened much more than anyone would like to admit. An estimated 20,000 Allied prisoners went down aboard the hell ships, targeted by friendly forces. If they were attacked or sunk, their treatment in the situation was not guaranteed. If they survived the attacks, some were killed trying to escape the incoming water. If they were allowed to escape the sinking ship, there was no telling if the Japanese would try to rescue them.

When they did escape the sinking ship and were rescued by the Japanese, they found themselves right back to being captive, often in just the same horrifying conditions they’d just escaped. 

At least 14 hell ships were sunk by the Allies during the war, killing thousands of Allied POWs.  

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the legendary Dam Busters crippled Germany

One of the most legendary successes of the Royal Air Force in World War II was a bombing raid that was written off for decades as a largely symbolic victory, but was actually a technically challenging operation that choked Nazi industry in 1943 and helped ensure that German factories couldn’t produce the materiel necessary to win.


Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

A Lancaster bomber with the special Upkeep bomb bay and bomb used in Operation Chastise in May, 1943.

(Royal Air Force)

The Dam Busters Raid, officially known as Operation Chastise, was the result of a series of bombing raids that hit target after target in the Ruhr region of Germany, but failed to significantly slow German industrial output. Planners needed a way to cripple German industry, and large-scale bombing wasn’t getting the job done.

So, they presented an alternative: Instead of attacking individual factories and areas, they’d wipe out an entire productive region with the destruction of key infrastructure. Some of the best and most obvious targets were the dams in the Ruhr region.

The dams fulfilled a few key roles. They channeled water to where it was needed, provided hydroelectric power, and kept thousands of acres of farmland protected for regular cultivation.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Workers construct tanks in factories in Germany during World War II. Factories like this one, and the factories that fed them raw materials, were targeted during Operation Chastise, the “Dam Busters Raid.”

Destroying the dam would wreak worse havoc, allowing flood waters to damage dozens of factories essential for everything from coke production to tank assembly as well as additional farmland. The raid would tip the scales of 1943 and 1944 — provided they could figure out how to pull it off.

And figuring it out would prove tough. This was before England’s “earthquake” bombs, so the weapons available at the outset of the raid were basically just normal gravity bombs. But hitting a narrow dam with a bomb is challenging, and even a direct hit on the top of the dam would be unlikely to actually cause any sort of breach.

It would take multiple strikes, potentially dozens, in almost the exact same spot to really break a dam from the top.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

An inert, practice bouncing bomb skips along the water in this video still from training drops by the Royal Air Force 617 Squadron. The bomb is one of the “Upkeep” munitions, the barrel-form of the weapon aimed at destroying German dams.

(Imperial War Museums)

But if the bomb could strike the dam, that would be much different. A bomb strike against the air-exposed side of the dam could heavily damage it, and a bomb in the right spot on the water side of the dam would cause the whole thing to shatter under the combined pressure of the blast and the water.

So, Britain went shopping for options, and they found a weapon under development by British engineer Barnes Wallis, who wanted to create a better bomb for taking out destroyers.

His thought was fairly simple: A bomb with the right shape and spin could skip across the water until it struck a ship. Then, the spin would drive the bomb underwater as it basically rolled itself down the outside of the ship. It would explode under the waterline with a payload much larger than a torpedo, dooming the ship. These became known as the “Bouncing Bombs.”

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

One of the flight crews from the Dam Busters Raid pose in July 1943. Their successful attack made the brand new 617 Squadron world-famous overnight and crippled German infrastructure.

(Royal Air Force)

His weapon was adapted slightly for Operation Chastise. The original “High Ball” design, basically a sphere, evolved into the “Upkeep” bomb, a more barrel-shaped weapon.

The British created an all-new squadron to conduct the mission, the 617. Pilots from across the Western Allies, including U.S., British Canadian, Australian, and Kiwi personnel, were assigned. The plan was for a low-level, nighttime raid targeting three dams in the valley. The squadron began intense training with the special bombs.

The most successful method they found was flying 60 feet above the water at 232 mph ground speed. While this gave the greatest chances of success and minimized the likelihood that surprised, tired anti-aircraft crews would get a shot at them, it also made for spectacularly dangerous and tricky flying.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

The dam at Edertalsperre in Germany after the Dam Buster raid. The hole in the dam was estimated to be 230 feet wide and 72 feet high.

(Bundesarchiv Bild)

At 9:28 p.m. on May 16, 1943, the 133 men took off in 19 bombers aimed at three separate and challenging targets. They flew in three waves and successfully breached two of the dams while damaging the third.

The next morning, the attacks were reported in Germany and England. Germany tried to downplay the results, and Britain played up the success. For a generation, the exact results were in controversy. Even British historians would claim that the attack was over-hyped.

But, newer research has revealed that the raid really was a stunning success, one that was quickly known in the region as the “Mohne Catastrophe.” Germany lost 400,000 tonnes worth of coal production in the month of May and had to divert thousands of forced laborers from the coast of Normandy and other sites to repair the damages.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

The English King George VI inspects the airmen of the 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, on May 27, 1943, after their widly successful mission.

(Royal Air Force)

The workers had to repair the physical dam before the fall rains or risk the region running low on water and electricity — even after the dam was repaired. They had to repair 100 damaged factories, not counting the 12 factories completely destroyed. Thousands of acres of farmland, necessary to feed the armies on the march, were ruined.

And, all of this came while the German army was desperately trying to stave off Soviet advances and just a year before the Normandy landings, increasing the chances of success there.

In other words, the mission was a stunning success. But it didn’t come without cost. Two bombers were lost on their way to the target. One struck the water’s surface and another hit electrical wires. Eight bombers were shot down.

53 Allied personnel were killed and another three captured.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This comic book legend fought Nazi panzers and earned a Bronze Star

Born Jacob Kurtzberg, the most influential comic book artist known to the world as Jack Kirby penned many of the most beloved superheros in today’s society.


The young Kirby found his calling at then Timely Comics, later known as Marvel Comics, by drawing in superheros. He and Joe Simon created a new patriotic hero and drew the iconic cover to what will be synonymous with comics in World War II. Captain America knocking the Hell out of Adolf Hitler in March 1941.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Duty called Kirby into the U.S. Army on June 7, 1942. He had created an inventory to be published in part of his absence, kissed his wife goodbye, and headed to Camp Stewart for Basic Training.

Being a small Jewish kid from New York, he had met people from across the country. People who had never traveled outside their family farm, Texans who never rode a horse, and everyone from every corner of the country. He did encounter antisemitism, but he credits working and living together as the moment that opened their eyes to how diverse the country really is.

Related: This is how the Army teaches you to ‘see green’ -not brown, black, or white

His unit, the Fifth Infantry Division, landed in Liverpool where he saw the devastation of the German Stukas. He was now ready to land on Omaha Beach ten days after D-Day.

And ready for his Marvel co-creator, Stan Lee, to give one of his best Cameos.General Patton got word that his unit was killed and arrived personally with replacements. Patton was livid when he learned that the outfit had just arrived just fine. The mix-up came about because of an error in the maps, so Kirby’s Lieutenant saw to correcting it. His lieutenant learned his soldier drew Captain America and many other comics and assigned Private Kirby the unenviable task of being a scout to draw the maps.

Kirby would create new maps or draw on existing maps locations of enemy and friendly activity. His markings of Axis’ 88 anti-armor cannons were used to clear the way for troops.

Kirby’s unit crossed much of Northern France and took heavy casualties. Sketching in a notepad was the only thing that could keep his nerves intact while he mapped out enemy locations. His unit even liberated a remote factory, turned concentration camp. This was one of the first provable concentration camps the U.S. came across.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Kirby and his wife, Roz, whom he wrote every day.

His maps would play a crucial role in the Battle of Metz, which he also personally fought in. Frozen by Himmler’s Panzers, he still fought them, referring to himself as a “Human Road Block.”

It was the unforgiving winter that sent him home. His feet had become purple with jungle rot and frostbite. It was so bad that he was rushed back to Paris and the doctors considered amputation. He was discharged in 1945, but not before being awarded a Combat Infantryman Badge and Bronze Star for all that he did in Europe.

Much of the information for this article can be found from The Kirby Museum and Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish, Jack Kirby’s Biography.

popular

The Wild West’s toughest lawman was born a slave

The real-world exploits of this U.S. Marshal sound like the stuff of legend, up there with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Except most of what you’ll hear about Bass Reeves is real. He escaped slavery in Texas by beating up his owner’s son. Then he lived among the natives in the Indian Territory of what is today Oklahoma. He memorized arrest warrants and always brought in the right criminal.

Bass Reeves was exactly what the Wild West needed.


Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

While he could neither read nor write, Reeves knew the Indian Territory. He escaped there after beating up his master’s son in a dispute over a card game. The need to survive led him to the tribes of the Cherokee, Seminoles, and Creek Indians, whom he befriended and lived with until the end of the Civil War made him a free man. While he was illiterate, his mind was like a steel trap, and his heart was as brave as they come. When U.S. Marshal James Fagan was tasked with cleaning up the Indian Territory of its felons and outlaws, his first hire was Bass Reeves.

Reeves was now the first black lawman west of the Mississippi River and was perfectly suited for duty in the Indian Territory, speaking their language and knowing the terrain. For 32 years, Reeves would bring in the most dangerous of criminals without ever being wounded in action, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Reeves and his Native American partner might have inspired “The Lone Ranger.”

 

At the end of his long, illustrious career, Reeves claimed to have arrested more than 3,000 felons and shot at least 14 outlaws dead during shootouts – he even had to arrest his own son for murder. Even though he claimed he’d never been hit by an outlaw’s bullet, there were times where they got the drop on the lawman. His favorite trick, one he used many times, was a letter ruse. When his quarry got the better of him, he would ask his captors to read him a letter from his wife before they shot him. Once the outlaws took the letter, Reeves used the distraction to draw his weapon and disarm or take down the bad guys.

His exploits were soon famous, and he earned the nickname “The Invincible Marshal” for all the times he’d escaped the jaws of death. Only at age 71 did death come for Bass Reeves – not in the form of an outlaw’s bullet, but rather kidney disease, in 1910.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Only one American ever spied for Japan during World War II

In February 1942, American postal censors intercepted a strange letter that had been returned from an address in Argentina. Supposedly sent from an address in Springfield, Ohio, the postmark read that it was sent from New York City and it contained strange passages. The censors handed the letter over to the FBI. 

That letter and others like it were addressed to and returned from the same undeliverable address in Argentina. All of them contained bizarre statements. When the FBI investigated the letters, they turned up the only American to hand over intelligence to Japanese during World War II. 

The United States was fighting for its life against the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany. The wounds from the attack on Pearl Harbor were still fresh and internally, the U.S. was doing everything in its power to clamp down on spies and informants in the homeland. 

One of the means of securing wartime information was the use of postal inspectors who would read and censor mail. When they came across a returned letter addressed to an Inez Lopez de Molinali of Argentina, they read it. It made little sense to them.

“The only three dolls I have are three love Irish dolls. One of these dolls is an old fisherman with a net over his back, another is an old woman with wood on her back and a third is a little boy.”

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
One of the bizarre letters turned in to the FBI (Image courtesy of FBI.gov)

Postal inspectors turned up five letters, all returned and all addressed to Senora Molinali. Only the letter supposedly from a Springfield, Ohio address was not in the American west. A couple of them had postmarks that were different from the return address. They were full of strangely-worded paragraphs that, on the surface, appeared to be about doll repairs.

“I just secured a lovely Siamese Temple Dancer, it had been damaged, that is tore in the middle. But it is now repaired and I like it very much. I could not get a mate for this Siam dancer, so I am redressing just a small plain ordinary doll into a second Siam doll…”

When the FBI got hold of all five letters, they were able to determine that the signatures on the letters were fakes and the people who allegedly sent them had no idea who Inez Molinali was nor did they know anyone in Argentina. They were doll collectors, however, and they all had one doll-related fact in common: Velvalee Dickinson’s doll shop. 

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Portrait of Velvalee Dickinson (Wikipedia)

Dickinson was a Stanford-educated divorcee who moved from San Francisco to New York City in 1937. Dickinson and her third husband were keeping the books for Japanese clients when they fell on hard times. They moved to New York for a fresh start, where Velvalee opened a new doll shop on Madison Avenue. 

To drum up business, Velvalee advertised in a couple of national magazines and began corresponding by mail with doll collectors across the country – five of which had sent letters to Argentina. 

The FBI determined that all the letters with forged signatures were written on the same typewriter, and thus were likely from the same person. When given to cryptographers who studied the words and the dates of the letters, the code became apparent. The “dolls” in the letters corresponded to ships of the U.S. Navy sent to various ports for repairs. 

“Siam Dolls” were aircraft carriers, a tear in the middle meant a torpedo hit, the “old woman with wood on her back” was a wooden-decked warship, fishermen’s nets were actually anti-submarine nets, and so on. 

When the FBI raided Velvalee Dickinson’s doll shop they found a large sum of money and a lavish lifestyle that being a dollmaker during World War II just was unlikely to support. A deeper investigation found that her former Japanese clients were diplomats. Her participation in Japanese society before the war led her to prominent Japanese officials, including the Consul General and the Japanese Naval Attache in Washington, DC.They had approached her to provide this information before the war began. 

Dickinson was charged on May 5, 1944 of violating the espionage statutes, the Registration Act of 1917, and censorship statutes. She pleaded not guilty, claiming it was her husband who was the real spy. Her husband had fallen ill, however and nurses and caretakers said he did not have the mental capacity to conduct anything at the time, let alone espionage.

So Velvalee Dickinson accepted a plea bargain and was the only American who spied for the Japanese Empire after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Or at least, she was the only one who was ever caught.

MIGHTY TRENDING

The first Muslim Green Beret was also in Iran’s Special Forces

The first time Changiz Lahidji joined a Special Forces unit, his loyalty was to Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. But he found himself guarding lavish parties in the middle of the desert, protecting the opulent ruler of Imperial Iran and his guests. It wasn’t exactly the life of adventure that John Wayne movies led him to believe he could have.

He didn’t stay in service to the Shah for very long. It seemed like a waste. So, he moved to California, working in family-owned gas stations until November, 1978. That’s when he joined the Army and became an instrument of destruction — for the United States.


Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Master Sergeant Changiz Lahidji in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. He was the first Muslim Green Beret and longest-serving Special Forces soldier in history with 24 years of active service. (Changiz Lahidji)

The late 1970s were not a good time to be from the Middle East and living in the U.S., even if you’re in the Army. He had to constantly endure racism from his fellow soldiers, even though they couldn’t tell the difference between an Arab and a Persian. It didn’t matter, Lahidji pressed on and finished Special Forces training. Less than a year later, he was wearing the coveted Green Beret and by December 1979, he was on his first mission.

He was on his way back to Iran.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Changiz Lahidji standing guard during the Shah’s celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. (Changiz Lahidji)

In November, 1979, students in Tehran seized the U.S. embassy there, taking 52 federal employees and U.S. troops hostage. Lahidji wasn’t about to wait for the military to get around to assigning him to help. He wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter, offering his unique skills, knowledge of Tehran, and native Farsi to the task. He wanted to choose his A-Team and get to Iran as soon as possible.

The U.S. military was happy to oblige. He wasn’t going to lead an A-Team, but he had an Iranian passport and he went into Tehran ahead of Operation Eagle Claw in order to get advance knowledge of the situation on the ground and to rent a bus to drive hostages and operators out after they retook the embassy. After the disaster at Desert One, he was forced to smuggle himself out aboard a fishing boat.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Master Sgt. Changiz Lahidji, U.S. Army. (Changiz Lahidji)

After Iran, he didn’t have to worry about being accepted by his fellow Green Berets. He was one of them by then.

He writes about all of his worldly adventures in some 33 countries in his memoir, Full Battle Rattle: My Story as the Longest-Serving Special Forces A-Team Soldier in American History. In it, you can read about him helping to bust drug rings in Spain, capture the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing, and what it was like on the ground during the “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Mogadishu, Somalia. He was there for all of it.

But it wasn’t the only time his Iranian background would come to the aid of U.S. forces. In 2003, some 24 years after the failure of Eagle Claw, Lahidji was in Tora Bora, dressed as a farmer and working for a U.S. private contractor. There, he would personally identify Osama bin Laden. When he went to the American embassy to report his finding, the U.S. seemed to take no action.

Lahidji does a lot of private contractor work these days. After spending so much time traveling and in service to the United States — he’s done more than 100 missions in Afghanistan alone — he looks back on his time in the service as a privilege. Army Special Forces gave Changiz Lahidji the brotherhood and adventure he always dreamed of as a secular, middle-class child growing up in Iran.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Epic tale of Rhodesian Commandos gets a reprint

It has been 32 years ever since Chris Cocks first published his acclaimed book narrating his experiences with the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI). Now, five editions later, he is reprinting his masterpiece.

But it’s not just a reprint. Cocks has gone in and re-wrote the book to make it even better.


“Over the last three decades, the book has undergone around five editions with various publishers, some good, some not so good,” said Cocks “I decided, therefore, to re-write the book and take out a lot of fluff and waffle, and then self-publish.”

The Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1980) was a small but intense Cold War conflict. The Rhodesian government was faced by a Communist insurgency that had shrewdly sold itself in the international community as a liberation front aiming to end White-rule in the Southern African country.

Formed in 1961, the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) was an airborne all-white unit focused on direct action operations. (Most units in the Rhodesian military were mixed, usually Black soldiers led by White officers; the RLI and the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) were some of the few all-White outfits.) Three years later, in 1964, the unit was retitled to 3 Commando, The Rhodesian Light Infantry, to better reflect its Special Operations role.

The unit was broken down to four Commandos of 100 men each and a headquarters company. The majority of the RLI troopers were Rhodesian regulars or reserves. There was, however, a significant foreign presence (Americans, French, Germans, British, Australians, New Zealanders).

“As a 20-year-old lance-corporal, I found myself in command of a troop (a platoon),” he recalls. “As a junior NCO, I never lost a man in combat, but I think that was luck. But I’m still proud of that.”

The airborne capabilities of the unit paired with its lethality made the RLI the bane of the communist insurgents. It is estimated that as part of Fire Force missions, which were introduced in 1974, the RLI killed 12,000 insurgents. At some point during the Bush War, the operational tempo was so high, that RLI troopers were conducting three combat jumps a day. Rapid deployment of troops was key to the Fire Force concept. Jumps, thus, were made at 300-500 feet without reserve parachutes. Indeed, they were flying so low that as the last jumper of the stick exited the aircraft, the first hit the ground. To this day, an RLI trooper holds the world record for most operational jumps with an astounding 73.

Chris Cocks’ book provides an original account of the Rhodesian Bush War. Several pictures breathe life into the men and their feats. The illustrations on the Fire Force are elucidating. Perhaps what sets Cocks’ book apart from similar narratives is its dual nature: a lover of narrative history will gain as much as a student of military history. (I’ve personally used Cocks’ book as a primary source for a paper that was published in the West Point’s military history journal.)

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

The cover of the latest edition.

Dr. Paul L. Moorcraft, a British journalist and academic who has written extensively on the Rhodesian Bush War, said that “Cocks’s work is one of the very few books which adequately describes the horrors of war in Africa … Fire Force is the best book on the Rhodesian War that I have read… it is a remarkable account that bears comparison with other classics on war … a tour de force.”

Cocks first wrote the book in the mid-1980s. He sought to understand why so many had died (over 50,000 dead on both sides) and why Zimbabwe had fallen to Communism. “Essentially, we lost not only the war, but our country,” said Cocks. “For what? I needed to record that, somehow. To be honest, I just started writing, with no particular end point in mind. It all came tumbling out.”

This is a book worth reading. You can purchase it on Amazon.

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


Articles

This insane cavalry charge inspired Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper”

“Forward, the Light Brigade! ‘Charge for the guns!’ he said: Into the valley of Death. Rode the six hundred.”

This was part of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem about how much of a cluster f*** the Battle of Balaclava truly ended up being. It is also the subject of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper.”


The song directly states, “And as I lay forgotten and alone. Without a tear I draw my parting groan,” as a tribute to unnamed troops who were killed that day. In the many years that have since passed, letters have been discovered of first hand testimony of the ill-fated battle.

From 1853-1856, French, British, and Ottoman forces fought against the Russian Empire in the Crimean War. Conflict began after the Russians occupied Ottoman territory in modern day Romania. Within this war, the most infamous battle was at Balaclava where “The Charge of the Light Brigade” took place.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
(Photo via Wikimedia)

Under the command of Maj. General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, the light cavalry brigade consisted of roughly 670 men. Lord Raglan, the Commander of the British forces, intended to prevent Russian troops from maintaining their guns on Ottoman positions.

 

Related: The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

There are many historical discrepancies on who ordered the actual charge, but the fact remains: the cavalrymen charged directly into enemy cannons, killing roughly a sixth of brigade and another sixth wounded, totaling 271 casualties.

It was later discovered that the Russians numbered 5,240 strong.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Officer of the 17th Lancers (Painting via Cranston Fine Arts)

An unknown officer of the 17th Lancers wrote in a recently discovered letter, “We all knew the thing was desperate before we started, and it was even worse than we thought. However there was no hesitation, down our fellows went at a gallop — through a fire in front and on both flanks, which emptied our saddles and knocked over our horses by scores. I do not think that one man flinched in the whole Brigade — though every one allows that so hot a fire was hardly ever seen.”

The loyalty of the British cavalry became well respected. The London Gazette wrote of the charge weeks after. While the commanders became despised, the troops were revered for their courage in the face of certain death.

Private Pearson of the 4th Light Dragoons wrote to his parents, “I shall never forget the 25th of October — shells, bullets, cannonballs, and swords kept flying around us. Dear Mother, every time I think of my poor comrades it makes my blood run cold, to think how we had to gallop over the poor wounded fellows lying on the field of battle, with anxious looks for assistance — what a sickening scene!”

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
(Photo by Roger Fenton via Wikimedia)

Roger Fenton is regarded as one of the first war photographers and was present at the charge. Fenton refused to photograph dead or wounded as to not upset Victorian Era sensibilities, but he did capture troops and many moments after.

This photo that J. Paul Getty Museum called “one of the most well-known images of war” shows the aftermath of cannonballs that littered the landscape. The photograph titled “Valley of the Shadow of Death” has been on exhibition with the over 300 other images of the Crimean War

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
(Photo by Roger Fenton via Library of Congress)

Today, the Light Brigade is remembered in the song “The Trooper.” Bruce Dickinson frequently on tour wears the British “red coat” smock as he waves a war-torn Union Jack. There has never been a more appropriate time to form a wall of death in the mosh pit.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
(Photo via Wikimedia)

Check out Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” here, in all its glory:

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Battle of the Crater turned a brilliant plan into self-inflicted defeat

During one of the final and most important sieges of the Civil War, a combination of racism towards black troops, concern for appearances, and sheer blinding incompetence and cowardice led to the bloody disaster that was the Battle of the Crater.


The Confederate Army was engaged in a last ditch defense of Petersburg, Va., the logistics and rail hub that supplied the forces defending their capital at Richmond, against the Union Army under command of General Ulysses S. Grant. Once Petersburg fell, the war was as good as over.

The siege had turned into trench warfare that presaged World War I. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s mastery of field fortifications and defense in depth had made offensive operations by the Union against entrenched Confederate troops a terribly bloody endeavor. The siege was at a stalemate, and new tactics were called for.

The Union 48th Pennsylvania Regiment was largely drawn from coal country, and its commander, Col. Henry Pleasants, was convinced they could dig a long mine under the rebel lines and use blasting powder blow to a large hole in their fortifications. A four-division assault force would then seize the heights overlooking Petersburg, greatly shortening the siege. His corps commander, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, endorsed the plan.

The operation was conducted with a strange mix of brute force labor and a strategic lassitude from higher command, and suffered from a chronic lack of logistical support. Most of the Union leadership, from Grant on down, was skeptical of the plan, and saw it as a way to keep the soldiers busy at best.

The 4th United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Gen. Edward Ferraro was specially trained to lead the assault, specifically to flank the crater on both sides. But Gen. George Meade, commander of the Union Army at the battle of Gettysburg, thought little of the plan and the abilities of the black troops to carry it out.

He also voiced concerns to Grant that if the attack failed, it would look as if black soldiers had been thrown away as cannon fodder. Grant agreed, Burnside inexplicably had his division commanders draw lots, and Brigadier Gen. James Ledlie drew the short straw.

It was bad enough that the last minute change brought in badly unprepared troops for a tricky attack, but Ledlie had the distinction of being one of the most drunken cowards in the Union officer corps. This was to have terrible consequences.

Union troops operating north of Petersburg had drawn off most of the Southern troops, leaving the line weakened, and the time was ideal for the assault. After months of labor and the emplacement of more than four tons of blasting powder under the Confederate fortifications, the attack began with triggering the explosives at 4:45 a.m. on June 30, 1864.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Illustration of the explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg—July 30th 1864. (Public Domain)

The resulting blast was the largest man-made explosion in history up to that point. A massive mushroom cloud, which sent men, horses, artillery, and huge amounts of earth flying into the air, left a crater 130-feet long, 75-feet wide, and 35-feet deep. The explosion killed a full third of the South Carolina unit defending the strongpoint, over 200 men, in an instant. The concussive force of the explosion left the rest of the brigade stunned for at least 15 minutes.

Despite the spectacular success of the mine blast, the assault started to go wrong from the beginning. Ledlie was drunk and hiding in a bunker in the rear, and his leaderless division ran into the crater instead of around it, milling about uncertainly. Other units pouring into the attack only added to the chaos.

The recovered Confederate troops laid a kill zone around the crater, keeping the Union troops pinned down, and fired everything from rifles to mortar shells into the packed troops stuck in the blast zone. The 4th USCT, despite being relegated to the second wave, penetrated farther than anyone, but suffered severely in the process.

After holding out for hours, a final counterattack by a Confederate brigade of Virginians routed the still numerically superior Union forces, which suffered appalling casualties, and many were taken prisoner.

There are many Southern eyewitness accounts of black prisoners being summarily shot down by Confederate troops, and the particularly severe casualty rates suffered by the black units seem to bear this out. Even some Union soldiers were reportedly involved in the killings, driven by fear of the Confederate warnings of reprisals for fighting alongside black soldiers. The shouting of “No Quarter!” and “Remember Fort Pillow!” by the black troops during their charge was also later cited as a justification for the executions by the Confederacy.

Burnside and Ledie were both relieved of duty after the disaster, though Burnside was later cleared by Congress since it was Meade who decided to replace the USCT at the last moment. Burnside never held a significant command again.

The supreme irony of the battle was that despite the efforts to spare the lives of black troops from politically inconvenient slaughter, the utter failure of the lead wave to force the breach lead to terrible casualties for the black units they had replaced. Gen. Grant later said “it was the saddest affair I witnessed during the war.”

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
NPS marker depicting details of the mine. (Pi3.124, Wikipedia)

The siege would drag on for another eight months, and Petersburg’s fall led to the prompt surrender of Richmond, precipitating Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. The Crater remains a prime example of a brilliant plan spoiled by incompetent execution.

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The 8 coolest things ever said in wartime

There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a movie where the good guy says some really dope stuff right before he takes out the bad guy – but that doesn’t happen in real life, does it? It DOES. Throughout the history of warfare, those who have chosen warfighting as their profession have kept cool enough under fire to reply, retort, and rebuff their enemies with a weapon as lethal as firearms and blades – a silver tongue.


Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Daniel K. Inouye

“Nobody called off the war!”

Inouye had just pulled off some epic, Medal of Honor-winning fighting, which included being gutshot, taking a frag grenade blast, and being shot in the leg and arm. He told his men to hold back while he went off and cleared the area. He was successful in breaking the confidence of the enemy. He said this as he was moving to get back to the aid station when reinforcements began to arrive in order to keep the men on target. He would lose that arm.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington,

“I have seen their backs before, Madam.”

This incredibly awesome line wasn’t technically made in wartime. It was made by a wartime Field Marshal, however, by the name of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. While at an event in Vienna, he was asked about how he felt about French Generals turning their backs on him at a conference in Vienna. This was his reply when asked about the event.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

“Men, I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.”

The founding father of modern-day Turkey was actually a wordsmith of the highest caliber. He rose to power and reformed the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I, but he rose to prominence defending Turkish lands during the battle for Gallipoli. This was his order to the 57th Infantry Regiment defending Gallipoli.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“No damn man kills me and lives to tell about it!”

What makes this quote so epically cool is that Forrest was shot and wounded by a fellow officer, a subordinate of his. Even though Forrest would survive the wound, he said this before taking his turn to shoot back. Forrest survived. The officer did not.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Todd Beamer

“Let’s roll.”

United Flight 93 passenger probably never predicted such an offhand remark might one day become synonymous with that day and the American resolve to defeat terrorism. This is what he told his fellow passengers right before they all fought to recapture their airplane and try to avoid crashing into something important. Instead, they opted to down it in a rural field.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

General George S. Patton.

“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no one because I am the most evil man in the valley.”

Yeah, Patton had a lot of cool things to say in combat. But nothing tops this one-liner. Patton was a religious man, growing up in California, he was a regular at his local church, which helps the street cred for this sentence. What also helps is that Patton didn’t care if the enemy thought he was evil or not – he was coming, and he knew the enemy was afraid.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Genghis Khan

“If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

The Great Khan was ruthless in his efficiency, brave in his execution, and fearsome until the very end. Khan accumulated an empire that would be the largest on Earth until the British Empire reached its apogee. Until then Khan controlled 17 percent of the Earth surface, killing so many people, it led to global cooling.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Sgt. Maj. Daniel Daly

“Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?!”

Of course, leave it to a United States Marine to top this list of dope sh*t said in the face of certain death. There are few Marines as storied as Sgt. Major Daniel Daly one of a very short list of people to earn the Medal of Honor. Twice. Daly said this at the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood, where Marines earned their nickname “Devil Dogs.”


Feature image: U.S. Army

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here’s how the Battle of the Coral Sea would go down today

The Battle of the Coral Sea is notable for being the first naval battle in which ships fought without ever sighting the enemy fleet. This means that all the fighting was done with aircraft — the ships themselves never exchanged fire.

But how would that same carrier battle play out today?


Let’s assume for the sake of this thought experiment that the United States is operating a pair of carriers, like USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) and USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), with a pair of Ticonderoga-class cruisers and eight Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Let’s not forget the support from Australia and New Zealand — today, that’d be one Hobart-class destroyer and three Anzac-class frigates (two Australian, one from New Zealand) joining the escort.

The likely opponent? Let’s say the People’s Liberation Army Navy has sent both of their Kuznetsov-class carriers, escorted by four Type 52C destroyers and four Sovremennyy-class destroyers.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
This map shows how the original Battle of the Coral Sea went down.
(U.S. Army)

 

The Chinese carriers would be operating at somewhat of a disadvantage from the get-go. The American-Australian force would have the benefit of land-based maritime patrol planes, like the P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon, as well as radar planes, like the E-3 Sentry and E-2 Hawkeye. These planes would likely find the Chinese carriers and get a position report off. The pilots would be heroes. Unfortunately, a J-15 Flanker would likely shoot them down quickly thereafter.

By this point, though, the Carl Vinson and Gerald R. Ford are going to be launching their alpha strikes on the Chinese carriers. Each of these carriers will be operating 36 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and a dozen F-35C Lightnings. This strike will likely be done in conjunction with some B-1B Lancers operating from Australia or some other land base.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
The Liaoning would be at a disadvantage in a present-day Battle of the Coral Sea.
(Japanese Ministry of Defense)
 

The Chinese J-15s will fight valiantly, but the American carrier-based fighters will probably wipe them out – though they’ll suffer some losses in the process. The Chinese force will, however, be hit by a number of AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles. The carriers will be sunk or seriously damaged, left stranded a long way from home. One or both may even be sunk by submarines later (an American submarine tried to attack the damaged Shokaku after the Battle of the Coral Sea, but failed to get in position).

Ultimately, as was the case in the first Battle of the Coral Sea, the United States would win. This time, though, it would be a much more unequivocal victory.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Their first battle: Ulysses S. Grant charges to victory

It was the first major battle of the U.S.-Mexican War. President James K. Polk’s attempts to annex Texas and buy the lands west of the amiable state had failed, and the Army was sent in under Gen. Zachary Taylor to force the issue, starting at the Battle of Palo Alto where a young West Point graduate would first face the guns of the enemy.


Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Then-Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, at left. Grant and Lt. Alexander Hays fought together in Mexico and later in the Civil War where Hays was killed.

(Public domain, retrieved from University of Texas Arlington)

Cadet Ulysses S. Grant had been an underwhelming student, graduating 21st in a class of 39 students in 1843. But even the lowest West Point graduate commissions as a lieutenant, and Grant was sent to be the quartermaster in the 4th Infantry despite having proven himself as an adept horseman.

The young lieutenant was in the line of battle on May 8, 1846, when U.S. federal troops baited Mexican troops into attacking and beginning hostilities. He would complain late in life that he thought the war was unjust and that Polk was wrong to have provoked it, but in 1846 he was just a lieutenant ordered to fight with his men.

Palo Alto was named for the tall trees in the area, and Mexican artillery and cavalry numbering almost 4,000 men and 12 artillery pieces had positioned themselves on a hilltop near these trees. The U.S. forces arrayed against them had almost 2,300 troops and only 8 artillery pieces, and they had to march through tall grass and up the slope to attack.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

An illustration shows U.S. troops engaging Mexican soldiers at the Battle of Palo Alto.

(Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot)

The reluctant lieutenant noted the enemy’s arms and superior numbers in his memoirs, saying:

As I looked down that long line of about three thousand armed men, advancing towards a larger force also armed, I thought what a fearful responsibility General Taylor must feel, commanding such a host and so far away from friends.

But Grant’s memoirs also provide a window of hope for the U.S. forces. Though outnumbered, they had a clear technological advantage:

an army, certainly outnumbering our little force, was seen, drawn up in line of battle just in front of the timber. Their bayonets and spearheads glistened in the sunlight formidably. The force was composed largely of cavalry armed with lances. Where we were the grass was tall, reaching nearly to the shoulders of the men, very stiff, and each stock was pointed at the top, and hard and almost as sharp as a darning-needle.

So the men were in tall, sharp grass like they were advancing through a sea of rapiers, but their enemy was relying on lances to pierce through the infantry. Lances were a dangerous weapon at the time, but disciplined infantry could still give better than they got under lance attack if they stayed in formation and fired when the horsemen were close.

But if they broke and ran, lancers would slice through the lines and gut one man after another.

As Grant and the men advanced, the Mexican artillery was the first to fire, but they opened fire when the U.S. lines were still too far away, and the grass proved itself to be quite useful to the Yanks.

As we got nearer, the cannon balls commenced going through the ranks. They hurt no one, however, during this advance, because they would strike the ground long before they reached our line, and ricocheted through the tall grass so slowly that the men would see them and open ranks and let them pass. When we got to a point where the artillery could be used with effect, a halt was called, and the battle opened on both sides.
Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’

Major Ringgold, an artillery officer, was killed at the Battle of Palo Alto.

(Public domain)

It was at this point that the U.S. artillery advantage showed itself. The infantry on either side could still inflict little damage as they were too far apart for accurate musket fire. But while the U.S. soldiers were barely in the effective range of Mexican artillery, American artillery could reach further and with greater effect.

The artillery was advanced a rod or two in front of the line, and opened fire. The infantry stood at order arms as spectators, watching the effect of our shots upon the enemy, and watching his shots so as to step out of their way. It could be seen that the eighteen-pounders and the howitzers did a great deal of execution. On our side there was little or no loss while we occupied this position.

For most of the day, Grant and the infantry would trade limited shots with the enemy infantry while their artillery punished the Mexican forces. The U.S. did suffer losses; Grant makes note of two artillery officers hit nearby, one of them killed. The Mexican cavalry tried to turn the U.S. flank, but disciplined infantry fire drove them back. The limited U.S. infantry advances and the punishing artillery fire made good effect, and the Mexican forces began to withdraw before sunset.

Grant went forward under fire to occupy the vacated positions and saw the effects of Mexican artillery at close range.

In this last move there was a brisk fire upon our troops, and some execution was done. One cannon-ball passed through our ranks, not far from me. It took off the head of an enlisted man, and the under jaw of Captain Page of my regiment, while the splinters from the musket of the killed soldier, and his brains and bones, knocked down two or three others, including one officer, Lieutenant Wallen,—hurting them more or less. Our casualties for the day were nine killed and forty-seven wounded.

When Grant and the U.S. forces advanced the next day, they found that their enemy had departed. The Battle of Palo Alto was over with a decisive U.S. victory. But there was a lot of war left to fight, and Grant was at or near the front for most of the major battles, serving under Gen. Taylor for the start but transferring to Gen. Winfield Scott’s command in 1847 before the battles of Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec.

During these engagements, he was twice promoted by brevet for bravery, reaching the rank of brevet captain.

Articles

3 heroes who became POWs twice

There is no easy time to be a prisoner of war.


The United States military’s code of conduct implores captured service members to continue to resist by any means possible. This often means reprisals from one’s captors. Therefore, surviving one stint in a POW camp can be excruciating.

To do it twice is unimaginable — except these three American servicemen did it.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
The United States Code of Conduct is memorized by service members to act as a touchstone and a guide if captured. (Department of Defense)

1. Wendall A. Phillips

Phillips was assigned to the Air Transport Command as a radio operator on C-47 aircraft flying from bases in England.

While in Europe Phillips survived five separate crashes. During the last one, in late 1944, his aircraft was shot down. Though he walked away from the crash, he was unable to evade the Germans and was captured.

He and his fellow crewmembers were taken to a German POW camp in Belgium.

Phillips had no intention of sticking around though. After just 33 days Phillips and two other POW’s made a break for it.

Also read: Bob Hoover stole a Nazi plane to escape from a POW camp

Phillips simply snuck away while no guards were around. Finding a hole in the electric fence around the camp, Phillips and the other two men made good their escape and quickly found a place to hide.

Phillips travelled for three days before he linked up with the French Underground. The resistance fighters helped Phillips make it back to American lines.

After returning to American forces, Phillips was reassigned to the China-India-Burma Theater flying “the Hump” to bring supplies to forces fighting the Japanese.

Once again, Phillips’ airplane crashed and he was captured by the enemy.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
POWs at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel in Germany welcome their liberators, April 16, 1945. (Imperial War Museum Photo)

According to an article in The Morning Call, Phillips endured torture at the hands of the Japanese — they even forcibly removed his fingernails trying to get information out of him.

Phillips would not escape this time but he would survive his ordeal as a POW; he was released with the Japanese surrender in 1945.

2. Felix J. McCool

When Gen. Wainwright conveyed the American surrender in the Philippines to President Roosevelt, he said, “there is a limit to human endurance, and that limit has long since been passed.” But Gen. Wainwright was certainly not speaking for one Marine sergeant, Felix J. McCool.

McCool was still recovering from wounds he had received earlier in resisting the Japanese when he, the 4th Marine Regiment, and the rest of the defenders of Corregidor were rounded up and shipped off to internment.

Just getting there was bad enough as the captives were crammed into cattle cars so tightly that when men passed out or died they could not even fall down.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
POWs in the Pacific Theater endured horrific conditions. Pictured here are men on the Bataan Death March with their hands bound behind their backs; later this would be labeled as a Japanese War Crime. (U.S. National Archives)

But for McCool, being a Marine meant that he was not out of the fight. He did everything in his power to resist his Japanese captors.

While working as forced labor on an airfield McCool and his fellow prisoners created a tiger trap on the runway — they later watched as a Japanese airplane crashed and burned due to their handiwork.  

McCool also managed to smuggle in medical supplies to help the sick and wounded.

He did this despite the constant threat of beatings and even summary execution. He carried on despite the horrendous conditions in the camp.

But there was worse to come.

McCool next endured a brutal voyage to Japan aboard a Japanese prisoner transport vessel, known as a “hell ship.” McCool survived the hellacious conditions only to be put to work in an underground coal mine. There he continued his resistance by sabotaging the work and keeping the faith with his fellow prisoners.

After thirteen months in the coal mine, McCool was freed by the ending of the war in the Pacific.

He returned to the United States and decided to stay in the Marine Corps. Then in 1950, now a Chief Warrant Officer, he found himself fighting the North Koreans.

McCool became part of the fateful Task Force Drysdale, an ad hoc, mixed-nationality unit that was attempting to fight its way toward the beleaguered Marines fighting at the Chosin Reservoir. When the task force was ambushed and separated along the roadway to Hagaru-ri, McCool was once again taken prisoner.

McCool and his fellow captives were marched far north through brutal cold with no rations. Once in their internment camp, the conditions hardly improved. Besides the brutal treatment, the men were also subjected to communist indoctrination and propaganda.

Related: The day we saved 2,147 prisoners from Los Baños Prison

McCool’s resistance earned him the ire of his captors and they threw him in the Hole — a barely three foot square hole in the ground. But he endured.

McCool was repatriated with many other Americans during Operation Big Switch after the end of hostilities.

According to his award citations, McCool spent over six years as a prisoner of war between his two internments.

He later wrote a book about his experiences and the poetry that he wrote to keep himself going during those terrible times.

3. Richard Keirn

Richard Keirn was a young flight officer on a B-17 when he arrived in England in 1944. On Sept. 11, 1944, he took to the skies in his first mission to bomb Nazi Germany. It would also be his last.

Keirn’s B-17 was shot down that day and he became a POW for the remainder of the war. Released in May 1945 after the defeat of Germany, Keirn returned to the United States and stayed in the military. He became a part of the newly formed U.S. Air Force.

In 1965, Keirn embarked for Vietnam, flying F-4 Phantom II’s.

Then on July 24, 1965, North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles engaged and shot down an American aircraft for the first time. That aircraft was piloted by Capt. Richard Keirn.

Keirn ejected from his stricken aircraft and would spend nearly eight years as a POW in North Vietnam.

Why Japanese transports carrying POWs were called ‘Hell Ships’
Newly freed prisoners of war celebrate as their C-141A aircraft lifts off from Hanoi, North Vietnam, on Feb. 12, 1973, during Operation Homecoming. The mission included 54 C-141 flights between Feb. 12 and April 4, 1973, returning 591 POWs to American soil. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Keirn, like many of his fellow POWs, made every effort to resist the North Vietnamese. For his actions as a POW, he was awarded a Silver Star and a Legion of Merit.

Keirn was released from captivity with many other downed airmen as part of Operation Homecoming in 1973.

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