With the Korean War eclipsed for years by the tumult and resulting political bloodletting of the Vietnam War, most historians dubbed the conflict there “The Forgotten War.”
Much of the aerial combat in that war was focused on what was called “MiG Alley,” where Soviet-built (and in some cases, flown) Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 “Fagot” fighters took on North American F-86 Sabres.
That, and the short range of the MiG-15 (a common problem faced by early jet fighters), combined with restrictive rules of engagement for the American pilots (who couldn’t attack the bases in Manchuria) to mean that most of the air battles were fought near where the Yalu River entered the Yellow Sea.
At the start of the Korean War, neither plane was sent into the action. Aviation historian Joe Baugher noted that most of the planes used on both sides were World War II piston-engine fighters, like the P-51 Mustang, the Yak-9, and the Il-10 (a refined version of the Il-2 Sturmovik). The MiG-15 soon made its appearance, and while F-80 Shooting Stars were holding the line, the U.S. eventually sent the more modern F-86.
By 1953, most of the pilots flying MiGs in “MiG Alley” were North Korean and Chinese pilots. American pilots, many of whom were experienced, were racking up one-sided victories that hadn’t been seen since the Marianas Turkey Shoot and wouldn’t be seen again until the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot.
By the time hostilities ended, the Sabre had scored at least 792 kills and lost 78 planes in air-to-air combat, a ratio of ten to one.
A total of 39 pilots became jet aces (pilots who scored five or more kills) in the Korean War, all of whom flew Sabres. “MiG Alley” had surely proven deadly… for the MiGs.
Army Air Corps Tech. Sgt. Ernest Merle Hancock was the top turret gunner in a B-17 bomber flying into Nazi Germany from Italy in the third of three American bomber groups. The German forces at the target offered some resistance to the first two bomber groups, but they held the real fireworks for the third group.
The B-17s had no fighter cover when 200 German fighters, some of which were the feared Focke Wulf-190, rose up to attack the mere 27 B-17s in the American formation.
Staff Sgt. Maynard Smith mans a machine gun in a B-17 in a promotional photo during World War II. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
Despite the long odds, Hancock and the other gunners opened up with everything they had. Hancock’s plane was struck by Messerschmitt 109 and Fw-190 fire and Hancock himself suffered injuries from the enemy guns.
A fire spread through the bomber, but Hancock stayed at his post until ordered to bail out. He finally exited the burning plane as it flew near the German border with France. Unfortunately, he was captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war as a POW.
How many military branches make you surrender your passport, catalog everything you brought to the recruitment center and give you a new identity, all before you sign your enlistment contract?
That’s the French Foreign Legion and that’s exactly how it works… at least according to a Reddit user with the handle FFLGuy, who did an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit in 2011. On other responses on Reddit he mentions serving as “a former légionnaire in the Légion étrangère,” as the French saying goes.
For anyone unaware, the French Foreign Legion is a highly-trained, highly capable fighting force fighting for France – but is open to anyone from any nation. What makes serving in the unit unique is that after three years, members can apply for French citizenship. They are also immediately eligible for citizenship if wounded in combat, a provision known as “Français par le sang versé” – or “French by spilled blood.”
Also unique to the Legion is being able to serve under an assumed identity and then retain that identity after serving. While the Legion used to force everyone to use a pseudonym, these days, enlistees have a choice of identities, real or assumed.
For the first week of your enlistment, you sign contracts and wait to find out if Interpol has any outstanding warrants for you. Once selected, you go right to training in Aubagne, in the Cote-d’Azur region of Southern France. You are stripped of everything, as the Legion now provides you with everything you need.
You are now wearing a blue Legion track suit and are working all day long. Cleaning, painting and cooking are the primary preoccupations, but members are taken away for physical and psychological testing. Also, the hazing begins. While that may not fly in America, this is the Legion, and there’s a 80 percent attrition rate. When would-be Legionnaires give up, it’s called “going civil.”
After two weeks of this “rouge” (red) period, you’re whisked away by train to Castelnaudary, where trainees spend the bulk of their basic training time. In total, the training is four months. Three of it will be spent here. It is from here you transition from engagé volontaire (voluntary enlistee), to actual légionnaire. The groups are split up into four groups of 25-45 would-be légionnaires.
Castelnaudary is where the foreign légionnaires learn French, work out, train, ruck, learn to use weapons and basically all the rudimentary things infantrymen do while in the infantry.Once at Castelnaudary, getting out of the Legion is very difficult. They will find a way to make you stay, the author writes: “Trust me when I tell you that it isn’t a wise choice.”
“Hazing at this point is constant,” the author wrote. “There will be many nights without sleep, and many meals missed. You are never alone and are constantly watched for even the tiniest mistakes. The consequences for mistakes are severe and painful; physically, psychologically or both. The environment is initially set up to ensure failure. You are broken down individually – both mentally and physically – slowly being built back up with larger and larger successes as a group.”
Hazing includes food and sleep deprivation, physical abuse and the like. As the author writes, “If you made it through Castelnaudary without being hit at least once, you weren’t there. “
Ten percent of the group who make it to Castelnaudary will go civil before they earn the coveted Kepi Blanc. It’s when your ceremony for earning the Kepi Blanc is when you officially are a Légionnaire. But the training is not complete. For three more months, you go through basic infantry training.
Those that quit or are not chosen to continue their training are given back their possessions, passports, a small amount of money for every day spent working, and a train ticket to the city in which they entered the Legion. They also have to resume their old identity.
With their old identity in hand, they must return to their country of origin.
Every country’s military has their own version of Special Forces. However, none of them are quite like the 14th Intelligence Detachment, ‘The Det,’ which was formed as part of the British Army Special Forces during a time known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Det was tasked with mounting surveillance and intelligence gathering operations against the Irish Republican Army and their allies.
They worked in the shadows. No one knew who they were or what they did. They received no acknowledgement or fanfare. The world will never know who they were. But, this dedicated force of highly-trained plain-clothes operatives worked to gather the intelligence needed for the British Army and others to maintain their peacekeeping role between the IRA and the unionist paramilitary forces.
The Det was formed after the British Army’s intelligence unit, the Military Reaction Force, was compromised. The MRF was compromised when IRA double-agents were discovered and then interrogated. They spilled details about a covert MRF operation out of Four Squares laundry in Belfast. This led to an IRA ambush of a MRF laundry van, which killed one undercover soldier.
With the MRF compromised, the Det was set up in 1973. The Det was open to all members of the armed services and to both genders. For the first time, women were allowed to be a part of the UK Special Forces. Each candidate had to pass a rigorous selection process. Members of the Det were expected to have excellent observational abilities, stamina and the ability to think under stress, as well as a sense of self-confidence and self-reliance as the majority of surveillance and intelligence gathering operations were solo missions.
The IRA treated the conflict like guerilla warfare for national independence. They used street fighting, sensational bombings and sniper attacks, which led to the British government classifying their aggressions as terrorism. The Det’s main focus during this time was utilizing their unique talents and training to gather information on the members of the IRA so that the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary could then intervene.
The skills and training of the members of the Det included the disciplines of surveillance, planting bugs and covert video cameras, and close quarters combat. They were also experts in the use of pistols, sub machine guns, carbines and assault rifles. They were also trained in unarmed combat, as well as techniques to disarm and neutralize knife or gun-wielding assailants. It was important for each member to be adept in these skills in order to be able to protect themselves while undercover.
Along with this specialized training, the Det was also equipped with unique equipment much of which could be considered ahead of its time. This included a fleet of ordinary looking saloon cars called ‘Q’ cars. These vehicles were specially equipped with covert radios, video and still cameras, concealed weapons packs, brake lights which could be switched on and off, and engine cut off switches to prevent hijacking. All of these worked to aid in the surveillance missions of the operators. The Det also had their own flight of Army Air Corps Gazelles, which were referred to as ‘The Bat Flight.’ The Gazelles carried sophisticated surveillance gear which was uniquely suited to the operations of ‘The Det.’
From the time of its inception until the end of The Troubles the Det performed numerous operations, mostly following and observing suspected terrorists. These painstakingly planned intelligence operations often led to the arrest of the suspected terrorists and/or the discovery of weapons caches. Occasionally the members of the Det would find themselves in a firefight with terrorists, this was usually due to their cover being blown. Unfortunately, several Det operators tragically lost their lives in Northern Ireland.
The highly-trained members of the Det did not do what they did for glory. They didn’t do it for the accolades, as there were none offered. These elite members put themselves in danger because they believed in what they were working for. They wanted to do their part to protect their country and those they loved. They believed in justice. They believed in the greater good. They knew going into it that no one would ever know what they did or the sacrifices they made in the name of Queen and country. But, they went in anyway. They didn’t see themselves as heroic. But, the elite members of the Det can truly be considered the unsung heroes of The Troubles.
The Det has now been absorbed into the British Army’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment, with a mission to fight the global war on terrorism.
On that fateful September morning, 2,977 people died as the result of a series of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and an attempted attack on the US Capitol Building. The attack on the Pentagon killed 125 people working at the Department of Defense headquarters including 70 civilians, 33 sailors and 22 soldiers. The highest ranking of these casualties was the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude.
Born in Indianapolis on November 18, 1947, Maude enlisted in the Army on March 21, 1966. He completed OCS and was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in February 1967. With the nation in the midst of the Vietnam War, Maude’s first assignment after the Adjutant General Officer Basic Course was to the Southeast Asian conflict. His Army AG career went on to include postings throughout the United States as well as Germany and Korea. Before his posting at the Pentagon, Maude served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel and Installation Management, Seventh Army, also known as United States Army Europe and Seventh Army.
2nd Lt. Maude (right) participating in the dedication of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade headquarters in Vietnam with the Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Robert Forbes (center) (Adjutant General’s Corps Regimental Association)
Maude was posted to the Pentagon in 1998 and was nominated as Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel in 2000. One of his last campaigns was the “Army of One” recruiting campaign that replaced the iconic but increasingly ineffective “Be All You Can Be” campaign. “We were in the middle of our worst recruiting year,” said former Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera. “I felt very strongly when the job came open that Tim was the right guy…to manage the human resources of an organization that has to hire 80,000 new employees a year.”
To meet the needs of the Army, Maude modernized its recruiting strategy. Utilizing television and internet advertising, the general hoped to make the Army attractive to the latest generation of American youths. Maude testified before Congress concerning the necessity of meeting recruiting goals to meet the Army’s mission. In September 2001, Maude announced the “Army of One” campaign was proving to be effective at drawing more recruits to the ranks. On September 4, 2001, the Army reported that it had met its goals early for active duty soldiers and that the Reserve and National Guard components would meet theirs by the end of the month. Sadly, Maude would not live to see the full success of his campaign.
Lt. Gen Maude’s official Army photo (US Army)
On September 11, 2001, at 9:37 EDT, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the western side of the Pentagon. The section of the building that was struck, which had just undergone a 0 million renovation, housed both the Naval Command Center and the Army G1 offices. Prior to the renovations, Maude had been working out of a temporary office in a different part of the Pentagon. According to his sister, Carol, the general was holding a meeting that morning with five other people. In the chaos following the attacks, Maude’s family waited anxiously to hear if he had survived. “There’s still part of me that would like him to be found in a little cubbyhole somewhere and come back to us,” Carol said. However, three days after the attacks, Maude’s family was informed that he had perished at the Pentagon.
General Maude’s death on 9/11 made him not only the highest ranking service member to be killed that day, but also the most senior US Army officer killed by foreign action since Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. was killed on June 18, 1941 in the Battle of Okinawa. More than that though, Maude left behind a legacy of selfless service and taking care of the Army and the nation’s most important resource. “You need to take good care of your soldiers,” Maude said in an address to a room of field-grade officers a few months before 9/11. He recognized that the key to accomplishing the Army’s mission was its people.
“He would say, ‘If a soldier is there in a foxhole worried about his wife and kids, then he’s not there focused and taking care of his buddy,'” said Maude’s wife Terri. “He came to believe that soldiering and family issues were one and the same.” In fact, Maude’s headstone at Arlington National Cemetery reads, “HE TOOK CARE OF SOLDIERS.”
Most Americans know the story of Pearl Harbor, how the Japanese planes descended from the clouds and attacked ship after ship in the harbor, hitting the floating fortresses of battleship row, damaging drydocks, and killing more than 2,300 Americans. But the most coveted targets of the attack were the aircraft carriers thankfully absent. Except one was supposed to be there that morning with a future fleet admiral on board, and they were both saved by a freak accident at sea.
The USS Shaw explodes on December 7, 1941, during the Pearl Harbor attack.
Vice Adm. William Halsey, Jr., was a tough and direct man. And in November 1941, he was given a top-secret mission to ferry 12 Marine F4F Hellcats to Wake Island under the cover of an exercise. Wake Island is closer to Japan than Hawaii, and Washington didn’t want Japan to know the Marines were being reinforced.
The mission was vital, but also dangerous. Halsey knew that Japan was considering war with the U.S., and he knew that Japan had a long history of beginning conflicts with sneak attacks. He was so certain that a war with Japan was coming, that he ordered his task force split into two pieces. The slower ships, including his three battleships, were sent to conduct the naval exercise.
Halsey took the carrier Enterprise, three heavy cruisers, and nine destroyers as “Task Force 8” to deliver the planes. And those 13 ships would proceed “under war conditions,” according to Battle Order No. 1, signed by the Enterprise captain but ordered by Halsey.
All torpedoes were given warheads, planes were armed with their full combat load, and gunners were prepared for combat. Halsey had checked, and there were no plans for allied or merchant shipping in his path, so he ordered his planes to sink any ship sighted and down any plane.
If Task Force 8 ran into a group of ships, they would assume they were Japanese and start the war themselves. That’s not hyperbole, according to Halsey after the war:
Comdr. William H. Buracker, brought [the orders] to me and asked incredulously, “Admiral, did you authorize this thing?” “Yes.” “Do you realize that this means war?” “Yes.” Bill protested, “Goddammit, Admiral, you can’t start a private war of your own! Who’s going to take the responsibility?” I replied, “I’ll take it! If anything gets in my way, we’ll shoot first and argue afterwards.”
The USS Enterprise sails in October 1941 with its scout planes overhead.
Equipped, prepared, and looking for a war, Halsey and his men sailed until they got within range of Wake Island on December 4, dispatched the Marines, and then headed for home.
There is an interesting question here about whether it would have been better if Task Force 8 had met with the Japanese force at sea. It would surely have been eradicated, sending all 13 ships to the bottom, likely with all hands. But it would have warned Pearl of the attack, and might have sunk a Japanese ship or two before going down. And, the Japanese fleet was ordered to return home if intercepted or spotted before December 5.
But the worst case scenario would’ve been if Task Force 8 returned to Pearl on its scheduled date, December 6. The plan was to send most of the sailors and pilots ashore for leave or pass, giving Japan one of its prime carrier targets as well as additional cruisers to sink during the December 7 attack.
Luckily, a fluke accident occurred at sea. A destroyer had split a seam in rough seas, delaying the Task Force 8 arrival until, at best, 7:30 on December 7. A further delay during refueling pushed the timeline further right to noon.
I peered intently through my binoculars at the ships riding peacefully at anchor. One by one I counted them. Yes, the battleships were there all right, eight of them! But our last lingering hope of finding any carriers present was now gone. Not one was to be seen.
USS Enterprise sailors watch as “scores” go up on a board detailing the ship and its pilots combat exploits.
And the Enterprise would go on to fight viciously for the U.S. in the war. Halsey spent December 7-8 looking for a fight. While it couldn’t make contact in those early moments of the war, it would find earn 20 battle stars in the fighting. It was instrumental to the victories at Midway, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Philippine Sea, and Leyte Gulf.
It suffered numerous strikes, but always returned to the fight. Its crew earned the Presidential Unit Citation and the Navy Unit Commendation. The ship, and much of the crew, survived the war. But the Enterprise was decommissioned in 1947.
Two great articles, linked above, were instrumental in writing this article. But a hat tip also goes out to Walter R. Borneman whose book The Admirals inspired this piece.
Richard James Flaherty was born on November 28, 1945.
Unbeknownst to his parents, Richard and his mother, Beatrice Rose, shared incompatible blood types (Richard, Rh-Positive; Beatrice, Rh-Negative). This is a dangerous condition that can lead to serious complications for the fetus or even death. Thus, when Richard was born, he was different.
The incompatibilities in the blood caused hormonal imbalances and stunted his growth. When he reached adolescence, Flaherty was small compared to his peers. Flaherty would be considered a dwarf in medical terms, meaning that his height was less than 4’ 10.’’
Short in size he might have been, but short in courage he wasn’t. When the Vietnam War heated up, Flaherty volunteered for the Army. However, he was initially turned down because of his size. It was only after a determined effort, which included the involvement of his local Congressman, that he managed to acquire a waiver.
In 1967, Flaherty attended Army Officer Candidate School (OCS) and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the infantry and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. He deployed with the Screaming Eagles to Vietnam and served as a platoon and recon platoon leader.
During that 13-month tour to Vietnam, Flaherty received the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for valor, respectively, the third and second highest award for bravery under fire, and was wounded three times.
His Silver Star citation offers a brief glimpse to Flaherty, the man. The action took place on April 20, 1968, when Flaherty’s platoon was ambushed and came under withering enemy fire.
“Throughout the battle, he repeatedly exposed himself to the hostile fire in order to better direct the suppressive fire of his squads. Lieutenant Flaherty immediately called a 90 Millimeter recoilless rifle team to his position after having spotted an enemy bunker position to his front, which was delivering automatic weapons fire on his platoon. Lieutenant Flaherty then personally directed and assisted the 90 Millimeter recoilless rifle team in an assault of the enemy bunker, braving up the intense hail of hostile fire. Under Lieutenant Flaherty’s astute direction and leadership, the enemy bunker was swiftly destroyed, enabling his platoon to advance and continue its devastating attack against the enemy.”
After his tour of duty was over, he applied for Special Forces training. But it wasn’t easy. To even attempt Special Forces training, Flaherty had to gain six pounds and get another height waiver.
After successfully graduating the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC), also known as Q course, Flaherty was assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group. He went back to Southeast Asia with the 46th Special Forces Company as a Special Forces Operational Detachment A (SFODA) commander. His ODA was tasked with training the Royal Thai Army in counterinsurgency operations and prepare them for a deployment to Vietnam.
ODA’s are the tactical arm of the Special Forces Regiment. Comprised of 12 Special Forces soldiers, an ODA can operate independently behind enemy lines for long periods of time without supervision.
In 1970, Flaherty was reassigned to the 10th Special Forces Group, where he commanded another ODA and then an Operational Detachment Bravo (ODB), a headquarters element. The following year, 1971, he was discharged from active duty and transferred to the Army Reserves, where he served until 1983.
Flaherty was unfazed by the criticism he continued to receive throughout his life.
In a contemporary interview, he had said that “I’ve taken a lot of kidding about my size. I just tell them I’m 35 pounds of muscle, 14 pounds of dynamite and one pound of uranium-238, and it gets a lot of laughs.”
Flaherty was killed during a hit and run attack on May 9, 2015, in Miami. He had spent his last years alive homeless. In his death, however, he found his home next to the woman he had loved, Lisa Anness Davis.
Former police officer David Yuzuk has written a superb book on Flaherty and his amazing life. You can check it out here.
Fleet-sized aircraft carriers, such as the USS Enterprise and USS Midway, captured the public’s attention during the air battles of World War II.
But the majority of the US Navy’s aircraft carriers during the war were actually smaller, lesser known vessels: Escort carriers.
There were five different classes of escort carriers, all of which varied slightly. But in general, they were about half the size of fleet-sized carriers.
The Casablanca-class, which had the largest number built with 50 hulls, typically carried 28 aircraft, including 12 Grumman TBF Avengers torpedo bombers and 16 F4F Wildcats fighters, Timothy Bostic, a reference librarian at the Navy Department Library, told Business Insider.
Referred to as “Jeep carriers” or “baby flap tops” by the press, escort carriers were slow, lightly armored and had few defensive weapons.
But they were also expert at hunting and killing enemy submarines, and exacted a heavy toll on Germany’s U-boats.
Here’s how they did it.
The USS Long Island underway in May 1943.
When German U-boats began sinking convoy ships in the beginning of the war, Great Britain asked the US for help, which responded by building escort carriers. The first escort carrier was the USS Long Island, which was built from an old freighter and launched in January 1940.
The USS Chenango (CVE-28) off Mare Island Navy Yard, California on 22 September 1943.
The US then built four more from oiler hulls, including the Chenango, which were sent to help with landings in North Africa, where they proved extremely successful in anti-submarine warfare. This led to the building of dozens more and deployments to the Pacific.
In total, the US built and launched 78 escort carriers between 1941-1945.
The USS Bogue (CVE-9) underway near Norfolk in June 1943.
In May 1943, the USS Bogue scored the first escort carrier kill of a German U-boat after spotting the surfaced U-231 and sent a Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber after it, which released four depth bombs and took it out as it tried to submerge.
A US Navy landing signal officer guides a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger on board the USS Card.
The USS Core (CVE-13) in 1943 or 1944.
But what led to the escort carriers’ eventual success over the German U-boats was the Allies code-breaking U-boat radio traffic in 1943, providing escort carriers with accurate locations of enemy submarines.
The first Navy Medal of Honor recipient was Captain of the Maintop John Williams. He was an enlisted leader sent to reinforce an attack on a Confederate battery at Mathias Point who continued caring for all of his sailors and the flag even as he was wounded and under intense fire in June, 1861.
Union warships and Confederate batteries exchange fire at Aquia Creek.
(U.S. Navy sketch by Lt. Cash)
The attack on Mathias Point was part of the constant struggle during the war for control of the waterways in the divided nation. The typical script in the course of the war was of Union troops and boats pushing their way along rivers and coasts to starve Confederate cities of supply, but there were early cases of Confederate troops cutting off river access for U.S. forces.
In May, 1861, the Commonwealth of Virginia sent troops to seize control of the Potomac, cutting off access to the sea from Washington D.C. Predictably, the Union ordered the Potomac flotilla, a small command consisting of just a few ships, to re-open the waterways.
One focus was Aquia Creek, a waterway that met up with the terminus of the Richmond and Fredericksburg railroads at Mathias Point. Obviously, a juncture of major land and sea transportation infrastructure is always a key strategic point.
Union sailors work with a cannon onboard the USS Thomas Freeborn.
The main ship in the flotilla was a small steamer, USS Thomas Freeborn, that carried only a few, light pieces of artillery, but it attempted multiple attacks on the new Confederate batteries on the Potomac in May and June, 1861. The initial fighting was not only indecisive, it was inconsequential. Neither side was able to inflict a serious injury on a member of the other force, and neither the battery nor the ships suffered real damage.
So, the Navy decided to switch to landing parties that would break up fortifications and prevent the construction of new fortifications and batteries. The first attack was on June 24, but it was during the follow-up attack on June 27 that Captain of the Maintop John Williams distinguished himself and earned the first Navy Medal of Honor.
Captain of the maintop was an enlisted position below that of the chief petty officer.
Union ships and Confederate batteries clash in 1861 as landing parties row to shore..
Potomac Flotilla Commander James Ward led the attack against a “large Confederate force,” which had not yet built fortifications on a position near Mathias Point. The Union troops managed to drive the Confederate pickets back toward their main force, but Ward was hit with a fatal gunshot wound soon after.
The men were ordered back to the boats, but then a second landing was made under the direction of a lieutenant, and the landing was quickly pushed back.
During this second landing, Williams “told his men, while lying off in the boat, that every man must die on his thwart sooner than leave a man behind,” according to his Medal of Honor citation. He was wounded in the thigh by a musket ball during the engagement, but retained control of his boat and carried the flag in his hand back to the Freeborn after the staff was destroyed by a musket ball.
Union ships fire on CSA batteries in Virginia in 1861.
The orders for his medal would not be approved until April 3, 1863.
Since then, Navy personnel have received hundreds of Medals of Honor. Most recently, the medal was awarded to Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Britt Slabinski for his initiative under serious fire in Operation Anaconda in 2002. Slabinski rescued multiple wounded service members after the insertion helicopter was destroyed by a rocket-propelled grenade and led a grueling defense until extracted.
Different weapons serve different purposes in combat, but every fighter in history has looked for an edge – one advantage that could mean the difference between life and death for the combatant. In an era where everyone is cutting each other with increasingly sharp blades of different sizes, wouldn’t it be great if that ax also shot bullets?
If you happened to be the one holding the ax, then yes: that would be great. Unless your opponent was holding a shield – especially if that shield also shot bullets.
If that example sounds far-fetched, that’s because it is — but just because it’s unlikely doesn’t mean it never happened.
Yes, the ax that shoots bullets was only partly a joke. Polish cavalry used a short ax as a weapon for more than 200 years. The tradition spilled over into Hungary as well, presumably because axes that could also shoot bullets were great at killing Turks.
Even better than the handheld pistol ax was the multi-barreled and/or halberd long gun versions used by Germans around the same time.
Knives and swords.
The Germans are back with this hunting knife-pistol combo. From the 16th through the 18th centuries, shooting and stabbing was a popular combination, not just among German civilians, but also among troops belonging to various warlords in a then-ununified Germany.
Pistol knives experienced a rebirth in popularity in Victorian England, probably as a means to not get murdered at night on the streets of London.
Speaking of not getting murdered on the streets of old-timey Europe, French street gangs were keen on using the Apache pistol to do just that: kill to avoid being killed. These were combination brass knuckles, switchblades, and pistols that were really good at being none of those things. The knives were flimsy, the pistol had no trigger guard, and the brass knuckles weren’t big or heavy enough to be a difference maker.
A walking stick.
This is pretty much just Henry VIII’s thing. The big guy carried a walking stick that was also pulling triple duty as both a pistol and a mace. The pistol part was triple-barreled, and Henry used it while walking around his kingdom at night, trying to not get murdered on the streets of London.
I’m starting to sense a theme here…
If the firepower of his walking stick proved to be insufficient for anyone coming at him, Henry had his bodyguards equipped with shields… shields that fired black-powder pistols. Considering their size and iron composition, a weapon so hefty would surely have been difficult to aim.
Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Russian and Japanese empires had been engaged in a political struggle over who would dominate northeast Asia. In a decisive naval battle at the Tsushima Strait in 1905, Japan would be the dominant power in Manchuria and Korea until its defeat in World War II and set back Russia’s far eastern ambitions for decades.
Japan had been rapidly modernizing since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ushered in a generation of reforms, and was more and more exerting its influence as a Pacific power. Russia had been expanding its footprint across central and eastern Asia, and warm water ports in China were vital to this vision. Both desired Korea and Manchuria as colonial buffer zones between the two empires, but defining those zones grew so intractable that war became inevitable.
A key point of the dispute was the strategic Russian-controlled Port Arthur in Manchuria, the only major Russian naval base on the Pacific outside of Vladivostok farther north, and unlike Vladivostok was warm water and could be used year round. When war broke out in 1904, a large Japanese army attacking out of Korea besieged and after suffering terrible casualties seized the port. Most of the Russian Pacific fleet was bottled up at Port Arthur after their defeat in the Battle of the Yellow Sea and was destroyed as well, and Russian forces were forced to retreat northward.
While the battle for Port Arthur was still raging, Tsar Nicholas II had ordered a large force from his Baltic fleet to the Pacific to help break the siege. Designated the Second Pacific Squadron under Admiral Rozhestvensky and composed of 11 battleships and numerous cruisers and destroyers, on paper, it was a formidable force. In reality, many of its ships were older vessels and badly maintained by ill-trained crews. The incredibly long voyage of over 18,000 nautical miles would only add to these problems.
Setting sail on Oct. 15, 1904, the voyage was off to an inauspicious start in the North Sea when rumours of Japanese torpedo boats in the area led to panicky crews firing on British shipping, sparking a diplomatic incident. Denied the use of the Suez Canal by the British, the fleet was forced to sail around the Horn of Africa, and it was not until April 14, 1905, that the fleet reached Cam Rahn Bay in Indochina. Port Arthur, the original target of the expedition had fallen on Jan. 2, and the fleet set sail instead to Vladivostok to refit for a counterattack.
The commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet Admiral Togo was well aware of the approaching fleet, and the Japanese correctly guessed that the Russian fleet would pass through the Tsushima Strait on its way north. Rozhestvensky tried to slip through the strait at night but was spotted by Japanese patrol vessels on the morning of March 27, and Togo’s fleet of four battleships, 27 cruisers, with dozens of destroyers and torpedo boats, set sail from Korea to intercept.
The Japanese fleet was comprised mostly of modern vessels, and its crews were well-trained and disciplined. Despite possessing fewer heavy battleships than the Russians, it had a huge superiority in lighter cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats that would prove decisive. The Russian fleet was suffering from low morale and poor training, and the long voyage had led to chronic maintenance problems and fouled boilers left many of its ships unable to reach anywhere near their top speed or maneuverability.
Spotting the Russian fleet at around 1:40 pm, Togo ordered a line attack across the two approaching Russian columns, and the superior condition, training, and gunnery of the Japanese fleet quickly proved itself. Rozhestvensky was wounded and was forced to transfer to a destroyer after his flagship was sunk, leaving his subordinate Adm. Negobatov to take command, and two more Russian battleships were sunk before nightfall under relentless Japanese gunnery with little damage in return. After dark, a swarm of Japanese destroyers and torpedo boats cut out the heart of the Russian fleet in hit-and-run torpedo attacks, and by the morning of May 28, Negobatov ordered his few remaining ships to surrender. Russian naval power in the Pacific had been practically destroyed in one decisive battle, with 21 ships destroyed and six captured. Nearly 5,000 Russian sailors lost their lives and over 6,000 were captured. Japanese losses amounted to less than 800 casualties.
The battle effectively decided the Russo-Japanese War, with the Russians quickly suing for peace. It shocked the Western world that a European power had been so thoroughly beaten by Japan, who quickly took its place as a dominant force in Asia and setting the stage for its imperial expansionism and its eventual defeat in World War II.
So influential was the battle that Great Britain launched a building program of modern fast dreadnought battleships that led to a naval arms race with Germany, and Russia’s loss of prestige may have played a significant a role in the power politics leading up to World War I. Behind the Battle of Midway in World War II, it was the most decisive naval engagement of the 20th century.
At the height of the second World War, the U.S. military was devising a means to fire bomb Japan (and Japan was doing the same for the U.S.). Still a few years out from the Manhattan Project being completed, the First Lady’s dentist friend, Lytle S. Adams, came up with a disastrous and inhumane plan — attach tiny napalm bombs to a million Mexican free-tailed bats.
It was called the “bat bomb.”
The Mexican free-tailed bat is one of the most abundant mammals in North America. Known for having the fastest horizontal speed of any animal, the species was also considered because female bats could carry much more weight than themselves (because they need carry their babies until they can fly.)
They can also be induced into hibernation, making them easy to handle. And instinctively, bats seek out dark places during the daytime. So without a cave, they’ll take shelter in buildings.
“This man is not a nut. It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into,” a President Roosevelt’s memorandum concluded. So Project X-Ray was given a cautious green-light.
The idea was to strap timer-detonated napalm packets onto the bat, fill a case with around forty bats, drop the bomb over a Japanese village at night, and by the time morning arrived, the bats would detonate the mostly paper and wood buildings.
At first, it didn’t work. The lightest they could make an incendiary device was two pounds. Still thirty times the weight of the bat. They would fall like rocks.
Louis Fieser, the inventor of napalm, was then attached to the project. With his new weapon, he could shrink the individual capsule of napalm down to half an ounce. Since napalm is a liquid, it would also be more devastating when it seeped into the cracks. So testing began again.
With the new light-weight devices, it still didn’t work. Explosive-carrying bats burnt down much of Carlsbad Army Airfield. They broke free of their handlers and incinerated the test range when they roosted under a fuel tank and the General’s car. This didn’t stop them from testing the bat bomb. It was just further proof that it could work.
The project was then tossed to the Marine Corps; and it still didn’t work. Millions of dollars were tossed into the project and over 30 demonstrations later, the atomic bomb was finished. There was no more need for the bat bombs.
Lasting five years, eight months and five days, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest military campaign of WWII. Allied supply convoys were being continuously threatened by German U-boats and Luftwaffe aircraft, and when Italy’s Regia Marina introduced submarines into the mix when they entered the war in June of 1940, Allies were exhausting every idea possible to protect lives along with invaluable resources. Enter Winston Churchill, an unmatched powerhouse of a leader during the war who, in this instance, spearheaded a project more akin to a fictional Bond villain than a 1940’s combat strategy.
The idea itself was simple enough in theory: create an aircraft carrier using as many natural resources as possible, in an attempt to mitigate the high cost of materials like steel, which was in short supply. Pike’s solution was ambitious to say the least. Instead of costly materials that were in high demand, he’d build his aircraft carrier out of one of the most plentiful materials on earth: water, or more accurately, ice.
Invented by an outside-the-box thinker
The concept came from British journalist, educator, and inventor, Geoffrey Pyke. Pyke was no stranger to the perils of war, having been in a German internment camp during WWI after being caught traveling there using someone else’s passport, in an attempt to work as a war correspondent. He had been arrested just six days after he arrived, and spent over 100 days in solitary confinement before escaping. Despite his continued contributions to both war efforts, he would go on to struggle both personally and professionally, before committing suicide in 1948 at age 54. The British paper “The Times” printed his obituary, which included, “The death of Geoffrey Pyke removes one of the most original if unrecognized figures of the present century.”
The aircraft carrier would be the second significant proposal Pyke would make during WWII. The first was following Germany’s invasion of Norway, when it became clear there needed to be a better way to transport troops through the snow and another difficult-to-traverse terrain. Project Plough was Pyke’s motion to build a screw-propelled vehicle, based loosely off of old patents for Armstead snow motor vehicles. It would be the first time he would get the attention of Louis Mountbatten, the newly appointed Chief of Combined Operations. Mountbatten would bring the inventor, and his ideas, in front of Winston Churchill. Despite the interest in the project, Canada and the U.S. beat Britain to the punch when they began producing the M28 (then T15) and M29 Weasel, both inspired by Pyke’s original design.
It wouldn’t be long before Pyke and Churchill would see eye to eye on another idea. Project Habakkuk, as it would be known, was supposed to be the answer to the increased presence and efficacy of Allied air forces in the Atlantic.
Pyke chose the name based on the bible verse Habakkuk 1:5, which reads as hubristic optimism for the success of the project.
“Look at the nations and watch – and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”
What would Pike’s Habakkuk apart from traditional aircraft carriers was the fact that it would be made almost entirely of a combination of ice and wood pulp. Eventually dubbed ‘Pykrete’ (named dually after Pyke and its strength compared to concrete), these two materials would become the main focus of his research and development. With the help of molecular biologist, glacial expert, and eventual Nobel Prize-winning protein chemist Max Perutz, and a hidden refrigerated meat locker underneath London’s Smithfield Meat Market, Pyke was able to fine-tune the functionality of the pykrete, while also discovering some of its unavoidable challenges.
Perutz determined 14% sawdust or wood pulp to 86% ice was the ideal breakdown for structural soundness, and championed the prospective benefits of a full-scale carrier that could utilize seawater when necessary to repair damages. It wouldn’t be easy, however. Expansion during freezing made construction more difficult than Pike anticipated, and the ice/sawdust mixture would start bowing under its own weight at temperatures above five degrees Fahrenheit (-15°C).
Despite the new structural considerations, a small-scale model of the Habakkuk was greenlit, and a team started work in Jasper National Park, a 4,200 square mile park within the Canadian Rockies. In addition to troubleshooting the known issues, the goal of the scale model was to test environmental durability as well as how pykrete held up against various weapons and explosives. The 60 foot long, 1,000-ton model took eight men around two weeks to complete, and seemed to hold up well enough to both nature and manmade adversaries. Upon its completion, Churchill almost immediately announced the order for the real thing, full scale, and with the highest priority of importance.
A full-scale Habakkuk was a tall order, and while completion was optimistically slated for mid-1944, the supply list would prove to be a living document. The original list called for 300,000 tons of wood pulp, 25,000 tons of wood fiber insulation, 35,000 tons of timber and a conservative 10,000 tons of steel. All of this totaled around £700,000 (equivalent to just under $10.6 million today). Seasonally driven temperature changes quickly made the team realize that using steel as internal support was not only necessary, but would require much more of it than they had initially estimated. Factoring in more steel, the final proposed cost would be triple what had been anticipated, sitting at £2.5 million.
A False Prophet: Issues in the ice
The project also wasn’t without some creative differences and office politics. Britain wanted to ensure America was invested in the idea, and began to phase Pyke out of the process. Back during Project Plough, Pyke had some significant conflicts with Americans working on his designs, causing him to be removed from that project well before it was ultimately scrapped. While Pyke’s exclusion had little bearing on the final outcome, the timing of it fell towards the beginning of the end for Habakkuk.
The summer of 1943 welcomed more criticisms and observations, and with them, higher expectations for the carrier. With a 2,000 foot runway to accommodate the Royal Navy’ heavy bombers, and 40-foot thick walls to withstand torpedos, the Habakkuk carrier would end up displacing 2,000,000 tons of water (compared to the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz class carrier, which at just over 1,000 feet, only displaces about 100,000 tons). It was also expected to have a 7,000 mile range and be able to handle the highest recorded waves on the open sea. However, its immense size, along with concerns about speed and steering, soon made it more and more clear that the odds may be stacked against Pike’s Habakkuk.
The last meeting about the build took place in December of 1943. By this time, a number of factors had changed in regards to the war itself, and that, coupled with the challenges they were already facing, ended up being the final nail in the coffin for the project. Portugal had given the Allies permission to use their airfields in the Azores, which allowed them the opportunity of deploying more airborne U-boat patrols over the Atlantic.
An increased number of traditional aircraft carriers, as well as newly introduced and integrated long-range fuel tanks that allowed for longer flight times over the Atlantic, essentially made the Habakkuk obsolete before it could even take shape. The prototype found its final resting place at the bottom of Jasper’s Lake Patricia.
In his collection of essays titled, “I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity,” Pertuz concluded:
“The US Navy finally decided that Habakkuk was a false prophet.”
Myth Busting: The return of the Habakkuk
While the world never got to see the larger-than-life, movie-villain-worthy tactical ice island, there were two special effects experts who decided to put Pyke’s pykrete to the test.
In a 2009 episode of MythBusters (ep. 115 “Alaska Special”), fabrication wizards Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman wanted to explore the validity of some of the claims made about pykrete. The first was the idea that it was bulletproof, which the two believed they confirmed after their test of firing .45 caliber rounds into a block of solid ice, which shattered on impact, and a block of their own pykrete, which only sustained a 1-inch deep gash when it was hit.
The second “confirmed” theory was that pykrete was inherently stronger than ice on its own. Through a mechanical stress test using a cantilever, Adam and Jamie found that the solid ice broke at only 40lbs of pressure, while their pykrete supported all 300lbs – and a few hits with a hammer- before it fractured.
The third test was the culminating event, trying to determine whether or not Project Habakkuk was even possible. They set to work building their own (much smaller) boat, made from Hyneman’s “super Pykrete”–a mixture of ice and newspapers–which they had found to be even stronger than the original Pykrete formula.
In a conclusion they deemed “plausible but ludicrous,” the Mythbusters team were able to get about 20 minutes of smooth sailing in, reaching up to 23mph, before the boat began to deteriorate. They stayed afloat for the ten minutes it took them to get back to shore, but weren’t confident their particular design would have lasted much longer. While they loved Pyke’s ingenuity, they felt the Habakkuk was, at best, highly impractical.
Project Habakkuk sits comfortably among a long line of attempted military innovations that were never fully realized. What it does prove however, is that tough times can inspire some of the most unconventionally inventive ideas, and there’s sometimes something to be said for those who err on the side of eccentricity.