Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

It seems like, every so often, every branch of the military updates its tattoo policy. It’s done for various reasons, but ultimately, it’s to keep an orderly and professional appearance. But ever since the first tattoo parlor opened its doors in 1846, tattoos have had a well-seated place in the hearts (and on the skin) of many troops and veterans.


The art of body-marking and tattooing as a status symbol for warriors dates back well over five thousand years. Everyone from the Ancient Greeks to the Maori tribes of New Zealand marked their warriors as a sign of their strength. Even before tattoos were widespread among the U.S. military, Revolutionary War sailors tattooed personal identifiers on their skin to avoid being illegally conscripted by the British Navy.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions
And Teddy Roosevelt knew this guy (David E. Warford) would be perfect for the Rough Riders. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

During the American Civil War, early tattoo artist Martin Hildebrant traveled the battlefields and decorated the troops with various, patriotic designs. Even Marine Corps legend, Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, was said to have an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor tattooed across his chest

Despite a general disinterest in tattoos among civilians in a post-WWI society, the 1925 book, The History of Tattooing, states that a whopping 90% of U.S. Sailors were tattooed. This was the golden age of sailors using their bodies as secondary service records of their achievements. Sailors would get a shellback turtle for crossing the equator, a golden dragon for crossing the International Date Line, and a golden shellback for crossing both at the same spot. Even rarer is a purple porpoise, which is for making this same crossing during the sacred hour of the spring equinox.

Related: Here are the meanings behind 19 classic sailor tattoos

Seeing a tattoo on an older sailor means either they sailed through a very specific spot at a very specific time — or they just really like purple dolphins.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

In today’s military, the old traditions still ring true. Sailors will still mark themselves for their Naval achievements. Marines still get the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor on their first liberty. Soldiers will still get one or more of the same six tattoos. And airmen will probably get something nice in a spot that doesn’t hurt too much.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is Valhalla, the eternal home of the world’s greatest warriors

For three centuries, the Vikinger (or Vikings) of the countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden aggressively expanded their reach into Europe. The Viking Age started in 793 A.D. with the pillaging of the wealthy yet unprotected monastery in Lindisfarne, England. Christendom was officially under attack by heathen hordes of pagan murderers. These heretics fought with a deliberate recklessness that struck fear into the hearts of men.

Like many warrior cultures, the Norse believed the best seats in the afterlife were reserved for those who fell in battle. But they did not go to heaven — instead, they went to Valhalla, where they dined with the creator, fought to the death daily, and partied harder than a Marine infantry battalion the weekend before a deployment. That is, until it was time to fulfill their true purpose.


Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Lance Corporal: What is my future, oh wise one?

Mimir: Your leave will be denied and you’ll have duty.

(Ranarh)

Odin, The Allfather 

To understand Valhalla, one must first understand its ruler: Odin. Odin is the central figure in Norse mythology. He goes by over 200 different names, but is most famously known as The Allfather.

The world of the Norse was created from two elemental realms: Muspelheim, a realm of fire, and Niflheim, made of icy mist. The intertwining of these primordial ingredients created two beings: Ymir, the giant, and Auðumbla, an equally massive cow. The cow nourished itself with salt from rime-stones in nearby ice. The cow licked until a man named Búri was freed from the ice. Not much is known about Búri other than the fact that he had a son, Bor. Bor married Bestla and, together, they had three sons. The eldest of these sons was Odin.

Odin had two ravens who traveled the world, providing him information as the world took shape. He sought wisdom wherever he could find it and his quest lead him to the World Tree, called Yggdrasil. He hung himself from its branches, stabbed himself with his spear, and fasted for nine days to learn the secrets of powerful runes — but this was not enough to satiate a God’s curiosity.

Odin’s thirst for knowledge turned literal when he heard a giant was protecting the actual well of knowledge. Mimir the giant drank deeply from the well, growing wiser with each passing day. Odin wanted a drink — and, thankfully, he had something Mimir was after. The Allfather was omniscient — he could see all. So, a trade deal was stuck: Mimir would happily trade a drink for an all-seeing eye. Without hesitation, Odin plucked out his eye, gave it the giant, and then drank from the well — because that’s just the kind of guy Odin was.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Legend has it NJP’d Marines are also welcomed in Valhalla.

(William T. Maud)

Valkyries carry the chosen to the afterlife

Valkyries are warrior maidens who assist Odin in transporting his chosen slain to Valhalla. These noble maidens were said to be unbelievably beautiful and have love affairs with brave men. The Valkyrie also had the task of aiding Odin in selecting half of the dead to admit into Valhalla. The others went with the goddess Freyja to enjoy a simple, relaxed afterlife.

It was because of this selection process that the Norse welcomed (and often sought) the chance to die a death worthy of Odin’s recognition.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Some say you can literally feel Chesty Puller’s knife hand cut the sound barrier from here.

(Max Brückner)

Odin’s hall is in Asgard

Valhalla is in Asgard, the land of the Gods, which rests high above the realm of man. It is made from the weapons dawned by warriors: The roof is made of golden shields, the rafters are of spears, and coats of mail hang over the benches where the warriors feast.

Valhalla has a golden tree (called Glasir) planted in front of the hall overlooking a rainbow bridge. The stag Eikþyrnir and the goat Heiðrún live on top of the roof, chewing on the leaves of the World Tree. The chosen warriors drink their fill of liquor, harvested from the utters of the goat. Meat for the feasts comes from a boar that regenerates its meat daily so it may be slain again and again. Odin sustains himself on wine alone.

Every day, the chosen warriors fight each other, training for the end of days. After their ferocious training, they become whole again and dine in the great hall like old friends.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Odin’s horse doesn’t seem to share his enthusiasm.

(Eric Leraillez)

The true purpose of feasting and fighting in Valhalla

The warriors of Valhalla train tirelessly, day after day, until the time comes to fight by Odin’s side against a massive wolf, named Fenrir, during Ragnarök (the Norse apocalypse). Daniel McCoy, author of The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion, writes

Odin will fight Fenrir, and by his side will be the einherjar, the host of his chosen human warriors whom he has kept in Valhalla for just this moment. Odin and the champions of men will fight more valiantly than anyone has ever fought before. But it will not be enough. Fenrir will swallow Odin and his men. Then, one of Odin’s sons, Vidar, burning with rage, will charge the beast to avenge his father. On one of his feet will be the shoe that has been crafted for this very purpose; it has been made from all the scraps of leather that human shoemakers have ever discarded, and with it Vidar will hold open the monster’s mouth. Then he will stab his sword through the wolf’s throat, killing him.

The greatest warriors train in Valhalla to fight alongside their creator in the apocalypse and are destined to die a permanent death.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Hurricane is the overlooked hero of the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain was a turning point for the allied forces during WWII. After their evacuation at Dunkirk, the British Army was in a poor state, having abandoned much of its warfighting equipment and machinery in France. The Home Guard, the armed citizen militia that supported the British Army, was mobilized in anticipation of a German invasion of the British Isles. As Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, the British people prepared to fight the Germans on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, and in the hills. Ferrying an army across the English Channel is no easy task though, and the Germans needed to secure air superiority before their invasion.

In July 1940, Germany began an air and sea blockade of Britain with the goal of compelling her government to negotiate a peace settlement. Initially targeting coastal-shipping convoys, ports, and shipping centers, the German Luftwaffe was redirected to incapacitate RAF Fighter Command on August 1. They targeted airfields and infrastructure in an attempt to defeat the RAF on the ground. It was the job of the RAF’s fighter pilots to repel these attacks by the much larger German Luftwaffe. In the words of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, “Our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of five to one.”


Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Supermarine Spitfires during the Battle of Britain (Photo from the Imperial War Museum)

When people think about the Battle of Britain, they often envision elegant Supermarine Spitfires with their large, elliptical wings, locked in a deadly aerial ballet with German Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Or perhaps a mental image is conjured of those same beautiful Spitfires cutting swathes through formations of Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers or Heinkel He 111 level bombers. Either way, the hero aircraft of the Battle of Britain that most people remember is the Supermarine Spitfire. However, the truth of the matter is that the Hawker Hurricane shot down more German aircraft than all other air and ground defenses combined during the Battle of Britain.

Although it was not nearly as pretty as the Spitfire, looking rather like a sad Basset Hound, the Hurricane was a more stable gun platform with its thicker wings. They allowed its eight .303 Browning machine guns to be mounted closer together in the wings and closer to the center of the aircraft, producing more accurate fire. Though the Spitfire was armed with the exact same guns, its thinner wings forced them to be mounted further out from the fuselage which caused the plane to become unbalanced when they were fired.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Hawker Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain (Photo from the Imperial War Museum)

The Hurricane, with its wood and fabric construction, was also easier for ground crews to repair and conduct maintenance on. Conversely, the Spitfire’s metal construction meant that skilled metal workers were needed to conduct repairs. This difference in design also meant that the Hurricane could be produced quicker and in larger numbers than the Spitfire. During the Battle of Britain, 32 RAF fighter squadrons flew the Hurricane whereas only 19 squadrons flew Spitfires.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

RAF pilots scramble to their Hurricanes (Royal Canadian Air Force photo)

This is not to say that the Spitfire was inferior to the Hurricane; in fact, it was arguably the better dogfighter. Although both planes were powered by the same Rolls-Royce 27-litre liquid-cooled V-12 Merlin engine, the Spitfire could climb faster and turn tighter thanks to its wing design. As a result, Spitfires were generally directed to intercept the Luftwaffe escort fighters while Hurricanes attacked the enemy bomber formations.

In short, neither the Spitfire nor the Hurricane could have won the Battle of Britain alone. The two planes complemented each other in the sky and worked together to repel the onslaught of German air attacks. In the end, the RAF reported 1,542 aircrew killed and 1,744 aircraft destroyed while the Luftwaffe reported 2,585 aircrew killed or missing, 925 captured, and 1,634 aircraft destroyed in combat. Failing to establish air superiority over Britain, Hitler was forced to postpone his invasion indefinitely. Shooting down a majority portion of enemy aircraft, the Hurricane deserves its fair share of fame alongside the Spitfire in staving off the Nazi threat.


MIGHTY HISTORY

How the US raided a Soviet arctic base in the Cold War

The U.S. and Soviet militaries in the Cold War both understood the importance of the Arctic. Their submarines moved under it, their bombers moved over it, and both sides kept radar stations to track each other’s planes and potential missile launches. But after the U.S. figured out how to track Soviet submarines from drift stations, they wanted to know if the Soviets had figured out the same trick.


The problem was that drift stations were small bases built on floating ice islands. It’s hard to sneak onto such isolated and small installations. Luckily, drift stations are a bit dangerous. As the ice shifts on the island, it can crack and rupture. Drift station commanders had to keep firm eyes on their runways. Otherwise, the ice could crack too badly and make escape impossible.

So they had a tendency to get abandoned every once in a while, but only as they were becoming inaccessible. Well, inaccessible to the Russians, who couldn’t get personnel out of the remote areas without a runway. But America had a new trick up its sleeve in 1962 it wanted to try out.

That was the Skyhook, an ingenious but dangerous tool that allowed planes to scoop people off of the ground using a system of hooks, wires, and balloons. A famous Batman clip actually shows the concept in very exciting detail. And, Russian Station NP 9 had recently been abandoned.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

An instruction comic for the Robert Fulton Skyhook.

(CIA)

But the mission would be dangerous. A small team would need to parachute into Arctic conditions, scrounge through the rubble of the rapidly breaking base, and then get extracted with a Skyhook before it all fell apart. This was Operation Coldfeet.

Two men were selected for the mission. Air Force Maj. James Smith was a Russian linguist with experience on American drift stations, and U.S. Navy Reserve Lt. Leonard LeSchack, an Antarctic geophysicist. LeSchack had to learn to jump out of planes, and both men had to train on the retrieval system.

But as the men trained, the target drift station was shifting further from their launch point at Thule Air Force Base, Greenland. Luckily, something even better came along.

Station NP 8 was a more modernized station, but its runway rapidly degraded and the Soviets abandoned it. America found out in March 1962 and shifted the planned operation to target NP 8.

But the operation was short on time. NP 8 wasn’t expected to last long. It was drifting quickly and would soon be crushed in the ice. And the training and the surveillance of NP 9 and then NP 8 had used up the funds allotted for the operation. So the military went shopping for partners, and the CIA was happy to help. They had their own questions about Soviet drift stations.

So an aviation company and CIA front, Intermountain Aviation, got a polar navigator and prepared to drop the men.

The insertion took place on May 28, and the two investigators got to work. They searched through piles of documents, technological equipment, and other artifacts to piece together what was happening at the drift station.

They discovered that, yes, the Soviets were tracking American subs. Worse, they were developing techniques to hunt them under the ice.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

The Fulton Skyhook being used by the men of Operation Coldfeet in 1962.

(CIA)

Smith and LeSchack made a prioritized set of documents and items they needed to get out, and they carefully packed it into bags. Over six days and five nights, they cataloged, documented, and packed. Then they attached them to balloons, filled the balloons with helium, and sent them into the sky where the plane snagged them up.

Once they were sure the bags were safe, they sent their own balloons up and got pulled out by the plane.

The Soviets wouldn’t know for years that their secret was out.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why these engineers burn their battalion colors every year

A unit’s colors are held in near-sacred regard by the chain of command. The seemingly simple piece of cloth is steeped in rich symbolism and represents nearly every award and conflict that the unit has ever seen.

Even simply brushing against the unit colors while it’s hoisted at the battalion building could result in a younger soldier doing push-ups until sergeant major gets tired. And if it’s dropped while the battalion is out for a run, you might as well send that poor soul to the guillotine — at least that’d be quicker.

While the symbol of a unit’s legacy is held in extreme esteem by the troops it represents, the soldiers of the 2nd Engineer Battalion (which is now a part of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division), has a tradition of their own that involves setting fire to their beloved colors.

As odd as it sounds, there’s actually a very valid reason for it, even if it means the battalion needs to get a new one made every 12 months.


Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

This was the turning point in the war and the engineers found themselves at the worst place at the worst time.

(U.S. National Archives)

This tradition has its roots back in the Korean War’s Battle of Kunu-Ri. The 2nd Infantry Division and UN allies had pushed the North Koreans back to the Yalu River, which separates China and North Korea. The moment China came to North Korea’s aid with a massive army, however, the Americans needed to retreat back south.

The unfortunate duty of pulling rear guard fell solely on the shoulders of the 2nd Engineer soldiers in the little town of Kunu-Ri. It was a lopsided battle that the troops knew they had no chance of winning — let alone surviving. It was a single battalion versus three entire, well-armed, well-trained, and completely fresh divisions.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

This ultimate act of defiance towards an overwhelming enemy still lives on.

It was in the early morning of November 30th, 1950. The remainder of the 8th Army had successfully gotten to safety and the 2nd Infantry Division was slowly making its way out. As each battalion was fighting out, the 2nd Engineers stood their ground to save their brothers.

In this regard, their mission was a success. But by nighttime, their window of opportunity to safely escape had closed. The Chinese had flanked their escape route and their numbers had dwindled. They were down to just 266 out of the 977 men they had at the beginning of the war.

Lt. Col. Alarich Zacherle had to face the grim reality that every commander fears — the complete and utter destruction of his entire unit. The men regrouped for one last time and Zacherle gave the orders. Everything would be destroyed so that it would never fall into the hands of the enemy — nothing was spared.

The last thing to go was the colors. Zacherle made sure that even if they were all defeated and all of their men were lost, the Chinese would never be able to take their battalion colors as a war trophy. They set it ablaze and whoever was left ran like hell.

Their heroic deeds that night saved the lives of many 2nd ID soldiers and held the Chinese off long enough for the Americans to stage a proper defense. Very few men made it out of that battle — it’s been said that just a single officer made it out without being killed or captured.

To honor the men who gave their lives for their brothers, every year on November 30th, the 2nd Engineer Battalion recreates that heart-stopping moment with a solemn ceremony. The memory of the men who fought at Kunu-Li lives on as the names of each and every one of those 977 men are called off in formation by the current 2nd Engineers.

And, just as it happened in 1950, they set fire to their battalion colors in memorium.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These were the WWI ‘Harlem Hell Fighters’

It’s African-American History Month and a fitting time to recall the black soldiers of the New York National Guard’s 15th Infantry Regiment, who never got a parade when they left for World War I in 1917.

There were New York City parades for the Guardsmen of the 27th Division and the 42nd Division and the draftee soldiers of the 77th Division.


But when the commander of the 15th Infantry asked to march with the 42nd — nicknamed the Rainbow Division — he was reportedly told that “black is not a color of the rainbow” as part of the no.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Children wait to cheer the Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment as they parade up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919, during a parade held to welcome the New York National Guard unit home. More than 2,000 Soldiers took part in the parade up Fifth Avenue. The Soldiers marched seven miles from downtown Manhattan to Harlem.

(National Archives)

But on Feb. 17, 1919, when those 2,900 soldiers came home as the “Harlem Hell Fighters” of the 369th Infantry Regiment, New York City residents, both white and black, packed the streets as they paraded up Fifth Avenue.

“Fifth Avenue Cheers Negro Veterans,” said the headline in the New York Times.

“Men of 369th back from fields of valor acclaimed by thousands. Fine show of discipline. Harlem mad with joy over the return of its own. ‘Black Death hailed as conquering hero'” headlines announced, descending the newspaper column, in the style of the day.

“Hayward leads heroic 369th in triumphal march,” the New York Sun wrote.

“Throngs pay tribute to the Heroic 15th,” proclaimed the New York Tribune.

“Theirs is the finest of records,” the New York Tribune wrote in its coverage of the parade. “The entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Under fire for 191 days they never lost a prisoner or a foot of ground.”

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment parade up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919, during a parade held to welcome the New York National Guard unit home.

(National Archives)

For that day, the soldiers the French had nicknamed “Men of Bronze” were finally heroes in their hometown.

In the early 20th Century, black Americans could not join the New York National Guard. While there were African-American regiments in the Army there were none in the New York National Guard.

In 1916, New York Gov. Charles S. Whitman authorized the creation of the 15th New York Infantry to be manned by African-Americans — with white officers — and headquartered in Harlem where 50,000 of the 60,000 black residents of Manhattan lived in 1910.

When the New York National Guard went to war in 1917, so did the 15th New York. But when the unit showed up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to train, the soldiers met discrimination at every turn.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

New York City residents cram the sidewalks, roofs, and fire escape to see the Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment march up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919, during a parade held to welcome the New York National Guard unit home.

(National Archives)

To get his men out of South Carolina, Col. William Hayward, the commander, pushed for his unit to go to France as soon as possible. So in December 1917, well before most American soldiers, the men from Harlem arrived in France.

At first they served unloading supply ships.

But the French Army needed soldiers and the U.S. Army was ambivalent about black troops. So the 15th New York, now renamed the 369th Infantry, was sent to fight under French command, solving a problem for both armies.

In March 1918, the 369th was in combat. And while the American commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, restricted press reports on soldiers and units under his command, the French Army did not.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment parade up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919, during a parade held to welcome the New York National Guard unit home.

(National Archives)

When Pvt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts won the French Croix de Guerre for fighting off a German patrol it was big news in the United States. A country hungry for war news and American heroes discovered the 369th.

The 369th was in combat for 191 days; never losing a position, never losing a man as a prisoner, and only failing once to gain an objective. Their unit band, led by famed bandleader James Europe, became famous across France for playing jazz music.

When the 369th arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, on Feb. 10, 1919, the New York City Mayor’s Committee of Welcome to the Homecoming Troops began planning the party.

On Monday, Feb. 17, the soldiers traveled by ferry from Long Island and landed at East 34th Street.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Sgt. Henry Johnson waves to well-wishers during the 369th Infantry Regiment march up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919, during a parade held to welcome the New York National Guard unit home.

(National Archives)

They marched up Fifth Avenue and passed a reviewing stand that included Gov. Al Smith and Mayor John Hylan at Sixtieth Street. The official parade route would cover more than seven miles from 23rd Street to 145th Street and Lennox Avenue in Harlem.

“The negro soldiers were astonished at the hundreds of thousands who turned out to see them and New Yorkers, in their turn, were mightily impressed by the magnificent appearance of these fighting men,” the New York times reported.

“Swinging up the avenue, keeping a step spring with the swagger of men proud of themselves and their organization, their rows of bayonets glancing in the sun, dull-painted steel basins on their heads, they made a spectacle that might justify pity for the Germans and explain why the boches gave them the title of the “Blutdurstig schwartze manner” or “Bloodthirsty Black men,” the Times reporter wrote.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Wounded Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment are driven up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919, during a parade held to welcome the New York National Guard unit home.

(National Archives)

Lt. James Reese Europe marched with his band, the New York Tribune noted, while Sgt. Henry Johnson, who had killed four Germans and chased away 24 others, rode in a car because he had a “silver plate in his foot as a relic of that memorable occasion.”

“He stood up in the car and clutched a great bouquet of lilies an admirer had handed him,” the Tribune wrote about Johnson. “Waving this offering in one hand and his overseas hat in the other, the ebony hero’s way up Fifth Avenue was a veritable triumph.”

“Shouts of ‘Oh you Henry Johnson’ and ‘Oh you Black Death,’ resounded every few feet for seven long miles followed by condolences for the Kaiser’s men,” the New York Times reported.

Along the route of the march soldiers were tossed candy and cigarettes and flowers, the newspapers noted. Millionaire Henry Frick stood on the steps of his Fifth Avenue mansion and waved an American flag and cheered as the men marched past.

When the 369th turned off Fifth Avenue onto Lennox Avenue for the march into Harlem the welcome grew even louder, the New York Sun reported.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment parade up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919, during a parade held to welcome the New York National Guard unit home.

(National Archives)

“There were roars of welcome that made all the music of the day shrink into itself,” the Sun reporter wrote. And although the 369th Band had 100 musicians nobody could hear the music above the crowd noise, the reporter added.

People crammed themselves onto the sidewalk and into the windows of the buildings along the route to see their soldiers come home.

“Thousands and thousands of rattlesnakes, the emblem of the 369th, each snake coiled, ready to strike, appeared everywhere, in buttonholes, in shop windows and on banners carried by the crowd,” the New York Times reported.

“By the time the men reached 135th Street they were decorated with flowers like brides, husky black doughboys plunking along with bouquets under their arms and grins on their faces that one could see to read by,” the Sun reported.

At 145th Street the parade came to its end and families went looking for their soldiers.

“The fathers and mothers and wives and sweethearts of the men would no longer be denied and they swooped through police lines like water through a sieve,” the Sun wrote.

“The soldiers were too well trained to break ranks but when a mother spied her son and threw her arms around his neck with joy at getting him back again, he just hugged her off her feet,” the paper wrote.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

The color guard of the 369th Infantry Regiment parades up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919, during a parade held to welcome the New York National Guard unit home.

(National Archives)

With the parade over, the men were guided into subway cars and headed to the Park Avenue Amory, home of the 71st Regiment, for a chicken dinner and more socializing. The regimental band, which had begun playing at 6 a.m. and performed all day, finally got a break during the dinner and the men lay down to rest.

The New York Times noted that the band boasted five kettle drums presented to the unit by the French Army “as a mark of esteem.” They also had a drum captured from a German unit that had been “driven back so rapidly that they lost interest in bulky impedimentia.”

The New York Times estimated that 10,000 people waited outside the armory and “all the spaces about the Armory were packed with negro women and girls.” The soldiers inside ate quickly and came back out to find their families.

“I saw the allied parade in Paris and thought that was about the biggest thing that had ever happened, but this had it stopped,” Lt. James Reese Europe, the band’s commander, told the New York Sun reporter as the party ran down.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Soviet spies who stole NASA’s Space Shuttle

What do you think are major spy targets? Troop movements? Strategic plans? New weapon designs?

Sure, those are all great choices, but what about space shuttles and planetary probes?

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions
Look closely and you’ll notice that both of these things are Soviet AF. (Illustration from Soviet Military Power 1985, courtesy U.S. Armed Forces)

Rivals have always kept a close eye on America’s space program, especially after the U.S. edged ahead of the Soviets in the ’60s by first copying their manned orbit of the earth in 1962 and then beating them to the Moon in 1969.

For the Soviet Union, this presented a dire threat.


After all, while NASA and the Soviet’s Federal Space Agency — now reorganized as a corporation and known as Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities — were both scientific enterprises, both did a little moonlighting for spy agencies and provided a lot of important technical know-how to spooks.

So, if NASA succeeded in its rumored attempt, beginning in 1972, to create a “Space Shuttle” that could cut the cost of placing items in orbit from ,000 per pound to only , it was a safe bet that a new constellation of American spy satellites would suddenly bloom across the night sky. Vladimir Smirnov, head of the Military-Industrial Commission, even implied to his bosses that the Space Shuttle might be used as a space bomber against Moscow.

The Russians needed their own version of the craft — and quickly — if they were to remain competitive in space. But they burned up four years in bureaucratic squabbling.

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In 1976, senior Soviet leadership finally signed the decree authorizing the program, and the Soviet-designed “Spiral” space plane was quickly removed from contention. Russia specifically wanted a weapon with all the same capabilities as the Shuttle, including the imagined ability to bomb enemy capitals.

Luckily for them, the U.S. put a lot of their shuttle data on its new-fangled internet, which was never designed to be a secure system and was already compromised by the Soviets. The VPK — an acronym using the Russian name of the Military-Industrial Commission — and the KGB scooped up all the documents they could find, then distributed them across the Soviet space program.

Unlike the American program, which was a civilian program expected to provide a space-bound Lyft to Department of Defense payloads every once in a while, the Soviet program was explicitly military and was aimed at copying the supposed military applications of the U.S. craft.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions
“Space Shuttle Door Gunner” isn’t as cool when they have them, too.
(U.S. Department of Defense photo by Master Sgt. Dave Casey)

“It is no secret to anyone in our sector … that the Energia-Buran system was ordered from us by the military,” said Yuri Semenov, who worked on the boosters for the Soviet craft. “It was said at meetings on various levels that American shuttles, even on the first revolution, could perform a lateral maneuver and turn to be over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo. Parity is needed, we needed the same type of rocket-space system.”

What resulted from all of this was a craft known as the Buran, Russian for ‘blizzard,’ that looked almost identical to the Space Shuttle.

But it actually had some nifty capabilities not found on the American version. For one, the Buran could conduct automated flights with no human occupants. In fact, it did so in its one and only flight in space in 1988.

Second, the Buran used Energia boosters, liquid-fueled boosters that were safer and more powerful — but more costly — than American solid-propellant boosters.

The only Buran that ever flew was destroyed in Kazakhstan during an earthquake in 2002. Some prototypes remain as static displays while others rust and rot away in abandoned hangars.

For those who believe that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” China’s current Mars and lunar programs have taken massive strides in recent years, starting right after a Chinese-American scientist on America’s programs mysteriously resigned, returned to China, and began working on the Chinese programs.

Probably a coincidence.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time the Navy almost blew up the President of the United States

If you mess up just one glorious time in the U.S. military, your friends and peers will never let you forget it. It’s always been this way, even in World War II. From November 1943 until she was lost in 1945, the destroyer USS William D. Porter was greeted by home ports and other U.S. Navy ships with: “Don’t shoot, we’re Republicans!” That’s what happens when you almost assassinate the President.


Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Yes, that President.

In 1943, the USS Iowa was ferrying President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, along with the top brass of the entire United States military in the middle of the biggest, most dangerous war ever. It was a very special, important mission. They were on their way to meet their Allied counterparts in Cairo and Tehran, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.

The whole thing was almost derailed by one torpedo fired at the Iowa, by a destroyer in the Iowa’s own convoy, the William D. Porter. And it was a fast-running, powerful 500-pound torpedo.

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“Whoops.”

The Porter was a hard-luck ship that hadn’t even seen combat yet. As she left Norfolk, she scraped the side of her sister ship, almost tearing her apart. While on convoy duty crossing the Atlantic, one of her depth charges slipped out of its hold and detonated, sending the convoy into a tizzy. Later, a large wave washed everything on the destroyer’s deck into the ocean, including a sailor that was never found. Once things calmed down a bit, the crews settled in for some target practice as the President watched on.

The Iowa launched target balloons, which the ships fired at in turn, including the Porter. Next, the skipper of the Porter ordered torpedo practice with Iowa as the target. But when the simulated order to fire a torpedo accidentally launched an armed torpedo, the bridge understandably flipped out.

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Yes, that USS Iowa.

Under strict radio silence to avoid attracting German u-boats, the crew of the Porter began to furiously signal Iowa. Unfortunately, in their haste, they mentioned nothing about a torpedo, instead telling the battleship that the destroyer was backing up at full speed. Eventually, they radioed the Iowa anyway. After a brief disagreement about radio procedures, the huge battleship moved out of the way of the oncoming torpedo, which exploded in the wake of the battleship, with President Roosevelt aware of the torpedo and watching it come.

The guns of the battleship turned on the William D. Porter. The ship was ordered to make its way to Bermuda, its entire ship’s company under arrest. It was surrounded by U.S. Marines when it arrived in Bermuda. The crew was dismissed to landward assignments, and its skipper was sentenced to 14 years in prison – a sentence President Roosevelt commuted to no punishment because he considered it an averted accident.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

The “WIllie Dee” sinks in the Pacific, June 1945.

The destroyer itself would go on fighting the war while continuing its hard luck, accidentally shooting down American planes and strafing her sister ship with gunfire. In June 1945, a Japanese kamikaze pilot who missed his initial target sank into the sea next to the Porter. It exploded directly underneath the ship, however, and sent her to the bottom.

Articles

How an airman shot down a Japanese fighter from the cockpit over the Himalayas

One of the most dangerous missions for an Army Air Forces pilot during World War II was a trip flying over “The Hump” – a flight between India and China over the Himalayas. This was true for any aircraft of the era, whether it was a fighter, bomber or transport plane. 

More than a thousand airmen aboard more than 600 planes went down in the Himalayas during World War II, but that’s just an estimate. So many were lost flying over the top of the world, the Army Air Forces couldn’t count them all. 

If a plane did go down in the Himalayas, rescue was uncertain at best. Search and rescue missions were described at worst as “spasmodic,” and at best, “negative.” The presence of Japanese fighters only made it more dangerous

One transport-pilot was so determined not to get shot down in the Himalayas that he shoved a machine gun out his cockpit window and shot an enemy fighter down.

Gen. George C. Marshall hated the The Hump, claiming it bled the Army of its necessary transport planes and may have prolonged the war in the Pacific by nearly a year. He had every right to be skeptical. 

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions
High Command, Left to right: Gen. George C. Marshall, Lt. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, Lt. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Echols. USAF photo.

The primary dangers associated with “Flying the Hump” didn’t even register a loss to the enemy. The air up there was just so bad and the flights so long that any pilot – even an experienced one – risked their lives just to fly it. So when an actual enemy fighter did show up, it was bad news for the Air Transport Command. 

That’s what happened to Capt. Wally A. Gayda during one flight over the Himalayas. Gayda was a C-46 Commando transport plane pilot in the USAAF Air Transport Command flying from India to China. He was on his way to Chunking to drop off supplies for Chinese Nationalists fighting the Japanese.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions
Curtiss C-46, just out of overhaul and painting in August 1948. One of 157 delivered by air to Nationalist China. Creative Commons license.

His trip was already hazardous for the reasons mentioned above but the weather soon turned harsh, the winds picked up and his crew had trouble operating the aircraft. The Curtiss C-46 was already a whale of a plane. At the time, it was the largest transport aircraft in the world and many pilots wanted nothing to do with it. 

Curtiss’ behemoth transport plane also had a snag for wartime pilots: it was unarmed. So when Capt. Gayda saw a Japanese Nakajima Ki.43 Oscar fighter out the side of his cockpit window, he needed to do something about it in a hurry. Luckily, he had a Browning Automatic Rifle handy.

The BAR in the cockpit of his C-46 was the same kind used by the Army infantry in small formations. The Browning Automatic Rifle was a compact light machine gun that could be used by just one soldier, as it was designed to be fired from the hip, while walking. That was all the pilot needed. Gayda stuck the BAR out of his cockpit window and shot the enemy pilot, downing the plane immediately. 

It was the first air-to-air kill by the C-46 in World War II. The C-46 would go on to have a long and mixed career in the U.S. Air Force and elsewhere, no matter what pilots thought about it. 

Featured image: A C-46 tackles its most famous challenge, the “Hump” route through the Himalayan between India and China. (National Archives)

MIGHTY HISTORY

Charlie DeLeo: Keeper of the Flame

If you’ve ever set foot in New York City at night and glanced across the Upper Bay at Lady Liberty, you’d see that her torch burns bright. From 1972 to 1999, you had Charlie DeLeo to thank for that awe-inspiring sight.

Known as the “Keeper of the Flame,” DeLeo was responsible for ensuring the light bulbs—some 22 stories up—were changed. He accomplished this every day, rain or wind or shine, so that when people see the statue they are left with a sense of hope. DeLeo believes this spirit embodies the best of what America offers.


In Vietnam

One might say that DeLeo himself is synonymous with the best of America: he has always endeavored to give whenever and whatever he can. He gave first when, at 17, he gained his parent’s permission to enlist in the Marine Corps. His poor eyesight required a waiver, and he was limited to duties as a cook.

In Vietnam, DeLeo was desperate for a transfer to the infantry. He believed in his heart that he was a rifleman, but learned quickly that, when in a war zone or combat situation, no task is menial and it takes the work of everyone to ensure success. He believed that honor comes from hard work, determination and devotion.

When eligible, DeLeo submitted for transfer, but soon found himself in a construction unit—not the infantry. But he found excitement there when, one night in Phu Bai, three Marines were killed and 52 were injured during a mortar attack. DeLeo was among the injured; he took shrapnel to his leg.

With Lady Liberty

During his recovery, DeLeo saw the bodies of dead Marines waiting to be transported back home. It was on the Khe Sanh airstrip when DeLeo decided that he had seen enough. He received a Purple Heart upon returning home, then—in uniform—went to visit Lady Liberty. The statue had always been special to DeLeo, ever since he took a trip there in fourth grade. He wanted to see the torch up close but wasn’t permitted when he got there.

About four years later, while between jobs, DeLeo again went to see the Statue of Liberty, and on impulse, asked about a job. He was told that they were looking for a maintenance guy and that he should ask about it. He did, and he was hired. But it wasn’t until a few months into his position that he took on his iconic role.

DeLeo’s boss had got wind that he was sneaking up into the torch, where no one ever went and weren’t supposed to go. Instead of being let go, his boss gave him the task of caring for the torch. From then on DeLeo became the “Keeper of the Flame.”

The “Keeper of the Flame” ensures the Lady’s torch is ship shape, changing out bulbs and cleaning the encasement when necessary. With this role, DeLeo became something of a celebrity, having several articles written about him, and one time appearing on a game show. In 1998 he won a Freedom Award from America’s Freedom Festival at Provo, and he’s even had a book written about his life, called Charlie DeLeo: Keeper of the Flame, by William C. Armstrong.

Thank you for your service, Charlie DeLeo!

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How bombing the crap out of Iwo Jima hurt America’s assault

During the hell that was World War II, the U.S. conducted 72 straight days of vicious bombing raids on the island of Iwo Jima to gain access. America did everything within their power to weaken Japanese forces before sending ground troops in to secure the rest of island for allied use.


Although U.S. forces bombed the crap out of the island, one aspect of their strategy may have been overlooked in a big way.

Related: That time pancakes helped fight the Japanese in WWII

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions
An aerial reconnaissance photograph of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima under intense bombardment. (Image from The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia)

Before the several weeks of the continued bombing, Japanese forces managed to construct well-fortified, underground structures that would withstand heavy American artillery.

Once the bombing ceased, Marines and Sailors were given the green light to board amphibious transport vessels and head toward the enemy’s shores.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions
Marines heading to battle. (Image from Marine Corps Association)

Navy ships, once again, pounded the shoreland, shooting over the Marines as they moved in to attack. Within minutes, thousands of ground troops hit the beachhead expecting the unexpected.

Once the Marines landed, their initial push was met with minimal pockets of small arms fire. The grunts believe the prior bombardment has killed off most of the Japanese.

But as they moved forward, the grunts would soon encounter the extreme consequences resulting from the weeks of intense bombardment.

Also Read: How a Marine inched his way to knock out a Japanese machine gunner

Soon after the Marines moved further inland, the Japanese defenses came alive and launched a full counterattack. Ground troops fought hard, day after day.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions
These Marines take a much-earned break during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

However, the intense allied bombings caused significant superficial damage to the island, littering the surface with debris. This clutter helped to naturally conceal the Japanese pillboxes — small, concrete guard posts with small slits for weapon fire — making it extremely difficult for ground troops to locate and destroy them before it was too late.

Despite this clear disadvantage to the Marines, their fighting spirit proved superior as the grunts managed to secure the island of Iwo Jima.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Only one person at a time can wear Edson’s Eagles

There is a special and unofficial award for colonels who are most willing to take the fight to the enemy that is quietly passed between senior Marine Corps officers — the colonel rank insignia originally worn by Maj. Gen. Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson, a veteran of World War II who also served during World War I and Korea.


Edson made his name leading Marine Raiders in World War II. One of his finest moments came during the defense of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal as he led 830 Raiders under his command against approximately 2,500 Japanese attackers.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions
The Marines on Guadalcanal faced fierce Japanese opposition. (Photo: U.S. Archives)

The Marines held out throughout the night, saving Henderson Field. Edson, who spent most of the night within yards of the forward firing line, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. He also earned a Navy Cross, a Silver Star, and two Legions of Merit for his World War II service.

In 1951, Edson was a retired major general. He went to the promotion ceremony for one of his former subordinate officers, Lewis W. Walt. Walt was scheduled to receive his promotion to colonel, and Edson gave him the wings that Edson had worn as a colonel.

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According to an article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine, Edson told Walt, “In the spirit of our Corps, pass them on to some other deserving fighting Marine when you no longer need them.”

Since then, Edson’s Eagles have purportedly graced the shoulders of some of the Marine Corps’ finest colonels.

“For 60 years, the passing of Edson’s Eagles has been unusual for its informality and privacy, honoring ‘the same mystical blend of intelligence, dignity, innovation, and raw courage that were the hallmark of their original owner,’ ” according to a story by the U.S. Naval Institute.

The most famous is undoubtedly Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis who wore Edson’s Eagles as a colonel from 1995 to 1997, rose to the rank of four-star general after leading Navy Task Force 58 in the Afghanistan Invasion and the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq — and is currently President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense.

Marine Lt. Gen. William M. Keys wore Edson’s Eagles after proving his mettle in Vietnam. On March 2, 1967, he led his company headquarters against a superior enemy force to save his rifle platoons during an engagement. Then on March 5, he engaged in hand-to-hand combat against the North Vietnamese while conducting a counterattack.

He was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on March 2 and the Silver Star for his March 5 engagement.

Other notable recipients of Edson’s Eagles include Gen. Paul X. Kelley, 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps; Col. John Ripley, a Force Reconnaissance Marine famous for his actions at a bridge near Dong Ha, Vietnam; and Gen. James T. Conway, the 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

MIGHTY CULTURE

7 regulations from von Steuben’s ‘Blue Book’ that troops still follow

The winter of 1777 was disastrous. The British had successfully retaken many key locations in the 13 colonies and General Washington’s men were left out in the cold of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Morale was at an all-time low and conditions were so poor, in fact, that many troops reportedly had to eat their boots just to stay alive. No aid was expected to arrive for the Americans but the British reinforcements had landed. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in that moment, one cold breeze could have blown out the flames of revolution.

Then, in February, 1778, a Prussian nobleman by the name of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived. He set aside his lavish lifestyle to stand next to his good friend, George Washington, and transform a ragtag group of farmers and hunters into the world’s premier fighting force.


With his guidance, the troops kept the gears turning. He taught them administrative techniques, like proper bookkeeping and how to maintain hygiene standards. But his lessons went far beyond logistics: von Steuben also taught the troops the proper technique for bayonet charges and how to swear in seven different languages. He was, in essence, the U.S. Army’s first drill sergeant.

The troops came out of Valley Forge far stronger and more prepared for war. Their victory at Stony Point, NY was credited almost entirely to von Steuben’s techniques. He then transcribed his teachings into a book, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, better known as, simply, the “Blue Book.” It became the Army’s first set of regulations — and many of the guidelines therein are still upheld today.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Given the hours you spend prepping your dress blues, there’s no way in hell you’d bring it to a desert — or do anything other than stand there for inspection.

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Daniel Schroeder)

Different uniforms for officer, NCOs, and troops

This was the very first regulation established by the ‘Blue Book.’ In the early days of the revolution, there was no real way to tell who outranked who at a glance. All uniforms were pieced together by volunteer patriots, so there was no way to immediately tell who was an officer, a non-commissioned officer, or solider. von Steuben’s regulations called for uniforms that were clear indicators of rank.

Troops today still follow this regulation to a T when it comes to the dress uniform — albeit without the swords.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

The rifle twirling is, however, entirely a recent officer thing.

(Department of Defense photo by Terrence Bell)

Marching orders

If there was one lasting mark left on the Army by von Steuben, it was the importance of drill and ceremony. Much of the Blue Book is dedicated to instructing soldiers on proper marching techniques, the proper steps that you should take, and how to present your arms to your chain of command.

Despite the protests of nearly every lower enlisted, the Army has spent days upon days practicing on the parade field since its inception — and will continue to do so well into the future.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

If you thought troops back then could get by without hospital corners on their bed, think again!

(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Susan Krawczyk)

Cleanliness standards

One of the most important things von Steuben did while in Valley Forge was teach everyone a few extremely simple ways to prevent troops from dying very preventable, outside-of-combat deaths. A rule as simple as, “don’t dig your open-air latrine right next to where the cooks prepare meals” (p. 46) was mind-blowing to soldiers back then.

But the lessons run deeper than that. Even police calls and how to properly care for your bedding (p. 45) are directly mentioned in the book.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

While there arestillpunishments in place for negligencetoday, the armorer would be paying far more than for a lost rifle.

(U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa)

Accountability of arms and ammo

No one likes doing paperwork in the military (or anywhere else) but it has to be done. Back then, simple accounting was paramount. As you can imagine, it was good for the chain of command to actually know how many rifles and rounds of ammunition each platoon had at their disposal.

While the book mostly focuses on how to do things, this is one of the few instances in which he specifically states that the quartermaster should be punished for not doing their job (p. 62). According to the Blue Book, punishments include confinement and forfeiture of pay and allowances until whatever is lost is recouped.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

Once given medical attention, a troop would be giving off-time until they’re better — just like today.

(U.S. Army photo by Robert Shields)

Sending troops to sick call

The most humane thing a leader can do is allow their troops to be nursed back to full health when they’re not at fighting strength. The logic here is pretty sound. If your troops aren’t dying, they’ll fight harder. If they fight harder, America wins. So, it’s your job, as a leader, to make sure your troops aren’t dying.

According to the Blue Book, NCOs should always check in on their sick and wounded and give a report to the commander. This is why, today, squad leaders report to the first sergeant during morning role call, giving them an idea of anyone who needs to get sent to sick call.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

“No one is more professional than I” still has a better ring to it, though.

(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Maria Mengrone)

NCOs should lead from the front

“It being on the non-commissioned officer that the discipline and order of a company in a great measure depend, they cannot be too circumspect in their behavior towards the men, by treating them with mildness, and at the same time, obliging everyone to do his duty.” (p. 77)

This was von Steuben’s way of saying that the NCOs really are the backbone of the Army.

According to von Steuben, NCOs “should teach the soldiers of their squad” (p. 78). They must know everything about what it means to be a soldier and motivate others while setting a proper, perfect example. They must care for the soldiers while still completing the duties of a soldier. They must be the lookout while constantly looking in. Today, these are the qualities exhibited by the best NCOs.

Why tattoos are one of the most time-honored military traditions

They probably didn’t think we’d have radios back then…

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Thomas Duval)

The soldier’s general orders

Today, each soldier of the Army has their general orders when it comes to guard/sentinel duty. von Steuben’s rules run are almost exactly the same:

  1. Guard everything within the limits of your post and only quit your post when properly relieved? Check.
  2. Obey your special orders and perform your duties in a military manner? Check.
  3. Report all violations of your special orders, emergencies, and anything not covered in your instructions to the commander of the relief? Kinda check… the Blue Book just says to sound an alarm, but you get the gist.
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