In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was very angry and very eager to kick some ass — hence the decision to carry out the Doolittle raid. America wanted to take the fight to the enemy, and we wanted to do so as soon as possible. Enter the Tokyo Raiders.
We all know the story: Then-Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle recruited volunteer crews to fly 16 North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8). Of the 80 men aboard the planes, three died in crashes or while bailing out, eight were captured (three of which were executed, one died as a POW), and the rest made their way back to friendly lines. Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor.
A 1979 aerial view of the Imperial Palace.
(Photo by Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism)
As depicted in the movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (based on the book of the same title by Ted Lawson), each of the raiders were allowed to pick their own targets. Several requested one particular target, but Doolittle denied the request each time. The target in question: The Imperial Palace.
Now, with America in a fight for survival, why would Doolittle deny that request? There’s good reason. Although history tells us that Hirohito made the decision to surrender in the wake of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a traditional bombing wouldn’t have had the same effect. No, Doolittle and the Tokyo raiders had a very practical reason to not hit the Imperial Palace.
Emperor Hirohito during a Japanese Army parade.
During World War II, the Japanese people viewed their emperor as a god — and it had been that way ever since Jimmu took the throne over 26 centuries prior. Hitting the Palace — and harming the Emperor — would have been very bad news for American troops. That didn’t stop some of the raiders, however, from buzzing the Palace.
The raid had frightful consequences for the Chinese civilians caught under Japan’s rule — over 250,000 were killed by the Japanese in retaliation. American POWs held by Japan were also in for a rough time. The raid also prompted Japan to move to take Midway Island — leading to the Battle of Midway, which turned the tides in the Pacific in favor of the Allied Forces.
The last time that the United States faced a national health crisis as deadly as the COVID-19 pandemic, antibiotics did not exist.
Neither did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the first case of the Spanish flu arrived in the United States at an Army camp in Fort Riley, Kansas, in the spring of 1918, World War I dominated the headlines.
That pandemic resulted in roughly 50 million deaths worldwide in 1918-19, and about 500 million people were infected. Approximately 675,000 Americans died.
“The flu was a disaster,’’ said Carol Byerly, author of “Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I.’’ “It killed more people in the military than the war did, and so they tried to understand it. They didn’t understand viruses at the time.’’
More than 1,400 National Guard Medical Services personnel were sent overseas, leaving only 222 NGMS officers at home to assist with controlling the spread of influenza and pneumonia, according to the National Guard Bureau. (By comparison, a high of 47,000 National Guard members supported the COVID-19 response in May.) In 1918, most of the National Guard’s members — more than 12,000 officers and nearly 367,000 soldiers — served in World War I.
“[In] 1918, the pandemic hit, and most of the medical services were deployed overseas,’’ said Dr. Richard Clark, historian of the National Guard Bureau. “The National Guard mobilized its medical forces to augment stateside military forces to help with the military bases.’’
The National Guard previously had not assisted with such a widespread health emergency. For more than three months, beginning in September 1858, the New York National Guard helped alleviate a disturbance during a yellow-fever quarantine on Staten Island. In late 1910 and early 1911, the Michigan National Guard enforced a quarantine of smallpox patients at a state asylum. Those missions did not provide medical support, though.
“The thought of using [the National Guard] in a medical capacity to respond domestically had not really been thought about until that point,’’ Clark said.
The military’s role in spreading the Spanish flu is undeniable. As soldiers moved between camps in the U.S. or were deployed to France, the number of infections increased. Some Army camps, such as Camp Devens near Boston, were particularly hard-hit. When ships carrying troops returned from overseas, more soldiers got sick.
War-bond parades left citizens susceptible to infection, too, including one in Philadelphia, attended by 200,000 people, that resulted in a spike of cases. Despite the rising totals, the pandemic was downplayed.
“Every day, you read the newspaper, and a couple of cases were developed in the city, and officers were saying, ‘It’s no big deal,’’’ Dr. Alex Navarro, the assistant director for the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. “[Then] there would be hundreds and hundreds of cases, and this is something very serious. Very rapidly, they had to deal with the threat.
“The one major issue was that there was a shortage of doctors and nurses, as well as some medical supplies like surgical gauze and masks, so the war effort definitely hindered that medical response.’’
Some preventive measures, including social distancing and mask laws, were put into place. The military tried quarantining camps and limiting troop mobilizations, but those restrictions were not sustainable during wartime, Navarro said. They even stopped the draft in October, a month before World War I ended, Byerly said.
“They didn’t want to stop the draft,’’ Byerly said. “They didn’t want to reduce crowding on the ships and in the training camps. They didn’t want to send more nurses and doctors to the soldiers, but that is what you have to do in order to take care of your personnel.’’
A total of 43,000 U.S. service members died because of the pandemic. More than a quarter of the Army’s soldiers, about 1 million men, became infected, and at least 106,000 Navy sailors were hospitalized, according to Byerly. The National Guard has no records of how many of its members died or were infected.
While the National Guard’s role in combating the Spanish flu a century ago was minimal, a valuable lesson came out of that pandemic, Clark said. Officials began preparing to offer more support during national health emergencies. The wisdom of that decision is being felt a century later.
“We’re not going through something new,’’ Clark said.
“History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it rhymes, so the lessons of the past should not be taken as a one-for-one example or a guide to what we need to do today. Many of the details, much of the context is very, very different, but what you can use the past as a guide for is for critical thinking about the situation. … What is the same, and what is different?’’
In 1999, a U.S. Army World War II veteran applied for his Social Security pension. There would have been nothing out of the ordinary for any other vet down on his luck. He knew that any veteran of WWII was able to apply at the Social Security office for special benefits for Army vets during that war. Later that year, 1999, he received a notification by mail, with just one line:
“We are writing to tell you that you do not qualify for retirement benefits.”
The veteran applying for that bit of extra cash every month applied from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. His name was George Koval, and just 50 years prior, he was giving the Soviet Union the information it needed (and couldn’t produce itself) to build an atomic bomb.
What a tool.
The American-born Koval actually moved to Russia in his early years with his family. It was there he was recruited by Soviet intelligence to return to the United States and work as a spy. He came back to the mainland U.S. by way of San Fransisco, moved to New York, and became an electrical engineer for a company subcontracting to General Electric. Except this company was a front company owned by Soviet spies. Koval soon became the head of his own GRU-led cell.
Then, he was drafted to fight in World War II. But instead of fighting in the Infantry, he was sent to the City Colleges of New York to study more and prepare for his real assignment – the Manhattan Project.
George Koval (middle row, first from the right) and classmates at CCNY.
Koval was transferred to Oak Ridge, Tenn. where he became the projects public safety officer. He had unfettered access to everything in the Manhattan Project, especially the radioactive elements necessary to trigger the fission that would create the world’s largest explosions. He sent everything back to the Soviet Union, including production processes for plutonium, uranium, and polonium. The coup de gras, however, was the polonium initiators that triggered the fission reaction. The Soviets got those designs too.
Agent DELMAR, Kovals code name, was given unrestricted access to all the top sites of the Project. He freely walked around the halls of the Dayton, Ohio facility where polonium triggers were manufactured. He had free access to the Los Alamos National Laboratory where the triggers were integrated into the greater design. Koval was basically able to guide Soviet scientists through the process, step-by-step. He sent information back to the Soviets for three years, between 1943 and 1946.
Koval, later in life.
Eventually, the heat started getting to Koval, so he decided to apply for a passport. He told friends and colleagues he was going to Europe or Israel, but he left one day and never returned. Koval escaped to the USSR, where he was discharged from the Soviet military as an unskilled rifleman and given the appropriate pension… which probably wasn’t much. That’s likely the first step in what led him to apply for special benefits at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that day in 1999. The United States never suspected his involvement until the mid-1950s. By 1999, he was an FBI legend.
Koval lived until 2006 when President Vladimir Putin posthumously declared him a Hero of Russia for being the only spy to ever get into the Manhattan Project – much too late to get that pension.
Historians don’t talk much about naval action during the Civil War, certainly not as much as they do about the ground combat. If it’s not about a riverboat, the Monitor and the Merrimack, or damning torpedoes, it just doesn’t get the same attention.
The CSS Shenandoah did a lot of things worth talking about.
Her flag was the last Confederate flag to be lowered and she was the ship that took the Civil War to the global stage, looting and burning Union merchant shipping from Africa to India to Russia and back.
She took 38 prizes and more than a thousand prisoners, some of them joining the Confederate ship.
Shenandoah was built by the British. A fast, steam-powered screw ship, the Brits transferred her to a Confederate skeleton crew under Capt. James Waddell off the coast of Africa. From there, Shenandoah terrorized American ships in sea lanes around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Pacific, and into the Bering Sea off Alaska.
At the time, however, Alaska belonged to the Russian Czar. And the Czar was friend to the United States. When Shenandoah began burning American whaling fleets in his territory, the Czar was not at all pleased.
Pretty soon, he was the only Confederate still fighting. So he moved to shell the defenseless city of San Francisco. It was on his way to California that he met a British ship who confirmed the news: The Confederacy was gone and the captain and crew of the Shenandoah were going to be tried and hanged.
With every Navy in the world looking for Shenandoah and a hefty bounty on his head, Capt. Waddell disguised the ship, stowed its weaponry, and made a mad dash for Great Britain – the long way around.
Out of major shipping lanes, he faced terrible weather. He also never contacted any ships or stopped in any port, steaming the Shenandoah 27,000 miles to Liverpool, England, where he surrendered to the Royal Navy.
The USS Waddell, a guided missile destroyer, was named for the ship’s captain. Though not the first ship to be named for a Confederate, it was the first one to be named for an enemy captain who wreaked havoc on American shipping.
A bit of far off Irish-American-Mexican history brings to light a lesser-known chapter of Irish military service – the time that 265 Irish service members defected.
Some called them heroes; others called them traitors. The Irish immigrants who joined the Army in the 1840s decided when the war broke out between the US and Mexico that they wanted none of it.
Right after the US annexed Texas in 1845, both Mexico and America sent military members to the newly created and shared border.
1845 America was a tumultuous place – Florida was admitted as a state, the Great Fire of Pittsburg destroyed much of the city, and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published.
Thoreau embarked on his two-year experiment to live in the woods at Walden Pond, a huge fire destroyed lots of New York, and the US Naval Academy officially opened its doors. Johnny Appleseed died in 1845, and Edmonia Lewis died.
A lot was going on, no more so evident than within the US Army. In 1845, the Army was a hodgepodge of service personnel, with diverse backgrounds, much like it is today. Service members were from all over the world, especially from western European countries, all of which had distinct and robust Catholic population groups. Many immigrant service members were blatantly disrespected and discriminated against by “native-born Americans,” which led to widespread unrest and low morale. Adding to that was most of the immigrant soldiers were Catholic, outliers in the very protestant America of the time.
So back to the Irish battalion. No one is quite sure exactly how it happened. Still, most historians agree that the widespread abuse of immigrant personnel coupled with the very low troop commitment levels led to a huge percentage of the Army feeling invisible, disenfranchised, and without appropriate ways to voice their frustrations.
Much of the American public felt that the annexation of Texas was useless – an expansionist war was nothing the young country needed. One of the most vocal about the uselessness of the expansion was Abraham Lincoln, who was quoted as not surprised that the Army saw so many deserters during this time.
While the Army was struggling to hold rank, the Mexican military saw an opportunity to infiltrate and spread propaganda, which is exactly what they did.
Several Mexican Army generals sent messages targeted toward immigrant personnel stationed at the Texas border. These messages crossed the Rio Grande River. All held one core focus – that immigrant service members should abandon their American Army posts and join their Catholic brothers in arms in the Mexican military. The messages offered Mexican citizenship and huge land grants – as much as 320 acres for privates.
More than 5,000 US soldiers would desert their posts throughout the war, and more than 40,000 simply disappeared in Mexico.
The Irish defectors were known as the St. Patrick’s Battalion, and their Mexican brothers-in-arms called them “The Red Company” because so many of them had red hair and ruddy complexions.
The battalion’s flag showed a winged harp, three-leaf clovers, and the motto, “Irish till the end of time,” written in Gaelic. The battalion fought alongside the Mexican Army as part of a rolling rearguard that worked to defend against as the US military advanced further into Mexico.
In the final days of the final battle, over 60 deserters were captured, and fifty of them were executed. The Mexican Army pleaded for mercy and leniency, but only a handful of the Irish deserters were actually pardoned.
But, of those who were pardoned, it wasn’t as easy as just walking away. The men had to receive 50 lashes on their backs while being tied to trees in the plaza at Churubusco, and their faces were branded with “D” for deserter. To this day, the Irish battalion is honored every year in festivals throughout Mexico and Ireland.
From World War II to today, Boeing products have been the backbone of America’s strategic bomber force. That long tradition got started, though, with the B-17 Flying Fortress, which was best known for flying the daylight bombing missions against Nazi Germany in World War II.
The ultimate form of the B-17 was the B-17G version, which had 13 .50-caliber machine guns, including a twin Bendex turret under the nose, twin turrets on the top, belly, and tail of the bomber, as well as five single machine guns, including two in the wait, two in the cheeks of the plane, and one for the radio operator.
With all that firepower and ammo, there was still enough room to carry a large bombload (up to 9,600 pounds). The B-17 also had a lot of reach, with a maximum range of 3,750 miles. With four 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone R-1820-97 engines, it could hit 287 miles per hour when running flat-out.
The Flying Fortress saw action from the start of the war — B-17s flying in to Hickam Field on Dec, 7, 1941 came under attack from the Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor. After that day, B-17 production was ramped up until 12,726 of all types were produced until May, 1945.
Today, only 12 of the thousands of B-17s that were built are still airworthy – with another 27 either in museums or being restored. Among those being restored is the only surviving B-17D, “The Swoose,” as well as the famous “Memphis Belle.”
When you hear “Sandy,” maybe you think about Olivia Newton-John’s character in Grease, unless you’re in the Search-and-Rescue community. Even then, most people don’t associate the word with one of the best attack planes of all time. But the Douglas A-1 Skyraider was also a “Sandy” — and one that turned many enemies of the United States into…well…grease spots.
“Sandy” was the callsign A-1s operated under when they escorted the combat search-and-rescue helicopters. You may have seen Willem Dafoe’s character in Flight of the Intruder talking to “Sandy Low Lead.” Well, he was talking to a pilot flying a Skyraider when he called in an air strike on his own position.
The A-1 had been started in World War II, when it was called the BT2D-1. The Navy, though, was realizing that the air wings on the carriers needed to change. Part of the reasoning was the presence of the kamikaze, which required the presence of more fighters. The Navy even put a plane it rejected, the Vought F4U Corsair, on carrier decks. As such, the plan was to replace the SB2C Helldiver and the TBF/TBM Avenger. The plane later became the AD.
The Skyraider had 15 hardpoints, allowing it to haul 8,000 pounds of bombs, rockets, torpedoes, or gun pods. It also packed two or four Mk12 20mm cannon. The latter weapons helped the Skyraider score five air-to-air kills, including two MiG-17 “Fresco” fighters over North Vietnam.
Some of those “Sandys” were Air Force, incidentally — one of a number of Navy bombers used by that service. The Air Force had wanted a version of the plane, which proved excellent at close-air support, since 1949. The Air Force used the A-1 over Vietnam, as did Vietnam, Cambodia, and a number of countries in Africa. The last A-1s were retired by Gabon in 1985.
The A-10 has become a primary airframe flying the “Sandy” CSAR missions, which is one of the reasons the hog is so beloved.
Called “the strangest battle of World War II” is the Battle of Castle Itter. Staged at a beautiful Middle Ages-era structure in the Austrian Alps came a fight like we’ve never seen — when the Americans and Germans fought for a common goal. Despite being enemies in WWII, these sides teamed up in order to help save recently released French prisoners, as well as this longstanding castle.
The battle included military forces from: the U.S.’s 12th Armored Division, Wehrmacht soldiers who had defied orders and remained in Austria, along with the former prisoners of war from France. Together the group fought against the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, a German Waffen-SS division, who attacked Castle Itter, or Schloss Itter, in North Tyrol.
The castle during WWII
As early as 1940, Germany took control of Castle Itter with an official lease with the structure’s owner, Franz Grüner. However, in 1943, Germany took it forcefully, turning it into a prison camp by April of that year. It was managed by nearby administrators of the Dachau concentration camp.
Castle Itter is notable for housing valuable or high-profile prisoners from France, including prime ministers, military hierarchy, and even a tennis star. Other prisoners were also held at the camp, including those who were brought in strictly for labor. This combination is said to have helped the castle remain in working order while providing a leg up in potential negotiations, citing high-profile prisoners as leverage.
The battle begins
On May 3, 1945, the prison’s commander, Sebastian Wimmer, sent a prisoner on an errand. Wimmer penned a letter in English asking for help and directed the prisoner to hand it to the first American they saw. The prisoner did not return, and Wimmer, fearing for his own life, abandoned the castle, with SS guards also leaving post shortly after. This allowed for prisoners to take control of the building, using remaining weapons to arm themselves.
The following day, American forces were scheduled to come in and perform a rescue mission on the prisoners and the castle itself. However, unaware of these events, the French prisoners sent another messenger for help. By bicycle, their messenger reached the Austrian resistance, which was made of “roaming Waffen-SS troops.” These soldiers had ignored their order to retreat and instead, formed their own resistance.
By having asked both sides for help, on May 4th, Americans and Germans alike fought alongside one another to the castle’s freedom. Despite heavy fire and a small team of soldiers, they won and sent the French prisoners home.
Takeaways from the battle
American leader, Captain John. C. “Jack” Lee was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts. However, Josef “Sepp” Gangl, leader of the Austrian resistance was killed in the battle from a sniper shot. He was attempting to move the French Prime Minister from shooting range when he was shot with a rifle. Gangl was named as a national hero in Austria, and a street was named after him in Wörgl.
Further adding to the strangeness of the war, it was fought only days before Germany surrendered. This meant that the then-free prisoners of war returned home after the war had ended, due to the length of time it took to return to France. Even though they were freed while WWII was still ongoing.
Want to learn more? A book, The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe, by Stephen Harding was released in 2013. Harding, a historian, details the events of the battle and its effect on history. A French film company picked up the rights but has yet to release a date for its adaptation.
The Chrysler TV-8 was an ugly duckling that would’ve waddled its way across Cold War battlefields slaying everything in its path until it was killed or ran out of ammo. It was equipped with a nuclear-powered engine that could propel it from Paris to Moscow and back with enough fuel to stop in Odessa, Ukraine, along the way.
So, first, to address the fact that the TV-8 is the ugly elephant in the room. Yes, we know that even Bethesda would look at this design in a Fallout 76 pitch session and be like, “No, not ready for primetime. That’s ridiculous.” But Chrysler wasn’t trying to create and field the world’s most threatening tank in appearance. The company wanted to create one of the most threatening tanks in practice.
That means that every pound of fuel a nuclear tank carried would provide 108,000 times as much energy as a pound of diesel fuel. A similar design, the R32, was expected to have a 4,000-mile range.
So, yeah, the prototype TV-8 had an extreme range just thanks to the fuel it carried. That greatly limited its logistics needs. Sure, it needed ammo delivered along with water and food for the crew, but that’s it. No fuel trucks. No need for Patton to argue with Bradley about who got first dibs on petrol and diesel.
Chrysler wanted its prototype to survive nuclear bombs, so they packed everything in the teardrop-shaped, bulbous turret. The entire crew, the 90mm gun and its ammunition, and even the engine were up in the massive turret. The engine delivered electrical power to motors in the lightweight chassis underneath, that then propelled the 28-inch-wide tracks.
All of this equipment weighed only a total of 25 tons. For comparison, the M4 Sherman, a medium tank, weighed up to 42 tons, depending on the variant.
But the prototype had some serious drawbacks. First, it was actually powered by gasoline. It would get a nuclear vapor-cycle power plant if the design moved forward. But, more importantly, it was top heavy and provided little tactical improvement over conventional tanks. After all, most tanks aren’t lost in combat because of range problems. They’re killed by other tanks.
Of course, there’s also another serious and obvious drawback to nuclear-powered tanks: The loss of one in combat could easily irradiate the battlefield that the U.S. hoped to hold after the battle. Nuclear ships sunk at sea are surprisingly well contained by the water. Nuclear reactors destroyed on the surface of the earth would have no such protection, threatening recovery and maintenance crews.
So, any battle where a TV-8 was lost would create a large hazard zone for the victorious troops, but the TV-8 didn’t feature many improvements that would make it less likely to be killed in battle. It did feature a closed-circuit television to protect the crew from a nuclear flash, but that did nothing for anti-tank rounds, missiles, and RPGs.
With the new Godzilla movie coming out this Friday (May 31), we thought it would be a good time to remind everyone that we only have the iconic movie monster—or the more than dozen other kaiju of the Godzilla universe—thanks to the survival of a particular Japanese platoon sergeant who was taken prisoner by Chinese forces in World War II.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters Final Trailer (2019) | Movieclips Trailers
While we don’t typically advocate the success of Japanese soldiers in World War II (they were fighting America, after all), I think most of us can agree that Ishiro Honda’s survival was a lucky get. He was an up-and-coming director in Japan in the 1930s who was working for a popular director and film instructor at the time, Kajiro Yamamoto.
But in 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army came calling, and Honda was drafted as an infantryman who served multiple tours in his country’s invasion of China, a republic and ally of America in World War II. Most biographies of Honda paint him as a reluctant member of that military, serving only because it was demanded of him, not because he believed in Imperial Japan’s invasions or fascist ideology.
In between combat tours in China, he continued to make movies, predominantly in Tokyo. One movie that he cited as an inspiration during the war was the propaganda film The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, which he thought had great special effects.
But the reluctant warrior eventually fell to the realities of the prolonged war. After all, Chinese citizens fighting for their survival didn’t particularly care if the guys firing at them were reluctant or not. And in 1945, Chinese troops were able to capture Honda.
Ishiro Honda holds a Godzilla model while filming his iconic movie.
He would spend the next six months in confinement, learning of the atomic bombings and the Japanese surrender from a Chinese prison. He returned to Japan in 1946 and traveled through Hiroshima, one of the cities that suffered a direct hit from an atomic bomb.
For anyone who didn’t catch that, Gojira was Godzilla, and Honda’s success creating and directing the movie would change his career. It set a new record for Japanese film budgets at the time, and it was an international hit translated into multiple languages and even re-shot and re-cut in America with a Hollywood star at the time, Raymond Burr.
A still image from the trailer for Mosura, the Japanese film centered on the giant moth Mothra.
The former Japanese soldier did not rest and bask in the praise, though, he catapulted from Godzilla to other large monster movies, helping to create and popularize the kaiju film genre characterized by massive monsters, helping create the movies and characters such as Rodan and Mothra, both of whom will appear in the new Godzilla: King of the Monsters on Friday. He also created King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962.
In World War I, pilots on either side of the line enjoyed sudden lurches ahead in technology advances followed by steady declines into obsolescence. This created a seesaw effect in the air where Allied pilots would be able to blast their way through German lines for a few months, but then had to run scared if the enemy got the jump on them.
So the Allied pilots found a way to fake their deaths in the air with a risky but effective maneuver.
Some Nieuport planes had a tendency to break apart when pilots pulled them out of a steep dive.
(Nieuport, public domain)
By the time that America was getting pilots to the front in 1917, all of the early combatants from the war had years of hard-won experience in aerial fighting. U.S. pilots would have to catch up. Worse, U.S. pilots were joining the fight while German planes were more capable than Allied ones, especially America’s Nieuport 28s purchased from France.
France had declined to put the Nieuport 28 into service because of a number of shortcomings. Its engine burned castor oil, and the exhaust would spray across the pilots, coating their goggles in a blinding film and making many of them sick. It could also turn tight but had some limitations. Worst of all, pilots couldn’t dive and then suddenly pull up, a common method of evading fire in combat, without risking the weak wings suddenly snapping off.
Yes, in standard combat flying, the plane could be torn apart by its own flight. So new American pilots adopted a strategy of playing dead in the air.
The technique wasn’t too complicated. In normal flying, a pilot who stalled his plane and then entered a spin was typically doomed to slam into the ground. And so, enemy pilots would often break off an attack on a spinning plane, allowing it to finish crashing on its own.
But a British test pilot, Frederick A. Lindemann, figured out how to reliably recover from a spin and stall. He did so twice in either 1916 or 1917. So, pilots who learned how to recover from a stall and spin would, when overwhelmed in combat, slow down and pull up, forcing a stall in the air.
Then as they started to drop, they would push the stick hard to one side, causing one wing to have full lift and the other to have minimal lift, so it would fall in a severe spin. German pilots, thinking they had won, would break off the attack. Then the Allied pilot would attempt to recover.
U.S. combat pilot Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker was America’s top-scoring fighter ace of World War I.
(U.S. Air Force)
But spins were considered dangerous for a reason. Recovery required leveling that lift on the wings and then using the rudder to stop spin before pulling up on the stick to stop the fall. So, for the first few moments of recovery, the pilot had to ignore that they were pointed at the ground. If they tried to pull up while they were still spinning, they really would crash. In fact, on some aircraft, it was essential to steepen the dive in order to recover.
And this whole process took time, so a pilot who fell too far before beginning recovery would hit the ground while still trying to recover from their intentional spin.
Most future American aces learned these maneuvers from British pilots in fairly controlled conditions, but some of them were limited in their flight time by their duties on the ground. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, in charge of maintaining and improving America’s major aerodrome at Issoudon, France, taught himself the maneuver on his own during stolen plane time, surviving his first attempt and then repeating it on subsequent days until he could do it perfectly.
Rickenbacker would go on the be America’s top scoring ace in World War I despite being partially blind in one eye and officially too old for training when he went to flight school.
When retelling stories of war, our focus tends to fall where the action was. Tales of battlefield bravery have been around for as long as there has been language and battlefields, but securing victory over a powerful foe requires more than the strength of will and courage under fire. Often, it takes the calm, calculating mind of strategic leaders, the tireless efforts of scientists and researchers, and as was the case in the skies above World War II… the unusual approach of an Austrian mathematician.
Abraham Wald was born in Austria-Hungary in 1902, and by 1931 he had completed his Ph.D. in mathematics. However, despite possessing a gifted scientific mind, Wald couldn’t find work in his home country upon his return. The problem? It was 1931, and Wald was Jewish.
By 1938, the Nazis were invading Austria and Wald and his family were on their way to the United States, where Wald had no trouble securing a job at the Cowles Research Commission in Economics, and then with the American government assisting with the war effort.
(Konrad Jacobs via WikiMedia Commons)
Wald quickly proved to have a powerful analytical mind, making a name for himself with the U.S. government’s Statistical Research Group (SRG) where he worked on classified programs despite his status as a “potentially hostile immigrant.” Just as his Jewish heritage made him a pariah in Austria, his Austrian heritage made Wald a bit of an outcast in Uncle Sam’s ranks. He wasn’t even allowed to look at his own equations after submitting them, as the programs Wald worked on were classified. Wald’s secretary was even known to joke that her job was to yank Wald’s pages away as soon as he finished writing them “for the sake of national security.”
Despite this looming prejudice, Wald thrived in his role as a mathematician for the allies, contributing to multiple programs over the years and securing a place in history thanks to his groundbreaking work in “survivorship bias.”
Allied forces were feverishly working on ways to help their B-29 bombers survive anti-aircraft fire, but knew that limitations on weight and available resources would bar them from adding armor to the entirety of the aircraft. So they began collecting data on returning B-29s in hopes that the data would eventually produce a working theory. Soon enough, it did.
This graphic shows where the majority of holes were recorded on returning B-29s.
Officials took note of how the B-29s that made it back were often riddled with holes in specific areas. Some of these bombers were even described in official documents as looking like “swiss cheese,” but the heaviest concentration of holes were always all over the aircraft’s fuselage. By the time they had translated their observations to hard data, they had confirmed that the fuselage and wings of the aircraft took rounds at nearly twice the rate of the aircraft’s engines.
The data seemed to be pointing at a clear answer to their problem: if the fuselage was taking the brunt of the of damage, they should add armor to that portion of the aircraft. After all, it housed all of the plane’s internal systems and its crew, it made perfect sense that taking so much fire to the fuselage must be what was bringing these bombers down.
Wald, however, knew immediately that placing armor on the fuselage of these bombers wasn’t going to solve the problem. He asserted instead that additional armor needed to be placed on the parts of the aircraft that had the smallest number of recorded bullet holes, rather than the highest. His assertion, and the premise of “survivorship bias,” was basically that these airplanes could survive taking a great deal of fire to the wings and fuselage because they were making it back riddled with holes all over both. Instead, Wald posited, it’s the places they didn’t see holes that couldn’t handle direct fire.
Like this but with more holes.
(U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Erin McClellan)
Wald believed that these planes were getting hit in the engines just as often as the fuselage or wings, but because the bombers that got hit in the engines didn’t survive, no data could be collected from them. Lacking data from the aircraft that didn’t make it back had skewed the numbers to show the exact opposite of what they had been looking for.
Wald proposed adding armor to the engines, rather than the fuselage and his premise was swiftly adopted, and soon that premise was proved true. Bombers that had additional armor added to their engine shrouds saw much higher rates of return, and before long, armoring the engines of B-29s became standard practice.
In fact, Wald’s approach continues to be employed in military aircraft design today, making it hard to even guess just how many aircraft, missions, and lives Abraham Wald is ultimately responsible for saving… all through his unique combination of perspective and arithmetic.
Bob Hope, legendary comedian and star of radio, stage, and screen — not to mention a man who once played third billing to Siamese twins and trained seals — had a really, really soft spot for U.S. troops, especially those who deployed to combat zones. It’s an amazing thing, especially considering that he was British.
For more than 50 years, the “One-Man Morale Machine” spent time away from his family and his comfortable Hollywood life to visit American troops during peacetime and at war. He performed on Navy ships and Army bases, often close enough to hear the sounds of combat. To him, that didn’t matter.
“Imagine those guys thanking me,” he once said. “Look what they’re doing for me. And for you.”
Today, Bob Hope’s legacy lives on in the Bob and Dolores Hope Foundation, whose mission it is to support any organization that seeks to bring hope to anyone. For veterans, the foundation supports the EasterSeals of Southern California through the EasterSeals Bob Hope Veterans Support Program, which helps veterans gain meaningful employment after their service to our nation ends.
No joke: It’s not a handout for veterans, it’s a real hand up. Check it out: it may be just what you or a loved one needs. In the meantime, learn a little bit about the legend himself.
1. Bob Hope was British
Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope in 1903 in Well Hall, Eltham, County of London, England. In 1908, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, passing through Ellis Island on the way.
2. He has a lot of medals. A whole lot.
Among them are the Congressional Gold Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Air Force Order of the Sword, Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, and Pontifical Equestrian Order of Saint Sylvester Pope and Martyr.
There are more honors. A lot more, including Admiralty in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska. It’s a thing.
4. He did the “Russian Reversal” joke 30 years before Yakov Smirnoff
You knew he was a visionary. So did Yakov Smirnoff, who pretty much made his whole career on the, “In Soviet Russia, TV watches YOU” series of jokes. This is now known as a “Russian Reversal” and was first used by Hope at the 30th Academy Awards in 1958.
5. You can thank Bob Hope for ‘The Brady Bunch’
A struggling biology student in Southern California got a part-time gig writing jokes for Hope to earn extra money. Sherwood Schwartz would later go on to create Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch. Schwartz described his rise in Hollywood as an accident his whole life.
6. He spent 48 Christmases with American troops overseas.
Dad was gone. Holidays for the Hope kids took on a new meaning. “I remember saying, ‘Why does Dad always have to be away? All these other families have their dads home for Christmas,” Linda said. But she is quick to add that Mom would put it in proper perspective for her. “She said, ‘No, not all have them are home for Christmas. Think of boys and girls who don’t have their dads for years and years because they are serving overseas. Remember the boys and girls whose fathers may never come back.'”
7. Bob Hope played golf with Tiger Woods.
When Tiger was two years old, he squared off against Hope on The Mike Douglas Show in a putting contest in 1978. Actor Jimmy Stewart was looking on.