What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

Midget submarines have gotten a lot of press in recent years. The 2010 sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan by a North Korean Yono-class midget submarine showed that with today’s modern torpedoes, they can pack a punch.


Midget submarines have arguably had a longer combat career than their bigger cousins. The Turtle, a one-man midget sub, was used in an effort to attack British ships off New York during the Revolutionary War.

The hand-powered midget submarine CSS Hunley successfully sank the sloop USS Housatonic in 1864. Larger coastal and fleet submarines didn’t really achieve a lot of success until World War I.

But the midgets still stuck around.

Nearly all the major powers used them in World War II. The British, Germans, and Japanese all had varying degrees of success with them.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine
Chief petty officers and chief petty officer selects from the submarine tender USS Frank Cable perform preservation maintenance on Japanese navy submarine HA-51, a World War II Type C three-man midget submarine, at the T. Snell Newman Visitor Center. Cable is undergoing upgrades at Guam Shipyard for a conversion to the Military Sealift Command. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Jennifer L. Walker)

The British X-boats managed to damage the German battleship Tirpitz. Japanese submarines had their high-water mark on May 29, 1942, when they damaged a British battleship and sank a merchant ship at Diego Suarez in Madagascar.

But Germany’s Seehund — or “Seal” — was probably the most successful. Built in 1944, the Seehund displaced 17 tons, carried two torpedoes, and had a crew of two. The vessel could go four knots underwater, and seven knots on the surface.

U-Boat.net notes that 137 of these midget subs were commissioned, which sank eight vessels and damaged three more in four months of operation.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine
S 622, a German Seehund later taken into service by the French Navy. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Below is a video showing how a replica of one of these mini-submarines was made for a museum display. Take a look and see what went into making that replica — and what that display will teach future generations about what life on one of these vessels was like.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The only survivor of the Katyn Massacre in WWII

From April to May 1940, nearly 22,000 Polish military officers and academics were murdered by the Soviets in what became known as the Katyn Massacre. Only one Polish officer survived the systematic execution of tens of thousands of prisoners taken captive by the Red Army.

Maj. Eugenjusz Komorowski published his autobriography, Night Never Ending, in 1974. In it, he recounts his story of how he survived the Katyn Massacre. The book opens with the capture of his unit by the Red Army near Grodno, Poland shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1939. Upon capture, the Polish military waited until the NKVD, a precursor to the KGB, arrived and ordered the Poles to be shipped off to Tarnopol camp, a temporary Soviet camp within Poland. From there, the soldiers were deported to Kozelsk, another Soviet camp. This camp was to be their last stop.

When the Poles arrived Kozelsk, the NKVD attempted to indoctrinate them into communism. However, most Poles resisted the propaganda and held to their democratic values. The more the Poles opposed communism, the more they were forced to listen to the ideology. The NKVD would deceive the Polish officers to come to events like movies, and force the Poles to stay in the room and listen to why communism in the best ideology. Furthermore, any officer or soldier who had been outside of Poland for any reason was tortured through intense questioning. Unfortunately for Komorowski, he had studied abroad in England and Belgium.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine
Polish soldiers are taken captive after their surrender (Public Domain)

Komorowski was brought in by an NKVD officer and charged with spying in London and Brussels on behalf of the Polish government. The interrogation by the NKVD lasted almost seventy-four hours. For three days, Komorowski was beaten, denied sleep, food, and water, in order to illicit a confession of spying, despite evidence proving the contrary. Komorowski noted in his account how some officers cracked under the NKVD’s brutal interrogation.

Furthermore, by January 1940, the officers in Kozelsk were forced by the NKVD to sign confessions that they had also spied on the Soviet Union. After the confession was signed, the NKVD threatened to make the confession known to Poland and had the officer branded as a traitor if they did not convince other officers to sign similar confessions.

In the spring of 1940, the NKVD gathered the prisoners in the Kozelsk camp, marched them to a train, and sent them out west. The train stopped near Smolesnk and the prisoners were marched by the NKVD into Katyn Forest. Once in the woods, the NKVD lined the prisoners up, bound their hands, placed a coat over their heads, and lined them up a few at a time and in front of a shallow pit. Once lined up, an NKVD officer systematically shot them in the head, one at a time, and then kicked the body into the shallow pit. After he was shot, Komorowski fell into the ditch and passed out.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine
The mass graves were discovered by the Germans in 1943 (Public Domain)

He woke up in the ditch with the bodies of his fellow Poles all around him, the bullet meant for his head having gone through his arm instead. Wounded and traumatized, he crawled out of the ditch and wandered the town until he was located by German police. He was the only survivor of the Soviet war crime and provided the only Polish account of the atrocities committed in Katyn Forest.

MIGHTY HISTORY

America almost conducted a doomed invasion of France in 1942

In the lead up to American involvement of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt committed his administration to a “Germany-First” policy if the U.S. entered the war. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it shook his commitment, but he stuck to it. Although, in his rush to take the pressure off the U.K. and the Soviet Union, he almost pressed American forces into a doomed invasion.


What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

Workers assemble fighter aircraft at Wheatfield, New York.

(Public Domain)

The American war machine had to shake itself awake at the start of 1942. While the industrial base had achieved some militarization during Lend-Lease and other programs, it would need a lot more time to produce even the tools necessary to make all the vehicles, uniforms, and even food necessary to help the troops succeed in battle.

And those troops needed to be trained, but almost as importantly, many of the military leaders needed to get seasoned in combat. There were generals with limited experience from World War I and plenty of mid-career officers and NCOs who had never fought in actual battle.

But there was limited time to ramp up. England was barely staving off defeat, beating back German attack after attack in the air to keep them from crossing the English Channel. And the Soviet Union was facing 225 German divisions on the Eastern Front. According to Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn:

If Soviet resistance collapsed, Hitler would gain access to limitless oil reserves in the Caucasus and Middle East, and scores of Wehrmacht divisions now fighting in the east could be shifted to reinforce the west. The war could last a decade, War Department analysts believed, and the United States would have to field at least 200 divisions….
What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

Russian anti-tank infantrymen in the important Battle of Kursk. Soviet troops were reliant on American arms for much of World War II, but there sacrifice in blood inflicted the lion share of casualties against Nazi Germany.

(Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0)

To get the pressure off the Soviet Union and ensure it survived, thereby keeping hundreds of German divisions tied up, Roosevelt committed U.S. forces to a 1942 invasion. And his top officers, especially the new Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, Adm. Ernest J. King, told Roosevelt that the American invasion had to be made at France.

And this made some sense. While Great Britain was lobbying for help in North Africa in order to keep Italy from taking the oil fields there, invading North Africa would pull few or no troops from the Eastern Front. And while the oil fields in North Africa were important, the Italian military hammering there was less of a threat than the German attacks on the Soviet Union.

And attacks into Europe could be driven home straight into Berlin. A landing in France or Denmark would be about 500 miles or less from Hitler’s capital as soon as it landed, a serious threat to Germany. But a landing in Africa would be 1,000 miles or more away and would require multiple amphibious landings to get into Africa and then on to Europe.

King and other senior leaders like Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George C. Marshall thought it would be a waste of time and resources.

And so planning went into effect for Operation Sledgehammer, the 1942 Allied invasion of France. But the British officers immediately started to campaign against the attack. They had already been pushed off the continent, and they knew they didn’t have the forces, and that America didn’t have the forces, to take and hold the ground.

Germany had over 24 divisions in France. For comparison, the actual D-Day landings and follow-on assault in 1944 were made with only nine divisions with additional smaller units. And that was after the military was able to procure thousands of landing craft and planes to deliver those troops. In 1942, many of those tools weren’t ready.

And, the timeline forced planners to look for a Fall landing. The Atlantic and the English Channel in the Fall are susceptible to some of the worst storms a landing could face. High winds and surging seas could swamp landing craft and destabilize the naval artillery needed to support landings.

Worse for Britain: a failed landing across the channel in 1942 would result in bodies floating in that body of water by the thousands or tens of thousands. And if Germany successfully bottled the landing up and then slaughtered the Allied troops day by day, then those bodies could have been visible on the English coast for days and weeks.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

Americans with the 45th Infantry Division prepare equipment in Sicily for movement to Salerno.

(U.S. National Archives)

So Britain renewed its lobbying for an invasion of Africa, instead. Churchill led the campaign, pointing out that German troops there could be bottled up and potentially even captured, the Suez Canal would be re-opened, and Americans could get combat experience in a theater where it would have a balance of forces in its favor rather than fighting where it could be overwhelmed before it could learn valuable lessons.

And so Operation Sledgehammer was shelved in favor of Operation Torch, the November 1942 invasion that landed on multiple beachheads across the northern coast of Africa. America would learn tough lessons there, but was ultimately successful.

Unfortunately, that hope of isolating and capturing the German force would be partially prevented by a German escape at Messina where many Nazi troops made it across to Sicily. But the Allies took the oil fields in Africa, took Sicily, and landed in Italy, building the experience needed to land in France in 1944.

Meanwhile, America sent as much industrial support to the Soviet Union as it could to keep it from falling, and it was successful, largely thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the Communist troops who turned back the Axis troops at Stalingrad, Kursk, and other battles.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The President is forbidden from going to the top of a major US monument

In 1967, a 77-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower ascended to the top of the famed St. Louis Arch, the gateway to the West. It wasn’t a planned trip, but the former President decided to go visit it anyway. And he wanted to go to the top, something the Secret Service forbids Presidents, past and present, to do. But Ike was the one who signed off on the construction of the Arch in 1954 and besides – who was going to tell the Supreme Allied Commander “no?”


What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

In case you were wondering about the answer to that question, it’s “no one.”

But he was the only one and even Eisenhower, a former President by the time he ascended to the highest peak of the 630-foot archway, had to do some sneaky work to be able to get to the top over the objections of his contingent of bodyguards. Eisenhower’s visit to the Gateway Arch came after hours, so there were no other tourists around, and it wasn’t a scheduled part of his itinerary, so potential assassins wouldn’t ever have known he would be there. He took the famed tramway up the arch over the objections of the Secret Service.

While Ike isn’t the only President to overrule the objections of the those who protect him, he’s the only one who forced his way up the St. Louis Arch. By the time he came to visit the city on the Mississippi River, two more Presidents had occupied the Oval Office after his tenure. It was a pretty safe bet.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

The view inside the top of the arch.

Getting to the top is actually a pretty cleverly designed tram that is part elevator and part Ferris wheel. But the top of the arch is a very small, cramped space that doesn’t make for a lot of room to maneuver or for a lot of people to spend any significant amount of time. It also keeps people relatively close together, which is a problem for a protective unit trying to keep people out of arms reach of the world’s most powerful person.

Despite the cramped space, some 160 people can fit in the top of the arch, and a complete trip to the top takes about 45 minutes on average. That’s a lot of time, space, and opportunity to give a would-be threat.

But in reality, the Leader of the Free World is actually the one in charge, and they can do whatever they want, but the USSS really doesn’t want the President up in the Arch.

Articles

This British D-Day vessel was the only battleship to torpedo another battleship

The British battleship HMS Rodney stands out just by looking at her photo.


She and her sister ship, HMS Nelson, had a unique design — their entire main battery forward of their superstructure.

The Rodney took part in the bombardment of the Normandy beaches during the initial stages of Operation Overlord, capping off a wartime career that also included taking on the German battleship Bismarck.

It was during the final battle with the Bismarck that HMS Rodney would achieve a unique distinction among battleships — as the only one to torpedo another battleship. How did this come about? In fact, torpedoes seem like an odd thing to put on a battleship, especially as MilitaryFactory.com notes that the Nelson-class battleships had nine 16-inch guns.

But HMS Rodney was equipped with two 24.5-inch torpedo tubes with a number of reloads.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine
Torpedo room in HMS Rodney. (Imperial War Museum photo)

These torpedoes could pack quite a punch. According to NavWeaps.com, they carried 743 pounds of TNT and could travel at a top speed of 35 knots and a maximum range of 20,000 yards. In other words, it could ruin just about any warship’s day.

That can be very useful for a ship in combat.

Why? Because sometimes, battleships fought at close quarters. For instance, the Battle of Tsushima Strait was fought at very close range, according to WeaponsandWarfare.com. In that case, a torpedo would have a good chance of scoring a hit.

Even if the torpedoes were fired at a longer range, an opponent would have to dodge them, and that might allow for a tactical advantage because even though battleships are tough, their captains don’t want to take a torpedo hit if they can help it.

The Nelson-class batt;eships in front of HMS Revenge. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On May 27, 1941, when the Brits caught up to the Bismarck the Rodney closed in, firing numerous broadsides at the Bismarck. According to a report by an American observer, at one point, the commander of the Home Fleet, Sir John Tovey, ordered the Rodney to fire her torpedoes if possible. About 2.5 hours later, one of the Rodney’s torpedoes scored a hit on the German battleship.

Ultimately, the Bismarck would be sunk by torpedoes from the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire. The Rodney would go on to serve in the Royal Navy until she was scrapped in 1949. But she always holds the distinction of being the only battleship to torpedo another battleship.

Articles

This is the ‘greatest rifle ever made’ according to R. Lee Ermey

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the operating system and capacity of the M1. It is a gas operated rifle that has an eight-round capacity.


This is his rifle. There are many like it, but “Ginger Dinger” is his.

That was the name ‘Gunny’ R. Lee Ermey gave his beloved M1 Garand rifle. It’s been heralded by General George S. Patton as “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

In an era of lever-action or bolt-action rifles, nothing can compare the speed and accuracy of a semi-automatic that uses the high-pressured gas from the cartridge being fired to do all the work for you. All troops had to do was just pull the trigger, the spent shell is ejected, the next round is chambered, and you’re ready to fire again. At the time of it’s creation in 1936, this was an absolute game changer.

Once you pop in a eight round en-bloc clip of .30-06, the M1 Garand becomes one of the most reliable weapons any service member has been issued. It was issued to the U.S. Army in 1938 and has seen service in World War II, Korean War, and selectively used in a sniper variation for the Vietnam War.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine
Firearms designer John C. Garand and his M1 (Photo via Wikimedia)

Currently, it is still available for civilian ownership and is widely praised by collectors and marksmanship competitors.

The U.S. Military still uses the M1 Garand for ceremonial purposes by drill teams. It’s said that they are also very well balanced, spin easily, and present well.

Also, both pronunciations are widely accepted. As in it’s either “Gahr-rund,” as if it rhymed with ‘errand,’ or “gur-rand,” as if Tony the Tiger was trying to say ‘grand.’

Check out the video down below if you want to watch R. Lee Ermey sh*t talk during a shooting competition with British Rifle Expert Gary Archer in his show “Lock ‘N Load with R. Lee Ermey.”

Related: This is the military branch R. Lee Ermey says Marines made fun of the most

*Writer’s Note: At first I mistakenly attributed the M1 Garand as a recoil operated rifle with a five round clip. This is not the case and I own up to my mistakes. Thank you to everyone in the comment section.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w16pXWL2B2k

(YouTube| Epic History)

MIGHTY CULTURE

How the Vietnam draft actually worked

Winning the lottery has likely never crossed your mind to be anything short of a celebration of newfound riches. Yet, for American men born before 1958, finding your number selected at random on television didn’t generally translate to wealth.

Ever wondered how the Vietnam draft actually worked? We’re combing through the history pages to find out just how birthdates and the Selective Service System mattered throughout the 20th century.


What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

Your grandfather, father and I

Coming of age doesn’t come close to holding the same meaning as it did for the nearly 72 million “baby boomers” born into the Vietnam era draft. Requirements for registration varied over the decades, ranging from eligible age ranges beginning at 21 and eventually lowering to age 18.

Uncle Sam had called upon its fighting-age citizens as far back as anyone alive could recall, as both World Wars and the Korean War utilized draftees. The Selective Service Act of 1917 reframed the process, outlawing clauses like purchasing and expanding upon deferments. Military service was something that, voluntary or not, living generations had in common.

Low was high and high was low

When the lottery took effect, men were assigned a number between 1 and 366. (365 days per year plus one to account for leap year birthdays.) In 1969, a September 14birthday was assigned a number 001. Group 001 birthdays would be the first group to be called upon. May 5 birthdays were assigned number 364 or would have been the 364group to be required to report. Even if called upon, screenings for physical limitations, felony convictions or other legal grounds resulted in candidate rejection.

This method was determined to be a “more fair and equitable process” of selecting eligible candidates for service. Local draft boards, who determined eligibility and filled previous quotas for induction, had been criticized for selecting poor or minority classes over-educated or affluent candidates.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

Grade “A” American prime candidates

In addition to a selection group, eligible males were also assigned a rating. These classifications were used between 1948 and 1976 and are available to view on the Selective Service System’s website.

1-A- eligible for military service.

1A-O- Conscientious Objector. Several letter assignments are utilized for various circumstances a conscientious objector may fall under.

4-G- Sole surviving son in a family where parent or sibling died as a result of capture or holds POW-MIA status.

3-A- Hardship deferment. Hardship would cause undue hardship upon the family.

Requests for reclassification, deferments, and postponements for educational purposes or hardships required candidates to fill out and submit a form to the Selective Service.

Dodging or just “getting out of dodge”

Options for refusing service during Vietnam varied. Frequently called “draft dodgers” referred to those who not just objected, but literally dodged induction. Not showing up, fleeing to Canada, going AWOL while in service or acts such as burning draft cards were all cards played to avoid Vietnam.

Failing to report held consequences ranging from fines, ineligibility of certain benefits, to imprisonment. In what has widely been viewed as a controversial decision, President Jimmy Carter pardoned hundreds of thousands of “draft dodgers” eliminating the statuses like “deserter” from countless files.

Researching the history of “the draft” in American history dates back to that of the Civil War. While spanning back generations and several wars, the Vietnam era draft is still viewed as the most controversial and widely discussed period in its history.

In case you’re wondering, The Selective Service System’s website still exists, as men are still required to register even today.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time the Japanese tried to bomb the US using balloons

In the early hours of Dec. 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service, killing 2,403 service members and finalizing President Roosevelt’s decision to enter World War II.


Soon after the attacks, the U.S. decided to get a little payback and sent in a group of 80 brave men and 16 B-52 bombers to execute the famous “Doolittle Raids.”

Related: That time two Navy legends fought a duel with Marines

What most people don’t know, however, is that the Japanese had planned what they believed to be an epic response to these successful, retaliatory attacks.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

On Nov. 3, 1944, Imperial Japan plotted to release approximately 9,000 hydrogen balloons packed with high-explosives and send them toward American shores to add to their kill count. Since their aircraft were incapable of reaching American soil, they figured this would be the best, undetectable approach.

After the Japanese deployed the paper-made balloons into a jet stream headed for the west coast, they calculated the journey would take three to four days — at which point, another attack could commence.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine
The lower section of the Japanese’s balloon bombs.

Also Read: That time pancakes helped fight the Japanese in WWII

An estimated 1,000 balloons reached their target but caused little-to-no damage. The other 8,000 fell harmlessly into the ocean.

The Press was instructed not to report this story to avoid giving the enemy any more exposure. However, one of the balloons caused a few fatalities.

On May 5, 1944, Reverend Archie Mitchell and his wife, Elise, were on their way to Gearhart Mountains for a picnic along with five Sunday school children in the car. While the reverend was locating a parking spot, the children and his wife came across one of the explosive balloons. Because the media was instructed not to report that specific story, the children began playing with it, unaware of the dangers, causing it to explode — killing them instantly.

Once again, the general population was instructed to keep the tragic event a secret. But, eventually, the word got out about the weapon and its intercontinental range.

Check out Simple History’s video below to learn more about this insane revenge plot.

 

MIGHTY HISTORY

This insane law would force everyone who wanted a war to go fight it

In 1916, the people of the United States were not feeling good about the rest of the world. President Woodrow Wilson easily won re-election on the slogan, “He kept us out of war” as World War I raged on in Europe and elsewhere. The Mexican Revolution threatened to pull the United States back into conflict in the American Southwest. On top of all that, the U.S. military was a conscripted, third-rate power; a far cry from the professional, all-volunteer force that we enjoy today.

But it was almost an Army comprised only of those who wanted to go to war in the first place.


What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

Five months after his inauguration, we were at war. Just sayin’.

The Constitution of the United States says only that the U.S. Congress can declare a state of war. There are no formal rules for how and when the Congress can do so, only that they can. In one instance, the President signed the legislation for war, and in others, it simply passed as a resolution. In 1916, the Congress had only declared war three times: against Britain in 1812, Mexico in 1848, and against Spain in 1898. The American people were not looking forward to a potential war in Europe, no matter who was on the other side.

Especially a concerned group of citizens from Nebraska, who created legislation that would change how the United States declared war – and who would fight it.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

“Get in, loser. We’re going to liberate Belgium.”

This proposed amendment to the Constitution outlined the process of declaring war as a national referendum, a direct vote by American citizens, where the majority would decide if the country was going to war or not. If the war referendum passed, all those who voted in favor of the war would be enlisted to fight that war.

Folks in Nebraska were surprised by how much popular support their proposed amendment received. The petition to submit the amendment to Congress had so many signatures, scraps of paper had to be added after the fact to ensure they all ended up on the document. While deciding who fights a war is very important, declaring a state of war comes with many automatic legal triggers, many of which have likely kept Congress from declaring war in the past few decades. An official state of war has not been declared since World War II.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

That face you make when you can still use the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to bomb Southeast Asia.

While the rules for how the United States conducts itself in a declared war versus an undeclared use of military force vary greatly, the rules for who fights the wars do not. All American male citizens are required to register for Selective Service at age 18, but the draft has not been used as a means of military recruiting since 1973, and was finally ended by President Gerald Ford in 1975. Ever since, the U.S military has been an all-volunteer force.

The question that has come out of the formation of an all-volunteer military in the past few years is one of disproportionate representation. If only certain segments of the American population have to fight the wars of the future, is it easier for a political class to launch unnecessary wars if they don’t have to be personally affected by its manpower needs? Those Nebraskans might have had a good point.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is what it took to be an executioner in medieval times

Mary A. asks: How did someone get the job of an executioner in medieval times?

Few occupations from history are as maligned as that of Medieval-era executioner. Popularly painted as gleeful dispensers of death and torture, the truth seems to be that many executioners throughout this period usually treated the occupation with a certain reverence and exhibited an extreme dedication to duty. Beyond trying to minimize the suffering of those slated to be executed, this was, among other reasons we’ll get into, because it would often mean the life of the executioner if they ever botched an execution or otherwise weren’t extremely professional in carrying out their job.


So, moving beyond any Hollywood depictions, what was it actually like to be an executioner in the ballpark of Medieval times and how did someone get the job in the first place?

A thing to note before we continue is that the duties expected of and performed by executioners, as well as what life was like for specific executioners, has varied wildly across time and regions. For example, as we’ve talked before, those condemned to death in the Ottoman empire during the 18th century could potentially get off scot-free by challenging the executioner to a footrace. In this case, in addition to doling out lethal justice with their bare hands, executioners also worked as both bodyguards and gardeners.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

That caveat out of the way, how did one become an executioner in the first place? It turns out that many European Medieval executioners were former criminals themselves. You see, for reasons we’ll get into shortly, the role of executioner was so unpopular that finding someone to do the job often required either forcing someone into the profession or offering the gig to someone who was slated to be executed themselves.

Scandinavian countries were known to make extensive use of this novel hiring practice, with a little twist thrown in- they’d maim executioners by cutting off one or both of their ears so that they could be easily identified by the public. It also wasn’t uncommon for people made executioners in this way to be branded somewhere on their head, once again for the purpose of their new profession being, in this case literally, written all over their face. For example, as noted in Hugo Mathiessen’s Boddel og Galgefugl,

“In the year 1470, a poor thief stood at the foot of the gallows in the Swedish town Arboga and was waiting to be hanged. The public attending the spectacle had pity on the sinner and when he, to save his neck, offered to become executioner in the town, it was agreed. He was pardoned and the red-hot iron was used to brand his body with both thief and executioner mark.”

In Germany, on the other hand, as author Joel Harrington notes in a discussion of his book, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, while “standing executioners on salary were the norm” throughout Germany during the 1600s, for many centuries prior to this it was commonplace to thrust role of executioner upon a victim’s oldest male relative.

This all brings us around to why so many avoided the profession like the plague. To begin with, the general consensus among most was that in taking such a job, one was then sure to be damned in the afterlife. This was despite the fact that in some regions, such as France, executioners were by official church decree absolved of the sins committed while performing their duties.

This still didn’t stop the general public from considering executioners unclean, leading to the more practical problem with the job- nearly being completely ostracized from society. Coming back to those condemned to die instead becoming an executioner, people seem to have been perfectly fine with this as the criminal’s life would still be forfeit, just in a more metaphorical sense.

For example, throughout Medieval Europe executioners were often forced to live in houses outside of the city or town they plied their trade in. In cases where this wasn’t possible, they tended to live near things like public latrines, lepertoriums, or brothels. Executioners were similarly often denied citizenship to the towns and cities they served (and thus had few rights in the town) and were largely barred from holding office or even entering churches, pubs, bathhouses, etc- basically most public establishments were off limits to the executioner.

Thus, despite executioners being deemed critical for a society to remain civilised, they were paradoxically generally forced to live apart from that civilised society.

In fact, some places across Europe went as far to institute laws specifically targeting executioners and what they could and could not do in their day to day lives. For example, the Bavarian town of Memmingen enacted an ordinance in 1528 that forbade members of the general public dining with an executioner.

What we can learn from a replica World War II midget submarine

Such laws and just general attitudes effectively limited the people an executioner could interact with in their day to day lives to their own family and those from the criminal underworld who simply didn’t care that the executioner was unclean. On top of this, an executioner’s children and spouse were likewise similarly shunned by anyone but the underbelly of society.

This, combined with the fact that the children of executioners could usually only find mates with children of other executioners, understandably led to the role of executioner becoming a macabre family trade that resulted in executioner dynasties that spanned centuries.

Beyond being ostrosised and damning your progeny to a similar life, as well as an afterlife full of hellfire, while there were potentially ways for an executioner to make a killing within the profession, it turns out for most there simply weren’t enough executions themselves to make ends meet. Alternate work was limited to jobs nobody else wanted. This included all manner of things, from disposal of corpses (animal and human), emptying cesspools, collecting taxes from the diseased and prostitutes, etc.

Oddly, at least from a modern perspective, another common profession for a well trained executioner was that of a doctor and surgeon. You see, beyond executing people, another thing executioners were often called to do was torture people for various reasons. These two things, combined with the close-knit community of executioners sharing their knowledge amongst themselves, resulted in lifelong executioners generally having exceptional knowledge of human anatomy, and thus they were commonly called on to treat various medical maladies.

In fact, one rather famous 17th century German executioner, Frantz Schmidt, noted in his journal that over the course of his near five decade career he had over 15,000 people he treated as a doctor, while executing only 394 and disfiguring or otherwise torturing or flogging roughly the same number- meaning most of the time he functioned as a doctor, despite society at the time considering him an executioner.

Schmidt was one of those thrust into the profession as his father was strong-armed into becoming an executioner, condemning Schmidt to the same life once he came of age, though Schmidt’s story has something of a happy ending.

Like many executioners, Schmidt was given a wide berth by the public in his day-to-day life, but the incredible professionalism with which he conducted his grisly duties earned him the begrudging respect of both the general public and those in power. In his later years, Schmidt was able to parlay this into a meeting with Nuremberg authorities and then was able to appeal to Emperor Ferdinand II himself, with the goal of restoring his family honor.

Swayed by not just Schmidt’s words, but also letters from city council members and other notable people extolling Schmidt’s character and dedication to his duty, the then 70 year old executioner was granted both Nuremberg citizenship and had his family name cleared, allowing his progeny to escape the bloody spectre of his work.

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Of course, being ultra-professional with the profession was something of a necessity for Schmidt as, at the time in Germany, there was a law stipulating that any executioner tasked with doling out death by the sword (a form of execution largely reserved for especially important individuals) who took more than three swings to behead a victim would be condemned to die themselves.

Even where such laws didn’t exist, the job of an executioner was extremely dangerous as executioners were also at risk of being killed either by vengeful relatives or the crowd witnessing an execution. In regards to the latter, if an executioner was especially cruel in their meting out of punishment, simply incompetent to the point that they caused undue suffering, or just otherwise acted in an unprofessional manner in performing their duties, it wasn’t unheard of for a crowd to retaliate by killing the executioner on the spot, generally with no consequence to anyone in the mob.

This constant danger of the job was something Schmidt himself talked about several times in his journal, though he only notes one instance where the crowd turned into a mob. This occurred during a flogging he was performing, with the person being beaten ultimately stoned to death by the crowd.

As you might imagine from this, in cases like Schmidt who was trained from childhood to take over the job from his father, a rather lengthy apprenticeship was called for, including a robust education from one’s parent, followed by assisting in executions and torture from a young age. Schmidt also notes that he practiced executions extensively on various animals before being allowed to actually execute a human himself. The end goal of all of this was to make sure he wouldn’t screw up, as raucous mobs didn’t really care if it was someone’s first day on the job or not.

Now, although being an executioner came with some massive downsides, it wasn’t all bad. Enterprising executioners could actually earn a fairly decent living doling out torture and capital punishment on command if they were smart about it. For example, especially skilled executioners who didn’t mind traveling could take advantage of the scarcity of people willing to do their job by plying their trade across whichever country they happened to live in, rather than just staying local.

Executioners also frequently earned extra money in the form of bribes from the condemned or their families, invariably given in the hopes that the executioner would ensure death was as swift and painless as possible, or otherwise allow the condemned extra comforts leading up to the execution. This might include, for example, slipping them extra alcohol or the like to make the execution a little easier to handle.

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On top of this, throughout much of Medieval Europe a perk of being an executioner is that it was customary for whatever property was worn at the time of death to be granted to the executioner.

Additionally, executioners in Germany were frequently tasked with things like arbitrating disputes between prostitutes and driving lepers out of town, among other such jobs, all of which they could charge a premium for because nobody else was willing to do the job.

Executioners were also sometimes not just given the job of disposing of animal carcasses, but also in some regions the explicit right to all stray animal carcasses found in a town. Depending on the animal, this could mean the rights to valuable hides, teeth, etc.

An even greater benefit for certain executioners, this time in France, was the idea of droit de havage. In a nutshell, because executioners were so ostracized and couldn’t in some regions, for example, just go down to the market and shop freely, under droit de havage, executioners were more or less allowed to tax those who sold various food and drink items. This came in the form of being able to demand goods for free.

Finally, there’s the money an executioner would be paid for performing an execution, flogging, or the like. Although it’s hard to say exactly how much an executioner could earn per hanging or beheading in today’s currency due to the inherent difficulty of gauging the value of historic currencies, it’s evident that it was a good amount, at least relative to the generally low social standing of executioners.

For example, according to information gleaned from an old statute dated to a small German town in 1276 an executioner could earn the equivalent of 5 shillings per execution. This is an amount roughly equal to the amount of money a skilled tradesmen could earn in about 25 days at the time. Likewise, an executioner operating in England some two centuries later in the 1400s could reportedly earn a fee of 10 shillings per execution, or roughly 16 times the amount a skilled tradesmen could earn in a single day.

Granted, as you might have deduced from the aforementioned case of Frantz Schmidt only executing about 400 people and flogging a similar number in his near five decades on the job, nobody was getting rich doing this by itself, it at least wasn’t bad pay per hour of work.

Finally, we’d be remiss in any discussion of Medieval executioners to not point out that the idea of executioners wearing masks to hide who they were does not appear to have actually been much of a thing. Beyond, as mentioned, in many regions being literally branded as executioners, even large cities for much of history weren’t actually that large; so people knew who the executioner in a given region was, if not directly, by being marked such. Thus, wearing a mask would have been pointless.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Tommy Gun lived up to its original name: The Annihilator

Despite what many think, the Thompson submachine gun was not the first submachine gun.

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But many will argue it was the best submachine gun ever put in the hands of fighting men – whether they were “good guys” or “bad guys.”

Well-made, robust, capable of firing more than 800 rounds a minute in some models and chambered for the man-stopping .45-caliber ACP round, the gun lived up to one of its original names: The Annihilator.

“I knew several soldiers who used Thompsons for special operations in Vietnam,” said Alan Archambault, a retired U.S. Army officer and former supervisory curator for the U.S. Army Center of Military History. “Even in the 1960s, the Thompson was still an iconic weapon for U.S. soldiers. Often when one soldier would rotate to the U.S., he would pass the Thompson on to another soldier in theater.”

The brainchild of Gen. John T. Thompson, a former chief of small arms for the Ordnance Department and firearms designer, the stalemate on the Western Front during The Great War (a.k.a. World War I) convinced him the ordinary infantryman needed a new weapon. Thompson wanted something he called “a trench broom.”

“Our boys in the infantry, now in the trenches, need a small machine gun, a gun that will fire 50 to 100 rounds, so light that he can drag it with him as he crawls on his belly from trench to trench, and wipe out a whole company single-handed,” Thompson wrote in a 1918 memo to firearms designers. “I want a little machine gun you can hold in your hands, fire from the hip and reload in the dark. You must use ammunition now available and I want it right away.”

Designers produced a prototype by 1919, but the first practical models were too late for the war. Still, Thompson convinced Colt to produce 15,000 M1921 submachine guns.

Early observers of the M1921 test-fired on the range were impressed by how much firepower the “little machine gun” delivered.

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The problem was Thompson had no steady stream of customers, even when Thompson’s company Auto-Ordnance Corp. released the M1928 – considered by many the definitive Tommy gun model.

True, the U.S. Marine Corps purchased Thompsons and used them effectively in China and during the Latin American “banana wars” of the 1920s. The Postal Service armed its security personnel with Thompsons as well.

But the weapon was expensive – very expensive. Adjusted for inflation, its $200 price tag is roughly equivalent to $2,300 today.

To put things in perspective, consider the contemporary cost of prime, high-end arms like the Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal SCAR 17S 7.62×51 millimeter NATO – it costs about the same as a Tommy Gun did during the Roaring ’20s.

Besides, for better or worse the Thompson gained a “bad boy” reputation. A handful of criminals such as John Dillinger and George “Machine Gun” Kelly gave the weapon a bad name.

At first, potential customers such as the British government considered the Thompson “gangster weapons” and refused to purchase the submachine gun.

But by 1939, all that changed. Great Britain entered World War II starved for armaments.

The War Office eagerly purchased every M1928 it could, and the weapon was a hit with the Tommies – particularly the Commandos.

The weapon’s reliability and ability to bring devastating automatic fire to close quarters combat made the Thompson a favorite of the Commandos.

They even honored the weapon in the design of their unit recognition flash: A stylized Thompson superimposed on an anchor headed by an eagle.

There were also many American G.I.s who even relished the gangster panache of the Tommy Gun. Images of actors like James Cagney in “The Public Enemy” – easily one of the most violent movies of its time – ducking around a corner as a gangster fired on him with a Thompson were unforgettable.

“It was often seen in gangster films that were watched by impressionable young men who came of age during World War II,” Archambault said.  “So, even before its use in World War II, it was an iconic weapon.”

Sure, the M-1 Garand was the basic weapon for the American infantryman. But the Thompson found its way into the hands of officers, squad leaders, paratroopers, U.S. Marines and any soldier lucky enough to grab one.

Also, G.I.s and Marines were fighting all across the globe in battlefield environments that included deserts, jungles and snow. The sheer reliability of the Thompson, particularly in its less-expensive but equally deadly M1A1 model, made it the perfect weapon to endure the lousiest battlefield conditions.

Eventually, the cost of the Thompson prompted development of the M-3 “Grease Gun,” which could be produced in greater quantities for far less money than even the M1A1.

But by the Korean War, the Army relegated the Thompson to a secondary role. By Vietnam, the first M-16s were in the hands of GIs and the military considered the Thompson obsolete.

Today, Thompson submachine guns are in high demand among collectors legally authorized to own full-auto weapons. On average, the price for a clean Tommy Gun is about $25,000.

Articles

That time a Marine cameraman saved his buddies from an NVA ambush

Frank Lee served as a Marine Corps combat cameraman in Vietnam, collecting spool after spool of footage of other U.S. Marines and soldiers fighting in the hottest parts of the conflict.


Like many recruits, Lee was surprised to learn what his job entailed. He had originally enlisted into electronics and photography to stay away from combat as a concession to his mom who had worried about his safety.

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(Photo: YouTube/History)

Lee decided to finally go through some of his more violent footage with his son who had only seen the “G-Rated” footage. In this video, Frank and his son dicuss the day that Lee was wounded in an North Vietnamese Army ambush that left all of those superior to LeeFrank either severely wounded or dead.

Snipers were firing on the Marines and managed to separate the squads. Lee made his way to a small hooch for a little cover and found himself with the platoon’s communication section as the wounded platoon leader sat pinned down 25 yards away.

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(Photo: YouTube/History)

Lee had to step up, relaying instructions from the pinned down, wounded platoon sergeant while calling in air strikes on the village from which the fire was coming. While the film is silent, Lee says that he heard the cries of women and children caught in the fighting, sounds that have haunted him since.

American napalm burned through the fields and village. The Marines maintained their perimeter until darkness fell and their brothers from Kilo company were able to reach them.

A corpsman attached a casualty card to Lee and he was medevaced from the bush. For his contributions to saving the patrol, he was awarded the Bronze Star with V Device. Watch him tell the story to his son in the video below:

MIGHTY HISTORY

Warriors in their Own Words: A day in the life of a Vietnam War combat medic

Combat medics courageously fought to save lives as the war raged around them in Vietnam. Helicopters became virtual hospitals in the air, buying the combat medic valuable time to heal the wounded. When lives were on the line, it was a combat medic’s quick thinking that determined the fate of their fellow troop.

Max Cleland, who would later go on to be a US Senator, was saved by such courageous men after losing three limbs to an explosion. This is his story:


You might be wondering — what did these brave ‘docs’ carry with them on a daily basis? They played a vital role in operations, but you just might be surprised by the scarcity of their toolkit. Here’s what they were expected to carry on patrol.

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Hospital Corpsman James Kirkpatrick (my handsome dad, on the right) gearing up to head out on patrol in Vietnam, 1968.

Armor?

No such luck.

For the most part, the ground-pounders wore t-shirts, flak jackets, and many donned WW2-style helmets due to a lack of budget.

The helmets weren’t bullet-proof and were only intended to protect the troop from flying shrapnel — sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Primary weapon system

Just like today, the docs of Vietnam served as riflemen until one of their brothers was injured. Most Corpsmen and medics carried M16A1 rifles with 10-14 magazines of 18 rounds. Their magazines could carry up to 20 rounds, but the majority of the grunts didn’t fill them to capacity in order to avoid a weapons malfunction.

Sidearm

The average doc carried a .45 caliber pistol with five to seven magazines of seven rounds each.

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Medics SP4 Gerald Levy and Pfc. Andrew J. Brown with a wounded soldier and a paratrooper of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Bien Hoa, Vietnam.

(Photo by Horst Faas)

Other gear

Docs also carried three to five hands grenades, which were worn either on the flak jacket or stuffed into cargo pockets, two to five flares to properly mark landing zones, and a “woobie” or poncho to stay as dry as possible.

And, of course, you couldn’t go on patrol without bringing enough packs of smokes to last you the duration. In the Vietnam era, patrols could last up to several days, depending on the mission.

Also, just like good docs today, they didn’t forget to stash away plenty of dry pairs of socks.

An unmarked med-bag

These green pouches were stuffed to the brim with abdominal dressings (large bandages), battle dressings (medium-sized dressings), four to five rolls of gauze, and five to ten morphine syrettes.

Today, morphine syrettes are considered serialized gear and a medic can be punished for losing one in the field.

Fluids

Some corpsmen and medics carried an I.V. solution — if they could manage to hustle a bag or two away from the local medical aid station. In some cases, medevac helicopters would transport them to the on-ground medical personnel instead, as needed.

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