During World War II, Toni Frissell volunteered as a photographer for the American Red Cross, Women’s Army Corps and Eighth Army Air Force, capturing images that would introduce military women and Tuskegee Airmen to the world.
While she’s perhaps best remembered for her high-fashion photography for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Frissell produced thousands of images of nurses, front-line soldiers, WACs, Black airmen, and orphaned children. She wanted to show the truth of the war, rather than concentrating only on fashion work. “I became so frustrated with fashions that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do a real reporting job,” she recalled.
According to the Library of Congress, Frissell aggressively pursued wartime assignments at home and abroad, often over her family’s objections, using her connections with high-profile society matrons. Her photographs of Women’s Army Corps trainees were used to counter negative public perception of women serving in the military. Her images of the Black pilots in the 332nd Fighter Group also helped break down racist objections to people of color serving in the United States military.
The Acting Assistant to Director for Army Air Forces (AAF) described her as “among the most valuable collaborators the AAF can number from all the ‘guests’ we have taken overseas to help us get our story not only told, but understood.” He urged her to make her prints available for publication in order to better tell the story of World War II military service and the war effort.
After the war, Frissell continued to work for Harper’s Bazaar, but she produced little fashion work after 1950. Her experience as a war observer encouraged her toward photojournalism; she did freelance work for Life, Look, Vogue, and Sports Illustrated until her retirement in 1967.
Frissell died on April 17, 1988, at the age of 81. Her collection of photos in the Library of Congress includes nearly 340,000 images as well as her archive of film negatives.
On Sept. 21, 2018, the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System hosted our annual POW/MIA Recognition Day program. Three former prisoners of war (POW) attended including World War II Veteran Fred Brooks.
Here is his story.
From Bartlesville to the Battle of the Bulge
Born on April 2, 1926, Fred Brooks turned 18 in 1944. Nearly nine months later, the native of Bartlesville, Okla. was sent to the front lines on Christmas Day during the Battle of the Bulge.
On January 10, 1945, Brooks and five other solders in the 4th Infantry Division were conducting a night patrol and entered a German village.
“We went into this little village at night to check it out, and there wasn’t anyone in that village when we entered it,” said Brooks. “When daylight came, the Germans were everywhere. They killed one and wounded two.”
Surrounded, the remaining soldiers were forced to surrender, and were transported to Stalag IV-B Prison Camp in Mühlberg, Germany.
Brooks said the Germans fed the POWs once a day, which was typically a small cup of vegetable soup.
World War II Veteran Fred Brooks.
“That’s all they had to give you,” he said. “The Germans had nothing to feed their own troops, let alone us.”
He said the Germans never harmed him, but he did have to endure the brutal winter conditions.
“My feet were frozen terribly bad,” he said. “I didn’t have one drop of medication. There was an elderly English man in the camp where I was at and he helped me tremendously to clean the wounds as best we could. It was a rough winter.”
On April 23, 1945, the Russians liberated Stalag IV-B and approximately 30,000 POWs.
“The Russians entered our camp during the night,” said Brooks. “The next day, I think there was three German guards left and the Russians hung them high in the trees. We were very happy to see (the Russians). They fed us.”
Approximately 3,000 POWs died at Stalag IV-B, mostly from tuberculosis and typhus.
World War II Veteran and former POW Fred Brooks has received his health care from the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System for approximately 30 years.
Brooks was reunited with the American Army and sent to the coast of France to wait for a transport ship home. While waiting, he met another soldier from Bartlesville, and the two made a pact not to tell their families they were coming home.
“When we got to the little bus station in Bartlesville, his wife was waiting on him,” he said with a laugh. “He had broken our vow not to call.”
From the bus station, Brooks walked a mile to his parent’s home.
“I got my parents up at 2 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “It was unreal. My parents were just out of it to see me walking in the door. It really surprised them. They were very happy.”
After the war, Brooks worked in construction and retired at the age of 75. He still lives in Bartlesville.
Looking back on the war and his internment in a German POW Camp, Brooks credits divine intervention for his survival.
Anyone can tell you that in combat, good communications are important. But there was one time that a miscommunication helped the U.S. win a significant naval surface action off Guadalcanal during the Battle of Cape Esperance.
That bit of lucky confusion happened on the night of Oct. 11, 1942. That was when Japan decided to carry out what was called a “Tokyo Express” run. These runs delivered troops, often dashing in under the cover of darkness. This was necessary because American planes at Henderson Field were very capable of taking down enemy ships in the daylight hours.
To take Henderson Field, Japan had to reinforce the troops on Guadalcanal — especially because the Americans had, in the middle of September run a substantial convoy to Guadalcanal at the cost of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV 7). During that month, at the battle of Edson’s Ridge, the Marines had repelled an attack, inflicting substantial losses on the Japanese ground troops.
According to “The Struggle for Guadalcanal,” Volume Five in Samuel Eliot Morison’s “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II,” on Oct. 9, 1942, an American convoy carrying the 164th Infantry Regiment, part of the Americal Division, departed for Guadalcanal. Three United States Navy task forces covered the transports.
One was centered around the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8), which had launched the Doolittle raid almost six months prior. The second was around the battleship USS Washington (BB 56). The third was a group of cruisers and destroyers under the command of Rear Adm. Norman Scott, who had his flagship on the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA 38).
In addition to the San Francisco, the heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City (CA 25), the light cruisers USS Helena (CL 50) and USS Boise (CL 47), and the destroyers USS Laffey (DD 459), USS Farenholt (DD 491), USS Duncan (DD 485), USS McCalla (DD 488) and USS Buchanan (DD 484) were part of Task Force 64, which had the assignment of securing Ironbottom Sound until the transports finished unloading.
At 11:32 that night, the radar on the USS Helena detected a Japanese force of three heavy cruisers (the Aoba, Kinugasa, and Furutaka) and the destroyers Fubuki and Hatsuyuki. American radar tracked the Japanese force, which was covering a supply convoy. At 11:45 that night, Capt. Gilbert C. Hoover on board the Helena would send a fateful message to Admiral Scott, “Interrogatory Roger.” He was requesting permission to fire. Scott’s response, “Roger,” was intended to acknowledge receipt of the request. But “Roger” was also used for granting permission to fire, according to Morison.
Hoover would assume the latter, and at 11:46, the USS Helena opened fire with her fifteen six-inch guns. According to NavWeaps.com, the Mk 16 six-inch guns could fire up to ten rounds a minute. In that first minute, as many as 150 rounds would be fired by that ship. Other American ships also opened fire, and the Aoba, the flagship of the Japanese force, took the brunt of the American fire. The Japanese commander, Rear Adm. Aritomo Goto, was mortally wounded early on.
Thrown into confusion, the Japanese force initially believed they had been fired on by their troop convoy. Eventually, they began to return fire, but the battle’s result was never in doubt. The Aoba would be badly damaged, and the Furutaka and the Fubuki would be sunk by the end of the battle.
The Americans would lose the destroyer USS Duncan, while the Boise and Salt Lake City were damaged and returned to rear bases for repairs, along with the destroyer Farenholt.
Norman Scott had won a tactical victory, thanks to that communications foul-up, but the Japanese landed their reinforcements that night. On the night of October 13, the battleships Kongo and Haruna delivered a devastating bombardment against Henderson Field, but couldn’t prevent American reinforcements from arriving.
Later that month, Japanese forces would fail to take Henderson Field, while a naval offensive would be turned back in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands at the cost of the Hornet.
The two men involved in that communications foul-up would see action about a month later off Guadalcanal when Japanese battleships tried to again bombard Henderson Field, only to be stopped by Daniel Callaghan.
Rear Adm. Norman Scott would be killed in action in that engagement. Hoover would survive, and be left in command of the surviving ships. As he lead them back, the anti-aircraft cruiser USS Juneau (CL 52) would be sunk by a Japanese submarine. Rather than try to rescue survivors, Hoover radioed the position of the survivors to a patrolling B-17, expecting a request to be relayed to the South Pacific.
When American intelligence detected the massive buildup of North Vietnamese troops that preceded the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh in 1968, Gen. William Westmoreland gave the base priority access to all American airpower in theater, leading to Operation Niagara and a “waterfall of bombs.”
Khe Sanh was the westernmost base in a strong of installations along the crucial Route 9 in late 1967. It was in the perfect position to block North Vietnamese Army forces and other fighters moving in from Laos or other NVA areas.
But Westmoreland believed that Khe Sanh was crucial to victory and worth heavy investment despite its relatively small size as home to one Marine regiment and 5,000 support troops. To ensure the Marines could hold out against anything, he ordered improvements to infrastructure on the base and the installation of thousands of remote sensors in the surrounding jungle.
By the first week of January 1968, sensors and reconnaissance data made it clear that the NVA was conducting a massive buildup in the area of the base. All indications were that the North Vietnamese wanted to recreate their success at Diem Bien Phu in 1954 when a prolonged siege led to the withdrawal of French forces.
Artillery rounds were stockpiled at the base and intelligence was collected. The intel cells were able to get a good idea of where Communist forces were concentrating forces, artillery, and command elements. They were also able to track tunneling efforts by the North Vietnamese trying to get close to the base.
And the North Vietnamese were able to get close — in some cases within a few thousand meters.
On Jan. 21, 1968, the North Vietnamese launched a simultaneous attack against Khe Sanh itself and some of the surrounding hills. Their massed forces would eventually number 20,000, more than three times the number of the 6,000 defenders.
The U.S., with a mass of intelligence and stockpiled weapons, went on the offensive against the North Vietnamese. Artillery shells shot out of the base against pre-identified targets, and a waterfall of bombs started pouring from B-52s.
Initially, the bombs were dropped relatively far from the base. The B-52s tried to stay three miles out, but the communists figured out the restrictions and moved their fighters in close, forcing the B-52s to operate closer to the base and making the ground pounders rely more heavily on strike aircraft and the AC-47 gunship.
Of course, not everything went smoothly for the Marines and their support. An enemy artillery strike by the North Vietnamese managed to hit the ammo dump, destroying 90 percent of the stockpiled rounds in a single hit.
When Lt. Kara Hultgreen died while trying to land on the USS Abraham Lincoln, the event touched off a national debate about women in combat roles and the military pushing women who weren’t ready into active service. Except Hultgreen was more than qualified to be a naval aviator – she was just a victim of a well-known deficiency in the F-14’s Pratt & Whitney engine.
“Top Gun” doesn’t mention engine deficiencies.
Hultgreen’s mom thought she would be the perfect debutante. Instead, her little Kara set out to be a Naval Aviator, flying the F-14 Tomcat. The goal didn’t stop at the F-14, Kara Hultgreen wanted to be an astronaut one day. But she didn’t start with the Tomcat, she started her career flying the less-pretty EA-6A. She made it to the Tomcat 18 months later.
“Yes, it’s a macho job in a number of ways,” she told Woman Pilot magazine before she died. “But that’s not why I wanted to do it. I did this to become a fighter pilot. It makes me feel no less feminine and it should not make men feel less masculine. The F-14 is a humbling jet and I’ve been humbled.”
Call Sign: “Revlon”
What she meant by being humbled is that Hultgreen narrowly failed her first attempt at F-14 carrier qualification. But she passed easily her second time around, ranking third in her class overall. Tragically, it was a similar event that would result in her death.
On Oct. 25, 1994, she was attempting to land her F-14 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. She overshot the landing area’s centerline and attempted to correct the mistake. Her correction disrupted the airflow into her Tomcat’s left engine, which caused it to fail. This was a known deficiency in that particular engine. What she did next caused the plane to tilt over to the left. When her Radar Intercept Officer realized the plane was not recoverable, he initiated the plane’s ejection sequences. He was fired out, and .4 seconds later, Hultgreen was fired out of the plane.
But by then, the Tomcat had turned over by 90 degrees and Hultgreen was launched into the ocean, killing her instantly.
By the time she died, Lt. Hultgreen had more than 1,240 hours of flying time in the F-14 Tomcat and had landed on a carrier some 58 times, 17 times at night. She was ranked first in defending the fleet from simulated attacks by enemy aircraft and in air refueling, and second in tactics to evade enemy aircraft and in combined familiarization with tactics and aircraft. The Aerospace Engineer was a Distinguished Naval Graduate of Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola.
Yet, despite all of her achievements, training, and preparation, there were some who blamed the military for her death, alleging her superiors overlooked her mistakes in training in trying to beat the Air Force in training the first female fighter pilot. One group, the Center for Military Readiness, claimed to have obtained Hultgreen’s training records in 1995, records which they said would have disqualified her as an aviator.
These records are contradicted by records released from Hultgreen’s family the year prior, however. Her colleagues and fellow pilots praised her performance as a naval aviator and reminded people that 10 F-14 pilots were killed in accidents between the years of 1992 and 1994. Hultgreen once even brought an EA-6A Intruder to a safe landing, despite flying it with crippled landing gear.
The name rings bells. It’s got the glitz, having been the subject of two different Hollywood films complete with big-name Hollywood actors such as Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael B. Jordan, and Terrence Howard. That is wonderful and, I’m sure, absolutely appreciated by the surviving members and their family. There are some things that may not immediately pop out but are, nonetheless, extremely interesting.
The Tuskegee Airmen were one of the most accomplished groups of service members of any generation, but most can’t tell you why their name is so revered. Below are some of the most praiseworthy feats ever accomplished.
One of the first defenders of the Tuskegee Airmen
(Image courtesy of OnThisDay.com)
Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall? Yes, that Thurgood Marshall. Before you go off saying he wasn’t a Tuskegee Airmen, you have to consider his tie to them. While he was a young lawyer, he represented 100 black officers who were charged with mutiny after entering a club that was then considered off-limits to them.
He would eventually get them all released.
The photo that opened many doors.
(Image courtesy of RedTail.org)
The Tuskegee Airmen came to during an age of segregated America. While the Tuskegee Airmen, or the Tuskegee experiment as it was then known, was great it still lacked the prerequisite respect and support.
It wasn’t until a visit from FLOTUS Eleanor Roosevelt that support would begin to flow in. Photo and film from a flight around the field would be the push needed to get the support to really come in.
Lieutenant General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
(Image courtesy of AF.mil)
Three different members, or graduates, of the Tuskegee experiment, went on to become Generals. The first was Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. He was the first commander of the 332nd Fighter Group and the first Black General of the U.S. Air Force.
Daniel “Chapple” James was appointed brigadier general by Richard Nixon and also went on to become a General. The last, Lucius Theus, would retire at the rank of Major General after a 36-year career.
Batting a thousand..
The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 700 bomber escort missions during World War II. They wound up being the only fighter group to achieve and maintain a perfect record protecting bombers.
Life in ancient Germany was rough, to put it lightly. You knew who your second cousins were, because you never knew when someone and his cousins were planning to kill you. Maybe you stole some of his family’s livestock, maybe you accidentally insulted his father or maybe one of your ancestors killed one of his generations ago, and he still wants revenge.
In these ancient tribes, blood feuds and violence were all too common. To address this problem people came up with innovative solutions to settle disputes and pass judgments: trial by ordeal. An ordeal required the accuser and the accused in a dispute to perform an action to “test” the gods, asking them to come down on the side of the righteous. Even after the Germanic peoples became Christian, these ordeals were retained, sometimes to the chagrin of Church authorities. Here are 6 of the craziest medieval ordeals.
1. Trial by combat
Everyone knows this one, in no small part due to its popularity in historical or fantasy dramas, like Game of Thrones. The idea was that in a battle between the accuser and accused, God would intervene on the side of the innocent and grant them victory. Interestingly, the Germanic peoples appear to have been the only ones on the European continent with this practice; there is no such record of the Greeks, Romans and Celts practicing trial by combat
2. Trial by the cross
Trial by combat wasn’t popular with everyone, however. Charlemagne encouraged the “ordeal of the cross” in its place, which required the accuser and accused to reach out their arms in the position of the crucifixion, and whoever lowered his arms first lost. Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious later banned the practice, since it seemed a little impious to imitate Jesus Christ on the Cross for the sake of a minor human problem.
3. Trial by fire
If you thought trial by combat was unpleasant, just wait until you see this. In the trial by fire, the accused would have to hold a burning red-hot piece of iron in their hands and walk a full nine paces before letting go. Their hands would then be wrapped and bandaged, and in three days would be examined by a priest. If their hands were healing properly, then they were innocent, but if the wound became infected, then God was not on their side, and they were guilty.
4. Trial by hot water
Medieval Europeans couldn’t get enough of the heat. A pot would be filled with boiling water (or sometimes oil) and a stone dropped into it. The accused would have to reach into the pot to remove the stone, and their burnt hands would be bandaged for three days. Like with the trial by fire, if their hands started the healing process properly, then the priest would proclaim that the accused was innocent.
5. Trial by cold water
It was believed in the early Middle Ages that water was pure, especially water used for baptism. In this trial, the accused would be thrown into a body of water to see if he would float or sink, but the best water was the one he was baptized in. If he sank, then the water had accepted him because he was innocent, and if he was guilty, he would float because the water was rejecting him. Many modern people might think this was a catch-22, because you would either be found guilty or you would drown, but not so. People were usually attached to ropes that could easily pull them out if they sank.
6. Trial by… cheese?
One of the strangest medieval ordeals required a man to stuff his mouth full of dry cheese and then take an oath of innocence. If the man accidentally spat some of the cheese out or choked on it, then he would be found guilty. The trial could also be conducted with bread, which was probably no less dry than the cheese.
Though these ordeals were prominent throughout the early Middle Ages, these never sat well with everyone. Plenty of people in the Church opposed these ordeals, claiming that it was sacrilegious to “test God” with ordeals that had their origin in older pagan traditions. By the thirteenth century, popes and kings were starting to discontinue the ordeals, and these nearly disappeared until the witch-hunts of the early modern period.
The next time you’re frustrated thinking about jury duty, be thankful that in our system you only have to risk your time, not your life.
Some military vehicles are given names that accurately reflect what they do and how well they do it. Others, however, are not so fortunate — they’re given military monikers that simply don’t fit.
The following tools of war were either given names so lofty that it makes a mockery of their actual performance or a name so low-class that it’s a disgrace to the weapon.
At Midway, the Devastator got devastated by Mitsubishi A6M “Zeke” fighters.
Douglas TBD Devastator
This plane’s name would have you thinking it’s something that can deliver a huge amount of firepower, sufficient enough to destroy whatever ship lays in its path. Unfortunately, this was far from the reality of the Douglas TBD Devastator.
At the Battle of Midway, a total of 41 Devastators attacked the Japanese carriers. Torpedo Squadron Eight, based on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8) and accounted for 15 of those Devastators — all of which were wiped out. In total, only six Devastators survived. ‘Devastated’ is a much more fitting title.
The KC-97 Stratofreighter was really an aerial refueling tanker, as seen in action with these A-7 Corsairs.
Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighter
This plane found quite a bit of success in its lifetime: 811 were built by the United States and it saw plenty of peacetime work. It was introduced in 1951 and stuck around until 1978 with the Air National Guard. So, what makes ‘Stratofreighter’ such a poor name choice?
This plane wasn’t a transport — it was a tanker. This plane refueled the bombers and fighters who took the fight to the enemy. Really, this plane should have been called the ‘Stratotanker’ (a name later used by the KC-135) because there’s no ‘freighter’ involved.
The only things mauled by the MIM-46 Mauler were the reputations of those who thought it was a good idea.
This missile was intended, as the name implies, to maul enemy planes that approached on close-air support missions. Well, as it turns out, the only mauling the missile did was in theory. In reality, it suffered from all sorts of problems, ranging from failing launch canisters to malfunctioning guidance systems.
Ultimately, the Army instead turned to the MIM-72 Chaparral and Navy went with the RIM-7 Sea Sparrow. The MIM-46 was test fired in 1961 and, by 1965, the Mauler mauled no more.
This was what the M247 Sergeant York was supposed to be. Reality was very different.
M247 Sergeant York
Sergeant Alvin York was known for his marksmanship, earning the Medal of Honor for heroic acts performed during World War I. The M247 Sergeant York, conversely, was anything but a marksman. When it came time to test this vehicle, which was equipped with a pair of 40mm cannon and the radar of the F-16, it couldn’t even hit a hovering drone. The radar simply couldn’t track anything.
Surely, Sergeant York rolled in his grave over sharing a name with this lemon.
What weapons do you think have unfortunate names? Let us know in the comments!
When 33 pilots and more than 200 ground crewmen left Mexico for Laredo, Texas, they were embarking on a historic opportunity. They would be the first Mexican forces to train and fight in combat away from Mexican shores.
During World War II, Mexico was only one of two countries in Central and South America to declare war on the Axis powers and also send troops to go fight them (Brazil was the other).
They had a reason to go and fight. Two Mexican oil tankers bound for the United States were torpedoed and sunk by German u-boats while flying the Mexican flag. Some 20 Mexican sailors died as a result of the attacks within a week of each other and spilled 6,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
On May 22, 1942 Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho declared war on the Axis Pact.
The Escuadrón Aéreo de Pelea 201 or 201st Air Fighter squadron spent six months training in Texas before shipping out to the Pacific Theater. They arrived in the Philippines in April 1945, still with plenty of time to take the war to the Japanese, which they did almost immediately.
It might seem odd that Mexico, which was attacked by Germany, would agree to send pilots to fight the Japanese far from Europe. The Mexican Army had intercepted a communique that detailed a planned Japanese invasion of the United States that went straight through Mexico.
The invasion plan called for a Japanese landing in Sonora through the Sea of Cortez. From there, the Japanese would drive across the American southwest. If Mexico wanted to keep enemy troop ships from landing on its shores, it would have to take the fight to the enemy.
In American-built P-47 Thunderbolt fighters flying the Mexican flag on their tails ad white noses on their P-47s, the Aztec Eagles – a nickname they’d given themselves during training – hit the Japanese in the Philippines and later, Formosa (modern-day Taiwan).
Their first mission required them to dive bomb heavily-entrenched Japanese positions in mountainsides near Vigan. The maneuvers required of the mission were as dangerous as flying so close to the enemy. They impressed their American counterparts with their skill and daring.
In the Philippines, the Mexican aviators hit the Japanese forces on the ground to support the 25th Infantry Division’s campaign to clear Luzon of its Japanese defenders. During this time period they lost seven pilots in combat and training exercises but only one aircraft lost to the enemy in its effort to free the people of the Philippines.
To attack Formosa, the Mexicans flew 650 miles at near-wavetop heights to drop their bombs on the ports and harbors of the island. The missions took such a toll on the pilots that they had to be helped out of their cockpits when they returned.
It wasn’t only the Mexican officers in the air who struck back at the enemy. Enlisted ground crews got more than their fair share of combat in the Philippines when airfields were attacked by enemy troops, forcing the Mexicans to fight them off. The 201st knocked an estimated 30,000 Japanese troops out of the war in its four-month combat tour.
In combat, their American allies saw them as both crazy and ferocious, both meant as high compliments to their skill.The squadron received the Philippine Legion of Honor for its wartime efforts and returned home to a parade in Mexico City’s Constitution Square. Today, a monument in Chapultepec honors the men of the 201st, the only unit to leave Mexico to fight a foreign enemy.
Featured Image: A Fuerza Aérea Expedicionaria Mexicana (FAEM — “Mexican Expeditionary Air Force”) Republic P-47D-30-RA Thunderbolt (USAAF s/n 44-33721) from Escuadrón 201 (201st Squadron) over the Philippines during the summer of 1945. (U.S. Army Air Force)
In the years following the American Civil War, Canada was still very much a possession of the British Empire. As such, it had a number of official fortifications and other important areas along its border with the United States. One of those was Fort Erie, directly across the Niagara from the American city of Buffalo, New York. In June 1866, some 850 men crossed the Niagara from Buffalo, intent on capturing the fort.
They were Irishmen, and they were going to conquer Canada to free their home country.
Irish immigrants flowed into the United States in droves following the Acts of Union that saw British domination of Ireland since the early 1800s. The Great Irish Famine of the late 1840s also saw a huge emigration of Irish people to the United States. By 1860, there were more than 1.6 million people of Irish descent who called themselves American – and upwards of 175,000 of them were about to serve in the Union Army.
The Irish made-up 40 percent of foreign-born enlistments in the Civil War, and were 17 percent of the overall Union force. When these battle-hardened veterans returned home after the war, many of them were headed to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England. It was there that Irish National leaders were waiting to use the veterans’ new talent for combat.
To be fair, when this plan was hatched, there were upwards of 10,000 Fenians.
Called the Fenian Brotherhood, its original aim was to send money, arms, and supplies to Irish rebels in Ireland via Irish émigrés living in the U.S. Many in the movement were soon convinced that liberating Ireland through a direct uprising was impossible, so they decided to step up their game a bit. If the Irish couldn’t mount an invasion of Ireland, then they would mount an invasion of Canada, the nearest British-held country and trade it for Irish independence.
T.W. Sweeny a former Union general who also served in the Mexican War hatched a three-pronged plan to invade Canada, set up an Irish government-in-exile, and pressure Britain to release Ireland to the Irish. It called for multiple incursions into Ontario in an effort to draw the main British force out of Quebec. With that done, the main Fenian force would invade Quebec, cutting off lines of communication and supply.
Noncommissioned officers of the 10th Royal Regiment of Toronto Volunteers, circa 1870.
On June 1, 1850, a force of Irish-American members of the Fenian Brotherhood landed in Ontario and planted the Irish flag. They tore up railroads and cut the telegraph wires, effectively cutting Fort Erie off from the rest of Canada. Then, 600 Fenians marched westward. At the same time, the commander of British forces in Canada activated upwards of 22,000 troops to put the insurrection down. While the larger force formed up, 850 men under Lt. Col. Alfred Booker were dispatched to pin the Irish down and keep them from wreaking any more havoc.
The two forces met at Ridgeway in Ontario, Canada. It was the first time an all-Canadian force was led by a Canadian commander. Unfortunately for the Canadians, the Fenians were well-armed and skilled fighters, having just braved the battlefields of the American Civil War. The Canadians were soon reinforced, and the superior numbers caused the Fenians to retreat.
No. 5 Company of the Queen’s Own Rifles.
The Fenians were repulsed elsewhere along their proposed lines of attack. Having assumed that Irish Canadians would join the uprising, they were surprised at how the Canadians responded to their invasion. By the time British forces mounted a full response, many of the Fenians had retreated back across the river, the United States Navy was stopping Fenian barges from bringing reinforcements, and the U.S. declared total neutrality in Canadian affairs.
There would be more Fenian uprisings in later years, but for the time being, the push to trade Canada for Ireland would not come to pass.
The Germans were the first to propose nuclear science, and some of their top minds advanced the field in the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s why it’s probably a little surprising that America had the first functioning nuclear reactor. And the first bomb. But the Nazis had not just one nuclear program, but three. And one of the teams had an honest-to-god reactor ready to go.
The German nuclear program had two major prongs. There was a weapons program that was begun in 1939, but the shortage of scientists quickly short-circuited the effort. Later that year, a new team was re-assembled to study the wartime applications of fission. The possibility of a bomb was foremost, for obvious reasons.
So Germany sidelined its bomb efforts but remained interested in nuclear reactors. Remember, its industry relied on imported or stolen fuel to run its factories, and its primary naval arm was submarines that had to slip under British blockades and patrols with limited fuel stores to do their work after they got into the Atlantic.
Nuclear reactors that gave them virtually unending power in cities or at sea would transform the way they operated in the war, and so they committed their nuclear stockpile to create a reactor.
A museum exhibit shows the uranium chandelier Germany used for their experimental reactors.
The most advanced team was in Berlin. The reactor there had 664 cubes in its chandelier, and its scientists were actually close in 1944 and 1945 to achieving a sustained reaction, a reaction that could have kept factories humming along until the Allies broke the city.
The only problem: They needed a bit more uranium than they had. They suspected that they needed about 50 percent more cubes, and a 2009 paper says that they were probably right. Funnily enough, the group in Gottow had about 400 cubes, but the two teams weren’t allowed to talk about their work or share resources. So neither group knew that they could pool their resources and succeed in just a few weeks or months of work.
Probably for the best, though. It’s not like the world would be better off if the Nazis had managed to create nuclear power plants for the Allies to bomb as the war ended, and the reactors almost certainly would have come too late to save the Reich, anyway.
Meanwhile, the cubes were largely recovered by American forces and are now passed around as novelties in some classrooms and physicist social circles. Germany did eventually tap into its uranium mines in order to fuel reactors in the post-war world. Germany is getting out of the nuclear business, though, even the power generation part.
In June 1898, Spanish soldiers on duty in Santiago, Cuba were shocked and surprised when the city began exploding around them. No one heard the crack of offshore cannons, but sure enough, there was an American ship out in the water, firing at the town.
In the dark and without warning, the high-explosive shot from the ship was a psychological victory for the Americans. Spanish soldiers in Cuba would have to be on high alert, as the United States could strike without warning.
The ship offshore of Santiago that night was the USS Vesuvius. The stealthy rounds it was able to fire at the city came not from a cannon filed with gunpowder and somehow silenced, but rather it was fired by compressed air.
When we think of a compressed air gun these days, many of us probably think of airsoft players running around the woods somewhere. But at the end of the 19th century, compressed air cannons were a major technological innovation for naval warfare.
Most often known as Dynamite Cannons, the compressed air guns of the Vesuvius and other ships usd multiple tanks of compressed air to fire high explosive rounds. The technological advancement was a necessity due to the new high-explosive rounds used by the Navy and elsewhere.
Early high explosive rounds were notoriously unstable. Though they could be carried aboard ships, firing one of these rounds using a traditional gunpowder charge would cause the shell to explode right as it left the muzzle of the gun. It needed a more gradual acceleration to keep the shell from exploding right away. Enter compressed air.
The compressed air not only had the advantage of not killing the gun crews and tearing a hole in the ship, it allowed for ships like Vesuvius to slip into enemy water undetected and get off a few rounds without the enemy knowing it just fired its deck guns. Another advantage was, like the Spanish soldiers in Santiago experienced, the sheer terror of being shelled from the sea without any advance warning.
On top of all that, the shells were lightweight and the compression could be reloaded aboard the ship at sea. They did have drawbacks, however. The compressed air that allowed the guns to fire off rounds without sound or the explosive death of the men who fired them meant that it had a lower muzzle velocity. As a result, the guns had to fire at a high angle which decreased their accuracy.
The Americans were also able to use field artillery with the same technology. These field guns were also used on Santiago, this time by land-based forces. Col. Theodore Roosevelt and his volunteers fielded a Sims-Dudley Dynamite Gun when capturing the city, but the future president was unimpressed, despite the improved accuracy of the field model.
Other models of Dynamite Gun could be placed on shore batteries, use steam to refill the pneumatic firing charges, or affixed to submarines. Like their seaborne cousins, the land-based models had drawbacks of their own. Some of the steam-driven cannons required 200 tons of equipment to use, fire and reload.
Improvements in the development of high explosives and high explosive rounds led to the quick demise of the Dynamite Guns and their use in land or sea combat. When the Army and Navy could go back to more traditional gunpowder charges, they did so almost immediately and compressed air guns became a footnote in history.
Nazi SS forces tasked with guarding the Nazis’ most high-value prisoners finally moved them all to a single place as the war (and the Nazi party) was nearing its end. Among those were troops with famous names, like Churchill. There were former world leaders who happened to be of Jewish descent, like Hungary’s Miklos Kallay. Prince Philip Von Hesse was there, too. And there were members of high-ranking military families, like the Von Stauffenbergs (whose patriarch famously tried to kill Hitler in the Valkyrie plot).
The group ended up in Niederdorf, in Italy’s South Tyrol region. The infamous SS guards decided to move all their high-value eggs from the infamous Dachau camp into one basket in Italy. Aside from the aforementioned famous prisoners — who were each antithetical to Nazi values — there were British and American troops there, ones known for multiple, repeated escape attempts. There were also relatives of famous foreign dignitaries, like Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s nephew.
In all, there were 140 of the Nazis most high-profile undesirables, each too valuable to be allowed to be captured by oncoming enemy forces. It wasn’t just for their propaganda value, but also their intelligence value. The SS had orders to keep them from being captured by the enemy — by any means necessary. One former German officer, equivalent to a colonel, was also among the prisoner population at Niederdorf. He was incarcerated for allowing a retreat on the Eastern Front against the Red Army, and he knew what the SS might do if pushed.
It was that dedicated German officer who managed to get word out to an old friend that they and the rest of these prisoners were in more mortal danger with every passing day.
The prisoners could not be taken to existing concentration camps. It turns out that camp commandants were not accepting new arrivals by this time, mid-April, 1945. The war would soon be over and each was busy covering his ass and the asses of those around him. So, SS-Obersturmführer Edgar Stiller took his lot to a hotel in Niederdorf. The only problem was the hotel was occupied by three German Wehrmacht Generals, so the townspeople of Neiderdorf put them up, feeding and sheltering them.
During their stay German Oberst (colonel) and prisoner Bogislaw von Bonin managed to reach one of the generals at the hotel via telephone. He warned General Hans Roettiger that the prisoners would be massacred by the SS if the Army did not intervene. The only problem was Roettiger was accompanied by SS General Karl Wolff.
Not to be outdone, Roettiger ordered Hauptmann (Captain) Wichard von Alvesleben and his men stationed to the west of Niederdorf to the scene. After learning that Stiller did intend to kill his VIP prisoners using a bomb aboard their transport bus, Alvesleben and the Wehrmacht moved on the town and liberated the Allied prisoners. But the trouble wasn’t over right away.
After herding the prisoners into the town hall and reinforcing it with 15 noncommissioned officer and a heavy machine gun, the Wehrmacht troops demanded the SS guard withdraw from the town and leave the prisoners. Alvesleben even called his cousin, also a Wehrmacht Hauptmann, who reinforced the regular army by surrounding the SS in the town square with another 150 men.
Outnumbered, the SS guard left.
The prisoners and their Wehrmacht guard marched to the nearby Hotel Pragser Wildsee where they spent the next few days, guarding against German Army deserters and Italian Partisans. They were soon liberated by the arriving American Army, who repatriated the VIP hostages back to their host country and arrested the Wehrmacht.
The hostages, of course, spoke in the defense of the German Army regulars who came to their aid against the SS. The kind-hearted Hauptmann Wichard von Alvesleben would survive the war and live for another 30-plus years.