On May 8, 1945, Navy Seabee Andrew Del Regno sent a letter to his wife from the front lines of the Pacific Front of World War II. It was one of some 600 letters the couple sent each other over the course of the war. His wife, Helen Del Regno, who was home in Nyack, New York, received it much later — after the end of the war in Europe. The war against the Japanese Empire would continue until September of that year.
Decades later, their son, filmmaker Vic Del Regno, would meticulously compile those letters to tell the story of his parents’ undying love for one another in the background of one of the most turbulent times in American history, World War II. That effort culminated with the younger Del Regno’s hour-long documentary, Till Then: A Journey Through World War II Love Letters.
The books have a different title, ‘Who Knew?’
(Photo by Vic Del Regno)
Vic Del Regno found his parents’ correspondence in the garage of their New York home. He had them compiled in leather-bound books to preserve them for posterity. Upon finding them, he was inspired to retrace his father’s service in the Pacific Theater on a trip that took him to legendary places in American military history, including Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands.
In the book’s introduction, Vic Del Regno writes that he wanted to capture “the deep loneliness and hardship many couples experienced during the war, caused by being separated by thousands of miles and long periods of time. This is a real life story, taken from the letters, that ties together the elements of love, betrayal, forgiveness, tragedy, and hope.”
The book, entitled Who Knew? A World War II Journey Through Love Letters, was changed because Del Regno wanted the film’s title to reflect how his parents signed off their letters, with a reference to a popular song of the era by the Mills Brothers, ‘Till Then.’
The Del Regno’s original correspondence, saved and bound in 12 notebooks.
(Vic Del Regno)
The letters pull no punches, documenting the war’s grim realities, along with the pain and hardships of a relationship torn apart by a seemingly unending, brutal war. Despite their dismal situation, you can also see the hope brought by each letter and the importance of receiving correspondence from home for a sailor deployed thousands of miles away.
Vic Del Regno wanted to capture the sacrifices made, not just by his parents or by the soldiers and sailors who fought the war, but by all Americans at a time when victory was anything but assured. He also hopes that it might shed some light on the struggles faced by those troops (and their families) who are fighting today’s wars overseas.
“It reaches the many sides of war experienced by those who have served and those who were left behind,” writes Jack Sprengel of the Seabee Museum and Memorial Park. “History repeats itself in many ways and this film tells a story just as important as the battle stories told.”
Vic Del Regno’s untiring work is emblematic of the motto his Seabee father shared with his fellow veterans:
“With willing hearts and skillful hands the difficult we do at once, the impossible takes a bit longer.”
It took Vic Del Regno just five years and now, that labor of love – the letters of his parents – are preserved forever in the U.S. National Archives.
The Archer didn’t look much different than future self-propelled artillery vehicles (Photo credit: Public Domain)
At first sight, the Valentine Archer isn’t a terribly odd looking vehicle. The fighting compartment and gun appear to be at the rear with the barrel extending over the front deck; but they’re not. In fact, the fighting compartment is at the front of the vehicle and the gun faces backwards over the engine deck in the rear. This odd-looking vehicle was the Vickers-Armstrongs solution to the problem of mounting the heavy, but effective, 17-pounder anti-tank gun in a fighting vehicle; this is the Archer.
Early in the war, Britain quickly learned that the majority of the guns mounted on its armored vehicles were inferior to the firepower that their German counterparts brought to bear. In early 1943, prototypes of the new Ordnance Quick-Firing 17-pounder anti-tank guns were sent to North Africa in response to the appearance of heavy German Tiger tanks. The gun proved to be effective against German armor; the problem was that it was heavy and had to be towed around the battlefield. Britain’s new problem became mounting the 17-pounder on a mobile fighting vehicle.
A QF 17-pounder in Tunisia (Photo from the Imperial War Museum)
Although projects were in development to mount the gun on a turreted tank (which led to the Challenger and Sherman Firefly tanks), the British Army needed to develop a vehicle that could carry the gun as quickly as possible. Vickers-Armstrongs was given the challenge and elected to use the outdated Valentine tank as the base of this new vehicle; its official designation being Self Propelled 17pdr, Valentine, Mk I, Archer. The Valentine’s engine was upgraded to a GMC 6-71 6-cylinder diesel with a higher power output of 192 bhp in order to carry the heavy gun without sacrificing mobility. Still the gun could not be mounted in a turret and was instead mounted in a low, open-top armored fighting compartment. As previously stated, this was at the front of the vehicle with the gun facing backwards.
A front view of the Archer (Photo from The Tank Museum)
The mounting of the 17-pounder in the Archer allowed for 11 degrees of traverse and elevation from -7.5 to +15 degrees. If the gunner required more lateral traverse, the driver would have to physically turn the vehicle. As a result, the driver would remain at his station (facing the opposite direction of the action) at all times. Aside from this, it would be difficult for the driver to get in and out quickly because of the tight confines of the fighting compartment. The gun took up a lot of space and recoiled in the direction of the driver’s head. That said, he was never in any danger of being struck thanks to the hydraulic recoil system that kept the gun well-clear of his head when it recoiled.
An overhead view of the cramped fighting compartment (Photo from The Tank Museum)
Although its odd layout was the product of necessity, it actually made the Archer an effective ambush weapon. An Archer could set up in a concealed position, fire at a target, and then quickly drive off in the opposite direction without having to turn around since it was already facing backwards. It had a top speed of 20 mph and was very adept at cross-country driving and climbing slopes.
Commonwealth military doctrine labeled the Archer as a self-propelled anti-tank gun rather than a tank or even a tank destroyer. As such, it was operated by the Royal Artillery rather than the Royal Armored Corps. The soldiers of the Royal Artillery eventually complained about the lack of overhead cover in the fighting compartment which led to the development of an optional armored roof. However, this addition saw very little, if any, use.
An Archer with the armored roof installed
By the end of the war, a total of 655 Archers had been produced. After the war, the Archer saw service in Germany with the British Armored Corps in the British Army of the Rhine. 200 Archers were also supplied to the Egyptian Army with another 36 going to the Jordanian Arab Legion and National Guard.
An abandoned Egyptian Archer during the Sinai War, 1956 (Photo from the United States Army Heritage and Education Center)
Of the 3,498 service members who have received the Medal of Honor throughout U.S. history, only 88 have been black.
In recognition of African American History Month, the Pentagon is sharing the stories of the brave men who so gallantly risked and gave their lives for others, even in times when others weren’t willing to do the same in return.
The first black recipient of the award was Army Sgt. William H. Carney, who earned the honor for protecting one of the United States’ greatest symbols during the Civil War — the American flag.
Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. His family was eventually granted freedom and moved to Massachusetts, where Carney was eager to learn and secretly got involved in academics, despite laws and restrictions that banned blacks from learning to read and write.
Carney had wanted to pursue a career in the church, but when the Civil War broke out, he decided the best way he could serve God was by serving in the military to help free the oppressed.
In March 1863, Carney joined the Union Army and was attached to Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, the first official black unit recruited for the Union in the north. Forty other black men served with him, including two of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ sons.
Within a few months, Carney’s training would be put to the ultimate test during the unit’s first major combat mission in Charleston, South Carolina.
On July 18, 1863, the soldiers of Carney’s regiment led the charge on Fort Wagner. During the battle, the unit’s color guard was shot. Carney, who was just a few feet away, saw the dying man stumble, and he scrambled to catch the falling flag.
Despite suffering several serious gunshot wounds himself, Carney kept the symbol of the Union held high as he crawled up the hill to the walls of Fort Wagner, urging his fellow troops to follow him. He planted the flag in the sand at the base of the fort and held it upright until his near-lifeless body was rescued.
Even then, though, he didn’t give it up. Many witnesses said Carney refused to give the flag to his rescuers, holding onto it tighter until, with assistance, he made it to the Union’s temporary barracks.
Carney lost a lot of blood and nearly lost his life, but not once did he allow the flag to touch the ground. His heroics inspired other soldiers that day and were crucial to the North securing victory at Fort Wagner. Carney was promoted to the rank of sergeant for his actions.
For his bravery, Carney was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900.
Carney’s legacy serves as a shining example of the patriotism that Americans felt at that time, despite the color of their skin.
As for the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment in which Carney served? It was disestablished long ago, but reactivated in 2008. It now serves as a National Guard ceremonial unit that renders honorary funerals and state functions. It was even invited to march in President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade.
Fort Jackson, SC is a major hub of military education. The base hosts, Army basic training and AIT, the Adjutant General School, Finance School, Chaplain School, and the Interservice Postal Training Activity. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of people come through the base every year. This year, the base hosted a very special guest and assisted him with research.
Michael B. Jordan spent four days at Fort Jackson to prepare for an upcoming movie role. He was hosted by the base Commanding General, Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle, Jr. “Glad we could show him Army hospitality and the training excellence that we have here,” Brig. Gen. Beagle said.
Jordan previously appeared in the blockbuster hits Creed and Black Panther. Although it is unclear what movie he was preparing for, the actor is appearing in the upcoming action thriller Without Remorse. Based on the Tom Clancy book of the same name, Without Remorse follows a former CIA Navy SEAL who seeks revenge after his wife is killed by a drug lord and finds himself in a larger conspiracy. The book exists in the same universe as Jack Ryan.
Recently, the Tom Clancy film franchise has been in a slump. Although older films based on the late author’s works like The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games are still widely popular, recent films like The Sum of All Fears and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit have been met with mixed reviews. The Tom Clancy name was reinvigorated with the release of Amazon’s television series Jack Ryan. Moreover, the titular main character is played by 13 Hours star John Krasinski. The show has been renews for a third season.
Without Remorse was originally slated to be released by Paramount Pictures. However, in July 2020, the studio began talks with Amazon who seeks to acquire the rights to the film.
The C-130 Hercules is easily one of the longest-serving series of military aircraft in the world, having first made its appearance in the mid-1950s.
Though the Herc, as it’s popularly known, doesn’t really look anything like the high-performance ultra-nimble fighters and trainers modern aerobatic teams use today, you might be surprised to hear that the U.S. Air Force once upon a time had a C-130 demonstration team of its own!
Built as a replacement for the Air Force’s WWII-era C-47 Skytrains, C-46 Commandos, and the slightly newer C-119 Flying Boxcar, the C-130 was designed to transport troops, jeeps, and machinery in and out of combat zones, landing on unimproved fields and dirt strips should runways be inaccessible.
The first of the Hercs to enter service with the USAF were known as the C-130A.
By early 1957, a number of C-130As were sent to Campbell Army Air Field in Kentucky where they would be taking platoons of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division up for a series of coordinated airdrops.
The weather had something else to say about these plans, however, and they were cancelled when high winds rendered the drop zone too dangerous for the exercise.
Instead of wasting a prime opportunity to log flight hours on their brand new Hercs, the four aircraft commanders assigned to each plane — Captains Jim Aiken, Gene Chaney, Bill Hatfield, and David Moore — decided to fire up the planes and go for a flight.
All four pilots came from the 774th Troop Carrier Squadron, aka “The Green Weasels.”
After spending some time practicing flying in close proximity, the four decided to drop down low above Campbell in tight formation, roaring over the base to the glee of soldiers below. After a few passes, the Hercs landed, only to be given another chance at perfecting their formation routine again just a few days later, thanks to poor weather.
Upon returning to the former home of the 774th — Ardmore AFB, OK — the four pilots quickly worked together to develop an idea inspired by their antics at Campbell.
Like the Air Force’s Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels, they too could form a demonstration team to show off the incredible capabilities of the C-130 and the airmanship of some of the service’s finest pilots.
Over the course of 1957, Aiken, Chaney, Hatfield and Moore, practiced their show routine when time permitted, flying with precision at extremely small distances of separation between the aircraft.
In 1958, the four got wind of a ceremony requiring a flyover at Ardmore, and with their wing commander’s approval, broke away from a parade of 36 Hercs, flying in a diamond pattern low over the airfield, and culminating in a bomb-burst breakaway.
Their act was met with horror and indignation from many Air Force officers on hand to witness the ceremony, but a considerable number of brass — many with political power within the branch — were impressed enough to allow the four pilots to perform as a team from there on out.
First known as the Thunderweasels, a play on the Thunderbirds demo team and their own Green Weasels unit, these four pilots were moved to Stewart AFB, TN, where they began practicing a 20-minute show routine to be later performed at shows across the country.
The team proved to be a big hit and a huge publicity bonus for Lockheed.
By the end of 1959, the team had adopted a new name, The Four Horsemen, alluding to their four-ship flight, though some say it was a reference to the University of Notre Dame’s 1924 Rose Bowl champion football squad.
The Horsemen went on to fly a dozen official shows that year, and a number of unofficial flyovers and demonstrations in-between.
The team’s existence was slowly but surely threatened throughout 1959.
Lockheed had already developed the C-130B, a more fuel-efficient long range improvement on the A model, and the Air Force needed as many operational Hercs to be made available as they could muster.
What the B model made up for with range and efficiency, it lost with its handling, making it a dangerous proposition for close-formation flights.
In the spring of 1960, three years after they flew their first impromptu show over Fort Campbell, the Four Horsemen were disbanded, never to fly another demonstration.
Aiken, Chaney and Hatfield remained with the Air Force while Moore moved on, entering the civilian world not long after the team was broken up.
It’s highly unlikely that anything like the Four Horsemen will ever exist ever again, and today, the only C-130 demo still flying is the Blue Angel’s Fat Albert, a Marine Corps-crewed blue, white, and gold Herc that flies a solo routine at airshows across North America.
We all know Santa’s making a list, checking it twice… probably with some help from the NSA. Meanwhile, North American Aerospace Defense Command is also making a list and checking it twice to ensure their considerable assets are ready to help ensure that Santa accomplishes his mission safely.
This long-running tradition started by accident during the height of the Cold War. But it’s stuck around, even in the post-9/11 era. According to a 2008 Air Force release, the accident occurred in 1955, when NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense command, or CONAD, got a call from a kid. A newspaper had misprinted a phone number to allow kids to track jolly old St. Nick. Instead of the local Sears store, they got the operations hotline for CONAD.
Colonel Harry Shoup was the director of operations on that Christmas Eve. Tracking Santa had not been something he’d prepared for or had been briefed to do. But when each kid called, he provided them Santa’s position, saving Christmas for the kids by assuring them that Santa was safe and on the job. The next year, CONAD did it again, and did so the year after that. When NORAD took over for CONAD in 1958, they assumed that Christmas Eve duty – and tradition – as well. In 2015, a DOD release noted that over 1500 volunteers helped carry out the mission.
The official web site, www.NORADSanta.org, includes videos, games, music, and a gift shop. There is also a Facebook page for that in this era of social media. And yes, there are apps for tracking Santa on Windows phones, Android phones, and iPhones. NORAD says that starting at 2:01 AM Eastern Standard Time on Dec. 24, they will have video of Santa making preparations for his mission. At 6 AM EST that day, live phone operators will be available at 1-877-Hi-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) or by sending an email to email@example.com. And check out this video of the history of how NORAD got started.
In the fourth quarter of the 1963 Army-Navy game, Army’s “Rollie” Stichweh faked a handoff and ran in the endzone for Army’s final touchdown against Navy for that contest. The touchdown didn’t change the outcome of a 21-15 loss for Army. What was special about it was the broadcast for the viewers at home.
CBS play-by-play commentator Lindsey Nelson had to tell people watching that Army didn’t score twice – they were watching the future of sports television.
In the days before the Super Bowl was the game that brought America together for TV Sports’ biggest day, the game that brought everyone to their televisions was the Army-Navy Game. In December 1963, the Army-Navy Game was airing just days after the assassination of President Kennedy shocked Americans to the core. And CBS Director Tony Verna brought a 1,300-pound behemoth of a machine to use for his broadcast.
Millions were watching, and this monster was either going to make or break the young director’s career. Nelson was worried that the new technology might confuse people. So was Verna.
“There was the uncertainty about this game,” says Jack Ford, a correspondent for CBS News. “How is it gonna be played? How are fans going to react to this?”
In those days, replay technology still took up to 15 minutes to get ready, far too long to rehash an individual football play. Verna’s machine would be able to do it in 15 seconds when and if it worked. What happened during the game play was not as Verna had hoped. The machine mostly saw static, and when it did replay plays, there was a double exposure from what the crew had taped over, which was an old episode of I Love Lucy. As a result, Lucille Ball’s face could be seen on the field during the replays.
But when it came down to it, Verna’s machine did work, just in time to catch Army’s last touchdown of the game. It was the only time fans saw the instant replay during that game, but it was revolutionary. One of the Dallas Cowboys’ big executives, Tex Schramm, called Verna to congratulate him.
“He told me the significance of it, that I hadn’t confused anybody, which Lindsay and I were worried about, certainly me,” Verna told NPR later in life. “And he said, ‘You didn’t confuse anybody. It has great possibilities.’ “
These days, it’s a common political debate. “Dreamers,” illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as infant children and grew up with full lives and roots in the U.S., are sometimes completely unaware they were undocumented until later in life. Back in the days of the Second World War, we didn’t call them “Dreamers,” but the phenomenon was the same: People like Silvestre Herrera didn’t know they were in the United States illegally until they received a draft notice from the Army.
Herrera was born in Chihuahua, Mexico to loving parents in 1917, but they succumbed to the worldwide Spanish Influenza epidemic that killed millions around the globe the very next year. When he was around one year old, his uncle brought him to the United States and raised him as a farmhand in Texas. Silvestre Herrera grew up believing his uncle was his father and that he was born in El Paso, Texas.
Even when he married an American, had American children, and moved to Arizona, Herrera believed he was living a typical Mexican-American life in the Southwest. It wasn’t until he got his draft notice for the Texas National Guard in 1944 did he find out the truth about his entire life.
“Son, you don’t have to go,” his uncle told him soberly. “They can’t draft you.” The reason for this is because the U.S. Army can’t draft a Mexican citizen. But Herrera wasn’t about to avoid serving in the military and was enthusiastic about giving back to the United States.
“I didn’t want anybody to die in my place,” he later said. “My adopted country had been so nice to me.”
Latinos fighting in American wars is nothing new, even by World War II standards. People of Hispanic descent have fought in every American conflict from the Revolution to the War in Afghanistan. Mexicans raised in the U.S. was also a common occurrence by 1944. People of Mexican descent in the U.S. were twice as likely to have been born and raised in the States than not. Those who served were fiercely dedicated to their adoptive homes and Silvestre Herrera was going to be one of those.
“I am a Mexican-American and we have a tradition,” He once said. “We’re supposed to be men, not sissies.”
The 27-year-old Herrera eventually ended up in the 142nd Infantry Regiment and found himself in the Alsace region of France in March, 1945. Though the war in Europe would be over in a few short months, the fighting on the Western front was as fierce as ever. The 142nd was a critical part of Operation Undertone, a 75-kilometer front designed to push the Nazi back across the Rhine and secure bridgeheads to cross the river.
Herrera’s platoon was just five miles from their objective at the occupied city of Haguenau when they took coordinated machine gun fire – one from a nearby wood and another across a minefield. As the rest of the men in the platoon took cover, Herrera charged one machine gun nest, firing his M1 Garand rifle from the hip and chucking two grenades into the nest. Eight enemy soldiers surrendered to Herrera in that action.
Reenactors recreating the 142nd 36th Infantry Division’s push into Germany in 1945 during the 2018 Camp Mabry Open House in Austin, Texas.
His platoon still found itself pinned down by another machine gun nest, this time protected by a minefield. Knowing full well the grass in front of him was a minefield, Herrera grabbed a two by four, pushing it along in front of him as he crawled across the minefield. Frustrated with his slow progress toward the nest, he tossed it away, stood up, and dashed for the gun emplacement. As he approached, he stepped on two mines, one on each foot. The resulting explosions blew off both of his feet.
He continued forward toward the enemy, running on his knees. The bleeding Mexican-American GI fell to his stomach and laid down rifle fire, keeping the attention of the Nazi machine gun as his platoon flanked the position and knocked it out. Bleeding profusely, Herrera still somehow managed to stay conscious. The Army was able to save Herrera’s knees and were eventually able to fit him with prosthetic feet.
Herrera receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman, 1945.
When he was to be awarded the Medal of Honor for the heroism that cost him his feet, President Truman was unsure if the man, still bed-ridden from his wounds, would be able to be present for the award. Sure enough, when the time came, Herrera was in full uniform as he rolled his wheelchair to the President of the United States.
“He told me he would rather be awarded the Medal of Honor than be president of the United States,” Herrera told the Arizona Republic in 2005. “That made me even more proud.”
Herrera wearing the Medal of Honor and Mexico’s Order of Military Merit.
Just one year after receiving the U.S. military’s highest award for valor in combat, the Mexican government decided to award him Mexico’s Order of Military Merit, its highest award for valor in combat. Herrera is the only soldier ever to wear both. Most importantly, as Arizona’s first World War II Medal of Honor recipient, citizens of Arizona started a campaign to get Silvestre Herrera U.S. citizenship and even raised ,000 to help him purchase his first home.
After the war, Herrera went back to work, prosthetic limbs and all, for much of the rest of his life. According to his surviving relatives, his war injuries never kept him from doing anything physical or raising his family. He died in 2007, sixteen years after his beloved wife, Ramona.
Throughout the 1930s pilots around the world were continually trying to push the limits of anything that had been done before in the air. While the likes of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart are more familiar names in the Western World, the Soviets had their own equivalents such as Mikhail Gromov who, in 1937 along with his two man crew, managed to break the world distance record for non-stop flight, flying 6,306 miles from Moscow to California via a rather dangerous North Pole route. Hailed as heroes upon their return, Premier Joseph Stalin decided the Soviet Union should follow this up in 1938 by having a group of women pilots attempt to set the distance record for non-stop flight for a female crew. The selected trio, who each already held one or more world records for female aviators, were Polina Osipenko, Valentina Grizodubova, and Marina Raskova.
And so it was that on Sept. 24, 1938 the three ladies took off from an airfield in Shchcyolkovo near Moscow, in a Tupolev ANT-37, which normally had a range of about 5,000 km or 3,100 miles. Their destination was Komsomolsk-on-Amur over 3600 miles away. Unfortunately for them almost immediately upon departing they encountered a number of issues including a thick layer of clouds and icing conditions which forced them to climb above said clouds, in the process losing all sight of the ground for the duration. Not long after this, their radio stopped working. Without a clear view of the ground for almost the entire flight, Raskova used the stars, a compass, and their airspeed to roughly determine their position as they flew. When the clouds finally broke, they found themselves flying over Tugur Bay in the Sea of Okhotsk, about 500 km or 300 miles directly north of their intended destination.
Low on fuel, they desperately attempted to find an alternate place to land, but the engines died first. With some form of a crash landing inevitable and a navigator no longer having anything to do, Grizodubova ordered Raskova to parachute out of the plane from about 6,500 feet with the hope that it would increase her odds of survival. Of course, decreasing her odds slightly, she chose to leave her emergency survival kit for the other two women, reportedly only taking two chocolate bars with her for rations to trek through Siberia with. When Raskova safely hit the ground, she noted the direction the plane was gliding and began hiking after it.
As for the pilot and co-pilot still aboard, they were forced to make a gear up, dead-stick landing in a frozen swamp near the upper part of the Amgun River, in the end successfully executing what is termed in pilot-speak as a “good landing”- in that all occupants survived and were able to walk away from the wreckage.
As for Raskova, she hiked for a full ten days before finally locating the downed aircraft and her comrades. Not long before she arrived, a search crew located the plane. While this was a good thing for the women, unfortunately two of the search planes collided overhead and killed all 15 aboard as the horrified pilots watched from below. A few days later, the women were picked up via boat.
When they arrived back in Moscow, their harrowing journey, which managed 3,671.44 miles in 26 hours and 29 minutes (though in truth they had flown some 6,450 km or 4,007 miles total), had indeed set the distance record for a straight line, non-stop all-woman crew. That, along with how they handled themselves in such adverse conditions saw them lauded as heroes across the Union, including quite literally being given the “Hero of the Soviet Union” award, among other honors.
Fast-forwarding about three years later in June of 1941, Germany decided to invade. During Operation Barbarossa, almost 4 million troops were thrown at the Soviet Union, and in one fell swoop the Axis managed to destroy approximately 66 airfields and about 80% of the military aircraft in the Soviet Union at the time.
German troops at the Soviet state border marker, June 22, 1941.
With an abundance of pilots and few planes, you might think this was not exactly an ideal environment for female pilots of the era to be given a job- especially not in combat- but two factors saw Stalin convinced establishing all female squadrons was something they should do. First, Raskova wouldn’t stop berating Stalin about it, noting both in the air and on the ground that forgoing using half your populace when the enemy was almost at the doorsteps of Moscow was foolish. Another factor was that among the planes still available were a large number of Polikarpov Po-2’s- an open cockpit two seat 1928 biplane made of wood and fabric, mostly meant for flight training and crop dusting.
Slow and plodding, the Polikarpov cruised along at a breakneck pace of about 68 mph (109 km/hr) and a never exceed if you don’t want your wings to fall off speed of 94 mph (151 km/hr). Combine that with a maximum climb rate of a mere 500 feet per minute (152 meters) while traveling at a speed not that much faster than Usian Bolt while ascending, and these weren’t exactly planes male pilots were itching to fly to the front in…
For reference here, the Luftwaffe were flying such planes as the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Würger, which had an engine possessing about 25 times the horsepower as the Polikarpov, cruised along at 280 mph (450 km/hr), with maximum speeds of 426 mph (685 km/hr), and could climb in excess of 3,000 ft/min. That’s not to mention this plane came equipped with dual 13 mm MG 131 machine guns. The pilots of the Polikarpov Po-2’s, on the other hand, were given hand pistols as their air to air combat weapon… No doubt when in a dog fight, they also were instructed to make “pew pew pew” sounds to increase the effectiveness of their arsenal.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, should one get shot down or the fabric of the aircraft catch fire, which occasionally happened when tracer bullets ripped through them, as weight was at a premium, the pilots weren’t given parachutes… On top of that, the planes themselves did not come equipped with radios or any other such equipment. A map, a compass, a pistol, and their wits were what the stick and rudder Po-2 pilots brought with them on their combat missions.
A damaged and abandoned Po-2 forced to land in Ukraine, and subsequently captured by German troops, 1941.
Now, you might at this point be wondering what possible use these pilots could serve flying these planes into combat other than reducing the Soviet population by a couple hundred pilots. Well, the one marginally potent weapon the planes did come equipped with was bombs- up to six of them, weighing approximately 110 lbs each (50 kg).
Planes few wanted to fly sitting on the ground and Raskova refusing to shut up about it, Stalin ordered her to form three all female squadrons, though the 588th Bomber Regiment, who would come to use the Polikarpov Po-2’s, was the only one to remain exclusively staffed by women throughout the war.
As for the young ladies who volunteered to fly in these death traps, they ranged from about 17 years old to their early 20s. And while you might think the name they’d soon be given would be something along the lines of “Target Practice”, their incredible effectiveness and near non-stop bombardment of the Germans at the front starting on June 8, 1942 and continuing all the way to Berlin, earned them another nickname — The Night Witches.
So just how effective were they? For the approximately four years they were active, they flew close to an astounding 30,000 missions, with an average of about 250 missions each. To put this in perspective, airmen aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress in 1944 had a 1 in 4 chance of surviving to the 25 mission mark for their rotation. But in the case of the Night Witch bombers, some flew near or greater that number in under a week. One, who we’ll discuss shortly, almost managed that number of missions in a single night. Despite the incredible number of missions they flew, over the course of the war, of the 261 women that flew in the 588th, only 32 died, and a handful of those not from combat, but tuberculosis.
A Polikarpov Po-2, the aircraft type used by the regiment.
This bring us to Nadezhda Popova, who managed the record of 18 missions in a single night when she helped chase the Axis as they retreated from Poland. Popova, who started flying at aged 15, was a flight instructor by 18, and decided to join up not long after her brother, Leonid, was killed in the early stages of the conflict. She states, “I saw the German aircraft flying along our roads filled with people who were leaving their homes, firing at them with their machine guns. Seeing this gave me feelings inside that made me want to fight them.”
The Nazis would soon come to regret making an enemy of Popova, who shortly was about to go all John Wick on them for killing her brother. But before that, unfortunately for her, when she tried to enlist, she was turned away, with Popova later stating of this, “No one in the armed services wanted to give women the freedom to die.”
Nevertheless, given her credentials, when the 588th was formed when she was 19 years old, they had a place for her. She would go on to fly an incredible 852 missions during the war, despite, as she stated in an interview in 2009, “Almost every time, we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire. In winter, when you’d look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying…. It was a miracle we didn’t lose more aircraft. Our planes were the slowest in the air force. They often came back riddled with bullets…”
On that note, after returning from one mission where she was tasked with dropping supplies to ground troops who were bottled up in Malaya Zemlya, she found 42 bullet holes in her plane, one in her helmet, and a couple in her map. It was then that she joked with her navigator, “Katya, my dear, we will live long!”
In truth, Popova, who became a squadron commander, survived the war, among other honors receiving the Hero of the Soviet Union, the Order of Lenin, and was a three time Order of the Red Banner recipient (awarded for extreme heroism and courage demonstrated in battle), twice awarded the Order of the Patriotic War 1st class… and the list goes on and on- badass. She was a badass basically.
As for her life after, she married an airmen, Semyon Kharlamov, who she met after the two had separately been shot down on Aug. 2, 1942. While she couldn’t see his face as it was covered in bandages, they hit it off as they joked around together during their trek back to safety. They got hitched almost immediately on war’s end. For work after, she continued her pre-war career as a flight instructor, ultimately living to the ripe old age of 91 years old, dying on July 8, 2013.
Going back to the squadron as a whole, given their extreme vulnerability in the air, you might at this point be wondering how these women not only almost all survived, but proved to be so incredibly effective?
Well, given their slow speed, the fact that in a dogfight they’d quickly be made into Swiss cheese by enemy planes, and the fact that they needed to deploy their paltry payloads at extremely low altitudes to actually accurately hit a target, meaning ground based crew could likewise easily turn the pilots of these craft into wreckage riders, flying missions in daylight with any regularity wasn’t really an option if one liked to keep breathing.
Thus, in an era before incredibly accurate terrain mapping and GPS systems to help avoid said terrain, these women voluntarily hopped inside their antiquated pieces of equipment and ascended to the heavens in darkness- the darker the better.
Stealth was their only way of surviving, and they used it to their advantage at every opportunity. Navigating in darkness towards their assigned enemy targets, usually hugging the ground as much as possible until getting close to their targets to avoid being spotted by enemy aircraft, once they located their targets, the women would employ a number of strategies to actually get close enough to deliver their deadly payloads. These included doing things like flying in groups and intentionally having one or two of the planes up high attract the attention and fire from those on the ground, while others would idle their engine and try to slip in closely undetected. Another strategy was to do what is generally considered in aviation 101 as a great way to die, especially in the often frigid environments these women were flying in- cut their engines completely in flight and at relatively low altitudes.
They’d then silently descend onto their targets until almost literally right over the heads of the enemy and finally drop their bombs, kick the engine back to life (hopefully) and get back to base as fast as possible to be loaded back up and sent out again and again to the front line.
Describing this, the chief of staff for the 588th, Irina Rakobolskaya, noted, “One girl managed to fly seven times to the front line and back in her plane. She would return, shaking, and they would hang new bombs, refuel her plane, and she’d go off to bomb the target again.”
Popova would state of this strategy, “We flew in sequence, one after another, and during the night, we never let them rest… the Germans made up stories. They spread the rumor that we had been injected with some unknown chemicals that enabled us to see so clearly at night…. This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls…”
Effective, one German soldier would later state in an interview after the war of the Night Witches, they were “precise, merciless and came from nowhere.”
Dedicated to delivering their payloads no matter what, one former 588th member stated that occasionally the bombs would get stuck when trying to drop them just over the target. The solution was simply to have one of the two women in the plane scramble out on the wing and kick it loose, often while under heavy enemy fire- all leading author Kate Quin to note, “You women are crazy. You’re incredibly brave, but my god you’re crazy.”
A sentiment Popova would later echo in her waning years, stating, “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. I can still imagine myself as a young girl up there in my little bomber and I ask myself, Nadia, how did you do it?”
Moving on to the nickname the Germans gave them and which they would so proudly embrace once they learned of it, it is widely speculated that this was because of the wooshing sound the planes made as they glided down through the air, like the sound a witch flying on her broomstick. However, there is no primary documentation backing this speculation up at all, despite it being almost universally repeated. And, for our part, we’re just guessing not a single German soldier ever actually had heard the wooshing sound of a witch flying on a broomstick to compare. So allow us to suggest our own alternate hypothesis- that it wasn’t so much the sound that was the inspiration, but, instead, the name “The Night Witches” was actually because these were women, flying at night, on aircraft made of wood, not unlike a witch flying on a broomstick.
Whatever the case, in the end, for their heroism, almost 1 in 10 of the women of the 588th were honored with the Hero of the Soviet Union award. For reference here, while that award was given out almost 13,000 times over the entire life of the Soviet Union, the badass ladies of the 588th accounted for approximately 1/4 of all women who ever received it.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
Christopher Lee cemented himself as an icon of the silver screen. During his long and prestigious acting career he was in hundreds of films. His most notable roles were Dracula and later the Wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. However, long before his acting career began, Lee had a lesser known, but just as impressive, career in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the British Army during World War II.
Lee enlisted in the RAF in 1940. He worked as an intelligence officer and specialized in decoding German cyphers. In 1943 Lee was seconded to the Army in an officer swap scheme. After this swap he served with the Gurkhas of the 8th Indian Infantry Division during the Battle of Monte Cassino.
There is little known about much of Lee’s time in service, as his records remain classified and he was “reluctant” to discuss anything to do with his service. Between the time he enlisted in the RAF and he was seconded to the Army, Lee was attached to the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), which was the precursor to the Special Air Service (SAS). When pressed about his time serving with the SAS Lee said, “I was attached to the SAS from time to time, but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read into that what they like.”
After his time with the LRDG, Lee was assigned to the Special Operations Executive (SOE). During his time with the SOE, he conducted espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in the Axis occupied Europe. During his final few months of service Lee, who was fluent in several languages including French and German, was tasked with tracking down Nazi war criminals alongside the Central Registry of War Criminals.
When Lee described his time with the organization he stated, “We were given dossiers of what they’d done, and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority.” Lee retired from the RAF in 1946 as a Flight Lieutenant. Post retirement he was decorated for battlefield bravery by the Czech, Yugoslav, British, and Polish governments.
Flying Officer C. F. C. Lee in Vatican City, 1944, soon after the Liberation of Rome. (Wikimedia Commons.)
Not long after his retirement from the RAF, Lee began his film career. It wasn’t long before he proved himself as a true legend of the film industry. This legendary icon of the silver screen, Sir Christopher Lee, passed away in June of 2015 after a lengthy battle with heart problems. His loss was greatly mourned by those who knew him, and those who loved him through his prolific work on screen.
Sir Christopher Lee will always be remembered for his iconic roles in major motion pictures, it can be said that he was one of, if not the, most prolific actors in motion picture history. However, the life he led before his film career is one that should be remembered and celebrated as well. Though details remain unknown and classified, and he never truly spoke of them, his service during World War II was nothing short of heroic. The world will never know what men like Christopher Lee did during the war, but they are heroes nonetheless.
In an interview with a somewhat eager reporter, Lee showed his cheeky yet firm stance on the discussion of his time with the SAS during the war. He leaned forward and whispered to the reporter, “Can you keep a secret?” The interviewer replied with an excited, “Yes!” Lee smiled and leaned back in his chair as he replied, “So can I.”
Kim Il-Sung, the founder and patriarch of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – known to many as North Korea – went by a lot of names, including General Secretary of the Korean Workers Party, President, Premier and Supreme Leader.
And those are just the titles he earned while he was alive. In death, Kim Il-Sung is still the leader of North Korea, as the country’s constitution was amended to proclaim him the Eternal President and de jure head of state. Forever.
Before Kim earned his “Eternal” presidency in 1994, however, he was the victim of a celebrity death hoax that got way out of hand. To this day, no one knows why.
It all began at the heavily-fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the 38th Parallel that has separated the two Koreas since 1953. For years, the two sides blasted propaganda at one another over large loudspeakers.
The North talked about the superiority of North Korean Communism and about Kim Il-Sung in particular. The South blasted information about the superiority of democracy and capitalism. It was an ongoing exchange every day for years.
One day in 1986, it all stopped. The North Koreans started playing music, with no words. The South Koreans were puzzled by this until the speakers began to speak: Kim Il-Sung was dead and Kim Jong-Il. The North Korean flag was lowered to half mast.
When anything major happens in the North (like a Kim dying), the South goes bonkers. !986 was no different. They never know who might take power, what their politics might be and if another Korean War is about to happen. Naturally, the South Koreans went on high alert, waiting for the outcome of the death of North Korea’s first Communist leader (and the only one since the end of World War II).
Rumors poured out of intelligence agencies, with none of the intel vetted or confirmed. Kim Il-Sung had been shot and killed. He was killed in a coup by his generals. North Korean officials around the world were being recalled as the offending officers were escaping to China. Vietnamese officials were told the elder Kim was dead as the North was rising up against Kim Jong-Il.
For almost two days, rumors around the world flared and died as everyone speculated what might happen next. Then, according to NK News, Kim Il-Sung showed up, alive and well. He met a Mongolian delegation at Pyongyang airport, as if the whole world hadn’t been talking about how he was shot and killed in a coup.
Neither Kim nor any state media agency has ever discussed the issue or reported the motivation behind the event. The only thing they know is Kim Il-Sung didn’t die from a gunshot wound in 1986, instead dying from a heart attack in1994.
The Israeli pilots were given clearance to fire, and they started off with a Sparrow engagement. The first Sparrow shots missed, then the F-15s closed.
Moshe Melnik, in the second of the four F-15s, took on the enemy fighters. He selected his infra-red guided missiles for the attack. It wasn’t an American-made Sidewinder, though. The Israelis had their own dogfight missile, the Python 3. Melnik selected one, and fired.
The missile tracked in, taking out one of the Fishbeds. It was thirty seconds into the engagement.
Melnik had secured a place in history as the first pilot to shoot down an enemy plane with the F-15 Eagle. Since then, between small-scale engagements and major conflicts like the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot and Operation Desert Storm, the F-15 has dominated the skies, only yielding as the premiere air-to-air platform when the F-22 Raptor entered service.
Okay, the Raptor is pretty cool, too. (U.S. Air Force photo/Alejandro Pena)
Ironically, while Melnik would make history, he would not be considered the hero of the engagement where the F-15 scored its first kill. That honor would go to another Israeli pilot, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu.
In World War II, the British needed a special group of men to tip the scales in North Africa and they came up with the Special Air Service.
The SAS, originally put together as L Detachment of the Special Air Services Brigade in an effort to mislead the Germans and Italians as to the size of the unit, was tasked with conducting desert raids behind enemy lines.
The paratroopers of the SAS failed in their first mission but were stunningly successful in their second when they destroyed 60 enemy aircraft on the ground with no casualties.