The Israel Defense Forces were caught completely off guard in 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack to take back the land lost in the 1967 Six-Day War. All would have gone according to plan for the Arab states – if only one young lieutenant hadn’t gone home on leave.
Zvika Greengold was an Israeli farmer raised on a kibbutz founded by Holocaust survivors and partisans who fought against Nazi occupation in Europe. Like most Israelis, he joined the IDF when it came time to serve his country.
He was 21 and home on leave in 1973 when Syrian tanks rolled across the border in a coordinated attack with Egypt, sparking the Yom Kippur War. The young lieutenant saw plumes of smoke in the distance and fighter planes in the sky. He knew a war had begun but was not yet attached to a unit, so he had nowhere to report for combat duty.
Being without a unit wasn’t going to stop this officer from getting into the war. He hitchhiked 78 miles to Nafah Base, the command center for the Golan Heights. Greengold helped with the wounded coming in, but the only offensive weapons available were two damaged Centurion tanks.
And those turned out to be his ticket to defending Israel.
Greengold contacted his command, telling them he had a force ready to fight (which was technically true). He helped repair the two tanks, assembled a skeleton crew, and they drove off into the night toward the Syrian front. His newly-assembled “Zvika Force” soon spotted Syrian tanks advancing unopposed toward the Nafah Base. Heavily outnumbered, he engaged the enemy’s Russian-built T-55s, destroying six of them.
His tank heavily damaged in the fight, Greengold hopped into the other Centurion. Along the same road, he saw the advancing Syrian 452d Tank Battalion. Using darkness for cover, he sped along the column’s flank, dodging enemy shells while fooling the Syrians into believing there was more than one tank out opposing them. He hit the first Syrian tank from only 20 meters away.
He notched off ten more enemy tanks before the Syrians withdrew. Even Greengold’s own command had no idea how many men and tanks made up the Zvika Force. Greengold couldn’t report his true strength over the radio for fear of being found out, so he only reported that “the situation isn’t good.” His brigade commander thought he was at least company strength.
For the next 20 hours Lt. Greengold fought, sometimes alone, in skirmishes all across the front lines. When he joined Lt. Col. Uzi Mor’s ten tanks, his luck took a turn for the worse.
Mor lost most of his tanks and was wounded. Greengold lost his tank and his uniform caught fire. He had to switch tanks a half dozen times. That’s when the Syrians sent a sizable force of T-62 tanks to force the Israelis back. Greengold joined 13 other tanks to engage the Syrian armored column of 100 tanks and 40 armored personnel carriers. He managed to hold them until he heard that Nafah Base was under attack.
When the command post came under attack, he joined the defense, moving his tank to critical spots at decisive moments, even in the face of overwhelming odds. During the defense of the base, one Israeli tank commander radioed his HQ that “there’s no one in the camp except a single tank fighting like mad along the fences.”
The Jerusalem Post reported “During a lull [in the battle] Zvika Greengold painfully lowered himself from his tank, covered with burns, wounds and soot. ‘I can’t go on anymore,’ he said to the staff office who had sent him into battle 30 hours before. The officer embraced him and found a vehicle to carry Greengold to the hospital.”
He passed out from exhaustion, physically unable to continue fighting. Nafah Base was never captured and the actions Zvika Greengold and the other IDF troops in the Golan Heights gave the IDF enough time to react to the two front invasion and send substantial reinforcements. They pushed the Syrians back to where the border is today.
Greengold estimates taking out at least 20 tanks, while others credit him with 40 or more. He was awarded the Medal of Valor, Israel’s highest award for heroism.
In August, 1995, a series of events occurred that would just seem implausible today. A Taliban MiG fighter intercepted a Russian Airstan Ilyushin Il-76TD, forcing it to land at Kandahar International Airport in the middle of a nationwide Civil War. The crew and its passengers were taken prisoner by the Taliban. They were held for a year while the Russian government tried to negotiate their release with the help of a U.S. senator
The 1990s were a crazy time. Even with our post-9/11 goggles off, it seems inconceivable that any number of the above could happen – just try to imagine these crazy things:
A Taliban MiG fighter
Forcing a Russian plane to land
Russian government negotiating
A U.S. Senator helping Russia
It’s all true, of course. In 1994, the Taliban exploded out of Kandahar and, by the time of this incident, controlled much of the country south of Kabul. When the Airstan plane was flying over, the Taliban were still deadlocked against the Afghan government of the time, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani.
It must have been an awkward ask for Rabbani, who spent years fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, only to ask them for weapons in trying to keep it away from other Afghans.
Even Jiffy Lube makes you keep the keys on the dashboard, guys.
The Airstan Ilyushin Il-76TD was carrying a load of 30 tons of weapons from Albania bound for the legitimate Afghan government when it was intercepted by a Taliban MiG-21. It was an old fighter, even in the 1990s, but was still enough to bring down the Ilyushin II.
Upon landing, the crew of seven was taken into custody by the Taliban — but the story doesn’t end there. As negotiations between the Russians and the terrorist group began to stall, American Senator Hank Brown stepped in to facilitate the talks, not only buying the Russians time, but also the crew. It didn’t hurt that the Taliban wanted some of their people freed in exchange for their prisoners.
For over a year, the Russian aircrew prepared for their daring escape. Brown managed to get the Taliban to agree to let the Russian Airstan crew maintain their captured aircraft to ensure it was in working order when the time to take off finally came. Brown visited the crew and let them know they would be maintaining it.
But not only did the crew perform its routine maintenance, they also slowly but surely prepared it for their flight home. They finally got their big chance one day, just over a year after being captured. When half of the Taliban who regularly guarded them left the group to attend evening prayers, the crew tricked the others into leaving their weapons outside the plane.
They overpowered the remaining three guards and started the engines.
By the time the Taliban noticed the plane was getting ready for take off, it was already taxiing down the runway. They tried to block their takeoff using a fire truck, but to no avail, the Russians were airborne well ahead of the truck’s position on the runway. The Taliban missed catching the escaping Russians by a mere three to five seconds.
The crew had done the impossible and the Taliban were not able to scramble intercepting aircraft in time to catch them.
They left Taliban airspace as fast as possible and set course for the UAE. By the time they landed, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was waiting by the phone to congratulate them. They made it home to Russia shortly after. The crew is said to celebrate their escape from the terrible event like a second birthday. The Taliban are brutal to prisoners, and the crew of the Airstan Ilyushin Il considered the entire country a prisoner of the terror group.
“My heart really goes out to these people. I’ve seen what a poverty-stricken and miserable standard of living they have. They’re still fighting because they’ve nothing left to lose,” a member of the crew told the BBC.
Their daring escape was the subject of a Russian film, Kandagar, in 2010.
The sun was fading behind Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains the evening of June 27, 2005, as a team of four U.S. Navy SEALs walked up the ramp and into the back of U.S. Army Captain Matt Brady’s MH-47 Chinook helicopter on Bagram Air Base.
Tasked with inserting the SEAL special reconnaissance (SR) team deep into enemy territory in unforgiving terrain, Brady knew the SEALs — Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz, Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Axelson — had a difficult mission ahead. Marines in the area knew it was an extremely dangerous place filled with Taliban fighters.
Brady had no way of knowing at the time, but it would be the last time anyone at Bagram would ever see three of those four Americans alive.
The Afghanistan mountains and forest from the valley where soldiers searched for the remains of the three SEALs who were killed in action. Photo courtesy of Steven Smith.
The Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) is known for having some of the most skilled aviators in the world, who fly the most elite special operators into some of the most austere environments on earth using the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. military inventory. They are famous for the roles they played in both the Battle of Mogadishu and the mission to kill Usama Bin Laden but are revered throughout the special operations community for acts of valor that often never see the light of day due to the classified nature of their work.
As a pilot in the 160th, Brady was the air mission commander for the operation. He and some of his fellow “Night Stalkers” felt the SEALs’ plan was too risky.
The mission was to capture or kill Ahmad Shah, a Taliban commander. The three-phase plan called for inserting a four-man SR team the first night, then inserting the second element of SEALs the following night to establish an isolation zone around Shah. Finally, 150 U.S. Marines would come in to establish blocking positions for the SEALs’ assault on Shah’s compound.
The Night Stalkers’ job was to insert the SEALs on a ridgeline where the terrain left few options for landing zones. The commandos would have to descend from a rope — fast-rope — while the helos hovered high above the trees. That meant if the SEALs got into trouble, extraction would potentially require the use of a hoist to pull the SEALs out, which was a time-consuming and dangerous option.
As he approached the insertion site, Brady could see lights dotting the mountains below through his night-vision goggles.
An MH-47 Chinook with 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and a KC-130J Super Hercules with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152 conduct aerial refueling during Exercise Yuma Horizon 19. Photo by Lance Cpl. Seth Rosenberg, courtesy of DVIDS.
“This was a desolate part of the Hindu Kush, and at night, you wouldn’t really expect to see much,” Brady told Coffee or Die. “Not really sure who they were, but there was more activity than I expected.”
As the pilots climbed the last 1,000 feet of elevation, the AC-130 crew providing overwatch on their destination radioed to say they had to leave their position due to a mechanical issue. Brady knew that surveillance aircraft going off station without backup was supposed to result in aborting the mission.
He asked the AC-130 crew for one final report on the four potential landing zones the Night Stalkers had identified for the mission.
“We’ve got two military-aged males, possibly armed, on the northernmost LZ,” the crew reported. “Primary and secondary zones appear to be clear of potential threats.”
Believing the gunship could make it back on station in time for the insertion, Brady made the call to continue the mission.
From left, SGT Carlos Pacheco (3/160 medic, former 3/75), SFC Marcus V. Muralles (Legend – 3/160 medic), MAJ Sam Sauer (3/160 flight surgeon), SFC L.E. Shroades (medic R/160), SGT Dan Bell (E Co/160) during during the timeframe of Operation Red Wings. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bell.
Approaching the insertion point, the pilots flared the Chinook and came into a hover. As the lead aircraft descended, it became clear the LZ was on a steep slope of the mountain, making descent difficult due to the front rotors approaching the mountainside faster than the rear of the aircraft.
“Hold your right and left; hold your front and rear,” came the internal radio traffic from the flight engineer to Brady.
There were 100-foot-tall trees on all sides of the Chinook, and they were so close the pilots had no room to sway as they descended.
“When you hear all four directions, everyone gets pretty tense,” Brady said. “It means you can’t drift any direction without crashing.”
The pilots descended to the point where the Chinook’s front rotor was just a few feet away from the mountainside with tall trees all around the aircraft. The flight crew kicked out the ropes, and the SEALs fast-roped down.
When the crew chief tried to pull the rope up, they found it was entangled below. After several tense moments of struggling to bring in the rope, they decided to cut it loose. The odds of enemy fighters hearing the echo of the dual-rotor helicopter increased every second it remained in a hover. The SEALs did their best to hide the rope and keep their presence on the ridgeline hidden from enemy fighters.
It wasn’t an ideal insertion, but the Night Stalkers had accomplished their mission. They ascended and flew back to Jalalabad to link up with another group of SEALs and standby as a quick reaction force (QRF) in case the SR team was compromised.
At Jalalabad, Brady was approached by SEAL Commander Erik Kristensen in the command operations center. Kristensen confronted him about the decision to cut the rope at the LZ and asked if the Night Stalkers would go back and retrieve it.
A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from 1-228th Aviation Regiment conducting hoist operations. Photo by Spc. Steven K. Young, courtesy of DVIDS.
“We would have to drop a man down with a hoist in that hole of an LZ,” Brady explained. “Hoisting a man at that altitude on that kind of terrain at night is a dangerous operation. Once on the ground, they’d have to pick up the rope, hook it to themselves, and get hoisted back up. Hovering for that long over the same spot would burn the LZ and likely alert the enemy to the SR team’s presence.”
Kristensen agreed with Brady’s evaluation, and after the SR team radioed that they would be laying down for the day in their hide site, Brady and Kristensen called it a night.
Walking toward the flight line, the SEAL commander quipped, “What made you want to fly such ugly helicopters?”
“They’re not much to look at, but they get the job done,” Brady fired back. “Kind of like SEALs.”
They shared a laugh as they loaded up for the flight back to Bagram.
At the Bagram operations center, Major Stephen Reich approached Brady urgently, asking why he didn’t follow abort criteria and fly back with the SR team after the AC-130 had to leave the airspace.
Brady said he estimated the AC-130 would only be off station briefly and that the crew had reported no hostile activity on the LZ. He told Reich pushing the mission back would allow Shah to continue his terrorist activities, likely leading to the death of locals and U.S. military in the area.
“Good,” Brady recalled Reich saying. “I’m glad you’re a thinking air mission commander and not simply one that takes a black-and-white view of the situation.”
With that, they retired to their rooms to rest for phase two of the operation the following night.
Some of the Night Stalkers hanging out in the B huts they slept in, enjoying much needed down time. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
As the Night Stalkers slept, the SR team was discovered by a numerically superior force of enemy fighters. They engaged in a fierce firefight, and at some point the task force lost contact with them.
Brady’s maintenance officer woke him and said the SR team was in trouble and the Night Stalkers had orders to spin up and pull the team out.
“That’s not possible,” Brady replied, confused at how quickly the SEALs had become compromised. “They’ve got their own quick reaction force. We’re completely separate commands. It doesn’t make sense.”
But he knew and lived by the Night Stalkers’ promise to every customer: “If we put you in, we’ll stop at nothing to get you out — even if it’s technically someone else’s job.”
Brady rushed to the operations center where Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Eicher was telling the task force commander that they should wait until dark before sending the QRF because going in during daylight would subject them to more danger. The 160th had only lost helicopters during daylight missions at that point — they’re called Night Stalkers for a reason.
The commander explained that the ground force commander had already rejected that plan and didn’t want to wait any longer.
Brady ran over to where his platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Mike Russell, was sleeping and updated him on what had unfolded.
“Are you serious?” Russell replied.
Russell went to work right away getting the crews together to prep the aircraft for the mission.
Three of the 160th’s MH-47D Chinooks on the flight line in Bagram, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
Back in the operations center, leaders were busy trying to figure out the SEALs’ last known location and calculating how many soldiers each helicopter could fly with. They finalized plans and sent the Night Stalkers on their way.
As Brady approached the Chinook he’d be flying, he noticed the tail number: 1-4-6. The bird’s call sign was Turbine 33. Kristensen and his SEALs were waiting on the ramp, standing in a circle.
“Our plan of action is for you to get us to the high ground as close to the troops in contact as you can, and we’re going to fight our way downhill,” Brady recalled Kristensen saying.
Since the SEALs weren’t sure where exactly the compromised team was located, Kristensen believed inserting at a position of tactical advantage was the best option.
“Drop us on the high ground, and we’ll make our way to our swim buddies,” Kristensen told Brady.
Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. From left to right, sonar technician (surface) Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, of Cupertino, California; Senior Chief information systems technician Daniel R. Healy, of Exeter, New Hampshire; quartermaster Petty Officer 2nd Class James Suh, of Deerfield Beach, Florida; hospital corpsman Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell; machinists mate Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric S. Patton, of Boulder City, Nevada; and Lt. Michael P. Murphy, of Patchogue, New York With the exception of Luttrell, all were killed June 28, 2005, by enemy forces while supporting Operation Red Wing. Photo courtesy of DVIDS.
As Brady climbed into Turbine 33 and started strapping in, Reich tapped his shoulder and asked what the plan was. Reich, who had been designated mission commander for phase two of the operation, felt the QRF was his responsibility.
“We argued for what seemed like 10 minutes but was actually about 30 seconds,” Brady recalled.
But Reich cut the debate short. “I don’t really care, Matt,” he told Brady, “just get your stuff and get off the airplane. This is my mission.”
Brady said he pleaded with Reich to at least let him come with and act as an extra gun and set of eyes.
“Nope, I want you to take my spot as the operations officer and monitor from here,” Reich replied.
Disappointed, Brady followed the order and got off the aircraft. As he watched the two Chinooks taxiing onto the runway, he locked eyes with Russell, his platoon sergeant.
“He had a look of competence and professionalism — like he was ready to live out the Night Stalker creed,” Brady said.
He walked back to the operations center to monitor the situation and provide support from Bagram.
Matt Rogie, left, and Matt Brady having jovial conversation in Bagram. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
The two Chinooks — Turbine 33 and Turbine 34 — were packed with 16 SEALs each, plus the Night Stalker pilots and crewman. Flying toward Jalalabad en route to the last known position of the SEALs, they received word from Bagram on the number of men they could have on board each aircraft and still fly at the extreme elevation. They would have to offload eight SEALs from each helicopter before continuing.
“A lot of guys really wanted to stay on the mission,” recalled Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tim Graham, one of the pilots on Turbine 34.
The plan was for the SEALs to fast-rope onto the ridgeline above the original LZ. The Night Stalkers would then circle back and pick up the remaining SEALs who offloaded at Jalalabad.
During the flight, the Night Stalkers passed two Apache gunships whose pilots asked if they wanted to slow down so they could provide surveillance and support for the operation. Not wanting to burn valuable time waiting on approval from the task force commander for the audible, the Night Stalkers continued on without the Apaches.
Tim Graham standing by in Bagram. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
Arriving at the insertion point on the ridgeline, Turbine 33 descended into a hover. Graham watched from Turbine 34 as Turbine 33’s ramp lowered and the crewman walked onto it to observe the landing zone below. Graham’s aircraft pulled off to the right to circle around and insert their payload of SEALs after Turbine 33 moved off to allow their entrance.
That’s when Staff Sergeant Steven Smith, the flight engineer in the rear of Turbine 34, saw a smoke trail emerge from the tree line directly toward Turbine 33. The projectile flew through the open ramp of the Chinook and exploded inside. Turbine 33’s nose dipped down, and the aircraft slid to the left, appearing to almost recover. Then the helo’s blades started hitting each other, and the aircraft rolled to the right before inverting as it descended to the mountainous terrain below.
Smith and the others in Turbine 34 watched helplessly as the Chinook full of their fellow aviators — their friends — crashed into the mountain and erupted in a ball of flames.
“Al and Kip were on the ramp when the RPG impacted,” Smith, who witnessed the horrific event, recalled. “They rode it all the way in that way.”
Soldiers sit on the rear deck of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter while flying over southern Afghanistan Oct. 19, 2010. Photo by Cpl. Robert Thaler, courtesy of DVIDS.
Graham and his co-pilot whipped their Chinook around to look for survivors. As they were turning around, Graham saw five Black hawks performing a star-cluster evasion. Turbine 34 started taking heavy gunfire from unseen fighters below. They broke off and flew out of reach of the enemy fire.
Graham reported the situation back to Bagram. Receiving the transmission, Brady couldn’t believe it. He would have been on that bird were it not for the last minute change. He asked Graham to repeat, unable to register what he had just heard.
One of Brady’s soldiers in the operations center was asking him a question, but Brady was momentarily frozen with shock. Then the realization hit: He was now in charge.
Brady told his operations NCO to give him a minute to gather more information to get the next plan of action in place. He walked out of the operations center and found Eicher.
“Chris, Turbine 33 has just been shot down,” he told Eicher, who earned the nickname “Iceman” for his always cool demeanor.
Eicher looked at Brady and said, “Nah, they probably put down for maintenance.”
Brady persisted with the details. He and Eicher hurried back to the operations center.
The two Apaches had arrived on station, drawing heavy gunfire, but nonetheless giving Turbine 34’s crew back in the operations center a good look at the crash site.
“It didn’t look like there was any way anybody could have survived,” Graham said. “You hope they could. It just didn’t look good.”
The crash site of Turbine 33. Photo courtesy of Steven Smith.
They ascended back into orbit and remained there for an hour until the task force commander ordered them back to Jalalabad. Not wanting to leave their brothers, the SEAL team commander hatched a plan with the Night Stalkers to insert higher up on the ridgeline and fight their way down to the crash site so Turbine 34 could fly back to Jalalabad, pick up as many SEALs as he could, and fly back to reinforce the eight SEALs. The task force commander denied the request and ordered Turbine 34 back to Jalalabad. Frustrated and angry, Graham followed the order.
Smith said everyone on the Chinook was angry. One of the SEALs even drew his pistol and attempted unsuccessfully to force the Chinook to land so they could try to save their friends.
Graham made a stop at a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) just outside of Jalalabad. After landing, Graham saw the same five Black Hawks that had peeled off earlier parked on the runway. He didn’t think much of it at the time, but many years later he found out a new platoon leader came into their company within the 160th and was responsible for those Black Hawks.
Each of the five Black Hawks was loaded with Marines and had flown out thinking they were the QRF for the SR team. When Turbine 33 was shot down, they received orders to fly back along with Turbine 34 and the Apache gunships until the next phase of the mission was developed.
Flight line view of U.S. Army UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters. Photo by Mark C. Olsen, courtesy of DVIDS.
After refueling, he continued on to Jalalabad and off-loaded.
“When I met him there on the ground in Jalalabad, Graham was fairly shaken to say the least,” Brady recalled.
The task force commander debriefed the men and then focused on planning their next steps.
Smith said he saw a line of armored vehicles full of troops.
“I could see a lot of vehicles with troops armed to the damn teeth,” Smith recalled. “They rolled out with a convoy and with some vengeance, and they fought their way up that mountainside, all the way up to the crash site.”
The remaining Night Stalkers prepared for a rescue operation. Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and other Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) personnel loaded onto five Chinooks. All the men were anxious, angry, and ready to retrieve their brothers in arms.
The Chinooks took off toward the mountains once again, but as they climbed in elevation, severe weather rolled in. Thunder boomed as lightning struck all around them.
“So the enemy is one factor, but the terrain and weather are now a huge factor, and they’re starting to overtake the enemy in terms of danger to the force,” Brady said.
He said visibility got so bad that he couldn’t see the heat glow of the engines from the Chinook in front of him. The order was given to again abort the mission and return to base. It was a gut-wrenching decision for everyone on the mission, as they knew the original SEALs on the SR team were fighting for their lives and one of their own aircraft and crew was burning on the side of a mountain.
Back at Jalalabad, the commanders decided they had no choice but to wait for better weather and try again the next night.
Troops searching for the KIA and survivors. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
As the storm raged, the members of the task force — haunted with thoughts of their brothers on the mountain — tried to sleep.
As the next night approached, the task force went to work, planning another insertion onto the deadly ridgeline. The Night Stalkers again loaded their Chinooks with Rangers and SEALs and took off toward the mountains.
Arriving on site, the task force members fast-roped in. The extreme height of the trees made the full length of rope — approximately 90 feet — necessary. Many of the men suffered scorched hands from gripping the rope through gloves for such a long descent.
Once on the ground, they started their search for casualties, potential survivors, and sensitive equipment.
As the Night Stalkers flew back to Bagram, the JSOC ground force that had convoyed to the crash radioed to the task force that they had secured the site. There were no survivors.
The JSOC troops, along with their newly arrived reinforcements, went to work recovering those killed in action as well as sensitive equipment that could not fall into enemy hands. They then used explosives to clear out a large enough area for Chinooks to land when they came back.
Explosives were used to chop down trees due to width of the trees being too big for chainsaws. Photo courtesy of Steven Smith.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Matt Rogie arrived in Bagram just before the Night Stalkers came back after dropping off the recovery force. Assigned to replace Eicher as senior flight lead, he was trying to learn as much as he could before hopping into an aircraft and joining the mission.
Rogie met Eicher on the flight line when he landed after returning from the mission.
“I’m glad you’re here because I am spent,” Eicher told him.
The Night Stalkers flew back to their newly forged landing zone the following night. The weather was turning bad again as they offloaded Marines to assist with security.
“I could see the grass being blown by the rotor wash and all the remains bags being lined up in a row — 16 of them,” Rogie recalled. “There was still some smoldering from the crash site, and I could see the glow from the heat through my night vision.”
Some of the fallen members of Turbine 33 prior to being flown out. Photo courtesy of Steven Smith.
One by one, the Rangers and SEALs loaded the fallen onto the Chinooks and headed back to Bagram with their brothers. The flight back was pure silence. The loss weighed heavy on the men.
As the Night Stalkers approached Bagram they could see what looked like everyone on base standing outside, showing their respect for the fallen.
“When we landed, we just saw a row of Night Stalkers and Rangers and SEALs for as far as I could see, lined up and ready to help transport the remains off and take them to the mortuary affairs section,” Brady recalled.
When the ramp lowered, the Night Stalkers on the Chinooks stood tall and proud for their fallen brethren as task force members boarded and began solemnly moving each remains bag to the mortuary affairs building.
“All of us were pretty broken up at that point,” Rogie said.
Pastors from the task force lead the caskets onto the C-17. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bell.
The C-17 sat on the runway with the ramp down, waiting to receive the 16 interment cases containing the fallen warriors. Brady stood next to a SEAL commander — both had to take command of their respective units when Reich and Kristensen were killed on Turbine 33. Their war-weary faces were chiseled stone as they watched the task force solemnly load 16 flag-draped internment cases into the C-17.
Brady said it seemed like the whole base turned out to give the fallen a proper sendoff. As the cases were being loaded, a SEAL ran up to the new SEAL commander and placed a written note in his hand. The note said that Marcus Luttrell was alive at a nearby village. The SEAL commander broke down and cried at the desperately needed positive news.
The fallen Night Stalkers of the 160th SOAR included:
Staff Sergeant Shamus O. Goare
Chief Warrant Officer Corey J. Goodnature
Sergeant Kip A. Jacoby
Sergeant First Class Marcus V. Muralles
Major Stephen C. Reich
Sergeant First Class Michael L. Russell
Chief Warrant Officer Chris J. Scherkenbach
Master Sergeant James W. Ponder III
Soldiers and Sailors from the Task Force saying their final goodbyes. Photo courtesy of Daniel Bell.
The members of the task force said their final goodbyes. The C-17 closed its ramp and taxied down the runway and took flight. The fallen warriors were now on their way home.
The lone C-17 aircraft lumbered through the sky after departing Germany, a necessary stop on the way back to the United States. The back of the aircraft contained the flag-draped coffins of 16 great Americans: the fallen Night Stalkers and SEALs from Turbine 33.
Children of varying ages ran around the coffins, playing and yelling, not yet old enough to understand the sacrifices these warriors made. A Taliban high-value target (HVT) sat tucked into the corner away from them all, guarded by other soldiers.
Three war-weary escorts — one of them a SEAL and the other two Night Stalkers Daniel Bell and Chris Eicher — sat off to the sides, grimly staring off into space. They were exhausted and angry with the mistake the U.S. Air Force had made when they allowed Space-A seating to be filled on this leg of the flight home.
The men of the task force saying their final goodbyes to the fallen before they are flown home to their final resting place. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.
The rescue operation, known as Operation Red Wings II, continued for weeks. Almost every variety of special operations troops in the U.S. military inventory participated in a coordinated effort through some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous and austere terrain during the search for their brothers — both alive and fallen.
Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor from the initial four-man SEAL reconnaissance element.
For the Night Stalkers of the famed 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the war on terror continued.
Thomas H. Begay didn’t want to be a radio operator. In fact, up until he graduated from bootcamp, he thought he was going to become an aerial gunner for the Marine Corps during World War II.
“They sent me to a confidential area,” he said. “I walked in and there’s a whole bunch of Navajo.”
His previous MOS didn’t matter. Begay would attend code talking school.
The Navajo language had become the basis of a new code, and they were going to train to become code talkers. It was hard to see it then, but Begay and his fellow Navajo would help turn the tides of war and save countless lives.
An unbreakable code
The Code Talkers used native languages to send military messages before World War II. Choctaw, for example, was successfully used during World War I. But the Marine Corps needed an “unbreakable” code for its island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. Navajo, which was unwritten and known by few outside the tribe, seemed to fit the Corps’ requirements.
Thomas H. Begay recalls Navajo Code Talker program; Battle of Iwo Jima
Twenty-nine Navajos were recruited to develop the code in 1942. They took their language and developed a “Type One Code” that assigned a Navajo word to each English letter. They also created special words for planes, ships and weapons.
But just because a person understood Navajo didn’t mean they could understand the code. While a person fluent in the language would hear a message that translated into a list of words that seemingly had no connection to each other, a code talker would hear a very clear message.
In addition to being unbreakable, the new code also reduced the amount of time it took to transmit and receive secret messages. Because all 17 pages of the Navajo code were memorized, there was no need to encrypt and decipher messages with the aid of coding machines. So, instead of taking several minutes to send and receive one message, Navajo code talkers could send several messages within seconds. This made the Navajo code talker an important part of any Marine unit.
Peter MacDonald Sr. recalls Navajo Code Talker program; Battle of Iwo Jima
Begay did well in training and picked up the code quickly. A month after arriving at code talking school, he was given orders to his new unit and sent overseas.
“They told us we were going to Tokyo,” he said with a chuckle. “In February, we were told we’re supposed to land on Iwo Jima.”
On Feb. 19, 1945, at 0900 hours, Begay landed on the north side of the island with the 5th Marine Division. One code talker had already been killed during the first wave of attacks, and five more would be injured by the time the fighting stopped. In the face of machine gun fire and mortar rounds, Begay and his fellow Navajo Code Talkers continued to relay messages that were vital to the eventual victory on the island.
In all, nearly 800 coded messages were sent during the assault on Iwo Jima. There were zero mistakes.
“I was protected by the Marines,” Begay said. “They were protecting us; we were protecting them. I was lucky. But some didn’t get lucky – like those who got killed on the beach.”
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.
In April 1945, being a German submariner was a dangerous prospect. Allied sub hunters had become much more effective and German u-boats were being sunk faster than they could be built. Technical breakthroughs like radar and new weapons like the homing torpedo were sinking the Germans left and right.
For the crew of U-1206, the greatest threat was actually lurking in their commander’s bowels. German Navy Capt. Karl-Adolf Schlitt was on his first patrol as a commander when he felt the call of nature and headed to the vessel’s state-of-the-art toilet.
While Allied subs had toilets that flushed into a small internal tank that took up needed space in the submarine, the Germans had developed a compact system that expelled waste into the sea. The high-tech system even worked while the sub was deep underwater.
Unfortunately, the toilet was very complex. By doctrine, there was a toilet-flushing specialist on every sub that operated the necessary valves. The captain, either too prideful or too impatient to search out the specialist, attempted to flush it himself. When it didn’t properly flush, he finally called the specialist.
The specialist attempted to rectify the situation, but opened the exterior valve while the interior valve was still open. The ocean quickly began flooding in, covering the floor in a layer of sewage and seawater. The specialist got the valves closed, but it was too late.
The toilet was positioned above the battery bank. As the saltwater cascaded onto the batteries, it created chlorine gas that rapidly spread through the sub and threatened to kill the crew. Schlitt ordered the sub to surface.
The sub reached the surface about 10 miles from the Scottish coast and was quickly spotted by British planes. One sailor was killed as the sub was attacked. The order was given to scuttle the ship and escape. Three more sailors drowned attempting to make it to shore. The other 37 sailors aboard the U-1206 were quickly captured and became prisoners of war.
Luckily for them, the war was nearly over. The sub sank April 14, 1945. Hitler killed himself April 30 and Germany surrendered May 8.
For hundreds of years, the country we know today as Vietnam has been invaded and occupied by outsiders the world over. At the end of World War II, the Vietnamese had enough of colonialism and external rule by a foreign power. They were going to gain independence by any means necessary.
In the annals of military history, the occupiers and invaders of Vietnam most often remembered are the French and the Americans, neither of which truly succeeded in subduing Vietnam. Even China’s invasion of the country was short-lived.
For a short period of time after the end of World War II the United Kingdom went to war in Vietnam. The only difference was they were successful in achieving their wartime aims.
The United States spent almost 20 years aiding South Vietnam and preventing a Communist takeover of the country from its northern neighbor. Before that, Vietnam fought a war for independence from French colonial rule in the years following World War II.
What neither country could fully grasp from the locals was that the Vietnamese saw themselves as fighting for freedom from outside rule. They wanted a Vietnam run by the Vietnamese, and they were willing to pay any price to get it. That price was very high.
War with the west wasn’t always the one way forward for Vietnam. During World War II, Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh fighters sided with the United States and the Office of Strategic Services to harass Japanese forces and rescue American pilots. After the war’s end, Ho declared independence for Vietnam, directly quoting the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Ho used the excerpt to get American support in keeping the French out of Vietnam after the war. It didn’t work. Just 11 days after the official surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri, fighting broke out in South Vietnam between the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh and a surprising mix of allies set to impose colonial rule on the country.
Before World War II ended, it was decided that the Chinese under Chiang Kai Shek would receive the Japanese surrender in Northern Indochina while the British would accept a Japanese surrender in the South. Just before the Allies arrived, the Viet Minh had taken control of the government and imprisoned a French garrison as POWs.
The POWs were eventually released, rearmed, returned to control of Saigon. But the Viet Minh began cutting off the city from the rest of the country. The impending return of French rule had turned the once-friendly communist forces against the Allies.
By October 1945, Allied forces formed a motley crew of British, Indian, and French troops along with Nepalese Gurkhas and Japanese POWs to launch a campaign to push the Viet Minh away from Saigon and back north. The Viet Minh saw some successes in small unit combat, but were devastated by British air power and machine guns and, on one occasion, a Gurkha kukri knife charge.
In the last major battle of the campaign, the Viet Minh were cut down in overnight fighting, losing 100 troops to British machine gun nests. The defending British and Indian troops didn’t have a single fatality. The Viet Minh spent the rest of the conflict conducting ambushes and hit-and-run attacks.
The British left Indochina in mid-1946 and the French took back control over the country. The win was fleeting, however. The French would have nominal control over Vietnam, fighting the Viet Minh until being forced to withdraw in 1954.
Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the greatest military commanders of all time.
He brought Revolutionary France back from the brink of destruction with his Italian campaign in 1796 and 1797. He made a fool of Czar Alexander I at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. He encircled an entire Austrian army and forced them to capitulate at the Battle of Ulm in 1805. And these are just a few of his exploits.
But he was also a student of history, and repeatedly instructed his subordinates to pore over the campaigns of seven specific commanders that came before him, arguing that it was the only way to learn the art of war and become a great captain.
Wounded in battle 13 times during his 39 year career, one of Eugene’s greatest conquests was the Siege of Belgrade in 1717 against the Ottoman Empire, in which he led a cavalry attack that helped turn the tide.
“Military science,” Napoleon was quoted as saying by Madame de Remusat, “consists in calculating all the chances accurately in the first place, and then in giving accident exactly, almost mathematically, it’s place in one’s calculations.”
“Prince Eugene is one of those who understood [this] best,” Napoleon said.
6. Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632).
Gustavus Adolphus was king of Sweden between 1611-1632, and helped put Sweden on the map.
One of his greatest victories was at the Battle of Breitenfeld during the Thirty Years War when his forces, together with the Saxons, flanked both sides of the Catholic army and annihilated the enemy.
He was killed during the same war while leading a cavalry charge at the Battle of Lutzen.
5. Frederick the Great (1712-1786).
Frederick II, or Frederick the Great, was king of Prussia from 1740-1786 and greatly expanded his kingdom’s territory through his military victories.
Some of his greatest victories were at the battles of Rossbach and Leuthen during the Seven Years War, where he defeated larger armies with great maneuvering.
But despite being one of Napoleon’s seven great commanders, the French commander appeared to consider the next commander even better.
4. Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne (1611-1675).
Turenne was a French field marshal who served Louis XIV, also known as The Sun King.
Perhaps his greatest victories came in the winter of 1674 and 1675 during the Franco-Dutch War. In December of 1674, he maneuvered around the German army and surprised them weeks later in early January, hitting the enemy’s flanks and driving them away from Alsace.
He was killed later in July 1675, as the Franco-Dutch War was still raging, by a cannonball as he was observing enemy lines.
In 1793, Revolutionary France was bent on erasing anything that had to with royalty and religion, and began destroying royal tombs at St-Denis outside of Paris.
Known as a man of the people, Turenne’s body was one of the few left untouched. His remains now reside in the Invalides.
“You seem to admire [Frederick the Great] immensely,” Napoleon once told a subordinate, according to his secretary, Bourrienne. “What do you find in him so astonishing? He is not equal to Turenne.”
“General,” Napoleon’s subordinate replied, “it is not merely the warrior I esteem in Frederick, but one cannot refuse one’s admiration of a man, who even on the throne, was a philosopher.”
“True … but all his philosophy shall not prevent me from striking out his kingdom from the map of Europe,” Napoleon said.
A few years later, after he crowned himself emperor, Napoleon annihilated Prussia during the Jena-Auerstadt campaign of 1806, and subsumed the kingdom in his empire.
3. Hannibal Barca (247 bc-183 bc).
Hannibal was a general and statesman for the Carthage in present day Tunisia who wreaked havoc on the Roman Empire.
Arguably his greatest conquest came during the Battle of Cannae when he compelled the Romans into attacking in unfavorable conditions, eventually wiping out their cavalry and then its entire army. The Roman historian Polybius wrote that Hannibal’s army killed 70,000 Romans.
Hannibal is also well known for impressively crossing the Alps before entering Italy and the Battle of Cannae, surviving harrowing assaults from the Gauls.
His power diminished, he poisoned himself around 183 BC.
2. Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC).
Caesar was a Roman general and politician who is one of the greatest conquerors of all time.
Well known for his victory at the Battle of Alesia and conquest of the Gauls, he was made a consul in the first Roman Triumvarate in 59 BC along with Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinios Crassus.
But civil war later broke out between Caesar and Pompey. In 48 BC, after suffering a series of defeats to Caesar, Pompey was murdered in Egypt.
“I admire the fine campaign of Caesar in Africa,” Bourriene quoted Napoleon as saying.
Shortly after that, he fought a quick war in Anatolia — in present day Turkey — and made quick work of the king of Cimmerian Bosporus. His famous words, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” were from this war.
Caesar was afterwards made dictator, but was assassinated — stabbed to death by the Roman senators — in 44 BC.
1. Alexander the Great (356 bc-323 bc).
Alexander was king of Macedonia who conquered the Persian empire, invaded India and spread Grecian culture across much of the ancient world.
Tutored by Aristotle at a young age, he became king after his father, Phillip II, was assassinated.
While he never officially ranked the seven commanders, Napoleon himself, along with many other historians, seemed to consider Alexander the best.
“I place Alexander in the first rank,” Napoleon told Bourrienne. “My reason for giving the preference to the king of Macedon is, on account of the conception, and above all, for the execution of his campaign in Asia,” adding that he admired the Siege of Tyre, conquest of Egypt and march to the Oasis Ammon most.
Alexander died from illness in 323 bc.
Like his heroes, Napoleon Bonaparte is now considered one of the greatest military commanders of all time.
Here’s what Napoleon had to say about “the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Eugene and Frederick.”
“Model yourself upon them. This is the only means of becoming a great captain, and of acquiring the secret of the war of war. Your own genius will be enlightened and improved by this study, and you will learn to reject all maxims foreign to the principles of these great commanders.”
In the days following the end of World War II, Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong described the United States as a “paper tiger,” borrowing a centuries old Chinese expression that means a “blustering but harmless” person. Chairman Mao actually used the term to describe a lot of things: the atomic bomb, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.
No matter how old the term is or where it came from, there are many examples of “paper tigers” throughout military history. It aptly describes a force that appears powerful on paper but falls apart in practice. Here are a few of history’s biggest.
1. 1940s France
France never deserved its reputation as the cheese-eating surrender monkeys many people incorrectly believe, even today. In 1940, the French Army was one of the world’s largest. France had fought a number of wars with great successes over the course of history. In 1940, it fielded the largest, most numerous, and most powerful artillery in the world. It had more tanks, more and better equipment and a better air force than Nazi Germany. It even had a string of carefully constructed fortifications designed to keep Germany out.
Despite all that and the French mobilization and preparation for war, the Nazis delivered a stunning defeat on the French in just six weeks, forever wrecking their reputation as formidable opponents, whether deserved or not.
2. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq
At the end of the 1980s the Iraqi Army had just ended a nearly ten-year war with Iran that completely transformed the Iraqis into a large force of battle-hardened veterans. Hussein fielded the world’s fourth-largest army, and overran neighboring Kuwait in just a few hours. With 900,000 men, more than 5,000 tanks and almost 4,000 artillery pieces, much of it some of the best Soviet-built equipment available.
Yet, when the United States and Coalition partners geared up for Operation Desert Storm, the result was a total rout. The Iraqis, who became veterans fighting Kurdish separatists and Iranian troops, were totally unprepared for the kind of mobile warfare the U.S. brought to bear. On top of that, the U.S. maintained complete air superiority, able to strike almost anywhere at any time. The large army Hussein fielded ended up surrendering en mass to Coalition troops. After 44 days of continuous bombing, the Iraqis were pushed out of Kuwait almost as fast as they had come in.
3. Egypt in the Six-Day War
By 1967, Israel was used to being the underdog in a rough neighborhood. It warned neighboring Egypt that closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships would spark a war, but Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, with 240,000 men under arms wasn’t hearing it. He moved his troops in position to guard against Israeli aggression and closed the Straits anyway. He was still caught by surprise when Israeli launched a massive preemptive strike against Egypt that destroyed much of its air force on the ground.
Even when Syria and Jordan joined the war on Egypt’s side, the inferiority of the Arab armies was apparent. The Israel Defense Forces enjoyed complete air superiority and inflicted a punishing defeat on all three countries. The Israelis not only soundly defeated Egypt in six days, but captured the entire Sinai Peninsula.
4. Argentina in the Falklands War
Although not massive in terms of the numbers fielded by other armies on the list, the 60,000-strong army used to invade the British-held Falkland Islands in 1982 should have been more than enough to repel the UK task force sent by London to retake them. Reinforced by relatively large numbers of anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, and Argentina’s not unsubstantial air forces should have been enough to repel the unprepared and incredibly distant British response.
It only took three days for the UK to dispatch its forces. Even so, when it arrived, US naval intelligence deemed its success an “impossibility.” The British were outnumbered, outgunned, and should have been facing a disparity in air power – at least, on paper. Instead, the task force retook the islands within 74 days and the military junta that governed Argentina eventually fell as a result.
In 2001, Mark Giaconia was a Green Beret patrolling the border areas between Kosovo and Serbia. His counterparts were Russian troops, many of which were airborne. Their mission was to disrupt the movements of Albanian UCPMB rebels in the area. For six months, he and his Russian allies worked side-by-side, in the forests and mountains around Kosovo.
Then one day, his coworkers put on what they called a “Spetsnaz Show” – and Giaconia realized who his tactical buddies really were.
To be clear, the “Spetsnaz” aren’t any single part of the Russian military apparatus. They are any special operations unit of the Russian military, including the Russian Navy, Airborne troops, and FSB (formerly the KGB). Most often, when westerners refer to the Spetsnaz, they’re referring to the special operations section of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.
Giaconia’s experience with the Russians was his first – and it was the first time American Specials Forces and Russian special operators worked together. The height of their mission in Kosovo was rolling on a rebel base that had killed one of the Russians’ soldiers. The team captured a young rebel while on a patrol and extracted the location of the rebels’ base of operations.
American and Russian Special Forces troops in Kosovo alongside Swedish Jaegers, 2001.
Giaconia describes his time in Kosovo with his ODA in his book, One Green Beret: Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and beyond: 15 Extraordinary years in the life – 1996-2011. He describes the joint US-Russian Special Forces outfit arriving in an area called Velja Glava, where the rebel camp was supposed to be. After dispatching the sentries, the joint team dismounted from their armored vehicles and moved through the forest to assault the camp. The Russians deftly traversed through the vegetation while Giaconia laid the forest bare with a Mk 19 grenade launcher.
The Russians captured the Albanian rebels that were still able to be captured, and the UCPMB camp was taken out of action permanently. When it came to the performance of the Spetsnaz in combat, Giaconia says they were keen on tactics and had great intuition and instinct. They could shoot well, took care of their weapons and equipment, and were in great shape, and were very well-disciplined.
In short, he says he had a lot of respect for these “badasses in spirit.”
A private in the Army’s 34th Company of the Philippine Scouts, he became severely wounded while fighting off rebel forces in the Philippine Islands in 1911. With only one hand, he fought the enemy until they retreated, saving the many lives of those with whom he served.
Nísperos was the first Filipino to receive the Medal of Honor for his heroics in battle.
2. Telesforo Trinidad
In January 1915, a boiler exploded aboard the USS San Diego, violently knocking Trinidad backward and forcing him to abandon the ship. He gathered himself and returned to save two of his fellow men, despite suffering from his own burns.
The Navy awarded Trinidad the Medal of Honor and a $100 gratuity.
3. Kurt Chew-Een Lee
Lt. Lee was the first Asian-American Marine Officer in American military history and a freaking hero.
On the night of Nov. 2, 1950, Lee saved thousands of men during an attack while serving in the Korean War. He ventured out on a single man reconnaissance mission to locate the enemy and eventually confused them using a weapon none of his other Marines possessed — the ability to speak Mandarin.
Members of the Armed Forces will be familiar with the term “contraband.” In basic training, it was civilian clothing. On deployment, it was alcohol. For the Union soldiers that occupied Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1861, contraband referred to the slaves they captured. These captured slaves were pressed into service as cooks, laundresses or nurses to support the Union war effort. Among these captured slaves was 17-year-old Cathay Williams, who worked as a cook and washerwoman and eventually, as a soldier.
In September 1844, Williams was born in Independence, Missouri, to a free man and an enslaved woman. This made her legal status that of a slave. She worked as a house slave on the Johnson Plantation outside of Jefferson City, Missouri.
Painting of Cathay Williams by Williams Jennings (U.S. Army Profiles of Bravery)
After she was pressed into service, Williams served under General Philip Sheridan and accompanied the infantry on campaigns around the country, including the Red River Campaign, the Battle of Pea Ridge, and the Shenandoah Valley Raids in Virginia. Her extensive travels during the war influenced her decision to enlist afterwards.
On November 15, 1866, Williams enlisted in the 38th Infantry Regiment (“Rock of the Marne”). Because women were prohibited from military service, Williams disguised herself as a man and enlisted under the name “William Cathay”. At the time, the Army did not perform full medical examinations on enlistees, so Williams was able to maintain her cover. Only two people in the regiment, a cousin, and a friend, knew Williams’ true identity. “They never blowed on me,” Williams said. “They were partly the cause of me joining the Army. The other reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.”
Williams was able to keep her secret despite a case of smallpox shortly after her enlistment. After her hospitalization, Williams was able to rejoin her unit at Fort Bayard in the New Mexico territory, helping to secure the construction of the transcontinental railroads. However, a case of neuralgia (intermittent nerve pain) sent her to the post surgeon who uncovered Williams’ secret and reported her to the post commander. On October 14, 1868, she received an honorable discharge with the legacy of being the first and only female Buffalo Soldier.
Williams went on to work as a cook, laundress, and part-time nurse in New Mexico and Colorado. Years later, her declining health led to a hospitalization from 1890 to 1891. In June 1891, Williams applied for a military disability pension. A doctor concluded that she did not qualify, and the Pension Bureau cited the fact that her Army service was not legal. It is estimated that Williams died between 1892 and 1900. Her final resting place is also unknown.
American women have disguised themselves as men in order to serve since the Revolutionary War. Williams, however, was the first known African-American to do so. She is also the only known woman to disguise herself as a man during the Indian Wars. Her fierce independence and determination to serve are hallmarks of the American spirit that she, and so many others before and after her, have sought to defend.
Bronze bust of Cathay Williams at the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (Buffalo Soldier Monument Committee)
As the war raged on, infantry units began dominating the battlefield as troops increased their use of the rifled muskets and Gatling guns. These new deadly weapons caused the need for entrenchments as a form of cover.
Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban — the first known architect of trench warfare.
A female munitions worker explains to HM Queen Elizabeth how fuse caps are made, during a royal visit to the Royal Ordnance factory. (Wikimedia Commons)
Queen Elizabeth II is Britain’s longest reigning monarch. However, she was breaking barriers even before the crown became hers. Elizabeth was also the first female of the Royal family to be an active duty member of the British Armed Forces. This also makes her the last surviving head of state to have served during World War II.
When Elizabeth was born in 1926, she was not destined for the throne. Her father, Albert, was the second son of King George V. It wasn’t until 1936, when Elizabeth was 10, that her world was turned upside down. It was in this year that her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in the name of love and her father became King George VI. This made 10-year-old Elizabeth the heir presumptive.
It wasn’t until World War II that King George VI found his footing as the leader of Great Britain. During this time, despite the repeated aerial attacks by the Nazi air force, the King refused to leave London. The British government urged the queen to take her daughters to Canada, however. She refused stating, “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave.” Elizabeth and her younger sister, Margaret did end up leaving the city, though, just like thousands of other children who were evacuated at the time. The girls spent much of the war at Windsor Castle in Berkshire.
HRH Princess Elizabeth (centre) with officers of the ATS Training Centre. (Wikimedia Commons)
As the war continued, Elizabeth, like many other young Britons, yearned to do her part for the cause. Her very protective parents refused to allow her to enlist. Elizabeth was head-strong though, and after a year of debate her parents relented. In early 1945, they gave the then 19-year-old Elizabeth their permission to join the Armed Forces.
In February 1945, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). ATS provided key support during the war. Its members were anti-aircraft gunners, radio operators, mechanics and drivers. Elizabeth attended six weeks of auto mechanic training at Aldershot. During this training she learned how to deconstruct, repair and rebuild engines. By July of that year she had risen in the ranks from Second Subaltern to Junior Commander. For the first time, Elizabeth worked alongside her fellow Brits, and revelled in the freedom of it.
She took her ATS duties very seriously. However, the future queen repairing automobiles proved to be irresistible to the press. Her enlistment made headlines around the world as they applauded her commitment to the war effort. The Associated Press deemed her “Princess Auto Mechanic.” In 1947 Collier’s Magazine wrote, “One of her major joys was to get dirt under her nails and grease stains in her hands, and display these signs of labor to her friends.”
Elizabeth was still serving in the ATS when Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. She and Margaret famously snuck out of Buckingham Palace to join the celebrations in London. Her military service officially ended when Japan surrendered later that same year.
Later, Elizabeth once again overcame objections from her family when she married Philip Mountbatten, a Greek-born officer in the Royal Navy, in November 1947.
Her father, King George VI, led his country through its darkest hour, but the war coupled with a life-long smoking habit left him in poor health. On February 6, 1952, King George VI died in his sleep after a long-suffering battle with lung cancer. This meant that at 25 years old, Elizabeth became Queen.
Even now in her 90s, Elizabeth maintains a love of automobiles. She can still be found behind the wheel of one of the many cars in the Royal collection. She’s also been known to jump at the chance to diagnose and repair faulty engines, just as she trained to do more than 70 years ago. She also holds on to her pride in the journey that brought her from military mechanic during World War II to the Crown.