This hero was so deadly, they called him 'Black Death' - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

In this modern world, earning a nickname is generally a piece of cake. Show up for work one day with a half-shaven face and you will quickly be slapped with one or two ‘loving’ and memorable nicknames that follow you for years.


In previous generations, nicknames were a bit harder to come by. Add in the legal segregation and racism that characterized the early 20th century and imagine what exactly had to be done for a black soldier to be known as “Black Death” by both friendly and opposing forces. It all stems from one night.

Related: 6 signs that you might be a veteran

Who is Henry Johnson?

Henry Johnson was born on July 15, 1892. On June 5, 1917, standing at approximately 5’4″ and weighing roughly 130 pounds, he enlisted in the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard (colloquially known as the Harlem Hellfighters).

He joined them on deployment to France to augment the Fourth French Army and would go on to become the first black soldier to engage in combat during World War I.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
Pictured: Henry Johnson (Photo from NBC News).

Why “Black Death?”

On May 14, 1918, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were augmenting the Fourth French Army, standing as sentries in Argonne Forest. Outfitted with French weapons and gear, Johnson and Roberts soon began taking sniper fire as German forces advanced.

Roberts was severely wounded trying to alert standby forces, leaving Johnson to fend off the German advance, essentially alone, using any and everything he could get his hands on. Johnson successfully held the German forces up long enough for American and French troops to arrive, forcing the Germans to retreat.

Johnson took bullets to the head, lip, sides, and hands, suffering 21 total wounds in all. Using a combination of grenades, rifles, pistols, buttstocks, and a bolo knife, Johnson killed four enemy soldiers and wounded another 20. Following the events of that night, he was known as, “Black Death.”

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
A dramatization of Henry Johnson’s heroic and historic night.

Also Read: 7 more professional athletes you didn’t know were veterans

Vindicated

Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters returned home to a hero’s welcome — a parade on Fifth Avenue and the adoration from their particular corner of the nation.

The good times wouldn’t last, however, as Johnson’s erroneously recorded medical records resulted in him not receiving a Purple Heart.

He would then bounce from job to job, sliding further down on his luck at every stop until he turned to alcohol. Johnson was dead less than 11 years after his heroic day.

Johnson was, eventually, posthumously awarded a Purple Heart in 1996, a Distinguished Service Cross in 2001, and, finally, the Medal of Honor in 2015.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor posthumously to Army Private Henry Johnson. Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson accepts the Medal of Honor. (Photo by Pete Souza)

MIGHTY SURVIVAL

Bashing Beijing: Iranian official’s criticism of China’s coronavirus figures causes uproar

Rare criticism by an Iranian Health Ministry official of China’s controversial COVID-19 figures has angered hard-liners in Tehran, some of whom asked if he was speaking on behalf of the country’s archrival, the United States.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said at a press briefing on April 5 that China’s statistics about the number of deaths and infections from the coronavirus are “a bitter joke.”


He added that, if Beijing said it got the coronavirus epidemic under control within two months of its outbreak, “one should really wonder [if it is true].”

The comments did not go down well with Chinese officials or hard-liners in Iran who reminded Jahanpur that China has stood with Iran at a time of severe crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak and crushing economic sanctions applied by Washington.

Many questions have been raised in the Western media recently about China’s official coronavirus figures amid suggestions that the real numbers are likely much higher.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

Officials wait outside a Beijing metro station to monitor for anyone infected with the coronavirus.

Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China’s ruling Communist Party on April 3 of being involved in a “disinformation campaign” regarding the virus that is being used to “deflect from what has really taken place.”

But similar criticism from an Iranian official whose country enjoys strong relations with China led to raised eyebrows and has provoked crunching criticism.

“At a time when China has been Iran’s major helper in the fight against the coronavirus and has provided the country with several strategic products while bypassing the [U.S.] sanctions, Jahanpur suddenly becomes the spokesperson of [U.S. President Donald Trump] and [Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu,” the editor of the hard-line Mashreghnews.ir, Hassan Soleimani, said on Twitter on April 5.

Others, including Hossein Dalirian, a former editor with Tasnim news, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), went as far as calling for Jahanpur’s dismissal from the ministry.

‘Unforgettable’ Support

China’s ambassador to Iran, Chang Hua, also joined the chorus, telling Jahanpur he should follow press briefings by China’s Health Ministry “carefully” in order to draw his conclusions.

Amid the mounting criticism and in what appeared to be damage control, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi tweeted in support of China, saying the country has led the way in suppressing the coronavirus while also “generously” helping other countries.

“The Chinese bravery, dedication, and professionalism in COVID-19 containment deserves acknowledgement,” Musavi tweeted on April 5, adding that Iran has been grateful to China in these trying times with the hashtag #Strongertogether.

Musavi’s tweet was retweeted by Chang, who said “Rumors cannot destroy our friendship.”

The Gvt. ppl. of #China lead the way in suppressing #coronavirus generously aiding countries across . The Chinese bravery, dedication professionalism in COVID19 containment deserve acknowledgment. has always been thankful to in these trying times. #StrongerTogether

twitter.com

For his part, Jahanpur attempted to calm the waters by publicly praising China for supporting his country during the outbreak.

“The support of China for the Iranian nation in [these] difficult days is unforgettable,” he said on Twitter on April 6.

He also said the Iranian government and the nation are grateful and will not forget the countries that stood with them during the pandemic.

Jahanpur’s tweet was welcomed by Ambassador Chang, who retweeted it while writing in Persian: “Friends should help each other, we fight together.”

‘Understated’ Numbers

Citing current and former intelligence officials, The New York Times reported last week that the CIA has told the White House since February that China has understated the number of its infections.

China has claimed that it has been open and transparent about the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country, which emerged in December in Wuhan, where the virus has officially claimed the lives of 2,563 people and a nationwide total of 3,331 as of April 6. Beijing also claims some 81,708 total infections.

Radio Free Asia issued a report on March 27 suggesting tens of thousands of more people had died in Wuhan from the coronavirus than the official total given by Beijing.

Some Iranian officials believe the country’s coronavirus outbreak, by far the worst in the Middle East, began because of Tehran’s ties to China, which has been buying a limited amount of Iranian oil despite strict U.S. sanctions and penalties.

Iranian officials think the virus reached Qom, Iran’s epicenter of the outbreak, through Chinese workers and students residing in the city who had recently traveled to China. Flights conducted to and from China by Iran’s Mahan Air — even after coronavirus cases were registered — have been also blamed for exacerbating the epidemic.

Since the outbreak in Qom in February, Chinese officials have sent Iran regular shipments of relief materials — including masks, test kits, and other equipment — to help the country battle against the coronavirus.

According to official figures released on April 6, COVID-19 in Iran has killed 3,739 people and infected 60,500.

Much like the case of China, many people inside and outside of Iran have questioned Tehran’s official figures on the pandemic.

An ongoing investigation by RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that studies figures released by officials from Iran’s 31 provinces puts the total number of deaths in Iran at 6,872 people as of April 5, with some 94,956 infections.

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That one time Eisenhower lost a B-17 bomber in a bet

The liberation of Sfax, Tunisia on April 10, 1943 was a joyous occasion for nearly everyone involved. The Allies gained an important Mediterranean port, the Tunisians in the city were liberated, and British Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery won a B-17 bomber from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.


That last one may need some explanation.

Rommel retreats to the Mareth line

 

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Montgomery had been fighting German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel for months in North Africa. Though the campaign was slowly succeeding, Rommel and his Italian allies were inflicting heavy casualties on the British. Britain wanted to increase forces in North Africa to keep Rommel off-balance. Meanwhile, the other Allied nations wanted to capture North Africa so they could begin invading Italy from the south.

So in late Oct. 1942, Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot. British tanks and other forces moved under cover of massive artillery barrages through minefields against dug-in German positions. By November 2, Rommel was in a rapid withdrawal east, sacrificing troops by the hundreds to try and keep his lines of retreat open.

This put the German units in disarray when Operation Torch was launched on Nov. 8. More than 73,000 troops landed along the north coast of Africa in a deliberate attempt to squeeze the Axis east. It worked, but Germany and Italy still held Tunisia and conducted their own surge, landing nearly 250,000 troops in and around the ports at Mareth and Sfax. They would settle into a defense along the Mareth Line.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
Photo: German Federal Archives

The bet is made

The battles in North Africa raged back and forth as German reinforcements tried to hold the line. The Allied forces were slowly gaining ground, with Maj. Gen. George S. Patton and Montgomery both attempting to be the first to capture key cities, but Eisenhower wanted them to move faster.

Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Bedell Smith, was visiting Montgomery at his headquarters in the spring of 1943. Exact accounts of the conversation vary, but Montgomery asked about getting a B-17 for his personal use. Smith told Montgomery that if Montgomery captured Sfax by April 15, Eisenhower would give him whatever he wanted.

Smith reportedly meant it as a joke wager, but the notorious gambler Montgomery was serious.

Sfax falls and Montgomery gets his B-17

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
Photo: US Air Force

On April 10 — five days ahead of the deadline — Montgomery captured Sfax and immediately asked for payment. Eisenhower honored the bet and sent Montgomery a B-17 bomber and crew even though the bombers were needed for the war effort.

The event caused a strain between Eisenhower and Montgomery as well as between Eisenhower and Patton. Patton was incensed that a British general had a personal B-17 while he was struggling for rides or moving in convoys. Eisenhower was angry that Montgomery would actually accept a B-17 when they were needed to actually bomb targets.

Eisenhower mentioned it to Montgomery’s boss, Sir Alan Brooke, who berated Montgomery for crass stupidity. The plane was written off after a crash-landing a month later and never replaced.

Articles

How the US Navy plans to fix the F-35’s most troubling problem

In January, a report from Inside Defense broke the news that the US Navy’s F-35 variant, the most expensive in the Joint Strike Fighter family, had an issue with the nose gear that made takeoffs untenably rough and the aircraft unsuited for carrier launches.


The Navy’s F-35C has a history of problems with its development as it attempts to master the tricky art of catapult launches from aircraft carriers, but the nose-gear issue could set back the F-35C into the 2020s if an innovative solution is not found quickly.

Business Insider has uncovered footage that appears to show the problem:

Essentially, the takeoff in the F-35C is too rough, jostling the pilots so they can’t read flight-critical data on their $400,000 helmet-mounted displays.

Also read: Here’s when the F-35 will use stealth mode vs. ‘beast mode’

“This is a very stiff airplane, even though the oscillations about the same magnitude as you would see in a Super Hornet. It beats the pilot up pretty good,” US Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan told reporters at the McAleese/Credit Suisse defense conference earlier this month, US Naval Institute News reported.

F-35C pilots are “hurting after doing three or four of these [launches] and in some instances even banging his half-a-million-dollar helmet on the canopy,” Bogdan said. “That’s not good for the canopy or the helmet. So we knew we had an issue there.”

Testing at a land-based US Navy catapult system showed that instead of a costly and lengthy redesign of the F-35C’s nose section, some smaller adjustments may suffice.

Jeff Babione, the general manager of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program, echoed that sentiment at the company’s office in the Washington, DC, area, telling reporters the company had worked on a few simple changes that seemed to yield results. Babione said Lockheed Martin changed the way the pilot straps in and their head and arm positions, as well as reduced the “holdback,” or stress on the plane, in the moments before launch.

“The initial indication is some of those techniques improved” the F-35C’s launches, Babione said. He conceded that the real testing would be done by the Navy aboard carriers “to see whether or not those changes were successful.”

The make-or-break tests of the launch will take place at sea later this year.

MIGHTY TRENDING

10 things Coasties want you to know about the Coast Guard

Every day, I am so thankful to live this Coast Guard life and to interact with our incredible members and families. I’m fortunate to know the unique and valuable service that the Coast Guard provides to our country — and, I hope that after reading this, you will too!


The Coast Guard is a branch of the United States Armed Forces and the only military organization within the Department of Homeland Security.

The U.S. Coast Guard is simultaneously and at all times a military force and federal law enforcement agency dedicated to maritime safety, security, and stewardship missions.

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The Coast Guard is one of the oldest organizations of the federal government, and until the Navy Department was established in 1798, we served as the nation’s only armed force afloat.

The origins of the Coast Guard date back 1790 – this August 4th marked the Coast Guard’s 228th birthday. From our earliest days as the Revenue Marine and the Revenue Cutter Service — to today, as the Coast Guard, our service has always been Semper Paratus (Always Ready) to serve our Nation.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

USCGC Northland in Greenland, 1944.

(US Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard has served in every war and major conflict since our founding.

The Coast Guard has a long and distinguished history of service. During the Quasi-War with France, the first “war” fought by the United States, revenue cutters first upheld the new nation’s dignity on the high seas. On April 12th, 1861, the Revenue Cutter Service cutter Harriet Lane fired the first naval shot of the Civil War. During World War II, the Coast Guard made the first capture of enemy forces by any U.S. service when the cutter Northland seized the Norwegian vessel Buskoe off the coast of Greenland. During Operation Desert Storm, a USCG tactical port security boat was the first boat to enter the newly reopened harbor in Kuwait City, Kuwait. And, just recently, the CGC Nathan Bruckenthal was commissioned in honor of fallen Coast Guard hero, Petty Officer Nathan Bruckenthal.

The Coast Guard deploys.

As you read this, Coast Guard service members are “standing the watch” — often far from home. Depending on the assignment, members may be gone for several months to a year or more. Many of our members will depart on patrols multiple times per year.

​The Coast Guard serves all over the world.

The Coast Guard protects and defends more than 100,000 miles of U.S. coastline and inland waterways, and safeguards an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) encompassing 4.5 million square miles stretching from North of the Arctic Circle to south of the equator, from Puerto Rico to Guam, encompassing nine time zones — the largest EEZ in the world. The Coast Guard has personnel assigned to eight DoD Combatant Commands and often has presence on all seven continents and the world’s oceans.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist 2nd Class Glenn Miller, foreground, displays a forward weapons posture during a tactical weapons handling exercise with the visit, board, search and seizure team aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81).

The Coast Guard is a unique, multi-mission, maritime military force.

The Coast Guard manages six major operational mission programs: Maritime Law Enforcement, Maritime Response, Maritime Prevention, Marine Transportation System Management, Maritime Security Operations, and Defense Operations. And these six mission programs oversee 11 Missions codified in the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

The Coast Guard does a lot in one day.

On an average day, the Coast Guard: conducts 45 search and rescue cases; saves 10 lives; saves over id=”listicle-2593975624″.2 million in property; seizes 874 pounds of cocaine and 214 pounds of marijuana; conducts 57 waterborne patrols of critical maritime infrastructure; interdicts 17 illegal migrants; escorts 5 high-capacity passenger vessels; conducts 24 security boardings in and around U.S. ports; screens 360 merchant vessels for potential security threats prior to arrival in U.S. ports; conducts 14 fisheries conservation boardings; services 82 buoys and fixed aids to navigation; investigates 35 pollution incidents; completes 26 safety examinations on foreign vessels; conducts 105 marine inspections; investigates 14 marine casualties involving commercial vessels; facilitates movement of .7 billion worth of goods and commodities through the Nation’s Maritime Transportation System.

The Coast Guard is small, but mighty!

With approximately 40,992 active duty members and 7,000 reserve members, the Coast Guard is the smallest branch of the armed forces, but everyday I am in awe of the incredible things that our members accomplish. I couldn’t be more proud.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

Crewmembers of Coast Guard Cutter Smilax render honors during the Queen of the Fleet ceremony.

(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelly)

The oldest cutter in active service, Coast Guard Cutter Smilax, was commissioned on November 1, 1944.

As the oldest commissioned cutter, Smilax proudly carries the title the “Queen of the Fleet” and a gold hull number. What an amazing testament to the talented individuals who maintain our assets!

America’s Coast Guard is Ready, Relevant, and Responsive.

Learn more about our Commandant’s Guiding Principles here.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

​BONUS: The Coast Guard has a Disney connection.

Walt Disney drew the logo for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Corsair Fleet during World War II (featuring Donald Duck). Walt Disney also created a special design for the Coast Guard Cutter 83359.

MIGHTY TRENDING

5 ways the UN nuclear ban treaty is historic

Nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapons of war and therefore the ultimate weapons to prevent and avoid war.


This two-axis struggle is captured in competing treaties for setting global nuclear norms and policy directions. This also reflects the mantra of realism — amended to include the importance of good governance in the modern world — that international politics consists of the struggle for ascendancy of competing normative architectures. Military muscle, economic weight, and geopolitical clout stand arrayed against values, principles, and norms.

For almost half a century, the normative anchor of the global nuclear order has been the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). On July 7, 2017 122 states voted to adopt a new Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (or ban treaty). This new treaty was opened for signature in the UN General Assembly on Sept. 20 and so far four countries have ratified and another 49 have signed. The ban treaty will come into effect 90 days after ratification by 50 states.

As John Carlson, among others, has argued, the ban treaty has its technical flaws and even its advocates concede it will have no operational impact as all nuclear weapon possessing states have stayed away. Yet this treaty inspired by humanitarian principles is historic on five counts.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
United Nations General Assembly hall in New York, NY. (Wikimedia Commons photo by user Avala.)

5. It is the first treaty to ban the possession, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons.

This completes the legally binding prohibition of all three classes of weapons of mass destruction, after biological and chemical weapons were banned by universal conventions in 1972 and 1993 respectively. Like the NPT, the ban treaty is legally binding only on signatories. Unlike the new treaty, which applies equally to all signatories, the NPT granted temporary exemptions for the continued possession of nuclear weapons by the five nuclear weapon states that already had them in 1968, but banned proliferation to anyone else.

4. The ban treaty’s adoption marks the first divergence between the UN and the NPT that hitherto have had a mutually reinforcing relationship.

The NPT has its origins in several resolutions adopted in the General Assembly. Instances of non-compliance with binding NPT obligations require enforcement measures by the UN Security Council. But while almost two-thirds of NPT parties voted to adopt the ban, a strong one-third minority, including the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) — who coincidentally are the five nuclear weapons states — rejected the new treaty.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
Training version of a B61 nuclear bomb. (USAF photo)

3. This is the first occasion in which states on the periphery of the international system have adopted a humanitarian law treaty aimed at imposing global normative standards on the major powers.

The major principles of international, humanitarian and human rights laws have their origins in the great powers of the European international order that was progressively internationalised. Ban treaty supporters include the overwhelming majority of states from the global South and some from the global North (Austria, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland). The treaty’s opponents include all nine nuclear weapons possessing states (the five nuclear weapons states, plus India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan), all NATO allies, and Australia, Japan and South Korea. Thus for the first time in history, the major powers and most Western countries find themselves the objects of an international humanitarian treaty authored by the rest who have framed the challenge, set the agenda and taken control of the narrative.

Also Read: The United Nations seeks to head off rise of killer robots

2. This is the first time that the like-minded liberal internationalist states find themselves in the dissident minority in opposing a cause championed by the Nobel Peace Committee.

Between 1901 and 1945, three-quarters of the prizes were awarded to those who promoted interstate peace and disarmament. Since 1945 social and political causes have attracted the prize as well and in the last decade a majority of laureates have been activists and advocates for human development and social justice. The Nobel Peace Prize has increasingly functioned as the social conscience of liberal internationalism.

The disconnect between an internationalized social conscience and a national interest-centric security policy is especially acute for Norway, host of the first humanitarian consequences conference in 2013 and part of the negotiation that led to the ban treaty. While other Nobel prizes are determined by the Swedish Academy, the Peace Prize is awarded by a Norwegian committee. On December 10 Norway faced visual embarrassment when the glittering Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo recognized a treaty it opposed and honored a non-government organisation — the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) — to which it cut funding after the election of a conservative government in October 2013.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
UN Security Council during session.

1. This is the first occasion in the UN system when the General Assembly, where all 193 Member States have one vote, has asserted itself against the permanent five.

Previously the Assembly has occasionally acted in the face of a deadlock in the 15-member Security Council.

The ban treaty embodies the collective moral revulsion of the international community. Because the nuclear-armed states boycotted the ban conference and refuse to sign the treaty, it will have no immediate operational effect. But because it is a UN treaty adopted by a duly constituted multilateral conference, it will have normative force. (My recently published article in The Washington Quarterly that highlights the normative force of the ban treaty can be found here.)

The ban treaty will reshape how the world community thinks about and acts in relation to nuclear weapons as well as those who possess the bomb. It strengthens the norms of non-proliferation and those against nuclear testing, reaffirms the disarmament norm, rejects the nuclear deterrence norm, and articulates a new universal norm against possession.

Critics allege that another landmark agreement in history was the war-renouncing Kellogg–Briand Pact of 1928 that proved utterly ineffectual. True, but there is one critical difference. That pact was entirely voluntary, whereas the ban treaty is legally binding — that is the whole point of the treaty. Once in force, it will become the new institutional reality, part of the legal architecture for disarmament.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Levitow is the Air Force’s lowest ranking Medal of Honor recipient

In the Air Force, few names ring as many bells as John L. Levitow. He’s had awards named after him, as well as dorm halls and roads. Levitow’s name is about as close to U.S. Air Force royalty as you’ll get.


Oddly, even though his name is emblazoned across every corner of every Air Force base in the world, many airmen have scant knowledge of Levitow’s actions. Many are more well informed of his mysterious separation than of his heroic actions. The legend of his separation is still shared by many higher-ups during various briefings as a cautionary tale, but I digress.

As the Air Force leads the way into the future, it’s important to remember who paved the way and how exactly they did it. This is how John L. Levitow became the lowest ranking Medal of Honor recipient in Air Force history.

Related: This hero was so deadly, they called him “Black Death”

Loadmaster

Airman First Class Levitow cross-trained into the Loadmaster career field after a couple of years in the Air Force. This cross-train is what ultimately placed Levitow on board the Spooky 71, an AC-47 gunship, during that fateful night.

 

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
The man, the myth, the legend.

A legend born

On Feb. 24, 1969, Levitow was aboard the Spooky 71 AC-47 gunship flying missions in South Vietnam. During the flight, a mortar round struck the side of the aircraft, ripping holes all across the plane, including an approximately two-foot puncture in the wing.

After impact, Levitow, while suffering from over 40 fragment wounds, helped a fellow wounded airman away from the now-open cargo door. As he moved his comrade to relative safety, he spotted a Mark 24 flare that was seconds from igniting.

Mind you, the Mark 24 flare is a three-foot metal tube weighing roughly 27 pounds that, once ignited, generates the light of 2,000,000 candlepower and burns at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Levitow dragged himself towards the flare, which was rolling to and fro as the Spooky 71 pilots fought to regain control, hurled himself atop of it, pushed the flare towards the cargo door, and flung it out into the Vietnam sky just before ignition.

This really happened. It is not an exaggeration or poorly documented folk tale. Levitow literally placed his body atop a flare powerful enough to turn the Spooky 71 into a crisp with no real idea of how long he had until the flare ignited. This is one of the most selfless acts ever documented.

After the amazing feats he accomplished that night, he would return to Vietnam after recuperating to fly another 20 missions.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

Awarded the Medal of Honor

Levitow was awarded the nation’s highest military honor on May 14, 1970 by President Richard Nixon. Levitow separated from the Air Force in 1970.

Also Read: This is why Killmonger is the most operator villain in the MCU

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
On May 14, 1970, Armed Forces Day, John L. Levitow was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon

(White House photo)

Following his separation, Levitow worked diligently with the veteran community, showing up to events that honored or featured veterans. On Nov. 8, 2000, John Lee Levitow passed away after a year-and-a-half battle with an unspecified cancer. He was 55 years young.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
u200b

(Photo by Airman 1st Class Stacy Hughes)

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the legendary Memphis Belle was brought back to life

Through the cockpit windscreen, Capt. Robert Morgan saw flashes of light from the wings and engine cowling of a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 at his 12 o’clock and closing at an incredible rate. Each wink of light from the fighter’s wing root meant another 20mm cannon shell was heading directly at his B-17F Flying Fortress at over 2,300 feet per second.

Having no room to dive in the crowded formation of B-17 bombers of the 91st Bomb Group, he pitched up. The Luftwaffe fighter’s shells impacted the tail of the aircraft instead of coming straight through the windscreen.


Over the intercom Morgan heard his tail gunner, Sgt. John Quinlan, yelling that the aircraft’s tail was shot to pieces and what was left was in flames.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
(U.S. Army Air Forces photo)

It was January 23, 1943. Morgan and his nine crewmen aboard the “Memphis Belle” had just fought their way through a swarm of Luftwaffe fighters, dropped their bombs on a Nazi submarine base in the coastal city of Lorient in occupied France and were fighting to survive the return trip to the Eighth Air Force base in Bassingbourn, England. Morgan began calculating if the crew should bail out and become prisoners of war before the tail tore completely off the bomber trapping the crew in a death spiral culminating in a fiery crash.

A moment later, Quinlan reported that the fire in the tail had gone out. The “Memphis Belle” and its crew would survive the mission; the crew’s eighth and the bomber’s ninth.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
(U.S. Army Air Forces photo)

They would have to survive 17 more missions to complete the required 25 to rotate home. All would be flown during a period of World War II when the Luftwaffe was at the height of its destructive powers.

Against all odds, the “Memphis Belle” crew flew those missions, their last to once again bomb the U-boat pens at Lorient on May 17, 1943, before returning safely to England for the final time. Bottles of Champagne were uncorked and radio operator Tech. Sgt. Robert J. Hanson collapsed onto the flightline and kissed the ground.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
(U.S. Army Air Forces photo)

For the “Belle” itself, it was only mission 24 and the plane had to fly once more with an alternate crew on May 19.

The B-17 and its crew would be the first to return alive and intact to the U.S. They were welcomed as heroes and immediately embarked on a 2 ½-month, nationwide morale tour to sell war bonds. The tour was also to encourage bomber crews in training that they too could make it home. It made celebrities of both the “Belle” and its crew.

Ironically, the two and a half months of press conferences, parties and glad-handing officers and politicians was about the same amount of time during the “Belle’s” combat tour that 80 percent of the 91st Bomb Group’s B-17s and their crews were lost to German fighters and anti-aircraft fire.

“Eighty percent losses means you had breakfast with 10 men and dinner with only two of those 10,” Morgan said in an interview after the war. During the totality of the air war over Europe more than 30,000 U.S. Airmen aboard heavy bombers, like the B-17, would be killed.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
(U.S. Air Force photo)

Seventy-five years to the day after that 25th mission, the Museum of the U.S. Air Force will honor the bravery of those bomber crews, some of the first Americans to take the fight to the Nazis in WWII, when they unveil for public display the largely restored B-17F, Serial No. 41-24485, “Memphis Belle” as part of a three-day celebration, May 17-19, 2018.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
Download the Museum Brochure Here

According to the museum curator in charge of the “Memphis Belle” exhibit, Jeff Duford, the weekend will include more than 160 WWII re-enactors showcasing their memorabilia, WWII-era music and vehicles, static displays of other B-17s, flyovers of WWII-era aircraft and presentations of rare archival film footage. The “Memphis Belle” will be the centerpiece of an exhibit documenting the strategic bombing campaign over Europe.

“The ‘Memphis Belle’ is an icon that represents all the heavy bomber crewmen who served and sacrificed in Europe in World War II,” Duford said, “In many ways the ‘Memphis Belle’ is the icon for the United States Air Force.

“You look at the U.S. Marines, they have this wonderful icon of the flag being raised over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima and everyone recognizes that. It symbolizes service and sacrifice and tenacity and teamwork. Well, the Air Force has that symbol too, and it’s this airplane. It demonstrates teamwork. The crews had to work together. The planes in formation had to work together. The formations had to work together with the fighter escorts.”

The service and sacrifice of the young men still leaves Duford awestruck even after working on the “Belle” project for a decade.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
(U.S. Army photo)

“How does one climb inside of this aircraft knowing that they are probably not going to come home? And they don’t do that one time; two times; three times; 10 times – they have to do it 25 times,” said Duford. “Once they got inside the airplane, they had no place to run. There were no foxholes to be dug. The skin on those airplanes is so thin that a bullet or flak fragment would go through it like a tin can because that’s essentially what it was.

“The odds were that every 18 missions, a heavy bomber was going to be shot down. So when you think the crew had to finish 25 missions to go home, statistically it was nearly impossible. It was one-in-four odds that a heavy bomber recruit would finish their 25 missions. Those other three crew members would’ve been shot down and captured, killed or wounded so badly they couldn’t finish their tour.”

The fact the “Memphis Belle” crew survived their tour was of great value to the U.S. Army Air Forces in maintaining support for the daylight strategic bombing campaign over Europe, which was still, in fact, an experiment.

“Back then, there was no book on high altitude strategic bombing. The generals didn’t know any more than we did. They had to figure bombing strategy as we went along,” said Morgan in a book he would write after the war, “The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle”.

The B-17 was named the “Flying Fortress”, because it was bristling with .50 caliber machine guns covering every angle of attack by German fighters, save one. The theory was that all that defensive firepower would be amplified by heavy bombers flying in tight formations, called “boxes”, enabling them to protect each other from attacking fighters.

While the German Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters sometimes paid a price for attacking the formations, they soon developed tactics that exploited a design weakness in B-17Fs, like the “Memphis Belle”.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
German Luftwaffe models used in fighter pilot training show the fields of fire covered by the machine guns of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
(U.S. Army Air Forces photo)

While twin .50 caliber machine guns in top and belly turrets and the tail and single .50 cal. gunners protected the bomber, the 12 o’clock position was covered by a lone .30 caliber machine gun – no match for the German fighters. Because the bomber formations had to fly straight and level to initiate their bombing run, the Luftwaffe fighter pilots began attacking the formations head on. The ensuing carnage was ghastly.

“The secret to the B-17 was the capability of flying in tight formations, so tight that the wings were often almost touching,” wrote Morgan. “We were able to put out an amazing amount of firepower… but, I also positively feel that was a bit of divine intervention for our crew.”

While the addition of Allied fighter escorts helped fend off some German attackers, the fact that the B-17s had to fly at 25,000 feet or lower to maintain any semblance of accuracy on target put them in the range of the deadly German 88mm anti-aircraft gun. No amount of machine guns or friendly fighters could counter the dense flak approaching targets while flying straight and level.

Bomber crews had to just grit their teeth and pray.

“They felt like they were a great crew. They were tightly knit, confident and dedicated to what they were doing,” said Duford. “However, being in those formations, flying straight and level with enemy anti-aircraft and fighter aircraft, there certainly was a little bit of luck for them too.”

Luck, both good and bad, was also a factor in the “Belle” crew, despite not being the first crew to complete 25 missions, being the one to return to the U.S. for a bond and morale tour.

The “Belle’s” selection for the morale tour was the result of a film project about the strategic bombing campaign that was the brainchild of USAAF Gen. Hap Arnold and a Hollywood director, William Wyler, who had volunteered to serve his country in the best way he knew how.

It was hoped that a film documenting a bomber crew as they successfully completed a combat tour would calm new recruits, who were hearing stories of the carnage overseas, and assuage the doubts of the public, press and politicians that strategic bombing was a failure.

Wyler, an immigrant who was born in the Alsace region of modern-day France when it was part of the German Empire prior to World War I and who would go on to win three Best Director Academy Awards, including one for “Ben-Hur”, was commissioned as a major and headed to England with a film crew to document the fight in skies over Europe.

Wyler and his cameraman flew with B-17 combat crews and began filming missions of a B-17F of the 401st Bomb Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group named “Invasion II”. His staff also began interviewing and making publicity photographs of the crewmembers, as they drew closer to completing 25 missions.

However, on April 17, 1943, the reality of war spoiled the Hollywood ending during their 23rd mission to Bremen, Germany. Invasion II crashed after being hit by flak over Borhmen, Germany, setting the cockpit and wing on fire. The crew managed to bail out, but all became prisoners of war.

Wyler regrouped and found a plane and crew with the 324th Bomb Squadron that was also close to completing their combat tour. The “Memphis Belle”, named for Morgan’s girlfriend, Margaret Polk of Memphis, Tennessee, and its crew took center stage.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
The crew of the 358th Bomb Squadron Boeing B-17F ‘Hell’s Angels’ completed its 25th mission on May 13, 1943.
(U.S. Army Air Forces photo)

While the crew of “Hell’s Angels” completed their tour on May 13, 1943, four days before the “Belle”, there was no film of that plane and crew. Consequently, it was the “Belle” and its crew that would fly mission 26 back to the U.S. and receive a hero’s welcome.

Wyler’s film, “Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress”, would be released and distributed by Paramount Pictures the following year.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
(National Museum of the U.S. Air Force photo)

It was a film that came with a high price tag. One of Wyler’s cinematographers, 1st Lt. Harold J. Tannenbaum, a veteran of World War I, was killed in action during the filming when the bomber he was in was shot down over France on April 16, 1943.

Until the end of the war, the “Belle” was used as a training aircraft, but instead of being torn apart for scrap like most of the other 12,700 B-17s built during the war, the city of Memphis, Tennessee, put the aircraft on display for nearly 50 years.

The historic aircraft came to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in October 2005, when work began on a careful, multi-year conservation and restoration effort including corrosion treatment and the full outfitting of missing equipment.

Casey Simmons arrived shortly after the “Memphis Belle” as a restoration specialist for the museum.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
(Photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

From the beginning, it was apparent that priority one in the restoration was getting it right. His first assignment was to fabricate a glycol heater that was missing from inside the left wing. No visitor to the museum would ever see it.

“I know it’s there and that’s cool because it’s going to get all the parts that it needs to be a complete aircraft,” said Simmons. “When you don’t have the part you try and find a part from another airplane or you go to the blueprints and make the part completely from scratch.”

While the museum has other B-17s in its collection, the “Memphis Belle” requires a whole other level of patience and dedication.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
(Photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

“Other restoration projects are typically a general model of a certain aircraft. So it represents a lot of them. This one is a specific aircraft, so you have to get it right; exactly to the rivet,” said Simmons.

The museum specialist did not try to restore the “Belle” to how it rolled off the Boeing line, but utilized films, photos and records from its time in combat to bring the B-17F back to fighting trim, scars and all.

“There are certain damage spots on the “Memphis Belle” that were fixed over time, so we have to make sure that those show up on the aircraft the way they were,” said Simmons. “If they put five rivets in an area as opposed to the standard four that are supposed to be there, we have to get that correct… When you go through video footage, old film footage, or photographs, and you do find a little glimpse of what you’re looking for, that’s a big moment. We have to get it right for those bomber crews.”

The bravery of those bomber crews continued after all the whoopla back home died down. Even Morgan was eager to get back in the fight.

While on a morale tour stop in Wichita, Kansas, Morgan caught a glimpse of the future of strategic bombing, the still secret B-29 Superfortress. He volunteered immediately to train on the new bomber and earned command of his own squadron of B-29s that deployed to Saipan in the Pacific Theater.

On November 24, 1944, his 869th Squadron of the 497th Bomb Group was the first, other than Doolittle’s Raiders in 1942, to bomb Tokyo. He would go on to complete another 24 combat missions in the B-29 before the end of WWII. He retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1965 as a colonel.

While the restoration and display of the “Memphis Belle” will ensure the story of the dedication, bravery and airmanship of its 10 crewmembers that returned home safely in 1943 honors all the Airmen that fought in WWII, Duford is particularly enthusiastic that the exhibit will allow Museum of U.S. Air Force visitors to learn the story of the little known 11th crewmember of the “Memphis Belle”.

As much as any Airman, he embodied the spirit and sense of duty shared by all the heavy bomber crews.

“It’s the story of one of the waist gunners, Emerson Scott Miller,” said Duford. “You don’t see him in any of the war bond photos and you don’t see his name listed as one of the ‘Memphis Belle’ crew members. He came overseas as a technician repairing the autopilot systems on B-17s. He was safe. He didn’t have to fly the missions but he decided he wanted to do more and volunteered to fly in combat. He joined the ‘Memphis Belle’ crew after they had flown about nine or 10 of their missions. So he had flown 16 of his missions when the rest of the ‘Memphis Belle’ crew completed their 25th.

“Capt. Robert Morgan really wanted Scott Miller to come back on the war bond tour, but Miller hadn’t finished his 25th mission, so he had to stay. While the ‘Belle’ crew was celebrated and famous and there were parties for them, Scott Miller was still flying in combat.”

Fittingly, Miller finished his 25th mission aboard another B-17 on July 4, 1943, but for him, there were no parades, no press conferences, no meeting movie stars and no special duties.

“We got in touch with Scott Miller’s family,” said Duford. “They donated a trunk full of artifacts, and so Scott Miller has a place in the exhibit and his story will be told… He could have just simply done his duty repairing those autopilot systems and gone home safe. But he put his life on the line and then was forgotten. Now he’s going to be remembered now and for generations to come.”

This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.

Articles

Pentagon concerned that Arab allies have shifted focus away from ISIS threat

When the coalition of Western and Arab allies banded together to fight ISIS, the idea of fighting the good fight was met with a lot of zeal. When Jordanian fighter pilot First Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh was captured and burned alive by the terror organization, Jordan’s King Abdullah vowed “punishment and revenge” and led to the Jordanian King, an accomplished fighter pilot himself, releasing a photo of himself in his flight suit, geared for battle.


This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

The Western world was wowed once more when a female pilot from the United Arab Emirates, Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri, led that country’s air war against Daesh. Many in the West aren’t familiar with the customs of each individual Arab country, especially when it comes to their views on the rights of women.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

“She is a fully qualified, highly trained, combat ready pilot, and she led the mission,” Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.

“We are in a hot area so that we have to prepare every citizen,” Al Mansouri said. “Of course, everybody is responsible of defending their country — male or female. When the time will come, everybody will jump in.”

The allies still allow U.S. planes to use their bases, but now the Gulf states who spearheaded the effort against ISIS are focused elsewhere. Emirati forces joined Saudi Arabia in fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Jordan also joined in the effort in Yemen. Qatar limited its sorties to reconnaissance missions.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
The before and after of an American F-22 air strike on a target in Syria.

Bahrain last struck targets in Syria in February, the UAE in March, Jordan in August, and Saudi Arabia in September.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter criticized local allies efforts, saying the Gulf states, known as the GCC or Gulf Cooperation Council, saying “some of the Gulf states are up there at 30,000 feet. If you look at where the Iranians are able to wield influence, they are in the game, on the ground.”

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
(DoD Photo)

“The reason they lack influence, and feel they lack influence in circumstances like Iraq and Syria, with [ISIS],” Carter continued, “is that they have weighted having high-end air-force fighter jets and so forth over the hard business of training and disciplining ground forces and special-operations forces.”

According to the Atlantic, the Obama Administration consistently complains about local allies, notably Turkey and the Gulf, expecting the U.S. to fight their regional enemies more than U.S. national security.

Articles

The Apache is about to get more lethal against jets and helicopters

The Apache is the big brother in the sky that grunts love to see, hear, and feel flying above them. Its racks of Hellfire missiles are designed to destroy heavy tanks and light bunkers with ease, its rockets can eviscerate enemy formations, and its chain gun is perfect for mopping up any “squirters.”


But the vaunted Apache is getting a lethality upgrade that will allow it to more easily carry the anti-air Stinger missile, reports IHS Janes.

The Stinger missile was originally designed as a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile. Operators aim the weapon, and it detects the infrared energy of the target. When the missile is fired, it homes in on that signature for the kill.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
Soldiers fire the Stinger Missile on Sep. 6, 2016, during training at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. The air-to-air version of the missile will be easier to mount on Apache helicopters purchased after 2017. (Photo: U.S. Army Spc. Kyle Edwards)

Apaches currently cannot carry a dedicated air-to-air weapon unless the operators buy an upgrade kit. Even then, the missiles have to be mounted on the outer wingtips instead of on actual weapons pylons.

But missile maker Raytheon and Apache maker Boeing reached an agreement in May to incorporate the attachments for the air-to-air Stinger missile into all new Apaches starting in 2018, Jane’s reports.

The new build will also move the mounting location for Stinger missiles from the outer wingtips to the dedicated weapons pylons.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’
The Apache helicopter is a deadly killer of ground targets that is becoming more capable against enemy air assets as well. (Photo: US Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Matson)

It will then be much easier for Apaches to engage enemy air assets, something that attack helicopters are surprisingly good at. During the military’s Joint Countering Attack Helicopter exercises in 1978, helicopters with air-to-air weapons racked up a 5:1 kill ratio against jets.

Even if Boeing adds Stinger missile mounts to Apaches, that doesn’t guarantee the Army will buy them. The service is still fighting a long battle about whether it will keep any Apaches in the National Guard due to shortfalls of the aircraft for active duty missions.

So, there’s a very real chance that the Army would rather keep all of its Apaches supporting ground troops rather than re-tasking some to provide anti-air coverage — no matter how cool it would be to see an Apache shoot down an enemy jet.

Still, many of America’s allies like using the Apache to protect their ground units from enemy aircraft. For those who can’t afford many dedicated fighters, a more Stinger-capable Apache gives them the ability to quickly shift anti-air coverage during combat.

MIGHTY CULTURE

This is the US military dog that helped take down ISIS leader

President Donald Trump on Oct. 28, 2019, released a picture of the “wonderful dog” he said took part in the raid against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State terrorist group.

“We have declassified a picture of the wonderful dog (name not declassified) that did such a GREAT JOB in capturing and killing the Leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” Trump said in the pinned tweet with the photograph of the dog.


Military officials did not comment on the dog’s actions during the raid, but Trump gave some insight on its mission during a press conference on Oct. 27, 2019. He said US forces found al-Baghdadi in Syria, where he fled into a tunnel with three children and was pursued by at least one military dog. He had an explosive vest, which Trump said he activated, killing himself and the children.

“He reached the end of the tunnel, as our dogs chased him down,” Trump said. “He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children.”

Trump added that the dog received minor injuries in the raid. Pentagon officials on Oct. 27, 2019, said the dog returned to duty after the raid, but they declined to give further details.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the dog was still in a combat zone and that he would not comment on its name.

News of the dog’s role in the raid prompted speculation over its name and breed. Several military officials said the dog’s name was “Conan,” according to the Newsweek reporter James LaPorta. The dog is reportedly named after comedian Conan O’Brien.

US officials also told ABC News that it was a Belgian Malinois, the same breed that took part in the operation against the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY MILSPOUSE

Troops supporting pandemic response should get hazard pay, Senator says

Republican Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, a retired member of the Iowa National Guard and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, has proposed that service members deployed for COVID-19 response get hazardous duty pay.

Ernst plans to introduce legislation this week that would provide a tax-free stipend for all active-duty, Reserve and National Guard members fighting the pandemic. If enacted, it would provide a monthly bonus as well as back pay to the initial date of deployment for thousands of service members.


The senator, who served in Kuwait and Iraq from 2003 to 2004, said those on the front lines potentially exposing themselves to illness deserve the support.

“Whether it’s delivering personal protective equipment, food, or medical supplies, our National Guardsmen and women have answered the call to help during COVID-19,” Ernst said in a statement released Tuesday. “As a former Iowa Army National Guardsmen, I could not be more proud of their tireless and selfless efforts.”

According to the Pentagon, more than 62,800 service members, including 46,800 National Guard members, are supporting COVID-19 response. The troops are treating patients, conducting coronavirus testing, distributing food and personal protective equipment and helping at hotels housing homeless persons who have tested positive for the virus.

As of Tuesday, 889 members of the National Guard Bureau had tested positive for COVID-19. A Guardsman, Capt. Douglas Linn Hickok, was the first service member to die of the virus, although he had not been mobilized for COVID-19 response.

Nearly 5,000 additional U.S. service members have contracted COVID-19, 100 have been hospitalized and two have died: Hickok and Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker, who was assigned to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and died April 13.

Nationwide, cases of COVID-19 reached nearly 2 million on Tuesday, with 70,646 American deaths.

For most members of the U.S. military, hazardous duty incentive pay totals 0 a month.

Military advocates, including the National Guard Association of the United States and the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States threw their support behind Ernst’s legislation Tuesday.

“By definition, hazardous duty incentive pay is a monetary incentive for volunteers who perform hazardous duty based upon the inherent dangers of that duty and the risks of physical injury. EANGUS agrees with Sen. Joni Ernst that the duty our National Guard members are performing embodies that risk, and should receive hazardous duty incentive pay for COVID-19 response duty,” said retired Sgt. Maj. Frank Yoakum, EANGUS executive director.

Ernst’s proposed legislation follows a similar request last month from the American Federation of Government Employees, which is seeking hazardous duty pay for Department of Veterans Affairs workers caring for patients at VA facilities.

“I … implore Congress to pass legislation to provide hazardous duty pay to all front-line federal employees not already covered by existing laws like our nurses in federal prisons, and health care workers at the VA who provide direct patient care to our nation’s veterans,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement.

This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Army Veteran recalls his time as POW during Vietnam

On Dec. 8, 2020, U.S. Army Veteran David Harker will celebrate his 75th birthday. He may recognize the accomplishment while on his daily five mile walk, or by taking a drive in his 47-year-old car – a 1973 Corvette he’s owned since it was given to him by classmates when he returned from Vietnam after spending more than five years as a prisoner of war.

A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, Harker is the third of seven children. He was an athlete in high school and received his associate’s degree from Bluefield College before transferring to Virginia Tech in 1966. By 1967, however, his fortunes had changed.


David Harker stands next to the 1973 Corvette he received.

Drafted

“I was doing my junior year at Virginia Tech and my grades were low, so I had to take a quarter off in 1967 and during that time, because I wasn’t a full-time student, I had to let the government know. They got me,” he said.

When the draft notice came, Harker’s father, an electrical engineer took the news hard.

“My dad was really upset. He had worked for a power company during World War II and so was exempt from the draft,” Harker recalled. “I didn’t think about the possibility of being killed. My dad’s supervisor said he could get me in the National Guard, but I thought that would be shirking my responsibility. I was called on to serve my country and that’s what I was going to do.”

After basic and advanced infantry training, Harker was approached and offered an opportunity to go to Officer Candidate School.

“I was interested in flying helicopters, but they said I’d have to extend for another year or two, so I said, ‘no, I’ll do my two and go home’.”

Heading to Vietnam

The trip to Vietnam brought Harker through Hawaii, and Guam, before landing in Vietnam Nov. 15, 1967. The recollection of arrival is still fresh even 53 years later.

“There were men on the airstrip who had finished their year and were going to take the plane we had arrived on back home. So, they open the door and it was such a rude awakening when the door opened. The oppressive heat – and I’m sure Vietnam Vets will tell you – the country had a smell of its own.”

The soldiers on their way home watched them deplane and Harker heard them say, ‘there’s my replacement.’

“They wished us well,” Harker said.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

David Harker stands next to the 1973 Corvette he received.

Although trained on a vehicle-mounted recoilless rifle, Harker was made an infantryman upon arrival in-country and reassigned from the 9th Infantry Division to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. Six weeks later, he was a POW.

“I was in the 3rd of the 21st in an area of operations at Que Son,” Harker said. “We operated out of a fire base, with one company pulling security while the other three were out doing search and destroy missions. While out, we’d move about 1,000 meters a day and get resupplied every fourth day with c-rations if the helicopters could get through.”

As a 22 year old, Harker was among the older men in his unit. His commanding officer, Capt. Roland Belcher, told the company while they were enjoying in-country RR at brigade headquarters in Chu Lai, that he was proud of the work they were doing.

“Captain Belcher had been in a province southwest of Saigon where we were providing security for elections,” Harker said. “He said it meant a lot to him that we were able to do that – to make sure those people could go to the polls and not get hurt. I remember that because he died in the rice paddies when we were ambushed.”

Harker’s first sergeant, nicknamed Top, was a 41-year old Veteran of World War II and Korea who had earned a Silver Star before joining the company.

“After the ambush, he was the ranking person and he held us together.”

Capture

Harker and his company were on patrol when they broke contact with the enemy in a creek bed. The North Vietnamese unloaded on the unit and killed two men. As the most forward man, Harker was pinned down.

“I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’ Top is behind me telling me to switch to auto and fire. They tried to get behind us and eventually I hear a Vietnamese voice and do a 90 degree and within arm’s reach at the top of this creek bank is an NVA soldier with a pith helmet and Top is there with no helmet. There’s a guy with a rifle telling me to get up. The NVA are stripping everything off us – anything they can use. I tried to bury my M-16 in the creek bed but I think they got it.”

After being taken, Harker was left with a soldier with a sidearm who walked in front of him, leading him away from the creek.

“I thought it was odd he was in front of me and I had been taught that you always try to escape. Next thing I know my hand is over his mouth and I have his arm at his side. I know I have to kill him and do it silently, but his bayonet won’t come out of the scabbard, and by that time my hand has come off his mouth and he’s yelling bloody murder. Before I could get his .45, he stabs me in the side with his bayonet. By that time there are a bunch of rifles pointing at me. I’m surprised they didn’t just shoot me, but they took some commo wire and duck-winged me that night.”

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

A newspaper clipping from the time shows support from his hometown.

Of the 15 men who entered the rice paddy that evening, only four made it out. More men would join Harker in his prison in the Trung Son Mountain Range where he would spend the first three years of captivity. By Harker’s estimation only about 150 U.S. soldiers were captured in South Vietnam – most of whom were taken during the Tet Offensive.

Harker’s first prison was in Quang Nam Province, a difficult, mountainous country that made food scarce and meant deplorable living conditions for the POWs.

“We buried nine Americans there,” Harker said. “That’s how horrific our living conditions were. We had very little to eat so people died from starvation, infectious diseases – malaria was rampant – dysentery. Between September of 1968 and Jan. 4, 1969, we buried six, including the youngest person we had there, a 19-year-old Marine.

“That first year of adjustment to jungle life was really hard on us. You didn’t know what to do. At first you looked out for yourself, but as time went on, you got more altruistic – you realize, it’s not about me, but about the guy next door and you realize you had to take care of each other. We came together really well in that respect.”

During the Vietnam War only one American doctor was ever taken prisoner. Hal Kushner, who grew up in Danville, Virginia, was injured in a helicopter crash in late November. By Dec. 4, North Vietnamese forces found him and marched him toward the camp where he found, according to a speech he gave in February 2018, “four of the saddest looking American creatures I had ever seen in my life.”

“They wouldn’t let him practice medicine,” Harker said of Kushner. “We couldn’t call him doc, but he was a big source of information and help to us. He led the way and showed us how to nurse and take care of men, and that became our goal – to make people in their last hours and days as comfortable as possible – it was our mission, and he was a big inspiration to us.”

In the mountains the men had to forage for food, mostly the manioc root, also known as kasava root.

“There wasn’t a place to grow food, so most of our calories came from manioc,” Harker said. “We were under a 1-to-1 prisoner-to-guard ratio, and the guards would trade manioc and so we would put baskets on our backs and go back and forth over miles of mountain trails carrying 70-80 pounds of root. It’s amazing to think that we could even do it, but we did what we had to do. The little bit of rice they gave us as a ration wasn’t enough to keep a bird flying, so the roots kept us going.”

The guards of Trung Son didn’t physically abuse their prisoners. They didn’t need to.

“We were separated from civilization in the middle of nowhere and we couldn’t communicate; had no food, and no medical attention – that’s torture enough for an individual. We were interrogated when we were captured,” Harker said, “but we knew the Code of Conduct and so we’d give that information. But they’d have a guy with a lantern and they’re asking for information about your unit, it’s size, and I just kept repeating. They didn’t pursue it much. They wanted to get us away from the battlefield but a few days later they did it again. When you have a rifle and you’re in front of the enemy, it’s different. But if they put a blindfold on you and all you can hear is round being chambered – that’s different too. In the north they beat pilots and used a lot of torture techniques.”

Moving day

On Feb. 1, 1971 there were a dozen men still alive in the mountains and they were taken in groups of six to begin their march north up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Harker watched battalions of Vietnamese troops heading south during the 60-day march, as they ground out 10 to 15 miles a day. During the journey an interpreter would give them extra rice.

“He was a military guy who had fought in Laos as a 17-year old in the early 1960s, and he looked out for us. I think he understood the condition – there was a common situation and appreciation among soldiers.”

“We’d get to a camp every day where we got hot white rice – better than we had at the mountain camp. The next morning they’d put a ball of rice on a banana leaf and we’d carry that with us for lunch as we moved. Eventually we were put on a train, in a box car, and taken to Hanoi, to Plantation Garden, an old French plantation with bars in the walls. We were kept in a 15×17 warehouse – six of us on a wooden pallet. Unlike the mountain camp we couldn’t roam around, and the boredom would overtake you and the heat was oppressive, but we had plenty to eat compared to the south. We also had better medical care there as they had a doctor to attend to us.”

In October of 1972 the Vietnamese allowed prisoners to be outside together for the first time since they arrived, and it looked like the war might be over.

“We had a communication system where we’d put a note on the lid of the waste bucket, or use the tap code, and we had to do that because we were only allowed out of our cell for about an hour a day, and never more than one cell was let out at a time. So, when they let everyone out, and then gave us reading material, they knew it was over. Or they thought it was, because before you know it, the doors are all slammed shut again.”

Soon after, Linebacker II started. From Dec. 18-29, 1972, the U.S. Air Force conducted an operation called Linebacker II, a ‘maximum effort’ campaign to destroy targets using B-52 heavy bombers that dropped more than 15,000 tons of ordnance on more than 30 targets.

“B-52s bombed all night long after talks broke down. The SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) shot down a bunch of planes on the third night, after they figured out the flight patterns, and one night they pulled up a deuce and a half and told us to crawl in the back. We thought we were being taken to China.”

Harker would spend his last three months as a prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton.

Repatriation

Half a world away, in Paris, a peace accord was signed January 27, 1973, and soon after Harker and other American POWs heard the news they had longed to hear.

“We were ecstatic,” Harker said. “We’d hear doors open and activity and they came and said, ‘you’re going, and you’re going, and you’re going’ dividing us up into groups that would be repatriated. They gave us western clothing and a travel bag and when they pulled us out of a holding cell wearing our red-striped pajamas we were given the clothes. By noon, nothing had happened. They gave us food and told us the peace agreement was broken – and we were right back down in the depths of despair. But a few days later we got out.

This hero was so deadly, they called him ‘Black Death’

A newspaper clipping shows when David Harker returned home.

“I remember saluting an Air Force general who was sitting with a North Vietnamese officer, and when we saluted, we had been officially repatriated. On the plane home, the pilot told us when we had entered international airspace and there was a great cheer.”

The cheers continued when they landed in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Andrews AFB, Maryland. From Maryland, Harker went to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania where he went through medical treatment and rehabilitation, and he was reunited with his family.

“It was different,” Harker said. “I had brothers who were married, and children had been born, but it was exciting coming home. A private airline flew me and my father back and the local TV station had sent a reporter who interviewed me all the way back. There must have been 10,000 people at the Lynchburg airport when we arrived – I had no idea there would be that welcome and response – my big extended family – the high school band was there. It was a long journey and I was glad to be home and for them to be there for me meant so much. I was led to a blue 1973 Corvette and handed the keys. A group of school mates had gotten together and sold bumper stickers for a dollar each to buy me a car and they handed me the keys and a check for id=”listicle-2647726394″,100.”

Being home with his family, Harker said he learned how much anxiety and frustration and worry his parents went through while he was captive.

“Every POW gets a casualty assistance officer whose job it is to let the family know when they hear something – anything – about their son,” Harker said. “My family never heard anything from their CAO. It wasn’t until 1969, when three prisoners were released that they knew I was alive. My parents found out that a couple of those who were released were at Fort Jackson, and so they went there and got onto base and met with them and heard from them that I was alive. That’s all the knew for five years. So they became involved in the National League of Families who organized and tried to have some involvement with North Vietnam to get information about prisoners and try to make the process more transparent as far as information was concerned.”

Life after war

After he returned from Vietnam, Harker took some time off, but eventually returned to Blacksburg and finished his business degree from Virginia Tech in 1976 and found his way to work as a probation and parole officer. In 1977 he married Linda, his high school sweetheart whom he had dated since 1962.

His family now includes his two children, Megan and husband Mike, and Adam and his wife Anza. David and Linda also enjoy their grandchildren: 13-year old Emily, 11-year old Ethan, and 6-year old Eli, children of Megan; and Adam’s 23-month old daughter Ava.

While Harker is open to discussing his time in Vietnam to serve as an education for younger people, he said it was a part of his life that he’s put behind him.

“Kush and I talk about that all the time – we’re not professional POWs. By the grace of God and the help of other men, we made it out. We all serve our country one way or another. This country is what we love. My life has been a real blessing since then, and the staff at the VA hospital, what they do is marvelous, and I appreciate each one of them. I know they have a heart for those Veterans, or they wouldn’t work there,” Harker said. “I love the Veterans, too, and appreciate their service, and institutions like the VA are a great service to our country.”

In the early 2010s Harker had the Corvette he received in 1973 – the car he and his youngest brother Louie drove across the country after his return – restored. He still drives it today.

“I think of all the love behind it every time I drive it.”

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

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