Winning the lottery has likely never crossed your mind to be anything short of a celebration of newfound riches. Yet, for American men born before 1958, finding your number selected at random on television didn’t generally translate to wealth.
Ever wondered how the Vietnam draft actually worked? We’re combing through the history pages to find out just how birthdates and the Selective Service System mattered throughout the 20th century.
Your grandfather, father and I
Coming of age doesn’t come close to holding the same meaning as it did for the nearly 72 million “baby boomers” born into the Vietnam era draft. Requirements for registration varied over the decades, ranging from eligible age ranges beginning at 21 and eventually lowering to age 18.
Uncle Sam had called upon its fighting-age citizens as far back as anyone alive could recall, as both World Wars and the Korean War utilized draftees. The Selective Service Act of 1917 reframed the process, outlawing clauses like purchasing and expanding upon deferments. Military service was something that, voluntary or not, living generations had in common.
Low was high and high was low
When the lottery took effect, men were assigned a number between 1 and 366. (365 days per year plus one to account for leap year birthdays.) In 1969, a September 14birthday was assigned a number 001. Group 001 birthdays would be the first group to be called upon. May 5 birthdays were assigned number 364 or would have been the 364group to be required to report. Even if called upon, screenings for physical limitations, felony convictions or other legal grounds resulted in candidate rejection.
This method was determined to be a “more fair and equitable process” of selecting eligible candidates for service. Local draft boards, who determined eligibility and filled previous quotas for induction, had been criticized for selecting poor or minority classes over-educated or affluent candidates.
Grade “A” American prime candidates
In addition to a selection group, eligible males were also assigned a rating. These classifications were used between 1948 and 1976 and are available to view on the Selective Service System’s website.
1-A- eligible for military service.
1A-O- Conscientious Objector. Several letter assignments are utilized for various circumstances a conscientious objector may fall under.
4-G- Sole surviving son in a family where parent or sibling died as a result of capture or holds POW-MIA status.
3-A- Hardship deferment. Hardship would cause undue hardship upon the family.
Requests for reclassification, deferments, and postponements for educational purposes or hardships required candidates to fill out and submit a form to the Selective Service.
Dodging or just “getting out of dodge”
Options for refusing service during Vietnam varied. Frequently called “draft dodgers” referred to those who not just objected, but literally dodged induction. Not showing up, fleeing to Canada, going AWOL while in service or acts such as burning draft cards were all cards played to avoid Vietnam.
Failing to report held consequences ranging from fines, ineligibility of certain benefits, to imprisonment. In what has widely been viewed as a controversial decision, President Jimmy Carter pardoned hundreds of thousands of “draft dodgers” eliminating the statuses like “deserter” from countless files.
Researching the history of “the draft” in American history dates back to that of the Civil War. While spanning back generations and several wars, the Vietnam era draft is still viewed as the most controversial and widely discussed period in its history.
In case you’re wondering, The Selective Service System’s website still exists, as men are still required to register even today.
Sgt. First Class Stephen B. Cribben, 33, of Simi Valley, California, died Nov. 4 in Logar Province, Afghanistan as a result of wounds sustained while engaged in combat operations. He was assigned to 2d Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, Fort Carson, Colorado. The incident is under investigation.
The US cyber strategy needs some major improvements if the country hopes to defend itself against threats from China, Russia, and other adversaries, according to a report released this week by a bipartisan group of senators.
Among its 80+ recommendations are the creation of a “national cyber director” overseen by new congressional committees on cybersecurity, more personnel trained in cyber operations, and increased funding to ensure federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and Election Assistance Commission are equipped to carry out increasingly complicated missions.
“The U.S. government is currently not designed to act with the speed and agility necessary to defend the country in cyberspace,” concluded the report, the result of a year-long study by the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a group created by Congress in 2018.
“We want this to be the 9/11 Commission Report without the 9/11,” Sen. Angus King, one of the commission’s co-chairs, told Cyberscoop, adding that the group is “trying to urge and foment change without a catastrophic event.”
To accomplish that goal, the commission suggested the US adopt a “layered cyber deterrence” strategy. Broadly, that involves encouraging allies to promote responsible behavior in cyberspace, shoring up vulnerabilities in private and public networks that enemies could exploit, and being able to retaliate against attackers.
“China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea all probed U.S. critical infrastructure with impunity,” the report said, while globally connected networks allowed criminals to commit cyber theft and extremist groups to raise funds and recruit followers.
“American restraint was met with unchecked predation,” the report said, advocating that the US take a more active role in deterring bad actors.
However, the report did not address some of the more controversial topics surrounding cybersecurity, like encryption — a frequent target of US Attorney General William Barr and others in law enforcement — and which offensive capabilities the US might be willing to give up to secure similar agreements from adversaries.
The Cyberspace Solarium Commission was modeled after President Dwight Eisenhower’s Project Solarium, which was formed in the 1950s to help the US devise a new foreign policy strategy around the Cold War, showing that the US is fundamentally rethinking how it’s approaching new digital battlegrounds as the nature of warfare evolves.
In September 1940, World War II was a year old. The US was still a noncombatant, but it was preparing for a fight.
That month, the US introduced the Selective Training and Service Act — the first peacetime draft in US history. Mobilizing the millions of troops was a monumental task and essential to deploying “the arsenal of democracy” that President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on Americans to provide.
Inducting millions of civilians and turning them into effective troops — and keeping them happy, healthy, supplied, and fighting — was also a daunting challenge.
In order to find the best way to do that, the War Department mounted an opinion survey, polling nearly a half-million soldiers stationed all around the world throughout the war. Their uncensored responses, given as the war was being fought, are an unprecedented window into how those troops felt about the war, the military, and their role in both.
“Entirely too much boot-licking going on,” one soldier wrote. “Some sort of a merit system should be instituted.”
“Spam, Spam, Spam. All I dream about is Spam,” wrote another.
(National Archives photo)
In an email interview, Edward Gitre, a history professor at Virginia Tech whose project, The American Soldier in World War II, has compiled tens of thousands of responses to those surveys, explained why the Army sought the unvarnished opinions of its soldiers and what those opinions revealed.
Christopher Woody: Why did the War Department conduct these surveys? What did it want to find out about US troops and how did it want to use that information?
Gitre: Henry Stimson, the aged Secretary of War, outright barred the polling of US troops when one of the nation’s leading pollsters, Elmo Roper, first pitched the idea in spring 1941. The War Department was not in the habit of soliciting the “opinions” of foot soldiers.
Yet an old friend of the Roosevelt family, Frederick Osborn—who had already helped to institute the country’s first peacetime draft in 1940—quietly but effectively made the case.
Chiefly, he convinced Stimson and other leery officers that surveys would be for their benefit. Surveys would provide them information for planning and policymaking purposes. Allowing and encouraging GIs to openly air their “gripes” was not part of Osborn’s original pitch.
When George C. Marshall became chief of staff in 1939, he compared the US Army to that of a third-rate power.
With the passage of the draft in 1940, the War Department would face the monumental challenge of rapidly inducting hundreds of thousands, then after Pearl Harbor millions of civilians. Most lacked prior military experience. But this new crop was also better educated than previous generations of draftees, and they came with higher expectations of the organization.
The surveys, then, would help address a host of “personnel” issues, such as placement, training, furloughs, ratings, so on and so forth.
The civilian experts the Army brought in to run this novel research program were embedded in what was known as the Morale Branch. This outfit, as the name suggests, was tasked with shoring up morale. These social and behavioral scientists had to figure out, first, how to define morale, and, second, how to measure it.
Some old Army hands insisted that morale was purely a matter of command, that it was the byproduct of discipline and leadership. But reporting indicated pretty clearly that morale correlated to what soldiers were provided during off-duty hours as well, in terms of recreation and entertainment.
To address the latter, the War Department created an educational, recreational, welfare, and entertainment operation that spanned the globe. The numbers of candy bars and packages of cigarettes shipped and sold were accounted for not in the millions but billions.
If you were coordinating the monthly global placement of, say, two million books from best-sellers’ lists, wouldn’t you want to know something about soldier and sailor preferences? A whole class of survey questions were directed at marketing research.
Woody: What topics did the questions cover, and what kind of feedback and complaints did the troops give in response?
Gitre: The surveys administered by the Army’s Research Branch cover myriads of topics, from the individual food items placed in various rations, to the specific material used in seasonal uniforms, to the educational courses offered through the Armed Forces Institute.
A soldier might be asked a hundred or more multiple-choice and short-answer questions in any one survey. They would be asked to record more their behaviors, insights, and experiences related to service directly. They were asked about their civilian lives as well, including their previous occupation, family background, regional identity, religion, and education. This information could be then correlated with other military and government records to provide a more holistic picture of the average American GI.
One of this research outfit’s most reliable “clients” was the Army’s Office of Surgeon General. The quality and effectiveness of medical and psychiatric care had wide implications, not least in terms of combat readiness. The Surgeon General’s office was interested in more than the care it provided. Soldiers were asked about their most intimate of experiences—their sexual habits and hygiene among them.
Administered in August 1945, Survey #233 asked men stationed in Italy if they were having sex with Italian women, and, if so, how frequently; did they pay for sex, how did they pay, did they “shack” up, use a condom and if not why not, drink beforehand, and did they know how to identify the symptoms of an STI? The battle against venereal diseases knew no lines of propriety.
The Research Branch surveyed or interviewed a half-million service members during the war. The answers they received were as varied as one can imagine, though there were of course common “gripes,” which the old Army hands could have easily ticked off without the aid of a cross-sectional scientific survey.
Yet the scope WWII military operations and the influx of so many educated civilians did create innumerable challenges that were often novel.
But from the soldier’s perspective, it should not come as a shock that so many of them might have taken to heart the premise of the US’s involvement in the war, that the US was committed to defending democracy, and alone if necessary.
Respondent after survey respondent demanded, then, that the US military live up to the principles of democracy for which they were being called to sacrifice. And so, they savaged expressions of the old Regular Army’s hierarchical “caste” culture wherever they saw it, but especially when it frustrated their own hopes and ambitions.
They wanted, in the parlance of the day, “fair play” and a “square deal.” They wanted to be respected as a human being, and not treated like a “dog.”
Woody: The US military drew from a wide swath of the population during WWII. How do you think that affected troops’ perception of the war, of military and civilian leadership, and of what the troops themselves wanted out of their service?
Gitre: The WWII US Army is known as a “citizen soldier” army (as opposed to a professional or “standing” army). It was also at the time described as a “peacetime army.” Compulsory service was passed by Congress in September 1940, roughly 15 months prior to Pearl Harbor. Military conscription was from its inception a civil process.
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack.
(U.S. Navy photo)
That year-plus gap had a deep and lasting impact on how the War Department approached the rapid expansion of US forces. Just the same, it also shaped the expectations of Americans who were called to serve—as well as of their family members and loved ones, and the wider public.
The success of the Selective Service System would depend on the state in which the Army returned soldiers back to civil life. They would need to feel that they had gained something from the military, in the form of skill training or more education.
“In a larger sense [compulsory military training] provides an opportunity to popularize the Army with our people which is essential for an efficient fighting force,” the secretary of war said. “Maintenance of a high military morale is one of the most important contributing factors to good public morale,” he continued.
This view filtered down into the ranks. Sailors and soldiers expected to receive useful training and additional education. They also believed the military would put the skills, experiences, and practical know-how they already possessed as civilians to good use.
Woody: Was there anything in the troops’ responses that surprised you?
Gitre: What has surprised me most, I think, are the many remarks not about command and leadership but race.
We know that leaders of and activists in the black community pressed the War Department and Roosevelt administration to confront the nation’s “original sin” and strike down legal segregation. How otherwise could the US claim to be a champion of democracy while systematically denying the rights of a population that was liable, as free white citizens were, to compulsory service?
Black leaders embraced the V-shaped hand signal that was flashed so often to signify allied Victory, and they made it their own, calling for “Double V” or double victory: that is, victory abroad, and victory at home.
Participants in the Double V campaign, 1942.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
Surveys from black soldiers demonstrate in rather stark terms how pervasively this message took hold among the rank and file. African Americans were especially well attuned to and critical of the military’s caste culture and to its reinforcement of white supremacy.
It is especially jarring, then, to read commentaries from soldiers defending the continuation of white male supremacy. Not only did some of these respondents opine on the virtues of segregation and the inferiority of blacks. A whole host of them objected likewise to women in uniform.
But undoubtedly the most shocking responses are those that espouse naked anti-Semitism. These cut against the grain of our collective memory of the American GI as liberator of the German death and concentration camps. Statements of these sort are rare. Yet they exist.
Woody: What’s your biggest takeaway from these surveys about troops’ feelings about the war and their attitudes toward the military?
Gitre: When I first encountered these open-ended responses, I was almost immediately captivated by how similarly white and black soldiers wrote about equity in the military. These two populations sometimes used the same exact phrasing.
For so many black soldiers, military service presented itself as an opportunity to break the shackles of structural inequality. They pleaded for merit-based assignments, postings, and promotions. You can flip over to surveys written by white enlisted men and you can see them wrestling with the same involuntary constraints arising from their own submission. They vigorously protested being treated like a “dog,” or a “slave.”
The leveling effect of military service was profound — and not simply for the individual soldier, psychologically. The survey research Osborn’s team conducted on race, merit, and morale demonstrated that not only were black soldiers just as effective in combat, but that the proximity of black and white troops in combat situations improved race relations, instead of destroying morale, as had long been feared. This research fed the 1947 Executive Order 9981 desegregating the US armed forces.
That brings us back to that 1940 peacetime decision to make military service compulsory as a civic duty. You can’t overestimate its significance. This isn’t a plea for compulsory military service. Yet as I continue to read these troop surveys, I am confronted daily by the prospect that we are losing the hard-won insights and lessons of a generation that is passing into its final twilight.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
A decade ago, Russia’s Defense Ministry closed down a military base in Pskov Oblast, leaving hundreds of people unemployed. Without income or investment in infrastructure, the town began to collapse around its residents. (Current Time)
A last minute budget to fund the federal government through the rest of 2017 includes money to help as many as 2,500 Afghans who helped U.S. forces during the war there emigrate to America.
The so-called “Special Immigrant Visa” program allows Afghans who have supported the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and face threats as a result of their service to apply for refuge in the United States, supporters say.
Advocates who’ve pushed for more visas say Afghans who helped U.S. forces are under near constant threat by Taliban and ISIS sympathizers in that war torn country and the SIV program is critical to saving lives.
“The increased number of visas is a great relief for our Afghan allies who risked their lives alongside us,” says retired Marine Lt. Col. Scott Cooper, who’s the director of Veterans for American Ideals.
“Many of our service members are alive and were able to come home because of these brave wartime partners,” he told WATM.
The SIV program has been under constant threat, as some lawmakers — including now Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions who was previously the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee — argued the waivers could have allowed potential terrorists into the U.S.
But advocates said the SIV applicants are some of the most thoroughly vetted immigrants allowed into the country and have already proven themselves loyal in battle.
Since the SIV program began in 2013, more than 43,000 allies from Iraq and Afghanistan — along with their families — have been resettled in the U.S.
The State Department reportedly shut down the program for lack of funding earlier this year at a time the Afghan allies faced increasing threats from a resurgent Taliban and the so-called ISIS-affiliated Khorisan Group.
Advocates claim there are still about 30,000 Afghan and Iraqi citizens whose lives are at risk for helping U.S. forces. The new money means the program can be started back up immediately, Cooper said.
Some lawmakers applauded the new money for the SIV program, calling it a “lifesaving development.”
“Allowing this program to lapse would send the message to our allies in Afghanistan that the United States has abandoned them,” said New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
“Going forward, it’s critical that Congress overcome obstruction to this program and regularly replenish the number of visas available to avoid future brinkmanship. The lives of Afghan interpreters and support staff literally hang in the balance.”
The Pentagon’s new report on China’s developing military capabilities exposes the fighting force on the front-line of China’s quest to control the seas.
The Chinese Maritime Militia, a paramilitary force masquerading as a civilian fishing fleet, is a weapon for gray zone aggression that has operated in the shadow of plausible deniability for years. Supported by the People’s Liberation Army Navy “grey hulls” and Chinese Coast Guard “white hulls,” the CMM “blue hulls” constitute China’s third sea force.
“China has used coercive tactics, such as the use of law enforcement vessels and its maritime militia, to enforce maritime claims and advance its interests in ways that are calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict,” the report explains. For instance, after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague discredited China’s claims to the South China Sea last July, Beijing dispatched the CMM to the territories China aims to control.
“China is building a state-owned fishing fleet for its maritime militia force in the South China Sea,” the Pentagon report introduced.
China presents the CMM as a civilian fishing fleet. “Make no mistake, these are state-organized, -developed, and -controlled forces operating under a direct military chain of command,” Dr. Andrew Erickson, a leading expert on Chinese naval affairs, explained during a House Committee on Armed Services hearing in September.
The maritime militia, according to the Pentagon, is a “subset of China’s national militia, an armed reserve force of civilians available for mobilization to perform basic support duties.” In the disputed South China Sea, “the CMM plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting, part of broader [People’s Republic of China] military doctrine that states that confrontational operations short of war can be an effective means of accomplishing political objectives.”
The Department of Defense recognizes that the CMM trains alongside the military and the coast guard. A 2016 China Daily article reveals that the maritime militia, a “less-noticed force,” is largely “made up of local fishermen.” The article shows the militia training in military garb and practicing with rifles and bayonets.
“The maritime militia is … a component of China’s ocean defense armed forces [that enjoys] low sensitivity and great leeway in maritime rights protection actions,” explained a Chinese garrison commander.
The CMM is not really a “secret” weapon, as it has made its presence known, yet throughout the Obama administration, government publications failed to acknowledge the existence of the maritime militia. “We have to make it clear that we are wise to Beijing’s game,” Erickson said in his congressional testimony.
The CMM harassed the USNS Impeccable in 2009, engaging in unsafe maneuvers and forcing the U.S. ship to take emergency action to avoid a collision. The maritime militia was also involved in the 2011 sabotage of two Vietnamese hydrographic vessels, 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal, 2014 repulsion of Vietnamese vessels near a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters, and 2015 shadowing of the USS Lassen during a freedom-of-navigation operation. China sent 230 fishing vessels, accompanied by several CCG vessels, into disputed waters in the East China Sea last year to advance China’s claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands administered by Japan.
Commissar of the Hainan Armed Forces Department Xing Jincheng said in January that the members of the Maritime Militia should serve as “mobile sovereignty markers.” He stated that this force is responsible for conducting “militia sovereignty operations” and defending China’s “ancestral seas,” territorial waters “belonging to China since ancient times.”
“I feel that the calm seas are not peaceful for us,” he said. “We have to strengthen our combat readiness.”
While the maritime militia has been mentioned by Navy officials, as well as congressional research and commission reports, the new Department of Defense report is the first high-level government publication to address the third sea force. “The fact is that it is there,” U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift said in November, “Let’s acknowledge that it is there. Let’s acknowledge how it’s being command-and-controlled.”
Dragging the maritime militia into the light significantly limits its ability operate. “It is strongest—and most effective—when it can lurk in the shadows,” Erickson wrote in the National Interest.
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Instead, Stilwell spent most of the war in what was an important backwater, the Chinese-Burma-India Theater. Stilwell was in the middle of preparing Operation Gymnast, the landings of North Africa which would later be conducted as Operation Torch, when he learned that he was on the short list to command U.S. forces in CBI.
Stilwell didn’t want the job. He hoped to invade North Africa. From there, he would have a decent shot at commanding the European theater or at least all troops taking the fight to Italy.
This was a reasonable expectation. Operation Gymnast became Operation Torch and was passed to then-Brig. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s success in North Africa led to an appointment as Supreme Allied Commander Europe. A few years later, he used his status as a war hero to run for president.
He was facing a tough job, but Stilwell dove into it. He assumed control of an integrated force in Burma in 1942 and prepared an offensive against the Japanese.
But it was too late for that. Before Stilwell could lay the groundwork, a new Japanese thrust overcame Chinese forces and sent them reeling back. The rest of the Allied forces in the area, mostly Americans under Stilwell, were forced to follow. This caused the loss of Burma and a severing of important logistical corridors.
But Stilwell didn’t want to disrupt the Japanese in Burma, he wanted it back. In 1944, he was able to lead a force that retook the region. One of the most famous units in the effort was Merrill’s Marauders, led by Maj. Gen. Frank Merrill. Merrill was one of the survivors that left Burma with Stilwell. Merrill had survived the evacuation despite suffering a heart attack.
Stilwell was finally removed from CBI in 1944, mainly due to staff and national politics. He was sent to the Ryukyu Islands where he took over the 10th Army on Okinawa. It was in this position that he was tapped to lead the invasion of Japan, Operation Downfall.
Luckily for him and his men, though not for his career and legacy, the invasion was made unnecessary by the Japanese surrendering to MacArthur in 1945.
Largely unseen footage of the funeral and official mourning following the death of Soviet leader Josef Stalin is featured in a new documentary, State Funeral, by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa. It’s being shown on Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. The mourning events were held at factories, on collective farms, town squares, and in meeting halls across the Soviet Union.
With the Fourth of July nearly upon us, let’s consider how we go about celebrating the independence of the United States. American-as-f*ck movies, barbecues, and brews (before we go ahead and start our own explosive light show) are the most popular ways to go about it.
But there’s nothing wrong with upgrading a few of those ideas.
Right now, everyone is thinking of celebrating July 4th in the same way you are — and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with however you want to celebrate independence; that’s the beauty of it. But there’s also nothing wrong with constantly trying to outdo each other in a race to create the best party either.
It’s time to Manifest Destiny all over your backyard with these simple ways to upsell everyone on American democracy.
“Yeah, spruce ale. Prove me wrong.” – Ben Franklin
1. Upgrade your brew to something an American Patriot might drink.
Since Budweiser is now owned by a Brazilian-Belgian transnational conglomerate, it’s hard to call it the official beer of America’s independence. And while there are many more American beers not yet owned by other countries, we might as well drink what the Founding Fathers drank. Now we just need to find out what this was…
Luckily for us, Yards Brewing Company already did. Using letters and other documents written by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin, the brewers recreated a golden ale, porter, and spruce ale, each of which were once brewed by the Fathers themselves.
2. Upgrade those movies.
I know, the story of a Maverick fighter pilot who plays by his own rules gives you a massive bard-on. But did you know there are other movies that make Top Gun look a high school kid’s fevered daydream while dropping some real knowledge on you?
For example, First Blood, while fictional, has all the same badassery of Top Gun without being so over-the-top that it’s laughable. And it comes with a real message at the end.
Philadelphia, home of Benjamin Franklin, has to use sparklers.
3. Take advantage of state laws when buying fireworks.
The great thing about these United States is that powers not reserved for the Federal government are delegated to the States — and the Feds don’t give a damn about fireworks. So, just because it might be illegal to purchase in one state doesn’t mean you can’t drive to another to pick up your 4th of July Arsenal of Democracy ammunition.
Even if you prefer the hot dog, you can even expand those flavors, like with Chicago-style dogs.
4. The meats.
Burgers and hot dogs are classics. No one will argue with you there. But that doesn’t mean that’s all you have to make. There are a lot of crowd-pleasing ways to use those coals you got fired up: brisket, pork chops, steaks, chicken, ribs… the list is endless.
And while the meat is where good BBQ starts, remember the many flavors of America. There’s the tangy mustard-based sauce of the Carolinas (try that with some cole slaw). Or maybe you’re into a heavier, smoky Kansas City-style sauce. There are many to choose from — don’t skimp out.
“We already have Tim Hortons. Next stop, Ottawa.”
5. Succeed where the Revolutionaries failed.
In 1775, Col. Benedict Arnold tried to capture Quebec and free the Canadians from the British yoke. Outnumbered, cold, and outgunned, he was turned back in a rout. It ended the American excursion in Canada during the Revolution — but it doesn’t have to be forever. Arnold tried to invade Canada in November.
When most people retire from the military, they look forward to spending more time with family, relaxing, and maybe pursuing their hobbies.
Neall Ellis isn’t most people.
After a successful career in both the Rhodesian and South African militaries, Ellis became bored with civilian life. Rather than sit back and relax, he decided to pursue the only hobby he knew — kicking ass.
With plenty of strife and a need for fighters throughout the African continent, Ellis decided to become a mercenary. He wasn’t going to be just any mercenary though. Ellis recruited a team and procured an Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship.
Ellis’ mercenary work eventually brought him to Sierra Leone, which was in the midst of a civil war in the late 1990s. The government of Sierra Leone, backed by the British, was attempting to quell a rebellion by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
Ellis saw things differently. Though the rebels were attacking at night, and he had no night vision devices, he proposed that he and his crew fly out to meet them and try to drive them off. To his crew, this sounded foolish and none would agree to fly the mission. Unperturbed, Ellis, piloting his helicopter alone, flew against the rebel onslaught.
In the dead of night, with no crew and no night vision, Ellis fought off the rebel advance. When the rebels came again, Ellis once again flew alone and turned them back from Freetown. Only when his helicopter broke down and he was unable to fly did the rebels finally take the city.
But Ellis wasn’t done fighting. Even though the government of Sierra Leone had lost the capital and could no longer pay him or his crew, they kept flying.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Ellis told them, “I have not been paid for 20 months. I do it because I don’t know what else to do. I enjoy the excitement. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
His staunch defense of Freetown had also drawn the ire of the RUF. His actions had so angered the RUF that they sent him a message: “If we ever catch you, we will cut out your heart and eat it.”
Ellis’ response was epic.
Ellis loaded up his bird and flew out to deliver a message of his own.
Arriving over the rebel camp they proceeded to drop thousands of leaflets, with a picture of their helicopter and the words “RUF: this time we’ve dropped leaflets. Next time it will be a half-inch Gatling machine gun, or 57mm rockets, or 23mm guns, or 30mm grenades, or ALL OF THEM!”
And he meant it. Although heavily outnumbered, Ellis kept fighting the rebels.
Eventually, his efforts drew the attention of the British, who decided not only to return to Sierra Leone, but also to provide support to Ellis and work in conjunction with him.
His vast knowledge of the country made him a valuable asset to the British and he actively participated in operations.
In September 2000, Ellis flew his helicopter in support of Operation Barras, a rescue mission of several soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment who had been captured. He would also flew missions with the British SAS.
Ellis and his crew would stay in Sierra Leone until the defeat of the RUF in 2002.
Ellis’ reputation earned him a trip to Iraq working with the British during the invasion in 2003.
In 1937, a young Chicago woman named Aida Garaffa lived across the street from a young man named Gerald “Jerry” Bonsonto.
A trip to a local shop would join the two hearts together in love.
“My sister and I were walking to the corner of Throop Street. There was a grocery store where we bought ice cream. When we came out of the store we saw Jerry,” explained Aida Bonsonto who recalled that first meeting with her future husband.
“He asked me if I wanted to go to the movies with him. He wasn’t a big fellow. He was about five-feet four-inches but he was handsome,” she said.
But world events, specifically World War II, would interrupt their courtship.
“The war was going on. He was drafted,” explained the youthful 97-year-old. “He was inducted on Dec. 12, 1942. We were engaged and then he left for training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.”
Aida Bonsonto with her husband Gerald “Jerry” Bonsonto pose for a photo, circa 1946.
Bonsonto trained as a medic and paratrooper and was assigned to the 307th medics of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“He landed in Africa first,” explained Bonsonto. “And he also served in Sicily, Italy, Ireland, England, France, Holland, and Germany. He was in the Battle of the Bulge.”
It was there where bullets fired by a German sniper found their mark hitting Pfc. Bonsonto. When she found out, she went to Holy Family Church in Chicago. The same church where the couple would be married later on June 8, 1946.
“When we found out he was wounded, I crawled from the door to the altar of Holy Family Church. I asked God to spare his life,” she said.
“They didn’t know if he was going to live,” she said. “He was badly wounded.”
But Jerry lived.
He was evacuated and sent to hospitals in England and Capri, Italy before he was discharged and sent home to the United States.
“He was never the same after that. He had a lot of pain,” she said.
Before he came home he sent the woman who would become his wife two boxes containing a parachute. Rationing was in effect, even after the war ended, and fabric was expensive. But a parachute made of silk and nylon provided Bonsonto with the material she needed for her wedding dress.
Aida Bonsonto wears a wedding dress, circa 1946, made from a parachute, that was sent home to her by Army medic Gerald “Jerry” Bonsonto who served with the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II.
“I told the seamstress I wanted a sweetheart neckline with long sleeves,” said she said. “And the bridesmaids dresses were all made in Chiffon.”
“An Italian woman made the wedding dress and the bridesmaid gowns out of the parachute,” explained Bonsonto.
It turned out the wedding dress was not the only thing she owned that was made from a parachute.
“While he (Jerry) was in Normandy, he had a French lady make me a nightgown out of a parachute. It was all made by hand,” she said.
And the cost was not what one might expect.
“It cost him two packages of cigarettes. That’s all she asked for it”, said Bonsonto.
Bonsonto shared that she still keeps the nightgown.
“I only wore it when I got married,” said Bonsonto. “I kept it as a souvenir with the wedding dress. She also stitched my name on the nightgown. It’s very pretty.”
While she waited for Jerry to return home, life went on in her neighborhood in Chicago.
“We used to sit outside at night and have coffee and pastries. We slept near the fire hydrant when it was hot at night,” explained Bonsonto. “My brother put a loudspeaker on our parlor window and we would have a street dance.”
The family of Aida Bonsonto pauses for a photo with Brig. Gen. Kris A. Belanger, Commanding General, 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command and a wedding dress made from a World War II parachute that her husband sent home.
(Photo by Sgt. David Lietz)
But the party to end all parties was when World War II ended Sept. 2, 1945.
“It was remarkable how people celebrated. I think people celebrated at least three days on this block. People danced in the streets. It was like a festival,” she said.
When Jerry returned home he started working for his dad driving a truck and never talked about his wartime experiences, according to Bonsonto.
“He wore his combat boots every day working on the truck to remind him of what he went through,” said Bonsonto. “He wore them until he couldn’t wear them anymore when they fell apart.”
Her beloved Jerry passed away in 1980.
“Everybody liked him. He was funny. He minded his business, he worked and came home,” recalled Bonsonto.
Now Bonsonto has stated that she will loan the parachute wedding dress she wore on her wedding day to the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Her next concern was how to get the wedding dress to the museum.
On Memorial Day of 2019, Brig. Gen. Kris A. Belanger, South Carolina native and commanding general of the Chicago-based 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command, traveled to suburban Orland Park to meet with Bonsonto and her family and pick up the dress.
A religious card taped into a scrapbook compiled by Aida Bonsonto showcases her husband’s military service during World War II.
“My mom has wanted to (loan) this parachute wedding dress for years,” explained her daughter-in-law, Caroline Bonsonto. “She has been contacting different museums for years. This is something she has been pursuing.”
“There’s lots of stories about these parachute wedding dresses but not a lot of actual dresses in museums,” explained John Aarsen, museum director for the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum. “We love them. It helps tell the stories about the families.”
The museum currently has one parachute wedding dress on display.
“By having this parachute wedding dress we can rotate them for display,” according to Aarsen who also serves as a U.S. Army Reserve brigadier general at the 451st Expeditionary Sustainment Command in Wichita, Kansas.
At the end of the evening, completed by a hearty meal and good fellowship, Bonsonto turned the dress over to Belanger.
Belanger is scheduled to bring it to the 82nd Airborne Division War Museum where a wedding dress made from a parachute will help tell future generations about the love story of a soldier named Jerry and his bride Aida.
“I thought it was quite an honor to be a part of taking a piece of history and making it public,” said Belanger. “Making history in such a way that it means so much to a family. It was an honor they trusted me to take a historic family heirloom and then display it for all to see. It is really incredible.”