March 11, 1958 The Day the US, Nuked Itself

This particular nuke was unarmed that day but three tons of conventional explosives can ruin your whole day.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-feet wide and 35-feet deep and destroying the Gregg home, the farmhouse, workshop and several outbuildings.  Buildings within a five-mile radius were damaged, including a local church.

If you’re ever in South Carolina, stop and enjoy the historical delights of the Pee Dee region. About a half-hour from Pedro’s “South of the Border”, there you will find the “All-American City” of Florence, according to the National Civic League of 1965. With a population of about 38,000, Florence describes itself as a regional center for business, medicine, culture and finance.

Oh.  And the Federal Government dropped a Nuke on the place. Sixty-two years ago, today.

maxresdefault (29)To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible time.  Those of us who lived through it, feel the same way.

The Air Force Boeing Stratojet bomber left Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, on a routine flight to Africa via the United Kingdom.  Just in case thermonuclear war was to break out with the Soviet Union, the B47 carried a 10-foot 8-inch, 7,600-pound, Mark 4, atomic bomb.

The Atlantic Coastline Railroad conductor, WWII veteran & former paratrooper Walter Gregg Sr. was in the workshop next to his home in the Mars Bluff neighborhood of Florence, South Carolina while his wife, Ethel Mae “Effie” Gregg, was inside, sewing. The Gregg sisters Helen and Frances, ages 6 and 9, were playing in the woods with their nine-year-old cousin Ella Davies as the B47 Stratojet bomber lumbered overhead.b47-7aAt 15,000-feet, a warning light came on in the cockpit, indicating the load wasn’t properly secured.   Not wanting a thing like that rattling around in the back, Captain Earl E. Koehler sent navigator Bruce M. Kulka, to investigate.  Kulka slipped and grabbed out for something, to steady himself.  That “something” just happened to be, the emergency release.

Bomb bay doors alone are woefully inadequate to hold back a 4-ton bomb. The thing came free and began a 15,000-foot descent, straight into the Gregg’s back yard.

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This hole 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep was made after an Air Force nuclear weapon accidentally fell from a B-47 and exploded in Florence, South Carolina, March 12, 1958. The home of Walter Gregg (background) was almost destroyed. Several members of his family were treated for injuries. (AP Photo) H/T Military Times

The Mark 4 atom bomb employs an IFI (in-flight insertion) safety, whereby composite uranium and plutonium fissile pits are inserted into the bomb core, thus arming the weapon. When deployed, a 6,000-pound. conventional explosion super-compresses the fissile core, beginning a nuclear chain reaction. In the first millisecond, (one millionth of a second), plasma expands to a size of several meters as temperatures rise into the tens of millions of degrees, Celsius. Thermal electromagnetic “Black-body” radiation in the X-Ray spectrum is absorbed into the surrounding air, producing a fireball. The kinetic energy imparted by the reaction produces an initial explosive force of about 7,500 miles, per second.

This particular nuke was unarmed that day but three tons of conventional explosives can ruin your whole day.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-feet wide and 35-feet deep and destroying the Gregg home, the farmhouse, workshop and several outbuildings.  Buildings within a five-mile radius were damaged, including a local church.  Effie gashed her head when the walls blew in but miraculously, no one was killed except for a couple chickens.  Not even the cat.

screen_shot_2016-05-11_at_60319_pmThree years later, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs broke up in the air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five crew members ejected from the aircraft at 9,000-feet and landed safely, another ejected but did not survive the landing. Two others died in the crash.

In this incident, both weapons were fully nuclear-enabled.  A single switch out of four, is all that prevented at least one of the things, from going off.

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One Mk 39 nuclear weapon from the Goldsboro incident remained largely intact, with parachute still attached. The second plunged into a muddy field at about 700mph, and disintegrated.

Walter Gregg described the Mars Bluff incident in 2001, in director Peter Kuran’s documentary “Nuclear 911”. “It just came like a bolt of lightning”, he said. “Boom! And it was all over. The concussion …caved the roof in.” Left with little but the clothes on their backs, the Greggs eventually sued the Federal Government.

The family was awarded $36,000 by the United States Air force.  It wasn’t enough to rebuild the house let alone, replace their possessions.  Walter Gregg resented it, for the rest of his life.

download - 2020-03-11T083015.786Over the years, members of the flight crew stopped by to apologize for the episode.

The land remains in private hands but it’s federally protected, so it can’t be developed.   They even made a path back in 2008 and installed a few signs,  but those were mostly stolen by college kids.

You can check it out for yourself if you want to amuse the locals.  They’ll know what you’re doing as soon as you drive through the neighborhood, the second time.  Crater Rd/4776 Lucius Circle, Mars Bluff, SC (Hat tip roadsideamerica.com)

A month before the Mars Bluff incident, a hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped in the ocean, off Tybee Island, Georgia.  Incidents involving the loss or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons are called “Broken Arrows“.  There have been 32 such incidents, since 1950.  As of this date, six atomic weapons remain unaccounted for, including that one off the Georgia coast.

Feature image top of page;  “C. B. Gregg looks at the bomb damaged home of his brother Walter Gregg who was injured after an Air Force bomb hit about 100 yards away on March 12, 1958, in Florence, S.C. (AP Photo) H/T Military Times

January 29, 1944 Operation Pied Piper

This weekend, Superbowl LIV will be played at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens Florida, in front of an expected crowd of 65,326. In 1938, forty-five times that number were mobilized in the first four days alone, primarily children, relocated from cities and towns across Great Britain to the relative safety of the countryside.

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Nazi propaganda depicting German “Anschluss” with Austria

Intent on avoiding war with Nazi Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain convened in Munich in September 1938, to resolve German claims on western Czechoslovakia.  The “Sudetenland”.  Representatives of the Czech and Slovak peoples, were not invited.

For the people of the modern Czech Republic, the Munich agreement was a betrayal. “O nás bez nás!” “About us, without us!”

On September 30, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London declaring “Peace in Our Time”.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand bore the signatures of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier as well as his own, annexing enormous swaths of the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany.

To Winston Churchill, the Munich agreement was an act of appeasement.  Feeding the proverbial crocodile (Hitler), in hopes that he will eat you last.

For much of Great Britain, the sense of relief was palpable.  In the summer of 1938, the horrors of the Great War were a mere twenty years in the past.  Hitler  swallowed up Austria only six months earlier as British planners divided the home islands into “risk zones”:   “Evacuation,” “Neutral,” and “Reception.”

In some of the most gut wrenching decisions of the age, these people were planning  the evacuation of millions of their own children, in the event of war.  “Operation Pied Piper”

94330When Nazi Germany invaded Poland the following September, London Mayor Herbert Morrison was at 10 Downing Street, meeting with Chamberlain’s aide, Sir Horace Wilson.  Morrison believed that the time had come for Operation Pied Piper.  Only a year to the day from the Prime Minister’s “Peace in our Time” declaration, Wilson protested.  “But we’re not at war yet, and we wouldn’t want to do anything to upset delicate negotiations, would we?

Morrison was done with the Prime Minister’s dilatory response to Hitler’s aggression, practically snarling in his thick, East London accent “Look, ’Orace, go in there and tell Neville this from me: If I don’t get the order to evacuate the children from London this morning, I’m going to give it myself – and tell the papers why I’m doing it. ’Ow will ’is nibs like that?

Thirty minutes later, Morrison had the document. The evacuation, had begun.

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This weekend, Superbowl LIV will be played at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens Florida, in front of an expected crowd of 65,326. In 1938, forty-five times that number were mobilized in the first four days alone, primarily children, relocated from cities and towns across Great Britain to the relative safety of the countryside.

BBC History reported that, “within a week, a quarter of the population of Britain would have a new address”.  Imagine for a moment, what that looked like.  What that sounded like.

operation_pied_piper-poster (1)This was no mindless panic.  Zeppelin raids had killed 1,500 civilians in London alone during the ‘Great War’.  Since then, governments had become infinitely better at killing each other’s citizens.

As early as 1922, Prime Minister Lord Arthur Balfour had spoken of ‘unremitting bombardment of a kind that no other city has ever had to endure.’  As many as four million civilian casualties were predicted, in London alone.

BBC History describes the man in charge of the evacuation, Sir John Anderson, as a “cold, inhuman character with little understanding of the emotional upheaval that might be created by evacuation”.

Children were labeled ‘like luggage’, and sent off with gas masks, toothbrushes and fresh socks & underwear. None of them had the slightest idea of where, or for how long.

thumbnail_ww2evacueesAll things considered, the evacuation of all that humanity ran relatively smoothly.  James Roffey, founder of the Evacuees Reunion Association, recalls ‘We marched to Waterloo Station behind our head teacher carrying a banner with our school’s name on it. We all thought it was a holiday, but the only thing we couldn’t work out was why the women and girls were crying.’

Arrivals at the billeting areas, were another matter.  Many kids were shipped off to the wrong places, and rations were insufficient.  Geoffrey Barfoot, billeting officer in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, said ‘The trains were coming in thick and fast. It was soon obvious that we just didn’t have the bed space.’

Kids were lined up against walls and on stages, and potential hosts were invited to “take their pick”.

For many, the terrors and confusion of those first few days grew into love and friendships, which lasted a lifetime.  Others entered a hell of physical and/or sexual abuse, or worse.

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For the first time, “city kids” and country folks were finding out how the “other half” lived, with sometimes amusing results.  One boy wrinkled his nose on seeing carrots pulled out of muddy fields, saying “Ours come in tins”.  Richard Singleton recalled the first time he asked his Welsh ‘foster mother’ for directions to the toilet.  “She took me into a shed and pointed to the ground. Surprised, I asked her for some paper to wipe our bums.  She walked away and came back with a bunch of leaves.

John Abbot, evacuated from Bristol, had his rations stolen by his host family. He was horsewhipped for speaking out while they enjoyed his food while he himself was given nothing more than mashed potatoes. Terri McNeil was locked in a birdcage and left with a piece of bread and a bowl of water.

an-evac-killed-by-bus-near-blackpoolIn the 2003 BBC Radio documentary “Evacuation: The True Story,” clinical psychologist Steve Davis described the worst cases, as “little more than a pedophile’s charter.”

Eighty-odd years later, the words “I’ll take that one”, are seared into the memories of more than a few.

Hundreds of evacuees were killed because of relocation, while en route or during stays at “safe havens”.  Two boys were killed on a Cornish beach, mined to defend against German amphibious assault.

Apparently, no one had thought to put up a sign.

Irene Wells, age 8, was standing in a church doorway when she was crushed by an army truck.  One MP from the house of Commons said “There have been cases of evacuees dying in the evacuation areas. Fancy that type of news coming to the father of children who have been evacuated”.

When German air raids failed to materialize, many parents decided to bring the kids back home.  By January 1940, almost half of evacuees had returned.

980x (4)Authorities produced posters urging parents to leave the kids where they were and a good thing, too. The Blitz against London itself began on September 7. The city experienced the most devastating attack to-date on December 29, in a blanket fire-bombing that killed almost 3,600 civilians.

Sometimes, refugees from relatively safe locations were shipped into high-risk target areas. Hundreds of refugees from Gibraltar were sent into London, in the early days of the Blitz. None of them could have been happy to leave London Station, to see hundreds of locals pushing past them, hurrying to get out.

This story doesn’t only involve the British home islands, either.  American Companies like Hoover and Eastman Kodak took thousands of children in, from employees of British subsidiaries.  Thousands of English women and children were evacuated to Australia, following the Japanese attack on Singapore.

By October 1940, the “Battle of Britain” had devolved into a mutually devastating battle of attrition in which neither side was capable of striking the death blow. Hitler cast his gaze eastward the following June, with a surprise attack on his “ally”, Josef Stalin.

battle-of-britain-cleaning-up“Operation Steinbock”, the Luftwaffe’s last large-scale strategic bombing campaign of the war against southern England, was carried out three years later.  On this day in 1944, 285 German bombers attacked London in what the Brits called, a “Baby Blitz”.

You’d have to be some tough cookie to call 245 bombers, a Baby Blitz.WWII_London_Blitz_East_London-ChildrenLate in the war, the subsonic “Doodle Bug” or V1 “flying bomb” was replaced by the terrifying supersonic V2.  1,000 or more of these, the world’s first rocket, were unleashed against southern England, primarily London, killing or wounding 115,000. With a terminal velocity of 2,386mph, you never saw or heard this thing coming, until the weapon had done its work.

15092_0 (1)In the end, many family ‘reunions’ were as emotionally bruising as the original breakup.   Years had come and gone and new relationships had formed.  The war had turned biological family members, into all but strangers.

Richard Singleton remembers the day his mother came, to take him home to Liverpool.  “I had been happily living with ‘Aunty Liz and Uncle Moses’ for four years,” he recalled. “I told Mam that I didn’t want to go home. I was so upset because I was leaving and might never again see aunty and uncle and everything that I loved on the farm.”

Douglas Wood tells a similar story.  “During my evacuation I had only seen my mother twice and my father once.  On the day that they visited me together, they had walked past me in the street as they did not recognize me. I no longer had a Birmingham accent and this was the subject of much ridicule. I had lost all affinity with my family so there was no love or affection.”

The Austrian-British psychoanalyst Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud, commissioned an examination of the psychological effects of the separation. After a 12-month study, Freud concluded that “separation from their parents is a worse shock for children than a bombing.”

January 25, 1949 The Candy Bomber

By November, what had begun as a trickle had turned to a confectionery avalanche.  College student Mary Connors of Chicopee Massachusetts stepped up and offered to take charge of the flood.  By now, this was a national project. Volunteers were assembled in their hundreds to collect candy and tie them to little cloth parachutes.

World War II ended on May 8, 1945 in Europe, leaving the three major allied powers (United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) in place, in and around the former Nazi capital of Berlin.  Representatives of the 3 met at Potsdam, capital of the German federal state of Brandenburg between July-August, hammering out a series of agreements known as the Potsdam agreement.

Built on earlier accords reached through conferences at Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta, the agreement addressed issues of German demilitarization, reparations, de-nazification and the prosecution of war criminals.

The Potsdam agreement called for the division of defeated Germany into four zones of occupation, roughly coinciding with then-current locations of the allied armies. The former capital city of Berlin was itself partitioned into four zones of occupation. A virtual island located 100 miles inside of Soviet-controlled eastern Germany.

berlin-1948During the war, ideological fault lines were suppressed in the drive to destroy the Nazi war machine.  Such differences were quick to reassert themselves in the wake of German defeat.  In Soviet-occupied east Germany, factories and equipment were disassembled and transported to the Soviet Union, along with technicians, managers and skilled personnel.

The former Nazi capital quickly became the focal point of diametrically opposite governing philosophies.  Leaders on both sides believed that Europe itself, was at stake. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov put it succinctly, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

images (58)West Berlin, a city utterly destroyed by war, was home to some 2.3 million at that time, roughly three times the city of Boston.

Differences grew and sharpened between the former allies, coming to a crisis in 1948. On June 26, Soviets blocked access by road, rail and water, to western occupation zones.

This was no idle threat.  Of all the malignant governing ideologies of history, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union has to be counted among the worst.  These people had no qualms about using genocide by starvation as a political tool.  They had proven as much during the Holodomor of 1932 – ’33, during which this evil empire had murdered millions of its own citizens, by deliberate starvation.  To Josef Stalin, two million dead civilians was nothing more than a means to an end.

At the time, West Berlin had only 36 days’ worth of food, and 45 days’ supply of coal.Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-19000-1661_Berlin_Kinder_spielen_in_Ruinen-e1445197409271With that many lives at stake, allied authorities calculated a daily ration of only 1,990 calories would require 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for the children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese.

With electricity shut off by Soviet authorities, heat and power for such a population would require 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and gasoline.

All of this and more was going to be needed.  Every.  Single. Day.

BA_Aircrews_LgWhat followed is known to history, as the Berlin Airlift.  At the height of the operation, a cargo aircraft landed every thirty seconds, in West Berlin. Altogether, the USAAF delivered 1,783,573 tons and the RAF 541,937 on a total of 278,228 sorties.  The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 flights.

Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from Earth to the Sun, at a cost of 39 British and 31 American lives.

800px-BerlinerBlockadeLuftwegeUS Army Air Force Colonel Gail “Hal” Halvorsen was one of those pilots, flying C-47s and C-54 aircraft deep inside of Soviet controlled territory.  On his days off, Halvorsen liked to go sightseeing, often bringing a small movie camera.

One day in July, Hal was filming take-offs and landings at the Templehof strip when he spotted some thirty children, on the other side of a barbed wire fence.  He went over to speak with them, and felt impressed.  It was normal for children to ask GIs  “Any gum, chum?” or “Any bon-bon?”  Not these kids.  Dirty, half starved and possessed of nothing whatsoever, these kids had spirit.  Halvorsen remembers:

“I met about thirty children at the barbed wire fence that protected Tempelhof’s huge area. They were excited and told me that ‘when the weather gets so bad that you can’t land, don’t worry about us. We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.'”

Reaching in his pocket, Halvorsen found two sticks of gum.  Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. Breaking them each into four pieces he gave them to the nearest children, only to watch them break the gum into smaller pieces, to share with their friends.  Those who got none received tiny slivers of the wrappers themselves, small faces shining with joy at just a whiff of mint from the wrapper.

Halvorsen told the kids he’d be back tomorrow, on one of those planes.  He’d have enough for them all, he said.  You’ll know it’s my plane because I’ll wiggle my wings.

That night, Halvorsen, his co-pilot and engineer, pooled their candy rations.  Even small boxes can’t simply be tossed out of a moving aircraft, and so, the three rigged handkerchiefs.  Tiny little “parachutes”, for tiny little packages.

Halvorsen made such drops three times over the next three weeks and noticed each time, the group of children waiting by the wire, grew larger.

tumblr_mc0esdHpaP1rezpz7o1_500Newspapers got wind of what was going on.  Halvorsen thought he’d be in trouble, but no. Lieutenant General William Henry Tunner liked the idea. A lot. “Operation Little Vittles” became official, on September 22.

What had begun between Halvorsen and his friends spread to the whole squadron. Word quickly crossed the ocean and children all over the United States gave up their own, for kids who had less.  Soon, candy manufacturers themselves joined in.

By November, what had begun as a trickle had turned to a confectionery avalanche.  College student Mary Connors of Chicopee Massachusetts stepped up and offered to take charge of the flood.  By now, this was a national project. Volunteers were assembled in their hundreds to collect candy and tie them to little cloth parachutes.

“Christmas from Heaven: The Candy Bomber Story” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra, Narrated by Tom Brokaw

Before long, pilots were dropping little packages, all over Berlin. They were the Rosinenbombers. Raisin Bombers. Halvorsen himself came to be known by many names, to the children of Berlin. “Uncle Wiggly Wings”. “The Chocolate Uncle”. “The Gum Drop Kid”. “The Chocolate Flier”.

Colonel Halvorsen’s work even earned him two letters, proposals of marriage, but he turned them both down.  He was carrying on a romance by letter at this time, with Miss Alta Jolley.  The couple would go on to marry in April of 1949, a marriage which would last, for fifty years. Alta Jolley Halvorsen passed away on this day in 1999 leaving her husband, 5 adult children and 24 grandchildren.

On this day in 1949, the Berlin Airlift had barely cleared the mid-point.  The largest humanitarian airlift in aviation history would last until the blockade was lifted on May 12, 1949, and then some.  Operation Little Vittles continued throughout the period, dropping an estimated 23 tons of candy from a quarter-million tiny little parachutes.

Over the years, many of those now-grown children have sought Halvorsen out, to say thank you and to tell stories.  Tales of hope, and fun, of fond anticipation.  All in a time and place when such things were very hard to find.

557b6348427ef.imageYou never know, he said. “The small things you do turn into great things.”

January 12, 1968 An Air Combat First

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns.

To the extent that most of us think about aerial combat, at least the non-pilots among us, I think we envision some variation of the dog fights between Snoopy and the Red Baron. Two aircraft, bobbing and weaving through the sky.  Like bantamweight boxers, each attempting to strike the winning blow.

The Snoopy story is fun but in the real world, Manfred von Richthofen was killed by a single bullet from the ground, while pursuing a Canadian pilot behind Allied lines.  The Red Baron landed his red Fokker tri-plane in a beet field and died mere moments later. He was buried with full military honors.  By his enemies.

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Manfred von Richtofen

Possibly the strangest dogfight of WWII took place on August 17, 1943, between two German long-range “Condor” maritime patrol bombers, and an American B-24D Liberator bomber modified to hunt submarines, in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean.

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns, but these three entered a full-on dogfight.

02b_am2015_milcoll_xviii_maxwell_5_live-ct.jpgStripped of armor to increase range and carrying a full load of depth charges, the American anti-submarine bomber with its 10-man crew dove out of the clouds at 1,000 feet, throttles open and machine guns ablaze. The first Condor never came out of that diving turn, while machine gun fire from the second tore into the American bomber, shredding hydraulic systems and setting the right wing ablaze.

Rear-gunners returned fire as crew members frantically jettisoned depth charges.  With engines #3 and 4 dead, Liberator pilot Hugh Maxwell Jr. kicked in full right rudder, throwing the massive aircraft into a skid and crash landing in the water, the aircraft breaking into three pieces.02d_am2015_b24_flak_live.jpgMaxwell had dubbed his B-24 “The Ark”, explaining that “it had a lot of strange animals aboard, and I hoped it would bring us through the deluge”. It must have worked.  Seven out of ten crew members lived to be plucked from the water. The second Condor made it back to Bordeaux, where it crashed and burned on landing.

Surviving Liberator crew members were rescued by the British destroyer Highlander, along with three Germans from that first Condor. It was all the Highlander crew could do to keep the soaking wet combatants from resuming the fight, on the decks of the destroyer.

The “Brass” got into the action in November 1942, when general Eisenhower and a high ranking entourage left London destined for Gibraltar in a fleet of 6 converted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Five made the crossing without incident but one turned back due to mechanical problems.  Sure enough, the lone American bomber was lumbering overhead the following day when set upon by a flight of four German long-range fighters.c01d0637794c357f99670b25d4224b7f.jpgWith crew reduced to a minimum it was one-star General Jimmy Doolittle (yeah, That Jimmy Doolittle), who took the stick from a wounded pilot.  A Colonel, a Major and two senior civilian officials pitched in while one-star general Lyman Lemnitzer manned a machine gun, holding the fighters at bay.

The German squadron peeled off, probably low on fuel.  The B-17 made it with what must have been the most senior combat team, in aviation history.

The final air-to-air combat of WW2 took place on April 12 1945, between unarmed spotter aircraft. Two Americans were flying low near Berlin when the pair spotted a German Fieseler Storch spotter aircraft, even lower. Having the better air position the Americans opened fire with service pistols. As the Storch attempted to escape, the aircraft brushed a wing on the ground, and it was over.

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Last air-to-air combat of WW2

On the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, a single Iraqi Mirage fighter intercepted an American EF-111, an unarmed F-111 bomber modified for radar-jamming patrol. Flying at 200′ and equipped with sophisticated terrain-following radar, the bomber was able to climb up and over hilltops while the French-made Mirage fighter had no such systems.

The last anyone saw of that Iraqi fighter, was when he plowed into that hillside.

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Low Level, terrain-following radar

Later in the same conflict, an Iraqi Hughes 500 helicopter was taken out by bombs dropped from an American Air Force F-15E bomber. At least one Iraqi PC-7 Turboprop pilot got so spooked he bailed out of a perfectly good aircraft, before a single shot was fired in his direction.

The strangest dogfight in history took place on January 12, 1968, when four Soviet-made Antonov AN-2 Colt biplanes took off from a base in North Vietnam headed west toward Laos.

Only 125 nautical miles from Hanoi, Phou Pha Thi mountain was long used as a staging base for CIA directed Hmong guerrilla fighters and Thai security forces. Lima Site 85 was the American radar facility, perched atop the 5,800-foot massif.

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Lima site 85, atop 5,800 Phou Pha Thi Mountain

CIA-operated “Air America” captain Ted Moore was flying a UH-1D Huey helicopter at the time, carrying a load of ammunition to Phou Pha Thi. Moore arrived to see two North Vietnamese biplanes, dropping 122mm mortar shells through holes in the floor and strafing the mountaintop with 57mm rockets. “It looked like WWI,” he later recalled. Moore gave chase, positioning his helicopter above one biplane, as flight mechanic Glenn Woods fired an AK-47 from above.

Moore and Woods dropped back to the second biplane, as the first crashed into a ridge west of the North Vietnamese border. Moments later, the second crashed into a mountainside, as the other two slipped back into North Vietnamese air space. The entire contact was over in less than 20 minutes.

Theirs was a secret war, waged in the mists of the Annamite Mountains. Two months later, North Vietnamese commandos attacked and destroyed Site 85, inflicting the largest loss of US Air Force personnel of the war in Vietnam.

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Ann Holland holds a 2017 calendar — “Secret Ops of the CIA” — that represents the place where her husband’s unit was overrun in 1968 during the Vietnam War. Mel Holland was on a mountaintop radar station that guided B-52 bombers toward targets in North Vietnam. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

On July 27, 2007, Air America veterans Marius Burke and Boyd Mesecher presented the CIA with “An Air Combat First”, an oil on canvas painting by Keith Woodcock, depicting the shoot-down. The event was attended by members of the Air America Board, pilot Ted Moore, wife of flight mechanic Glenn Woods Sawang Reed, CIA paramilitary veteran Bill Lair; and the painting’s donors. Presumably, the painting hangs at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A testament to the only time in the history of the Vietnam war, that an enemy fixed-wing aircraft was shot down, by a helicopter.

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An Air combat First.  H/T artist Keith Woodcock

January 11, 1935 Amelia

“The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune”. – Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was born July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, the first surviving child of Samuel “Edwin” and Amelia “Amy” Otis Earhart. Amy didn’t believe in raising “nice little girls”, she allowed “Meeley” and her younger sister “Pidge” to live an outdoor, rough and tumble “tomboy” kind of childhood.

AmeliachildEd seems to have had life-long problems with alcohol, often resulting in an inability to provide for his family. Amelia must have been a disciplined student despite it all, as she graduated with her high school class, on time, notwithstanding having attended six different schools.

Earhart was certainly independent, saying later in life “The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune”.

Amelia and her sister saw their first airplane in 1908, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. It was a rickety old biplane in which Edwin was trying to interest them in a ride.   Earhart later described that biplane as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.”  At the time, the girls preferred the merry-go-round.

earhart-98-e1544117412522.jpgMeeley and Pidge worked as nurse’s aids in Toronto, in 1919.  There she met several wounded aviators and developed a strong admiration for these people.  Amelia would spend much of her free time watching the Royal Flying Corps practice at a nearby airfield.

Around that time, Earhart and a friend were visiting an air show in Toronto, when one of the pilots thought it would be funny to dive at the two women. “I am sure he said to himself, ‘Watch me make them scamper,’” she said, but Earhart held her ground.  “I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”

A ten-minute ride at a Long Beach California air show in 1920 changed her life.  From that time on, Amelia Earhart knew she wanted to fly.

Earhart worked at a variety of jobs from photographer to truck driver, earning money to take flying lessons from pioneer female aviator Anita “Neta” Snook.

She bought a second-hand Kinner Airster in 1921, a bright yellow biplane she called “The Canary”, flying it to 14,000’ the following year, a world altitude record for female pilots.

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Neta Snook, Amelia Earhart, 1921

Short funds grounded her for a time, by 1927 she was flying out of the Dennison Airport in Quincy, Massachusetts.  Earhart invested in the airport and worked as a salesman for Kinner airplanes in the Boston area while writing about flying in the local newspaper.

Charles Lindbergh’s New York to Paris Flight on May 20-21 of that year was the first solo, non-stop transatlantic crossing by airplane. Aviatrix Amy Phipps Guest wanted to be the first woman to make the flight, but later decided it was too dangerous. Instead she would sponsor the trip, provided that “another girl with the right image” was found.

“Lady Lindy”, Earhart became that first woman on May 21, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh.

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On this day in 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first person of either sex to fly solo from Hawaii to California.

Two years later, Earhart and copilot/navigator Frederick J. Noonan attempted to fly around the world. The US Coast Guard cutter Itasca picked up radio messages that the aircraft was lost and low on fuel on July 2, 1937, and then it vanished.

The $4 million search and rescue effort covered 150,000 square miles and lasted for sixteen days, but to no avail.

amelialostphotosFollowing the end of the official search, Earhart’s husband and promoter George Palmer Putnam financed private searches of the Phoenix Islands, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Fanning (Tabuaeran) Island, the Gilbert and the Marshall Islands, but no trace of the aircraft or its occupants was ever found.

Earhart was declared dead in absentia on January 5, 1939 at the age of 41, Noonan on June 20, 1938.  He was 44.

For years, the prevailing theory was that Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10 Electra ran out of gas and plunged into the ocean.

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“Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E. During its modification, the aircraft had most of the cabin windows blanked out and had specially fitted fuselage fuel tanks. The round RDF loop antenna can be seen above the cockpit. This image was taken at Luke Field on March 20, 1937; the plane would crash later that morning”.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has been exploring a 1½ mile long, uninhabited tropical atoll once called Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, in the southwestern Pacific Republic of Kiribati. After eleven visits to the atoll, TIGHAR sonar images revealed a straight, unbroken anomaly under the sand, remarkably consistent with the fuselage of a Lockheed Electra.

The traces of a long-dead campfire were discovered in 1940, along with animal bones, a box from a sextant, and thirteen human bones.  A doctor judged them to have belonged to a male and American authorities were never notified.

Those bones were subsequently lost, but computerized re-evaluation of their measurements suggest that the skeleton was probably that of a white female of European ethnicity, standing roughly the same 5’8″ as Amelia Earhart.

A specially trained team of four border collies was brought to Nikumaroro to search for bones in June 2017.  Thus far, the answer to one of the great mysteries of the 20th century, remains elusive.

Nikumaroro is no tropical island paradise.  There is no fresh water and daytime temperatures exceed 100°F in July. The island’s only inhabitants are Birgus latro, commonly known as the coconut crab, The largest land-dwelling arthropod in the world, specimens weigh up to 9-pounds and measure over 3′ from leg tip to leg tip.

Gifted with a keen sense of smell, the adult coconut crab feeds on fruits, nuts, seeds, and the pith of fallen trees but will eat carrion or just about anything else if given the opportunity.  Virtually any food source left unattended will be investigated and carried away, giving rise to the alternative name “Robber crab.”

It’s anyone’s guess how those two aviators spent the last hours of their lives, or who it was who lit that fire or left those bones. Looking at the size of the island’s only inhabitants, it’s not difficult to imagine why there were only 13.

December 20, 1943 Special Brothers

“You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy”, his commander had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

Franz Stigler
Franz Stigler

At the age of 26, Franz Stigler was an Ace. The Luftwaffe pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, some of his kills had been revenge, payback for the death of his brother August, earlier in the war.

Stigler was no Nazi.  This was a German Patriot with 22 confirmed kills, doing what the nation required him to do.

On December 20, 1943, Stigler needed one more kill for a Knight’s Cross. He tossed his cigarette aside and climbed into his fighter as the crippled American B17 bomber struggled overhead. This was going to be an easy kill.

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Charles Brown

21-year-old Charles Brown held the throttle of that B17, an aircraft named “Ye Olde Pub”. The earlier attack on the munitions factory in Bremen had been a success, but the pilot and crew had paid a dreadful price.

Brown’s bomber was set upon by no fewer than 15 German fighters. Great parts of the air frame were torn away, one wing severely damaged and part of the tail ripped off. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns. Brown himself had been knocked out at one point, coming around just in time to avert a fatal dive.yeoldepub.jpgThe battered aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude.  The American pilot was well inside German air space when he looked to his left and saw his worst nightmare. Three feet from his wing tip was the sleek gray shape of a German fighter, the pilot so close that the two men were looking into each other’s eyes.  Brown’s co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke said “My God, this is a nightmare.” “He’s going to destroy us,” was Brown’s reply. This had been his first mission. He was sure it was about to be his last.

Long ago before his first mission, Stigler’s commanding officer Lt. Gustav Roedel, had explained the warrior’s code of conduct:  “Honor is everything here. If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself”.

The German ace must have remembered those words as he watched the wounded, terrified American airmen inside that B17, some still helping one another with their injuries. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy”, Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.big-hole.jpgThe German had to do something.  Nazi leadership would surely shoot him for treason if he was seen this close without completing the kill. One of the American crew was making his way to a gun turret as the German made his decision. Stigler saluted his adversary, motioned with his hand for the stricken B17 to continue, and peeled away.

Ye Olde Pub lumbered on, pierced and holed through and through, across 250 frozen miles of the North Sea.  At last, she made it to Norfolk.

Bf-109-pilot-Franz-StiglerOver 40 years later, the German pilot was living in Vancouver, Canada.  Brown took out an ad in a fighter pilots’ newsletter, explaining that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on December 20, 1943.’  Stigler saw the ad, and the two met for the first time in 1987. “It was like meeting a family member”, Brown said of that first meeting. “Like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years”.

Ye-Old-pub-9The two former enemies passed the last two decades of their lives as close friends and occasional fishing buddies.

The two old warriors passed away in 2008, only six months apart. Franz Stigler was 92, Charles Brown 87.

A book called “A Higher Call”, tells the story in greater detail, if you’re interested in reading more about this signal act of kindness, between once mortal enemies.

In the two obituaries, both men were mentioned each as the other’s, “Special Brother”.

 

October 13, 1926 We’ll Come Back for you

A Naval story for this October 13, the day we celebrate as the birthday, of the United States Navy.

A boy was born this day in Hattiesburg Mississippi, the son of poor tenant farmers.  Jesse LeRoy Brown had all the disadvantages of a poor black child growing up under depression-era segregation, but Julia and John Brown kept their son on the “straight & narrow”, insisting he stuck with his studies.

Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was born in 1924, son of the Irish American owner of a chain of grocery stores from Fall River Massachusetts, who went on to attend the prestigious Phillips Andover Academy, in 1939.

Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner could not have come from more different backgrounds.  The lives of the two came together with the United States Navy, the two men becoming pilots and serving together during the conflict in Korea.

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“Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the first African-American Navy aviator, walks across the flight deck of the USS Leyte in November 1950, about a month before he was shot down and died in North Korea.” – H/T Stars & Stripes

On June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south. The 38,000 man army of the Republic of Korea didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north. Within hours, the shattered remnants of the army of the ROK and its government, were retreating south toward the capital of Seoul.

The United Nations security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula. In November, the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict in support of their Communist neighbor.

By December, nearly 100,000 troops of the People’s Volunteer Army had all but overrun the 15,000 men of the US X Corps, who found themselves surrounded in the frozen wasteland of the Chosin Reservoir. Dozens of close air support missions were being flown every day to keep the Chinese army at bay. On December 4, Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner were flying one of those missions.

The two were part of a 6-plane formation of F4U Corsairs, each pilot flying “wing man” for the other. Brown’s aircraft was hit by small arms fire from the ground, leaving him no alternative but a crash landing on a snow covered mountain. Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured and struggling to get out of the burning aircraft, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit.

airplanepictures_2272_51351289Hudner acted on instinct, deliberately crash landing his own aircraft and, now injured, running across the snow to the aid of his friend and wing man.  Hudner scooped snow onto the fire with his bare hands in the bitter 15° cold, burning himself in the progress while Brown faded in and out of consciousness.  Soon, a Marine Corps helicopter pilot landed, to help out.  The two tore into the stricken aircraft with an axe for 45 minutes, but could not free the trapped pilot.

The Marine and the Navy Pilot were considering Jesse’s plea that they amputate his trapped leg with the axe, when the pilot faded away for the last time. Jesse Leroy Brown’s final words were “Tell Daisy I love her”.

They had to leave. “Night was coming on” Hudner would later explain, “and the helicopter was not equipped to fly in the dark. We’ll come back for you”, he said.

Jesse Brown could no longer hear him.

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Korean War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Thomas Hudner stands in front of a vintage Corsair in this undated photo. H/T Stars & Stripes, COURTESY OF JOSE RAMOS

Hudner pleaded with authorities to go back to the crash site, but they were unwilling to risk further loss of life. They would napalm the crash site so that the Chinese couldn’t get to the aircraft or the body, though pilots reported that it looked like the Brown’s body had already been disturbed.

Captain Hudner expected a court-martial for intentionally downing his aircraft.  USS Leyte commander Captain Thomas Upton Sisson told him, “Personally, I’ve never heard of a more wonderful act than what you pulled out there.”

Jesse LeRoy Brown was the first Naval Aviator of African ancestry, earning his wings only months after President truman, integrated the military. He was first to die in the Korean War, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, both awarded, posthumously. Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside. One of eleven to be so honored following the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, Hudner was the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor, during the entire conflict in Korea.

Thomas Hudner visited the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in July 2013, where he received permission to return to the site. He was 88 at the time, but weather hampered the effort. North Korean authorities told him to return when the weather was more cooperative.

In May 2012, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer to be named USS Thomas Hudner. Four years later, 91-year-old Thomas Hudner wrote to the Secretary, on behalf of his wingman:

“It pains me to ask for any favor, but there is one last cause to which I must attend”.

Hudner requested that a ship be named after his wingman.

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Retired Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner salutes while “Taps” is played during the Centennial of Naval Aviation wreath-laying ceremony at the Navy Memorial in Washington D.C., in 2011. H/T Military Times

Captain Hudner lived out the last years of his life with his wife Georgea, at the couple’s home in Concord Massachusetts.  He passed away on November 13, 2017 at the age of 93.

A year later nearly to the day, December 1, 2018, the USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116) was commissioned in Boston Harbor, members of both families, in attendance.

Jessica Knight Henry, Brown’s granddaughter and namesake, summed up the meaning of this day.  “Jesse and Tom’s stories have been intertwined since that fateful day”.

Jesse LeRoy Brown’s remains were never recovered.

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