November 8, 1965 The 8th of November

Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in fighting that was shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.

operation-hump-1On this day in 1965, the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade was halfway through a one-year term of service, in Vietnam.  “Operation Hump”, so named in recognition of that mid-point, was a search and destroy mission inserted by helicopter on November 5.

Vietcong fighters occupied positions on several key hills near Bien Hoa, with the objective of driving the Americans out.

Operation hump, 2There was little contact through the evening of the 7th, when B and C Companies of the 1/503rd took up a night defensive position in the triple canopied jungle near Hill 65.

On the morning of the 8th, the Brigade found itself locked in combat with an entire main line Vietcong Regiment, pouring out of entrenched positions and onto the American defenses.

The Vietcong were well aware of American superiority when it came to artillery and air cover.  The VC strategy was to get in so close that it nullified the advantage.  “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them”.

Operation hump, 4Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in fighting that was shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.

Shot through the right thigh and calf with his medical supplies depleted, Army Medic Lawrence Joel hobbled about the battlefield on a makeshift crutch, tending to the wounded.

Though wounded himself, Specialist 4 Randy Eickhoff ran ahead, providing covering fire. Eickhoff was later awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions.

Specialist 5 Joel received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, near hill 65.  Let Joel’s citation, tell his part of the story:

Cmoh_armyFor conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Specialist 5 Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self-administered morphine to deaden the pain enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking. Through this period of time, he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood. As 1 of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, lawrence-joel-popart-lawrence-joelSpecialist 5 Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gunfire to the wounded men. After the 24 hour battle subsided and the Viet Cong dead numbered 410, snipers continued to harass the company. Throughout the long battle, Specialist 5 Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aid man and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of lives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Specialist 5. Joel’s profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country“.

48 Americans lost their lives in the battle.  Many more were wounded.  Two Australian paratroopers were recorded as MIA.  Their remains were discovered years later, and repatriated in 2007.

The country music duo Big and Rich wrote a musical tribute to that day.  It’s called the 8th of November.

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February 16, 1973 Cherry

“I spent 702 days in solitary confinement…At one time I was either tortured or in punishment for 93 straight days.” Fred Vann Cherry, Sr.

Fred Vann Cherry was born March 24, 1928, the child of poor Virginia dirt farmers.  Cherry had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up in the Jim Crow-era, but he stuck to his studies.  As a boy, Cherry attended racially segregated public schools in Suffolk Virginia, later attending the historically all-black Virginia Union University, and the United States Air Force Aviation Cadet Training Program.

An Air Force fighter pilot, Cherry flew 52 combat missions over North Korea, before going on to serve during the Cold War period, and the American war in Vietnam.

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Fred Vann Cherry, Sr.

On October 22, 1965, then-Major Cherry’s F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire, fifteen miles north of Hanoi.  “The plane exploded and I ejected at about 400 feet at over 600 miles an hourIn the process of ejection, I broke my left ankle, my left wrist, and crushed my left shoulder. I was captured immediately upon landing by Vietnamese militia and civilians.”

Any fool can judge a man by the color of his skin.  Most fools, do.  Fred Cherry’s North Vietnamese captors were no exception.  The first American of African ancestry to fall into the hands of these people, Cherry was told things could go easier.  If only he spoke out about racial discrimination, in the United States.

Porter Halyburton
Porter Halyburton

When that failed to produce the propaganda victory they wanted, jailers assigned Cherry a cellmate, the self-described “southern white boy”, Naval aviator Porter Halyburton.

I guess they thought if they had a Southern white boy taking care of a black man, it would be the worst place for both of us,” Halyburton told the Washington Post. “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Halyburton looked after his injured cellmate, changing the dressings on his infected wounds, feeding him, bathing him and watching over him. “He said I saved his life, and he saved my life. . . . Taking care of my friend gave my life some meaning that it had not had before.

For eight months, the two men lived in a series of putrid, stinking cells, 10-by-10-foot compartments with nothing to sleep on but filthy straw mats, or the floor.

I was so inspired by Fred’s toughness,” Halyburton said. “He had grown up in the racial South [and] undergone a lot of discrimination and hardship. But he was such an ardent patriot. He loved this country. It inspired me, and it inspired a lot of others.”

The two cellmates were separated in 1966, in what Halyburton remembers as “one of the saddest days of my life.”   Cherry recalled “I spent 702 days in solitary confinementAt one time I was either tortured or in punishment for 93 straight days.”

Fred Cherry February 16, 1973
Fred Cherry speaks to the press on February 16, 1973, following 2,671 days in captivity

The pair didn’t see each other again until 1973, when the two met at the military hospital at Clark Air Base in the Philippines following release from captivity.

Colonel Cherry and Commander Halyburton gave a number of joint talks at military institutions and colleges, and toured in 2004 to promote a book about their story, “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam,” by James S. Hirsch.

Fred Cherry died on this day in 2016 at the age of 87, forty-three years to the day, from the news conference photographed above.  The Washington Post remembered in his obituary, what Colonel Cherry wrote in a 1999 collection of POW stories:

 “I was always taught to love and respect others and forgive those who mistreat, scorn or persecute me. . . . [This] allowed me overcome the damages of discrimination, Jim Crow, and the social and economic barriers associated with growing up a poor dirt farmer. . . . My standard for making decisions is based on doing what is right.”

It’s an inspiring message.  One worth remembering.

HOMECOMING
Former POW and U.S. Air Force Colonel Fred Vann Cherry waves to the public and press there to greet the plane load of former POWs flown in from Clark Air Base. Colonel Cherry was released by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi February 12, 1973.
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

November 13, 1982 Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial

Eight years ago, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, http://www.vvmf.org began work on a virtual “Wall of Faces”, where each name is remembered with a face, and a story to go with it.  As I write this, the organization is still in need of some 6,000 photographs.

Check it out. Pass it around. You might be able to help.

Several years ago, my brother was working in Washington, part of his work in military aviation. I was passing through, and it was a rare opportunity to spend some time together. There were a few things that we needed to see while we were there. The grave of our father’s father, at Arlington. The Tomb of the Unknown. The memorials to the second world war, and the war in Korea.

And before it was over, we wanted to see the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.

AP_967246486244-840x1256“The Wall” was dedicated on this day, November 13, 1982. Thirty-one years later, we had come to pay a debt of honor to Uncle Gary’s shipmates, the 134 names inscribed on panel 24E, victims of the 1967 disaster aboard the Supercarrier, USS Forrestal.

We were soon absorbed in the majesty and the solemnity, of the place.

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is a black granite wall, 493½-feet long and 10-feet, 3-inches high at its peak, laid out in a great wedge of stone which seems to rise from the earth and return to it. The name of every person lost in the war in Vietnam is engraved on that wall, appearing in the order in which they were lost.

Go to the highest point of the memorial, panel 1E, the very first name is that of Air Force Tech Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., of Stoneham, Massachusetts, killed on June 8, 1956. Some distance to his right you will find the name of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, killed on Sept. 7, 1965. They are one of three Father/Son pairs, so remembered.

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The names begin at the center and move outward, the east wing ending on May 25, 1968. The same day continues at the far end of the west wing, moving back toward the center at panel 1W. The last name on the wall, the last person killed in the war, meets the first.  The circle is closed.

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There, you will find the name of Kelton Rena Turner of Los Angeles, an 18-year old Marine, killed in action on May 15, 1975 in the “Mayaguez incident”, two weeks after the evacuation of Saigon. Most sources list Gary L. Hall, Joseph N. Hargrove and Danny G. Marshall as the last to die in Vietnam, though their fate remains, unknown. These three were United States Marines, an M-60 machine gun squad, mistakenly left behind while covering the evacuation of their comrades, from the beaches of Koh Tang Island. Their names appear along with Turner’s, on panel 1W, lines 130-131.

Left to right:  PFC Gary Hall, KIA age 19, LCPL Joseph Hargrove, KIA on his 24th birthday, Pvt Danny Marshall, KIA age 19, PFC Dan Bullock, KIA age 15

There were 57,939 names inscribed on the Memorial when it opened in 1982. 39,996 died at age 22 or younger.  8,283 were 19 years old. The 18-year-olds are the largest age group, with 33,103. Twelve of them were 17, and five were 16. There is one name on panel 23W, line 096, that of PFC Dan Bullock, United States Marine Corps.  He was 15 years old on June 7, 1969.  The day he died.

Eight names are those of women, killed while nursing the wounded. 997 soldiers were killed on their first day in Vietnam.   1,448 died on their last. There are 31 pairs of brothers on the Wall: 62 parents who lost two of their sons.

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As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307, as the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained during the war, were added to the wall.

Over the years, the Wall has inspired a number of tributes, including a traveling 3/5ths scale model of the original and countless smaller ones, bringing the grandeur of this object to untold numbers without the means or opportunity, to travel to the nation’s capital.

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In South Lyons Michigan, the black marble Michigan War Dog Memorial pays tribute to the names and tattoo numbers of 4,234 “War Dogs” who served in Southeast Asia, the vast majority of whom were left behind as “surplus equipment”.

War dog wall

There is even a Vietnam Veterans Dog Tag Memorial, in Chicago.

above-and-beyond-vietnam-dog-tag-910

Eight years ago, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, www.vvmf.org began work on a virtual “Wall of Faces”, where each name is remembered with a face, and a story to go with it.  As I write this, the organization is still in need of some 6,000 photographs.

Check it out. Pass it around. You might be able to help.

I was nine years old in May 1968, the single deadliest month of that war, with 2,415 killed. Fifty years later, I still remember the way so many disgraced themselves, by the way they treated those returning home from Vietnam.

I can only hope that today, veterans of the war in Vietnam have some sense of the appreciation that is their due, the recognition too often denied them, those many years ago.  And I trust that my countrymen will remember, if they ever have an issue with United States war policy, they need to take it up with a politician. Not with the Armed Services member who is doing what his country asked him to do.

vietnam-memorial (1)

Check it out. Pass it around. You might be able to help.

November 8, 1965 The Eighth of November

“On the 8th of November, the angels were cryin’
As they carried his brothers away
With the fire rainin’ down and the hell all around
There were few men left standin’ that day”

Fifty-three years ago today, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was halfway through its year of service in Vietnam.  “Operation Hump”, so named in recognition of that mid-point, was a search and destroy mission inserted by helicopter on November 5.

Vietcong fighters had taken up positions on several key hills near Bien Hoa, with the objective of driving them out.

hqdefault (9)There had been little contact through the evening of the 7th, when B and C Companies of the 1/503rd took up a night defensive position in the triple canopied jungle near Hill 65.

On the morning of the 8th, the Brigade found itself locked in combat with an entire main line Vietcong Regiment, pouring out of their trenches and onto the Americans’ position.

The VC were well aware of the Americans’ superior artillery and air cover capabilities.  Their strategy was to get in so close that it nullified the advantage.  “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them”, they would say.

Operation hump, 2Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand fighting.

Shot through the right thigh and calf with medical supplies depleted, Army Medic Lawrence Joel hobbled about the battlefield on a makeshift crutch, tending to the wounded.  Though wounded himself, Specialist 4 Randy Eickhoff ran ahead, providing covering fire. Eickhoff was later awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions.

Specialist 5 Joel received the Medal of Honor.  Let his citation, tell the story:

Cmoh_armyFor conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Specialist 5 Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self-administered morphine to deaden the pain enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking. Through this period of time, he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood. As 1 of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, Specialist 5 Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gunfire to the wounded men. After the 24 hour battle subsided and the Viet Cong dead numbered 410, snipers continued to harass the company. Throughout the long battle, Specialist 5 Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aid man and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of lawrence-joellives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Specialist 5. Joel’s profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country“.

48 Americans lost their lives in the battle, with many more wounded.  Two Australian paratroopers were recorded as MIA.  Their remains were discovered years later, and repatriated in 2007.

In May of 2006, the country music duo Big and Rich released a song in tribute to that day.  It’s called the 8th of November.

October 29, 1963 Rocky

With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy. The effect was entirely unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.

originalHumbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the oldest of five sons born to Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace.  Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of the Fifteenth Pelican.  If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story.  It was called The Flying Nun.

Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky” to his friends), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.

Rocky earned his Ranger tab and parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Cavalry in South Korea, then with the 3rd US Infantry – the “Old Guard”.

Rocky attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.

versace1He did his tour, and voluntarily signed up for another six months.  By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his service.  He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam.  Now he planned to go to seminary school.  He had already received his acceptance letter, from the Maryknoll order.

Rocky planned to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to the country to help the orphaned children of Vietnam.

It was a bright and shining future, one which was never meant to be.

Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) force of South Vietnamese troops remove a Viet Cong (VC) command post in the Mekong Delta.  It was unusual that anyone would volunteer for such a mission, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”.  This was a daring mission in a very dangerous place.

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In happier times, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace pins insignia on the uniform of his son, Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace

On October 29, an overwhelming force of Viet Cong ambushed and overran Rocky’s unit.  Under siege and suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.

Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived, too late to alter the outcome.  Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.

Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.

For most of the following two years, a 2’x3’x6’ bamboo cage would be their home.  On nights when their netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, it looked like they were wearing socks.

Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother.   “If he thought he was right”,  Steve said to audience laughter, “he was a pain in the neck.  If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.

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In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them, if only they’d asked.  His brother could not be broken.  Rocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly.   Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, but that only made him try harder.

Fluent in French, Vietnamese and English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Convention and never quit doing so.  He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him to within an inch of his life.

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Incessant torture and repeated isolation in solitary confinement did nothing to shut him up.  Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy.  They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear him blow up their Communist propaganda in their own language.

For five months in 1964, reports came back through intelligence circles, of one particular prisoner. Paraded in chains before local villagers, with hair turned snow white and face swollen and yellowed with jaundice. With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy.

pg1verThe effect was entirely unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.

In the end, Versace was isolated from the rest of the prison population, as a dangerous influence.  He responded by singing at the top of his lungs, the lyrics of popular songs of the day replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs.  Rocky was last heard belting out “God Bless America”, at the top of his lungs.

Humbert Roque Versace was murdered by his North Vietnamese captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965.  He was twenty-eight.

Rocky’s remains were never recovered.  The headstone bearing his name in the Memorial section MG-108 at Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.  The memory of his name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing in the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, and on Panel 1E, line 33, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

vietnam-memorial

This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort culminating in a posthumous Silver Star.  In 2002, the Defense Authorization Act approved by the United States Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, awarded Versace the Medal of Honor.

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the President of the United States awarded the Medal of Honor to United States Army Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.  Dr. Stephen Versace stood in to receive the award, on behalf of his brother.  It was the first time the nation’s highest honor for military valor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

Rockys Statue_Plaza1
This statue of Medal of Honor recipient and Ranger Hall of Fame inductee Captain “Rocky” Versace stands in a plaza bearing his name in Alexandria, Virginia. With him are the likenesses of two Vietnamese children, along with sixty-seven gold stars, each representing one of the 67 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Alexandria who were KIA or MIA, in the war in Vietnam.
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

July 29, 1967 Inferno at Sea

Damage Control Chief Gerald Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes of the fire.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 was wiped out.

The Super Carrier USS Forrestal departed Norfolk in June 1967, with a crew of 552 officers and 4,988 enlisted men. Sailing around the horn of Africa, she stopped briefly at Leyte Pier in the Philippines, before sailing on to “Yankee Station” in the South China Sea, arriving on July 25.

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1000-lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. Tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb, featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall compared with older munitions, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures, like an enormous sparkler.

Along with Mark 83s, ordnance resupply had included sixteen AN-M65A1 “Fat Boy” bombs, Korean war era surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs of the 29th.  These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 10+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than the newer ordnance, composition B becomes more volatile as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful as well, as much as 50%, by weight.

250px-Yankee_Station_Location_1These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last ten years in the heat and humidity of Subic Bay depots.  Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys, with their rusting shells leaking paraffin, and rotted packaging.  Some had production date stamps as early as 1953.

Handlers feared the old bombs might spontaneously detonate from the shock of a catapult takeoff.

In 1967, the carrier bombing campaign was the longest and most intense such effort in US Naval history.   Over the preceding four days, Forrestal had already launched 150 sorties against targets in North Vietnam.  Combat operations were outpacing production, using Mark 35s faster than they could be replaced.

When Forrestal met the ammunition ship Diamond Head on the 28th, the choice was to take on the Fat Boys, or cancel the second wave of attacks scheduled for the following day.

220px-CVA-59_fire_aft_deck_planIn addition to the bombs, ground attack aircraft were armed with 5″ “Zuni” unguided rockets, carried four at a time in under-wing rocket packs.   Known for electrical malfunctions and accidental firing, standard Naval procedure required electrical pigtails to be connected, at the catapult.

Ordnance officers found this slowed the launch rate and deviated from standard procedure, connecting pigtails while aircraft were still, “in the pack”. The table was set, for disaster.

At 10:50-am local time, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.  Twenty-seven aircraft were on deck, fully loaded with fuel, ammunition, bombs and rockets.  An electrical malfunction fired a Zuni rocket 100′ across the flight deck, severing the arm of one crewmember and into the 400-gallon external fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk, awaiting launch.

The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented the weapon from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration.

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In WW2, virtually all American carrier crew were trained firefighters.  This changed over time and, by 1967, the United States Navy had adopted the Japanese method at Midway, relying instead on specialized and highly trained damage control and fire fighting teams.

Damage Control Team #8 came into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boy bombs turning cherry red in the flames.  Farrier  was working without benefit of protective clothing, there had been no time.  Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1000-lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent its cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.

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Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold as they fought the flames, but the composition B explosives proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes of the fire.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 was wiped out.

Future United States Senator John McCain managed to scramble out of his cockpit and down the fuel probe.  Lieutenant Commander Fred White made it out of his own aircraft a split-second later, but he was killed in that first explosion.

The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist in the violence of the explosions, office furniture thrown to the floor as much as five decks below.  Huge holes were torn into the flight deck while a cataract of flaming jet fuel, some 40,000 US gallons of the stuff, poured through ventilation ducts and into living quarters below.

Ninety-one crew members were killed below decks, by explosion or fire.

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With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, sailors and marines fought heroically to bring the fire under control, though they sometimes made matters worse.  Without training or knowledge of fire fighting, hose teams sprayed seawater, some washing away retardant foam being used to smother the flames.

With the life of the carrier itself at stake, tales of incredible courage, were commonplace. Medical officers worked for hours in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. Explosive ordnance demolition officer LT(JG) Robert Cates “noticed that there was a 500-pound bomb and a 750-pound bomb in the middle of the flight deck… that were still smoking. They hadn’t detonated or anything; they were just setting there smoking. So I went up and defused them and had them jettisoned.” Sailors volunteered to be lowered through the flight decks into flaming and smoked-filled compartments, to defuse live bombs.

The destroyer USS George K. MacKenzie plucked men out of the water as the destroyer USS Rupertus maneuvered alongside for 90 minutes, directing on-board fire hoses at the burning flight and hangar decks.

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Throughout the afternoon, crew members rolled 250-pound and 500-pound bombs across the decks, and over the side.  The major fire on the flight deck was brought under control within four hours, but fires burning below decks would not be declared out until 4:00am the following day.

Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial records the names of 134 crewmen who died in the conflagration. Another 161 were seriously injured.  26 aircraft were destroyed and another 40, damaged.  Damage to the Forrestal itself exceeded $72 million, equivalent to over $415 million today.

Gary Childs of Paxton Massachusetts, my uncle,  was among the hundreds of sailors and marines who fought to bring the fire under control.  Gary was below decks when the fire broke out, leaving moments before his quarters were engulfed in flames. Only by that slimmest of margins did Uncle Gary and an untold number of others escape being #135.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

May 20, 1942 White Feather Sniper

The elite sniper must be able to bear heat and insects and rain and a thousand other torments, all while hiding in plain sight from people who want more than life itself, to kill them.

The world of the elite sniper is different from anything most of us will ever experience. Able marksmanship (“one shot, one kill”) is only the beginning. The sniper must be expert at camouflage, field craft, infiltration, reconnaissance, ex-filtration and observation. He or she must be skilled in urban, desert and/or jungle warfare. They must be able to bear heat and insects and rain and a thousand other torments, all while hiding in plain sight from people who want more than life itself, to kill them.

carlos-hathcockCarlos Norman Hathcock, born this day in Little Rock in 1942, was a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant and sniper with a record of 93 confirmed and greater than 300 unconfirmed kills during the American war in Vietnam.

The Viet Cong and NVA called him “du kich Lông Trắng,” translating as “White Feather Sniper”, after the object he wore in his bush hat.

At another time and place, a white feather was bestowed as a symbol of cowardice, an often misplaced emblem of feminine patriotic zeal. Not with this guy.  Hathcock once took four days and three nights to cross 1,500 yards of open ground, stalking and killing a North Vietnamese General before withdrawing without detection. He was almost stepped on by NVA soldiers who were frantically searching for him, and nearly bitten by a deadly Bamboo Viper. It was the only time he ever removed that white feather from his bush hat.

Hathcock once took out an enemy soldier at a distance so great, the man couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. One shot, one kill.

9fa4afc0e7019de60f36f410659f4caaThe sniper’s choice of target could at times be intensely personal. One female Vietcong sniper, the platoon leader and interrogator called ‘Apache’ due to her interrogation techniques, would torture Marines and ARVN soldiers until they bled to death. Her signature was to cut the eyelids off her victims. After she skinned one Marine alive and left him emasculated within earshot of his base, Hatchcock spent weeks hunting this one sniper.

One day, Hathcock was tracking an NVA patrol, when he spotted the enemy sniper from the length of seven football fields. “We were in the midst of switching rifles,” he said. “We saw them. I saw a group coming, five of them. I saw her squat to pee, that’s how I knew it was her. They tried to get her to stop, but she didn’t stop. I stopped her. I put one extra in her for good measure.”

At a time when a typical NVA bounty for American snipers ranged from $8 to $2,000, the North Vietnamese set a  bounty of $30,000 on Hathcock’s head, so great was the damage he had done to their numbers. Whole platoons of counter snipers were sent to kill him. Marines in the area began to wear white feathers of their own, preferring to draw enemy fire on themselves rather than lose such a valuable asset.

The elite Vietcong sniper known as “The Cobra” had already taken the lives of several Marines, when he was sent specifically to kill Hathcock. The two elite snipers stalked each other for days when the Marine fired on a glint of light in the jungle, 300 yards distant. They found the enemy sniper dead, the round having traveled up the man’s scope and into his eye.

Such a shot is only possible if the two snipers were zeroed in on each other at the precise instant of the shot.  Let the man tell the story in his own words.

A through-the-scope shot is supposed to have taken place during the “War of the Rats” (“Rattenkrieg”) phase of the siege of Stalingrad, between Russian sniper Vasily Zaytsev and the Wehrmacht sniper school director sent to kill him, Major Erwin König.  There is some controversy as to whether such a shot ever took place.

Zaitsev
Vasily Zaytsev, left, and soviet snipers equipped with Mosin-Nagant M1891/30 with PE scope in Stalingrad, December 1942.

A 2006 episode of Mythbusters “proved” that the shot is impossible, but I enthusiastically disagree.   Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman et.al. used a multiple-lensed scope for their test, while the Soviet made scope used by the Vietnamese sniper had only one or two internal lenses.

History.com and Marine Corps sniper Staff Seregeant Steve Reichert, USMC Retired, conducted a more realistic test at the at the T1G tactical training facility in Memphis, TN, with assistance from the appropriately-named mannequin, “Dead Fred”.  Reichert’s test (below) demonstrates that the “through the scope” shot not only Can happen under the right conditions, but that, in all probability,  it Did.

Carlos Hathcock developed Multiple Sclerosis in his later years, and passed away on February 23, 1999. He was decorated with the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal. The honor he would perhaps have treasured most, was that of having a rifle named after him, a variant of the Springfield Armory M21 called the M25 “White Feather”.

springfield

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