March 28, 1918 White Feather

“Righteousness cannot be born until self-righteousness is dead”. – Bertrand Russell

At different times and places, a white feather has carried different meanings.  For those inclined toward New-Age, the presence of a white feather is proof that Guardian Angels are near.  For the Viet Cong and NVA Regulars who were his prey, the “Lông Trắng” (“White Feather”) symbolized the deadliest menace of the American war effort in Vietnam. USMC Scout Sniper Carlos Hathcock wore one in his bush hat.  Following the Battle of Crécy in 1346, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, plucked three white ostrich feathers from the dead body of the blind King John of Bohemia. To this day, those feathers appear in the coat of arms, of the prince of Wales.

The Edward and John who faced one another over the field at Crécy, could be described in many ways.  Cowardice is not one of them.  For the men of the WW1 generation, a white feather represented precisely that.

In August 1914, seventy-three year old British Admiral Charles Cooper Penrose-Fitzgerald organized a group of thirty women, to give out white feathers to men not in uniform.  The point was clear enough. To gin up enough manpower to feed the needs of a war so large as to gobble up a generation, and spit out the pieces.

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Lord Horatio Kitchener supported the measure, saying  “The women could play a great part in the emergency by using their influence with their husbands and sons to take their proper share in the country’s defence, and every girl who had a sweetheart should tell men that she would not walk out with him again until he had done his part in licking the Germans.”

The Guardian newspaper chimed in, breathlessly reporting on the activities of the “Order of the White Feather“, hoping that the gesture “would shame every young slacker” into enlisting.

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“The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting”, Collier’s Weekly (1914)

In theory, such an “award” was intended to inspire the dilatory to fulfill his duty to King and country.   In practice, such presentations were often mean-spirited, self righteous and out of line.  Sometimes, grotesquely so.

The movement spread across Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations and across Europe, encouraged by suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, and feminist writers Mary Augusta Ward, founding President of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, and British-Hungarian novelist and playwright, Emma Orczy.

Distributors of the white feather were almost exclusively female, who frequently misjudged their targets. Stories abound of men on leave, wounded, or in reserved occupations being handed the odious symbols.

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Seaman George Samson received a white feather on the same day he was awarded the British Commonwealth’s highest military award for gallantry in combat, equivalent to the American Medal of Honor:  the Victoria Cross.

Gangs of “feather girls” took to the streets, looking for military-age men out of uniform.  Frederick Broome was  fifteen years old when “accosted by four girls who gave me three white feathers.”

The writer Compton Mackenzie, himself a serving soldier, complained that these “idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired“.

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James Lovegrove was sixteen when he received his first white feather:  “On my way to work one morning a group of women surrounded me. They started shouting and yelling at me, calling me all sorts of names for not being a soldier! Do you know what they did?  They struck a white feather in my coat, meaning I was a coward. Oh, I did feel dreadful, so ashamed.” Lovegrove went straight to the recruiting office, who tried to send him home for being too young and too small: “You see, I was five foot six inches and only about eight and a half stone. This time he made me out to be about six feet tall and twelve stone, at least, that is what he wrote down. All lies of course – but I was in!”.

James Cutmore attempted to volunteer for the British Army in 1914, but was rejected for being near-sighted. By 1916, the war in Europe was consuming men at a rate unprecedented in history. Governments weren’t nearly so picky. A woman gave Cutmore a white feather as he walked home from work. Humiliated, he enlisted the following day. In the 1980s, Cutmore’s grandchild wrote “By that time, they cared nothing for [near-sightedness]. They just wanted a body to stop a shell, which Rifleman James Cutmore duly did in February 1918, dying of his wounds on March 28. My mother was nine, and never got over it. In her last years, in the 1980s, her once fine brain so crippled by dementia that she could not remember the names of her children, she could still remember his dreadful, lingering, useless death. She could still talk of his last leave, when he was so shell-shocked he could hardly speak and my grandmother ironed his uniform every day in the vain hope of killing the lice.”

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Some of these people were not to be put off. One man was confronted by an angry woman in a London park, who demanded to know why he wasn’t in uniform. “Because I’m German“, he said. She gave him a feather anyway.

Some men had no patience for such nonsense. Private Ernest Atkins was riding in a train car, when the woman seated behind him presented him with a white feather. Striking her across the face with his pay book, Atkins declared “Certainly I’ll take your feather back to the boys at Passchendaele. I’m in civvies because people think my uniform might be lousy, but if I had it on I wouldn’t be half as lousy as you.”

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Private Norman Demuth was discharged from the British Army after being wounded, in 1916. A woman on a bus handed Demuth a feather, saying “Here’s a gift for a brave soldier.” Demuth was cooler than I might have been, under the circumstances: “Thank you very much – I wanted one of those.” He used the feather to clean his pipe, handing the nasty thing back to her with the comment, “You know we didn’t get these in the trenches.”

Inevitably, the white feather became a problem when civilian government employees began to receive the hated symbols.  Home Secretary Reginald McKenna issued lapel badges to employees in state industries, reading “King and Country”. Proof that they too, were serving the war effort. Veterans who’d been discharged for wounds or illness were likewise issued such a badge that they not be accosted, in the street.

So it was that the laborer from St. Albans was sent to kill the greengrocer from some small village in Bavaria, each spurred on by their women, the whole sorry mess driven by politicians who would make war, from the comfort of home. The white feather campaign was briefly revived during World War 2, but never caught on to anything approaching the same degree as the first.

British infantryman Siegfried Sassoon was wounded multiple times on the Western Front, one of the great poets of the War to End All Wars. Marching off to fight the Hun for King and country, these were the boys who returned, embittered by the horrors of the trenches to speak for a broken generation, no longer able to speak for itself. And those were the lucky ones.

Let the man who earned it, have the last word:
“If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death…And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.”

Siegfried Sassoon

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.

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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”.

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May 20, 1942 Sniper Duel

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

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. They 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

Carlos 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 in the US’ 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.

In some circles, a white feather is seen as a symbol of cowardice.  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.

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

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

One day he was tracking an NVA patrol, when he spotted her 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 the typical NVA bounty for American snipers ranged from $8 to $2,000, the NVA set a $30,000 bounty 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 stalked each other for days when the Marine fired on a glint of light in the jungle 300 yards away. 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.

Here, the man tells his story in his own words.

Such a shot is supposed to have taken place during the siege of Stalingrad, between Russian sniper Vasily Zaytsev and the Wehrmacht sniper school director sent to kill him, Major Erwin König.

The story was adapted for the Hollywood movie “Enemy At The Gates,” but there is some controversy as to whether such a shot took place.  It may be nothing more than Soviet propaganda.

A 2006 episode of Mythbusters “proved” that such a shot is impossible.  I enthusiastically disagree. The War of the Rats’ (Rattenkrieg) through-the-scope shot at Stalingrad may be apocryphal, but the Hathcock shot is very believable. Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman & Co. used a multiple lensed scope for their tests, while the Soviet made scope used by the Vietnamese sniper had only one or two internal lenses.LVT-5

History.com and Marine Corps sniper Steve Reichert, USMC Retired, conducted a more realistic test, in my opinion settling the matter conclusively. The “through the scope” shot not only Can happen under the right conditions, but that it Did.

Hathcock’s sniper career came to a violent end on September 16, 1969, when he and seven other Marines were traveling along Route 1, north of landing zone “Baldy”.  Striking an anti-tank mine and with their LVT-5 engulfed in flames, Hathcock assisted his fellow Marines out of the vehicle, sustaining second and third degree burns over most of his body.

carlos-hathcock, medalsHathcock 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 treasure most, was that of having a rifle named after him, a variant of the Springfield Armory M21 called the M25 “White Feather”.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and like it, never really care for anything else thereafter.” Carlos Hathcock copied the words onto a piece of paper. “He got that right,” he said. “It was the hunt, not the killing.” Hathcock himself later wrote: “I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody. It’s my job. If I don’t get those bastards, then they’re gonna kill a lot of these kids dressed up like Marines. That’s the way I look at it.”

M-25White Feather
M25 White Feather

A subsequent Mythbusters re-do confirmed what the first experiment could not.  The “myth” of the through-the-lens sniper shot, is 100%, “plausible”.