Ken Burns and Lynn Novick say their multi-part PBS documentary about the Vietnam War, which concluded at the end of September, was intended to unpack a complex conflict and to embark upon the process of healing and reconciliation. The series has catapulted the Vietnam War back into the national consciousness. But despite thousands of books, articles, and films about this moment in our history, there remain many deeply entrenched myths.
MYTH NO. 1
The Viet Cong was a scrappy guerrilla force fighting a superpower.
“Vastly superior in tools and techniques, and militarily dominant over much of the world,” historian Ronald Aronson wrote about the hegemonic United States and the impudent rebels, “the Goliath sought to impose on David a peace favorable to his vision of the world.” Recode recently compared the Viet Cong to Uber: “young, scrappy and hungry troops break rules and create new norms, shocking the enemy.”
In reality, the Viet Cong, the pro-North force in South Vietnam, was armed by both North Vietnam – which planned, controlled and directed Viet Cong campaigns in the South – and the Soviet Union. According to the CIA, from 1954 to 1968, communist nations (primarily the Soviet Union and China) provided the North with $3.2 billion in military and economic aid, mostly coming after 1964 as the war accelerated. Other sources suggest the number was more than double that figure.
The Viet Cong had powerful and modern AK-47s, a Soviet-made automatic rifle that was the equivalent of the M-16 used by American troops. Its fighters were also equipped with submachine guns, grenades, rocket launchers and an array of other weapons. By contrast, the U.S. military gave the South Vietnamese armed forces old World War II-era castoffs, such as M-1 rifles, until the late 1970s.
MYTH NO. 2
The Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States represented the elite.
As the Immigration Policy Center’s Alicia Campi has put it, the 130,000 Vietnamese who came to the United States at the end of the conflict “were generally high-skilled and well-educated” people. Sociologist Carl Bankston described this group as “the elite of South Vietnam.”
Although the group that fled in 1975, referred to as the first wave, was more educated and middle-class, many who arrived through the U.S.-sponsored evacuation efforts were also people with close ties to the Americans in Vietnam whom Washington had promised to rescue. They were not necessarily “elite.” These included ordinary soldiers of South Vietnam as well as people who had worked as clerks or secretaries in the U.S. Embassy.
The second wave of refugees who left Vietnam after 1975 numbered approximately 2 million. They came from rural areas and were often less educated. Most escaped on rickety wooden boats and became known as “boat people”; they deluged neighboring countries of “first asylum” – Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Indonesia – at a rate of 2,000 to 50,000 per month. More than 400,000 were admitted into the United States.
The third wave of refugees, of which an estimated 159,000 came to the United States beginning in 1989, were offspring of American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, as well as political prisoners and those who had been put in “reeducation camps.”
MYTH NO. 3
The American fighting force in Vietnam relied on the draft.
Popular culture is rife with examples of poor and minority soldiers arriving in Vietnam via the draft and then dying. The idea runs through the heart of Robert Zemeckis’s “Forrest Gump,” Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter,” among other movies and books. Vietnam was “the most blatant class war since the Civil War,” as James Fallows put it in his 1989 book “More Like Us.”
The facts show otherwise. Findings from the Report of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force in February 1970 show that 78 percent of active-duty troops in 1965 were volunteers. Nor did the military rely primarily on disadvantaged citizens or African Americans. According to the commission’s report, African Americans “constituted only 12.7 percent of nearly 1.7 million enlisted men serving voluntarily in 1969.” Seventy-nine percent of troops had at least a high school education (compared with 63 percent of Korean War veterans and 45 percent of World War II veterans). And according to VFW Magazine, 50 percent were from middle-income backgrounds, and 88 percent were white (representing 86 percent of the deaths).
MYTH NO. 4
Communist forces breached the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
One of the most pivotal events of the Vietnam War was the attack by the Viet Cong on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1968. Retired ambassador David F. Lambertson, who served as a political officer there, said in one account that “it was a shock to American and world opinion. The attack on the Embassy, the single most powerful symbol of U.S. presence signaled that something was badly wrong in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive broke the back of American public opinion.” Early reports by the Associated Press said the Viet Cong had occupied the building. UPI claimed that the fighters had taken over five floors.
In fact, communist forces had blasted a hole through an outer wall of the compound and hunkered down in a six-hour battle against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The embassy was never occupied, and the Viet Cong attackers were killed. The Tet Offensive’s other coordinated attacks by 60,000 enemy troops against South Vietnamese targets were repelled. Don Oberdorfer, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, observed that Tet was a military disaster for the North, yet it was “a battlefield defeat that ultimately yielded victory” for the enemy.
In part, that was because the erroneous reports about the embassy assault were searing and humiliating to Americans, and no subsequent military victories during Tet could dislodge the powerful notion that the war effort was doomed.
MYTH NO. 5
South Vietnamese soldiers were unwilling and unable to fight.
Some contend that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the South’s army, was not up to the job. Andy Walpole, formerly of Liverpool John Moores University, wrote that “they were unwilling to engage in combat with their guerrilla counterparts and were more interested in surviving than winning.” Harry F. Noyes, who served in Vietnam, complained about this widespread belief: “Everybody ‘knows’ they were incompetent, treacherous and cowardly.”
But those who fought alongside the ARVN tell a different story. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, an adviser to the South Vietnamese Airborne Division, bemoaned that “the sacrifice and valor and commitment of the South Vietnamese Army largely disappeared from the American political and media consciousness.” He wrote of the tenacious fighting spirit of those troops, particularly at the Battle of Dong Ha, where they were charged with supporting American Marine units. “In combat, the South Vietnamese refused to leave their own dead or wounded troopers on the field or abandon a weapon,” he recalled.
South Vietnamese forces also fought off the surprise communist assaults on Saigon and elsewhere during the Tet Offensive of 1968. In August and September of that year, according to Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. military operations from 1968 to 1972, “the ARVN killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined, and suffered more KIA, both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action,” because it received less air and other tactical support than U.S. forces. In March 1972, during the Easter Offensive, South Vietnamese forces, with American air support, also prevailed against a conventional enemy invasion consisting of 20 divisions. And in April 1975, the 18th Division defending Xuan Loc “held off massive attacks by an entire North Vietnamese Army corps,” according to one report. In the end, those soldiers had even more at stake than the Americans did.
Source: Lan Cao
Kurt Chew-Een Lee is believed to have been the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps, rising through the ranks beginning his career from World War II to the Vietnam War.
Lee was born in 1926 in San Francisco and grew up in Sacramento, California. Lee’s father was M. Young Lee, born in Guangzhou (Canton), emigrating in the 1920s to the Territory of Hawaii and then California. Once established in America, M. Young Lee returned to China to honor an arranged marriage. He brought his bride to California and worked as a distributor of fruits and vegetable to hotels and restaurants. Two of his brothers, Chew-Fan and Chew-Mon, became Army officers who also served in the Korean War. Chew-Mon received the Distinguished Service Cross and Chew-Fan the Bronze Star.
Eager to fight in World War II, Kurt Chew-Een Lee joined the U.S. Marine in 1944. Instead, he was based at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego as a language instructor.
From October 1945 to April 1946, Lee was enrolled in The Basic School, newly reactivated for USMC officer training. Second Lieutenant Lee graduated to become the first non-white officer and the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps. He deployed to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war
He was the only person of Asian ancestry many of his fellow Marines had ever met. Behind his back, some called him a “Chinese laundry man” and questioned whether he was ready to kill Chinese soldiers. Some even questioned his loyalty as U.S. forces were battling Chinese forces, which had joined the conflict on the side of North Koreans
But as his unit faced the intense enemy fire, rugged territory, and brutal weather, he won his men’s loyalty as he repeatedly put himself at risk to protect his unit and others.
When the North Koreans attacked across the DMZ in June 1950, Lee’s unit was shipped out to Korea on September 1, 1950. For two weeks he drilled his machine-gun platoon day and night on the deck of the ship, enduring derision from the other platoon leaders.
After arriving in Japan for final battle preparations, Lee’s superiors tried to reassign him as staff officer handling translation duties. Lee insisted that he was only there to “fight communists,” and allowed to retain command of his machine gun platoon.
The 1st Battalion 7th Marines, including Lee, landed at Inchon on September 21, 1950, to attack the North Koreans and force them to retreat northwards. The People’s Republic of China sent troops to stiffen the North Korean fighting response. On the night of November 2 – 3 in the Sudong Gorge, Lee conducted a sole reconnaissance mission in heavy snow, moving well ahead of his unit. He fired rounds and threw grenades to make it sound like the Marines were advancing.
When Lee reached the outpost where the Chinese forces were hiding, he employed a ruse no one in his unit could’ve done. “Don’t shoot!” he yelled. “I’m Chinese.”
Hearing Chinese confused them and the temporary distraction proved crucial as the Marines launched a counterattack.
During the attack, Lee kept his men focused by directing them to shoot at the enemy’s muzzle flashes. Following this, Lee single-handedly advanced upon the enemy front and attacked their positions one by one to draw their fire and reveal themselves.
His men fired at the muzzle flashes and inflicted casualties, forcing the enemy to retreat. While advancing, Lee shouted to the enemy in Mandarin Chinese to sow confusion and then attacked with hand grenades and gunfire. Lee was wounded in the knee and in the morning light was shot in the right elbow by a sniper, shattering the bones. He was evacuated to an army field hospital outside of Hamhung. For bravely attacking the enemy and saving his men, Lee was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest honor given for combat bravery.
“Despite serious wounds sustained as he pushed forward,” the citation read, “First Lieutenant Lee charged directly into the face of the enemy fire and, by his dauntless fighting spirit and resourcefulness, served to inspire other members of his platoon to heroic efforts in pressing a determined counterattack and driving the hostile forces from the sector.”
Some who either served with Maj. Lee or knew of him said they believed he was deserving of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Less than a month later, while Lee was recovering in a field hospital from a gunshot wound to an arm, tens of thousands of Chinese forces surged into the region, overwhelming 8,000 American troops fighting as United Nations forces.
His arm was still in a sling when he and a sergeant left the hospital against orders, commandeered an Army jeep and returned to the front. Over the next two weeks, Lee helped lead his unit of several hundred Marines across snowy mountain passes at night, using only a compass to find and reinforce smaller groups that had been surrounded.
Late on December 2nd after several days of exhausting combat during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Lee’s platoon was given the task of spearheading a 500-man thrust against the Chinese forces to relieve the outnumbered Fox Company of 2nd Battalion 7th Marines trapped on Fox Hill, part of Toktong Pass and strategic to controlling the Chosin Reservoir road. Lee’s relief force was given heavier loads to carry through the snow, up and down lightly wooded hills, through the extreme cold (-20 F, -29 C), and under the very limited visibility of snow blizzard and darkness. Lt. Col. Ray Davis, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, had no instructions for Lee on how to accomplish the mission except to stay off the roads with their heavily reinforced roadblocks.
As point man of 2nd Rifle Platoon in Baker Company, Lee used only his compass to guide his way, leading 1st Battalion in single file. Suddenly pinned down by heavy enemy fire coming from a rocky hill, Lee refused to be delayed in his mission. He directed the men to attack the hill with “marching fire”, a stratagem used by General George S. Patton in which troops continue to advance as they apply just enough suppressive fire to keep the enemy’s heads down. Upon reaching the rocky hill, Lee and the battalion charged, attacking enemy soldiers in their foxholes. Lee, with his right arm still in a cast, shot two enemy soldiers on his way to the top. When he reached the top, he noticed that the other side of the hill was covered with enemy foxholes facing the other way in expectation of an attack from the road, but the foxholes were now empty and the enemy soldiers were over 400 yards (370 m) away in rout because of the fearfully sudden 1st Battalion attack from their rear.
Following this success, communication was established with nearby Fox Company on Fox Hill. 1st Battalion directed mortar fire against the enemy and called in an airstrike, then Lee led Baker Company forward in an attack which forced a path to Fox Company. During this attack, a Chinese machine gunner targeted Lee, wounding him seriously enough to end his Korean War service. Regrouping his men, the badly wounded Lee led Baker Company in more firefights against pockets of enemy soldiers in the Toktong Pass area, securing the road. Lieutenant Colonel Davis received the Medal of Honor for commanding the relief of Fox Company. For this action, Lee was awarded the Silver Star.
“First Lieutenant Lee’s platoon was pinned down by intense hostile fire while attacking south on the main service road from Koto-Ri,” the citation said. “Observing that the heavy fire was inflicting numerous casualties, he exposed himself to the deadly fire to move among his troops, shouting words of encouragement and directing a withdrawal to covered positions. Assured that the last of his wounded was undercover, he was seeking shelter for himself when he was struck down and severely wounded by a burst of enemy machine-gun fire.”
In addition to the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, Maj. Lee received many other military honors, including a Purple Heart. While serving in the Vietnam War, he received his second Purple Heart. He also received the Legion of Merit.
Slight of build at 5 feet 6 inches tall and 130 pounds, he brought outsize determination to the battlefield, and his heroics have been recounted in books and a documentary film, “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin,” shown on the Smithsonian Channel in 2010.Among books written featuring his exploits is “Colder the Hell: A Marine Rifle Company at Chosin Reservoir” (1996) by Joseph R. Owen.
Lee retired from military service at the rank of major in 1968 and worked a civilian job with New York Life Insurance Company for seven years. During this period, Lee’s mother died in Sacramento, and Lee’s brother Chew-Mon Lee died at the rank of colonel in the US Army while serving as an attache in Taiwan. His brother Chew-Fan Lee advanced in his career as a hospital pharmacist. In 1975, Lee began working as a regulatory compliance coordinator for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; a position he held for almost two decades.
His first wife, Linda Rivera, died. His second marriage, to Helga Schneider Lee, ended in divorce. Neither marriage produced children. He had a step-daughter from his second marriage.
Kurt Chew-Een Lee died on March 3, 2014, at the age of 88.
Survivors include a stepdaughter, Nicole Ashley; and three sisters: Faustina Lee, Betty Mar and Juliet Yokoe and his brother Chew-Fan.
The Aleutian Islands are known for their rugged, treeless tundra and almost perpetually foul weather, but during the early days of World War II, they were considered a valuable piece of real estate. Fresh off their success at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were looking to consolidate their gains in the Pacific while also stymying any potential U.S. attacks against their home islands. The Aleutians – situated at the center of the shortest route between the United States and Japan – were viewed as a key part of their defensive shield. The Japanese high command scheduled an advance on the islands for June 1942. While the bulk of their navy looked to demolish the American Pacific fleet at the Battle of Midway, a smaller force consisting of two aircraft carriers and a handful of destroyers, cruisers and submarines sailed for the frozen north.
The island of Unalaska, in the heart of the Aleutian Chain, is approximately 80 square miles in size with an elevation as high as 6,680 feet at the top of Makushin Volcano. The Port of Dutch Harbor, which is part of the City of Unalaska, is located on Amaknak Island and is connected to Unalaska by bridge. The current day population of the City of Unalaska is about 4,300. The population triples between August and May due to the arrival of commercial fisherman. Unalaska is approximately 792 miles by air south and west of Anchorage.
December 7th, 1941 was proclaimed to be a day that would live in infamy by then President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a result of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Hawaii, of course, isn’t connected to nor is it physically part of the contiguous 48 States. The attack on Pearl Harbor thus presented itself to Americans living on the “mainland” as an event that took place in a somewhat detached and remote location, given that Hawaii is located some 2,400 miles to the west of San Francisco by air.
On the 3rd and 4th of June, 1942, six months after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, they attacked and bombed the port of Dutch Harbor. Now, Dutch Harbor, being around 792 miles from Anchorage, is a little closer to home. One would think that the mainland Americans would be outraged, concerned to the maximum extent, but given that American soil was attacked directly by the Japanese, and that this was seen as a demoralizing factor, the military clamped down on any news reporting of this event. Little was known at the time in the lower 48 about this attack on Dutch Harbor.
U.S. forces at Fort Mears met the first attack on June 3rd, with anti-aircraft and small arms fire, but on June 4, the Aleutian Tigers (eight P-40s), engaged the Japanese planes in aerial dogfights. The U.S. planes were launched from Cape Field at Fort Glenn, a secret airbase on neighboring Umnak Island. The Japanese had thought the nearest airfield was on Kodiak, and Cape Field, disguised as a cannery complex, had remained undetected. The surprise aerial counter-attack destroyed four Val dive bombers and one Zero.
In the following days, U.S. amphibious and bomber aircraft searched the Pacific Ocean for the Japanese carriers and their escort ships. Low visibility weather exacted a heavy toll on the search planes. Of six Catalinas that came within sight of the Japanese fleet, four were downed by Japanese fighters, another was lost in the fog.
Notwithstanding the tragic loss of American lives, the first forty-eight hours of the Aleutian Campaign exacted little substantive damage on U.S. or Japanese forces. No Japanese vessels were damaged and Fort Schwatka at Dutch Harbor was quickly repaired. What had quickly become apparent to both sides, however, was the role the capricious Aleutian weather would play in the campaign; at times an unpredictable ally, at times an uncertain foe. Weather claimed more than its share of lives. Soldiers shot their own in the fog; unable to penetrate fog and clouds, ships were thrown against rocks and sunk in heavy seas; pilots met the sides of mountains in low overcast skies or flew off course never to be seen again.
The casualties and damage on a remote Aleutian islet amounted to little more than a blip in the cataclysm of World War II. To this day, educated Americans are unaware that it happened at all.
But the battle permanently changed Alaska in ways that few at the time realized.
In an essay in the collection “Alaska at War,” historian Stephen Haycox describes Anchorage in 1940 as “a sleepy little village” with a population of about 3,500.
The summer of 1940 saw the beginning of construction of a military base on what had hitherto been hay fields and birch forests north of Government Hill.
Uncle Sam had been content to leave Alaska as an undefended frontier. A military buildup was reluctantly initiated only when the global war began to seem inevitable. Progress was slow and patchy. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, officials aware of the territory’s vulnerability flew into high gear.
Haycox says the next seven months were “characterized by a great deal of panic. There was not enough of anything, and there was a sense that everything had to be done at once.”
Construction of a naval base on Amaknak Island, across the channel from Unalaska, had started in September 1940. Dutch Harbor had an excellent port, but no place for a runway. That would be on Umnak Island, 70 miles away.
News from the Atlantic was grim; 231 ships had been sunk close to U.S. shores by German U-boats in the month of May alone. The Pacific Front was even worse. The Japanese added victory to victory with ease, wiping out a combined Allied fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea, taking Singapore from the British in a single maneuver and forcing the surrender of American and Filipino soldiers in the grueling siege of Corregidor.
One bright spot was the bombing raid on Japan led by Jimmy Doolittle on April 18, 1942, a special source of pride for Alaskans since Doolittle had grown up in Nome.
And yet there was an odd sense of normalcy in Anchorage that spring. Temperatures were warm; people flocked to Spenard Lake – the “Waikiki of Anchorage” – in mid-May. Rationing had not hit a population that was largely self-sufficient in terms of food. Cesar Romero starred in “Dance Hall” playing at a local theater. Celebrity news included child star Shirley Temple’s first on-screen kiss and photos of the New Orleans Jax Brewers women’s professional softball team. Crooner Al Jolson was due to make an appearance for the troops and the civilians were welcome to attend. A house rented for $15 a month. William Hesse, the Territorial Highway Engineer, publicly derided the idea of a highway to the Lower 48, calling it a “rat hole” with “no necessity, military or otherwise.”
The first nighttime blackout wasn’t ordered until June 2nd, and there’s some evidence that few people took it seriously.
They might have felt differently had they known that Japan’s 2nd Carrier Division was steaming through the fog toward the Alaska Peninsula.
Starting at 3:25 a.m. on June 3, warplanes took off from the carriers Ryujo and Junyo; Val dive bombers, Kate torpedo bombers, Zero fighters. The weather turned many back, but those that continued found clear skies between them and the 6,282 Soldiers below.
On the ground, sirens screamed. Men raced to anti-aircraft guns. Ships rushed to clear out of the harbor.
Army Fort Mears, with neat rows of closely-packed wooden barracks, presented a choice target. The bomber aimed for it and the communications facility on what became known as Suicide Hill. Zeros strafed the defenders in the trenches, then zipped back to their carriers.
“By 7:45 a.m. all the pilots and their crews had arrived safely home,” wrote historian John Cloe in his book “The Aleutian Warriors.”
Numbers reported by Cloe indicate more than 40 American dead at the end of the first day of the battle.
Dutch Harbor’s defenders were handicapped by radio and radar problems. The closest air support, on Umnak Island, remained unaware of the attack until it was over. Planes based at Cold Bay heard the news but were too far away to get there on time.
Nine newly arrived destroyers sat anchored in Makushin Bay, awaiting orders. But Rear Adm. Robert Theobald, in charge of Alaska Navy operations, was in the Gulf of Alaska with his flagship and observing radio silence. Six ‘vintage’ submarines patrolled the North Pacific without encountering the invasion fleet.
The Navy force left to defend the Aleutians consisted of the gunship USS Charleston, five Coast Guard cutters and what Cloe calls “a motley collection” of patrol boats and requisitioned fishing craft. Only the Charleston had sonar or large guns. There were no guarantees that any of the weapons would work. Gov. Ernest Gruening heard from one officer that his ship had plenty of anti-aircraft ammunition but no anti-aircraft guns, and lots of depth charges but no way to safely deploy them.
Air power was similarly iffy. Planes deemed obsolete elsewhere were sent north, including B-18s, essentially a DC-3 prototype fitted to drop bombs. Cloe notes the military didn’t want the clunkers but Congress bought them anyway. There were a number of seaplanes, good for scouting oceans but flying coffins in combat. The famed PBYs could carry bombs and guns, but with a cruising speed of 125 miles an hour, they seemed to be sitting still when challenged by a Zero coming in at 300 miles an hour. Three PBYs were shot down on the first day and another destroyed as it tried to take off.
But it could have been much worse.
The Japanese thought they would catch the Dutch Harbor defenders by surprise. In fact, the Americans were on high alert. Their anti-aircraft fire surprised the attackers. Most of the PBYs had been dispersed to scattered bays and coves as a precaution. It was no accident that authorities ordered Anchorage’s first blackout the night before.
America had broken the enemy’s code. Top commanders knew the Dutch Harbor attack was coming. They also knew that the main Japanese force would not target Alaska, but west of Hawaii.
On the same day the Ryujo’s bombers hit Dutch Harbor, B-17s made the first contact with the Japanese fleet approaching Midway Atoll. There, over the next four days, a monumental battle took place that has gone down as the most important naval engagement since Trafalgar – maybe ever. By June 7th, America had won a decisive victory and Japan’s slow, hard-fought retreat had begun.
All of that lay in the uncertain future as the Aleutian defenders braced themselves for the next attack. It came on the afternoon of June 4th and began with Americans getting their first kill.
The Americans were better prepared on this second day of fighting and, with photographs taken during the first raid, so were the Japanese. They knocked out a tank farm, set ablaze the Northwestern, a former passenger ship pressed into service as barracks, a vacant Bureau of Indian Affairs hospital, warehouse and hangar facilities.
The Raiders regrouped at a predetermined point off Umnak Island where they were confronted by Col. John Chennault’s P-40s. The Japanese had not known that an American field was in the area. The Americans, still struggling with spotty radio connections, had no news from Dutch Harbor; they had taken to the air as a precaution since the island had no ground defenses.
The ensuing dogfight took a toll on both sides. But the bulk of the Japanese force made it back to the carriers. The planes were stowed below and the fleet steered back into the fog.
They left behind one important trophy. A disabled Zero crashed on Akutan Island, killing the pilot but leaving the plane mostly intact. Americans retrieved and rebuilt the machine, testing it against their best fighters and discovering the feared warplane’s Achilles’ heel – its formidable speed was the result of minimum armor.
People in Anchorage had bare-bones information. The Anchorage Times ran a hastily prepared extra edition with the giant-print headline, “Raid Dutch Harbor!” But the accompanying ‘story’ was merely a press brief.
Gruening issued a short message, “To the people of Alaska: The anticipated air raid on Alaska began this morning with an air attack by Jap planes on Dutch Harbor.” No other details were added.
Information about the fighting was frustratingly scattershot. Reports came in that Japanese ships had been sunk, that air raids on Anchorage loomed, that enemy soldiers had invaded Attu and been fought off by the brave villagers.
None of this was true, but it satisfied the curious more than the official declaration on June 8 that, due to bad weather the situation is still obscure. Adm. Ernest King, Fleet Commander, went on the record saying, “We have none too clear a picture of what is going on (in the Aleutians), but it is going on.”
Meanwhile, residents were told that the blackout would be strictly enforced.
It would be days or weeks before the scope of the incursion was reported, including the sobering information that Japanese troops had indeed landed on two Alaska islands, capturing the weather crew on Kiska and sending the Attu villagers to internment camps in Japan.
For the next 18 months, the recapture of the Alaska islands was a primary focus for the military. Tens of thousands of troops, up-to-date warships, and state-of-the-art planes poured into the territory. Radios and radar worked. A road from the states was pushed through in record time.
This second phase ended with a U.S. Navy victory in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, the bloody Battle of Attu and a remarkable bloodless evacuation of the occupation force from Kiska. By the end of the war, American bombers were striking Japan from the air base on Shemya Island. The overland route sending American planes to the Soviet Union via Fairbanks and Nome is credited with turning the tide on the Russian Front.
Despite that, Alaska’s role in World War II is largely unrecognized. The proposition that the government covered up Alaska battles to protect civilian morale is a myth, said Cloe.
“There was a lot of coverage at the time,” he said. “There were big spreads on the Aleutians and Dutch Harbor in Life magazine. There was no cover-up.”
Instead, Cloe suggests, the bombing was overshadowed by bigger events that followed it – D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima. The Dutch Harbor casualty list of less than 100 American and Japanese dead pales next to the 3,300 or more who died in the simultaneous Battle of Midway.
The real legacy of the battle has less to do with war than with peace. When those bombs fell, 75 years ago, they brought not just destruction but the seeds of coming prosperity. The war in Alaska turned serious and the haphazard backwater afterthought, a dumping ground for old equipment and token commands, was suddenly transformed into a fortress and major depot as big and modern and efficient as military planners could make it. That status grew as the threat from Japan ended and the threat from the Soviet Union emerged.
Military spending replaced the gold, coal, and fur that had sustained Alaska before the war, ushering in two booming decades that would see the territory to statehood and keep it growing until oil became the state’s major economic engine.
In the process, the sleepy village of Anchorage became a large, permanent city.
Retired U.S. Army Capt. Gary M. Rose was presented with the military’s highest honor for heroism by President Donald Trump at an Oct. 23rd ceremony at the White House.
Congress authorized the Medal of Honor for Rose, who will turned 70 on Oct. 17th, last summer after years of lobbying by the military on the California native’s behalf for his actions in saving and caring for dozens of fellow Soldiers during the so-called “Secret War in Laos.”
Researcher and Army veteran Neil Thorne, who has drafted a number of medal applications for members of the secret Studies and Observations Group in which Rose served, told the New York Times last year that his was the first Medal of Honor to expressly acknowledge the heroics of a Soldier on the ground in Operation Tailwind, which played out from Sept. 11-14, 1970, in Chavane, Laos.
At the time, President Richard M. Nixon was denying that American troops were even in the South East Asian country bordering Vietnam. The secrecy surrounding America’s classified operations during the Vietnam War continues to this day; the White House announcement about next month’s medal presentation does not mention that Rose was ever in Laos, in describing his heroics on the battlefield.
The statement says Rose “received the Medal of Honor for voluntarily risking his life on multiple occasions during combat operations while serving as a Medic with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). From Sept. 11 through September 14, 1970, while his unit was engaged with a much larger force deep in enemy-controlled territory, then-Sergeant Rose repeatedly ran into the line of enemy fire to provide critical medical aid to his comrades, using his own body on one occasion to shield a wounded American from harm.
On the final day of the mission, although wounded himself, Sergeant Rose voluntarily exposed himself to enemy fire while moving wounded personnel to the extraction point, loading them into helicopters, and helping to repel an enemy assault on the American position. As he boarded the final extraction helicopter, intense enemy fire hit the helicopter, causing it to crash shortly after takeoff. Again, ignoring his own injuries, Sergeant Rose pulled the helicopter crew and members of his unit from the burning wreckage and provided medical aid until another extraction helicopter arrived.”
On his second day in Laos, Rose was aiding a wounded Soldier when he “had a hole blown through my foot about the size of your thumb,” he told USA TODAY. “That night I took my boot off to see how bad it was. My index finger, my whole finger, slipped into the hole. So I took my finger out. I remember putting my sock back on. I remember thinking, I’ll worry about that later.”
The meritorious conduct “must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life. There must be incontestable proof of the performance of the meritorious conduct, and each recommendation for the award must be considered on the standard of extraordinary merit.”
Rose, previously was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second-highest award for valor.
After 20 years in the Army, he worked as a technical consultant in the defense and auto industries, developing user and maintenance manuals and training programs and materials.
The father of three and grandfather of two is now retired and lives with his wife, Margaret, in Huntsville, Alabama, where he is active in a number of charitable organizations.
On August 27, 1776, the British Army defeated Patriot troops at the Battle of Long Island, New York. Though the Americans were soundly defeated, they could safely evacuate their troops and avoid what would have been the probable destruction of a large part of the Continental Army.
After the British were pushed out of Boston in March 1776, they next set their sights on capturing New York City and the vital Hudson River. During that summer, 32,000 British and Hessian troops under the command of Gen. William Howe arrived on Staten Island, where they began preparing for their attack on Long Island. General George Washington, unsure where exactly the British planned to attack, split his approximately 20,000 troops between Manhattan Island and Long Island, even though he already had fewer troops than Howe.
15,000 British troops landed on the southwest shore of Long Island on August 22, with a few thousand additional Hessian troops arriving later. A portion of the roughly seven thousand American troops on the island were strung out along six miles of a ridge, with Americans protecting most of the passes through that ridge. However, one of the passes (Jamaica Pass on the American left) was left virtually undefended. The British decided on a diversionary tactic in which part of their Army would harass the American front, while most of the British troops would make their way through Jamaica Pass to attack the American left flank.
So, on the night of the 26th, British troops made their way through Jamaica Pass, and on the morning of the 27th, the British plan was successfully carried out. When attacked from both front and flank, the American defenses crumbled. A daring, if ill-fated, counterattack by Maryland troops helped give the surviving Patriots time to retreat to their fortifications at Brooklyn Heights.
However, rather than launching a direct assault against the Americans’ position at Brooklyn Heights, General Howe – believing the Americans were trapped between the British and the East River – decided instead to lay siege on their position. This reprieve gave Washington the chance to evacuate his troops, which he did in secret on the night of the 29th under the cover of rain and fog. Using small boats, the Americans could withdraw all their troops across the East River to Manhattan without the British noticing.
The British would later pursue the Americans and eventually capture New York, but the Continental Army’s escape from Long Island would go down as an impressive feat that saved the Patriot Army from disaster.
By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches
The American Ace of Aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, was a successful race car driver, fighter pilot, an airline executive, wartime advisor, and elder statesman. Few aces achieved so much in so many different lifetime roles.
His twenty-six aerial victories came after only two months of combat flying, a spectacular achievement.
His family name was originally spelled “Reichenbacher,” anglicized to its more familiar form when the U.S. entered World War One. His father died when Eddie was twelve, and the youngster quit school to help support his mother. He found a job with the Frayer Miller Air-cooled Car Company, one of the thousands of automobile companies that emerged in the early 1900’s.
From his job road-testing cars for Frayer-Miller, he made his way into automobile racing, racing for Fred Duesenberg, among others. He raced three times in the Indianapolis 500 and set a speed record of 134 MPH in a Blitzen Benz.
He became one of the most successful race car drivers of the era, earning $40,000 per year (a great sum at that time).
When the United States entered the war, Rickenbacker proposed a flying squadron staffed by race car drivers. The Army didn’t accept his suggestion, but did accept his personal services; he became a driver for the Army General Staff (but not chauffeur to General John “Black Jack” Pershing as frequently claimed). Once in France, he hoped to transfer into aviation.
Rickenbacker got a break one day when he had a chance to fix a motorcar carrying Colonel Billy Mitchell, then chief of the Army’s Air Service. He made his interests known to Mitchell, and Rickenbacker, then at the advanced age of twenty-seven, entered pilot training. Because of his mechanical skills, he was first made engineering officer at the Issoudun aerodrome, but he flew whenever he could.
In March 1918, he was assigned to the newly formed 94th Pursuit Squadron, which included: James Norman Hall (of the Lafayette Escadrille), Hamilton Coolidge, James Meissner, Reed Chambers, and Harvey Cook. But no airplanes! Once they secured some cast-off Nieuports, they moved up to the front.
Before April 3, 1918, only the 94th, commanded by Major John Huffer, (one of the old Lafayette flyers), and Captain James Miller’s squadron, the 95th, were at the front. Both squadrons had been at Villeneuve and together had moved to Epiez. None of the pilots of either squadron had been able to do any fighting, owing to the lack of airplane guns. In fact, the pilots of Squadron 95 had not yet been instructed in the use of airplane guns. The 94 Squadron pilots, however, had been diverted to the Aerial Gunnery School at Cazeau for a month early in the year and were ready to try their luck in actual combat fighting over the lines. But they had no guns on their machines before April 3. Then suddenly guns arrived! All sorts of wonderful new equipment began pouring in. Instruments for the airplanes, suits of warm clothing for the pilots, extra spares for the machines. Shortly, they moved up to an aerodrome at Toul. Here, they unpacked, organized the squadron, and selected the famous “Hat-in-the-Ring” insignia.
On the 6th, Maj. Raoul Lufbery selected “Rick” and Douglas Campbell for the squadron’s first flight over German lines. As he eyed the trenches and desolation of war from 15,000 feet up, suddenly “Archy,” German anti-aircraft fire opened up. Carefully shepherded by Lufbery, it was an uneventful flight, but back on the ground, the experienced Lufbery chided the two novices for failing to notice other planes that he had seen. And for a good measure, he casually poked his fingers into several shrapnel holes in Rickenbacker’s Nieuport.
On the 14th, a patrol of Rickenbacker, Capt. Peterson and Lieutenant Reed Chambers was ordered to fly from Pont-a-Mousson to St. Mihiel at 16,000 feet. Lieutenants Douglas Campbell and Alan Winslow were directed to stand by on the alert at the hangar from six o’clock until ten the same morning. Rickenbacker’s patrol got separated in fog and didn’t accomplish too much, but as they returned, the “alert” pilots, Campbell and Winslow, intercepted two Boche airplanes and sent them both down. The newspapers made a huge fuss over the first “American” victories of the war.
For ten weeks Rickenbacker flew strafing missions and fruitless sorties before shooting down his first enemy plane. One day he encountered a Spad with French markings that almost shot him down, a lesson well-learned. He made several mistakes in this early period: getting lost, mistaking friends for foes, falling into German aerial ambushes, etc. He later reflected that these early disappointments and lessons gave him enormous benefits in his subsequent flying.
April 29th was a wet day; he and Capt. James Norman Hall had the afternoon alert. At five o’clock Capt. Hall received a telephone call from the French headquarters at Beaumont stating that an enemy two-seater machine had just crossed the lines, flying south.
Hall and Rickenbacker had been on the field with their flying clothes on and their machines ready. They jumped into their seats and the mechanics twirled the propellers. Just then the telephone sergeant told Capt. Hall to wait for the Major, who would be on the field in two minutes. “Rick” scanned the northern heavens and spotted a tiny speck against the clouds above the ForÃªt de la Reine; it was the enemy plane. The Major was not yet in sight. Their motors were smoothly turning over and everything was ready.
Deciding not to wait for the Major, Capt. Hall ordered the blocks pulled away from the wheels. His motor roared as he opened up his throttle and in a twinkling, both machines ran rapidly over the field. Side by side they arose and climbing swiftly soared after the distant Boche. In five minutes they were above the observation balloon line which stretched along two miles behind the front. Rickenbacker could still distinguish their unsuspecting quarry off toward Pont-a-Mousson. He briefly left Hall to pursue a French three-seater, but recognized the ally before firing, and rejoined Capt. Hall.
Hall led them up the sun, gaining an advantageous position over the new Pfalz fighter that he had spotted. Coordinating skillfully, Rickenbacker cut off the German’s retreat while Hall dived at him, from out of the sun. As the German tried to escape eastward, Rickenbacker opened his throttle and was on him. At 150 yards he pressed the triggers. The tracer bullets cut a streak of living fire into the Pfalz’s tail. Raising the nose of his airplane slightly the fiery streak gradually settled into the pilot’s seat. The Pfalz swerved, out of control. At 2000 feet, Rickenbacker pulled up and watched the enemy machine continuing on its course. Curving slightly to the left the Pfalz circled and crashed at the edge of the woods a mile inside the German lines.
Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker had brought down his first enemy airplane without taking a single shot! He and Hall did aerobatics all the way back to their field, where they received the hearty congratulations of their mates, on the squadron’s third victory.
While April’s rainy weather inhibited flying, the 94th saw more action in May 1918. On the 2nd, James Meissner outmaneuvered an Albatross, sent it into a spin, and dived after it. Firing until the German plane spouted flames, Meissner didn’t immediately notice the fabric peeling off his left upper wing. With careful flying, he made it back the 94th, with the squadron’s fourth victory confirmed by a French observation post. That same day, the 94th suffered its first casualty when Charley Chapman’s Nieuport was flamed by a two-seater. On the 7th, while dogfighting four Germans with Rickenbacker and Green, the wing of Hall’s Nieuport stripped; he crash-landed and was captured. Rickenbacker replaced Hall as commander of the squadron’s Number 1 Flight.
Rickenbacker scored his second victory while flying with Reed Chambers. On the morning of the 17th, he and Chambers took off before dawn in an effort to catch some German planes unawares. After fruitless circling at 18,000 feet, Rickenbacker headed for the German stronghold of Metz, losing Chambers in the process. Finding no Hun air activity over Metz, he then flew over an airdrome at Thiaucourt, where he noticed three Albatrosses taking off. He eased down lower, unnoticed by the enemy airplanes until “Archy” gave him away. Diving at 200 MPH, he fired a long ten-second burst, until, at 50 yards, the Albatros pilot was hit. When Rickenbacker pulled out of his dive, the Nieuport cracked and the upper wing covering came off. He spun down, apparently a certain casualty, but managed to re-start his engine and pull out at about 2,000 feet. He landed safely and even had his victory confirmed. On May 30, 1918, Rickenbacker claimed two German airplanes, to become an ace. Once again, Jimmy Meissner lost the upper wing of his Nieuport. By then, the American pilots were anxious to discard the Nieuports, for the heavier, stronger Spads, as the French had already done.
Rickenbacker continued to prowl the skies, looking for victories and learning more. On the 4th of June, he cornered a Rumpler, two-seater observation plane with the number ’16’ painted on its fuselage. His gun promptly jammed, and number ’16’ escaped. The next day, flying Lt. Smyth’s plane while the guns in his plane were being repaired, he chanced upon Rumpler number ’16’ again! This time the Rumpler pilot evaded by zooming upward and giving Rickenbacker a taste of its floor-mounted machine gun. Its skillful pilot kept him at bay for over half an hour, working his way back over German lines. “Rick” regretfully turned home, and his engine froze up; he had exhausted its oil supply in his two-and-a-half hours of combat flying. Once again, he squeaked through to a safe landing. For the next two days, he stalked the predictable number ’16’ which easily evaded him by seeking higher altitudes, even when he used the Nieuport in the squadron reputed to have the highest ceiling. Some wags suggested that he could gain some extra altitude by leaving his guns behind, or perhaps even more by omitting that heavy fuel!
After this useless exercise, he took a leave in Paris. He didn’t fly much in June, due to a persistent ear infection. But late in the month, he did participate in an early American effort to emulate the largely organized formations of fighters that the Germans used so effectively. The three U.S. squadrons got hopelessly mixed up. Early one morning he, Reed Chambers, Jimmy Meissner, Thorn Taylor, and Lt. Loomis organized an early morning attack on German observation balloons, Drachen, which was depressingly unsuccessful. On June 27, all four of the U.S. Pursuit Squadrons in France (the 94th, 95th, 27th, and 147th) moved from the Toul to Chateau-Thierry sector, to “an old French aerodrome at Touquin, a small and miserable village some twenty-five miles south of Chateau-Thierry and the Marne River.”
July was not much better; little flying a no victories. He was briefly hospitalized with pneumonia and then visited Paris on the 4th of July. He dropped in at the U.S. supply depot at Orly, found some new Spads there, and flew a “borrowed” one back to the 94th.
By August 8, the 94th received newer, faster Spads to replace their Nieuports, promising even greater results. But Rickenbacker’s ear infection grounded him for much of August, as well.
On that day, He went up with 11 Spads of the 94th, escorting a pair of French two-seater photo planes over Vailly. When two small groups of Fokkers attacked, the 94th pilots successfully protected the photo planes. Rickenbacker and Chambers both believed they had downed Fokker, but their claims were unconfirmed, as the combat took place well over German lines. On a similar mission on the 10th, when escorting some Salmson photo machines over the Vesle and Aisne rivers, they met some Fokker D.VII’s, but all Rickenbacker got was three bullet holes in the fuselage of his Spad. He spent late August in the hospital, returning on Sept. 3rd, when the 94th Squadron moved back to the Verdun sector, to a little town named Erize-la-Petite.
During the month of September, he scored four more victories and rose to command the 94th Squadron.
He assumed command on Sept 24; the first thing he did was check the operations records and he found that the 27th Squadron was leading the 94th in victories, largely due to Frank Luke’s balloon-busting spree. By the end of the month, the 94th had recaptured the lead.
While flying over Etain on the 25th, Rickenbacker picked up a pair of L.V.G. two-seater machines, escorted by four Fokkers. He climbed into the sun unnoticed, got well in their rear, and made a beeline for the nearest Fokker. With one long burst, he sent it down. The other Fokkers scattered, and he took the opportunity to make a pass at the LVG’s. After several maneuvers, he flamed one of those, too.
Sept. 26, 1918, was a big day. Forty thousand American doughboys were going over the top, in an offensive from the Meuse River to the Argonne forest. In support of this, the 94th Pursuit Squadron was charged with destroying German observation balloons. He and five of the 94th’s best pilots, Lieutenants Cook, Chambers, Taylor, Coolidge, and Palmer; gathered for an early breakfast, and went over their plans. Two balloons assigned to the 94th, and three pilots were delegated to each balloon. Both lay along the Meuse between Brabant and Dun. They eluded the Archy fire to bring down both balloons, and “Rick” downed a Fokker
As commander of the 94th, nicknamed the “Hat in the Ring” Squadron, he displayed the managerial skills that served him so well in later endeavors. He drove his men hard and demanded results. They rose early for calisthenics; inspections were frequent and detailed; waste was not permitted. Rickenbacker insisted:
“Every plane must be ready to take-off any moment, day or night, guns loaded, gassed, engine tuned. If all was not correct, the war could be lost”.
He also spent as much time as possible leading patrols in the air, delegating operational issues to different officers. Billy Mitchell was delighted at his protege’s success. His reports glowed with both Rickenbacker’s aerial and organizational successes.
He and Reed Chambers shared a victory over a Hanover recon plane on October 2nd, this on a day when they were flying low-level ground-support patrols. Within a few minutes of this action, a flight of Fokkers appeared, chasing Rickenbacker down toward the ground. Reed Chambers and other Spads arrived in the nick of time, and the whole circus was soon climbing to gain the shelter of some low-hanging clouds. Recovering from his dive, Rickenbacker and Chambers sought a place between the Fokkers and their lines where they might be expected to issue out and make for home. They caught them and promptly sent two of them crashing inside the American lines. All three of their victories were promptly confirmed.
Twelve years after the war ended, he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor for his accomplishments.
In the early 1920’s, he secured backing for a new automobile company under his name. It was a well-designed, even advanced, car featuring four wheel brakes, but offered at the wrong time. Soon, his new company was bankrupt.
Starting in the early 1930’s, he owned or managed various commercial airlines, notably Eastern Airlines, which had its roots as a division of General Motors. He became General Manager of Eastern in 1933, and in 1938, with a group of investors, he bought it and became its President. Starting with an aggressively low bid ($0!) for a government airmail contract, he managed the company profitably for twenty years.
During WWII, he carried out special assignments for Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War. In October 1942, flying in a B-17 over the Pacific, on such a mission for Douglas MacArthur, the plane went down in the Pacific. In a horrifying ordeal, Rickenbacker and seven other men, rode a raft for twenty-two days before they were rescued. One man died; Rickenbacker, the oldest man in the raft, lost 54 pounds.
He became a spokesman and advocate for conservative causes, convinced that government “socialist” programs were ruining the country. He died on July 23, 1973 (aged 82) in Zurich, Switzerland.
By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches
By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches
Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor exposed American’s ill-preparedness for war, and the scenario grew even darker as the talons of the Japanese war-machine grasped toward another plumb target – the Philippines. One day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Clark Field and Manila. Two days later, on Dec.10, 1941, Japanese troops landed on the beaches of Luzon.
These small-scale landings were followed by the main assault on December 22, 1941, at Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan and Lamon Bay, Tayabas, by the 14th Japanese Imperial Army, led by Lt. General Masaharu Homma. American’s makeshift defenses rapidly crumbled.
The new Filipino recruits of Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright’s North Luzon Force was no match for their experienced enemy. They could neither repel the landings nor pin the enemy on the beaches. By nightfall, December 23, the Japanese had moved ten miles (16 km) into the interior.
It was apparent that Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s combined American-Filipino defense forces were in no condition for the imminent onslaught of an enemy hardened in the mountains of Manchuria and the jungles of Southeast Asia.
In stark contrast to Japanese Gen. Homma’s veteran forces, MacArthur’s divisions lacked training, equipment, and manpower, but one unit was fully prepared for combat. The 26th Cavalry was one of the best-drilled regiments in the entire U.S. Army. Composed of Filipino enlisted men and American officers, the crack regiment was commanded by a born to lead “thundering columns of horse cavalry into battle.” With his dapper mustache, rugged features and bulldog physique, Col. Clinton A. Pierce was his generation’s embodiment of such legendary Cavalrymen as Phil Sheridan, JEB Stuart, and George Custer.
To stem the enemy tide, Wainwright threw his friend’s Cavalrymen directly into the path of the Japanese juggernaut and remarked to an aide, “The 26th is the only hope to stop them before being in Manila in a few hours.”
Hurling themselves and their mounts against machine guns and tanks, supported only by personnel carriers with thin armor and light machineguns, Pierce’s men slowed Homma’s onrushing divisions. Mounted on horses or riding in personnel carriers, the Scouts continually and aggressively counter-attacked the Japanese tanks and sacrificed their lives to protect the Filipino and Americans as they fell back.
After falling back to regroup, the Japanese unleashed a murderous trio of tanks, aircraft and naval bombardment upon the out manned and outgunned 26th. The shredded columns of horsemen refused to yield. The charged the clanking tanks and picked of Japanese infantrymen who dared lift their heads. Developing tactic on the gallop, bands of horsemen used the jungle terrain to separate Japanese tanks from each other and attack single tanks from three directions at once. The rider’s unleashed small arms fire to force the tank crews to button up their turrets and then closed in to destroy them with grenades and by tossing gasoline-filled soda bottles.
Knowing he could not fight off the powerful Japanese with his understrength and badly bruised force, MacArthur ordered a tactical retreat up the Bataan peninsula. Homma’s threatening to cut off the strategic retreat of MacArthur’s American and Philippine troops to the Bataan peninsula. To prevent a disastrous possibility that Homma would cut off the strategic retreat, the elite Philippine Scouts were given the dangerous task of fighting a delaying action.
Twenty-four-year-old Lt. Edwin Price Ramsey was one of the American officers attached to the Philippine Scouts, serving as the commanding officer of a platoon in the 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts). Born in Carlyle, Illinois in 1917, but moved to Eldorado, Kansas when he was two and 10 years later to Wichita, Kansas, with his older sister Nadine – who flew US fighters and bombers during the war – and his mother, who ran a dermatology clinic, after his father died. While at school, he worked in a soda fountain and a waiter in The Palms nightclub in Wichita to help feed his family.
As part of his high school education, he went to the Oklahoma Military Academy in Claremore, outside Tulsa, largely because they had a “horse artillery unit” and a serious polo team. As the war in Europe loomed he applied for active duty in the Philippines, where the U.S. had major military bases although they were not yet involved in the conflict.
On Jan. 15, 1942, Ramsey and his troops were looking forward to some rest and relaxation following a demanding reconnaissance mission. But a counterattack was being planned, and because he was intimately familiar with the region, he volunteered to assist in the assault.
Wainwright wanted to make the Japanese-held village of Morong, strategically located on the west coast of the Bataan Peninsula, the anchor for a defensive line stretching inland to the rugged Mount Natib. On the morning of January 16, Wainwright ordered Ramsey to take an advance guard into Morong. Ramsey assembled a 27-man force composed of mounted platoons from the 26th Cavalry and headed north along the main road leading to Morong.
Upon reaching the Batalan River that formed part of Morong’s eastern border, Ramsey’s unit swung west and cautiously approached the seemingly deserted village, composed of grass huts suspended on stilts, with livestock living beneath the structures. The only stone building was the towering Catholic Church, located in Morong’s central plaza. Ramsey halted his column short of the village and pulled out a pair of binoculars. Three trails branched from the road. The middle one led directly into the village, a jumble of nipa grass huts atop bamboo stilts rigged to pen livestock.
Ramsey raised his left arm and gestured toward the middle trail. He divided his platoon into a column of three squads. On his signal, every man reached for his hip holster and withdrew his Colt .45 pistol. Ramsey ordered the point riders to advance into Morong. As this vanguard, pistols aloft, trotted into the outskirts, the rest of the men steadied their mounts and listened for opposing gunfire.
None came. Ramsey nudged Bryn Awryn forward, his platoon following. Even though Morong seemed deserted Ramsey halted short of the square.
Beyond the town lay dense coconut groves inclining through a swamp stretching the sea. To their right coursed the narrow Batalan River, spanned by a crude wooden bridge. Ramsey’s vanguard had turned into the square and out of sight. His three squads followed cautiously, pistols at the ready and eyes on the huts.
Suddenly explosions erupted. Birds screeched and soared away in a flutter of brilliant plumage. Horses reared or bucked. As riders swiveled their heads and struggled to rein in their mounts, rifle and machine-gun fire chattered from the north. Ramsey could see scores of Japanese infantrymen who, he said later, “turned out to be the advance guard of the Japanese who had been landed from Subic, north of Morong.” Following behind these skirmishers came rank upon rank of what appeared to be hundreds more enemy soldiers, some wading the chest-deep river, others crowding the ramshackle bridge.
Ramsey’s point men galloped back. One, Private First Class Pedro Euperio, had been shot several times in his left arm and shoulder. Remarkably, Euperio “held his pistol with his right hand while the rein of his mount still remained hanging in his left elbow.” Ramsey ordered the wounded trooper to the rear for medical treatment.
It was now fight, or flee. With the Japanese attackers advancing on the church, Ramsey drew on ingrained training. “I formed a line,” he said later. Then, pistol aloft, he shouted, “Charge!”
The command was as old as mounted cavalry – and as stirring to Ramsey’s “Yellowlegs” as it had been to generations before. Instinctively, men crouched low in their saddles, hugging their horses’ necks. Outnumbered and outgunned, the scouts galloped forward and slammed into the Japanese, trampling some and felling others with point-blank pistol shots. When Dan Figuracion and other troopers found themselves blocked by bamboo fences, they dismounted, holstered their 45s, unsheathed their M1s, and continued afoot.
Panicked enemy soldiers vaulted into huts. Others bounded for the river. “They say Japanese don’t run but they did that day,” Figuracion said. “We caught them by surprise.”
One kill rankled Figuracion long after. “I shot him in the back, still bothers me,” the cavalryman said. “But he was the enemy.”
Knowing he had to hold Morong long enough for John Wheeler to arrive and reinforce him, Ramsey halted the charge. While a handful of troopers grabbed reins and led horses to shelter, one squad established a perimeter, hoping to pin down the main Japanese column.
With his second squad, Ramsey galloped into Morong, intent on clearing its huts. Mounted and afoot, the men systematically fired into windows, doors, and grass walls. The men inside returned fire and crossfire erupted from Japanese advancing on the eastern flank and enemy light mortar crews whose 50mm projectiles set huts ablaze and terrified horses. The hooves of riderless mounts thumped and skidded along Morong’s paths. One horse, standing calmly near the church as its rider fired into a hut, took the brunt of a mortar blast. The doomed animal reared, screamed, and “crumbled onto its haunches,” as the trooper, wounded and enraged, regained his feet and resumed shooting.
Amid the explosions, small fire, shouts, and horses’ shrieks, the troopers barely heard approaching hoofbeats: John Wheeler’s reinforcements had arrived. In a letter to his father, Wheeler had written, “I have found myself entirely equal to everything we’ve been up against, steady and unafraid, as for my men, they have proved themselves splendid fighters.” Now, steady and unafraid, Wheeler waved one platoon of his splendid fighters to reinforce Ramsey’s riverbank line while he and his other platoon joined the door-to-door melee. Several of Wheeler’s horsemen chased fleeing Japanese, leaving enemy bodies in their wake all the way to Morong’s outskirts and pressing the chase to the banks of the Batalan.
In Morong, Wheeler’s reinforcements joined Ramsey’s scouts in securing the town center. For hours, as enemy mortar rounds landed and riverbank sharpshooting held off the Japanese main column, the Cavalrymen secured Morong. At midafternoon, Fidel Segundo’s infantry regiment, accompanied by Wainwright, poured into town and chased the Japanese into the jungles beyond Morong.
Enemy casualties littered the area. One horse soldier lay dead; at least six had serious wounds, including Pedro Euperio, who had not gone for care. “Here he is standing, waving a pistol in his hand,” Ramsey said. “He was so brave. I thought he was dead.”
Neither Wheeler nor Ramsey escaped being wounded: Wheeler had been shot in the calf and shrapnel had caught Ramsey’s knee.
Shortly before the capitulation of U.S forces in the Philippines, the troopers of the 26th endured the ultimate nightmare of a Cavalryman, for, with provisions virtually non-existent, the 26th’s beloved mounts were slaughtered to feed Wainwright’s doomed Army. Surviving troopers who stoically recall the deaths of comrades in arms have a hard time holding back tears in describing how they had to shoot the horses. “They shared all our dangers, loving and trusting us as we did with them. There’s a special bond, and we were the last to share it,” reflected a rider of the 26th.
All but a handful of the Cavalrymen who were forced to surrender with the rest of MacArthur’s encircled Army would share the horrors of the Bataan Death March and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
When Bataan fell on April 9, 1942, Wainwright and Wheeler were among those captured; Wheeler died in the subsequent ordeal. Others, including Figuracion and Ramsey, avoided capture. Ramsey originally thought “to get out of Bataan, down and across into the Sierra Madre, south to where he could get a boat and work our way to Australia. It was very ambitious, probably stupid.”
Escaping capture during the Japanese advance, Ramsey retreated to the jungle and mountains, building a guerrilla force of Filipinos, eventually totaling 40,000 men. They harassed the enemy for the next three years while most American soldiers and their allies had retreated or been captured, many forced into the infamous Bataan Death March. The Japanese offered a reward of $200,000 for his capture (the equivalent of millions now) and capture meant certain execution.
For three years Ramsey’s family assumed he was dead – as did Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had been forced to retreat from the Philippines – until Ramsey started getting messages to him from the Central Luzon jungle, via guerrillas, sympathizers, and American warships. Ramsey recalled how he smuggled messages through enemy lines: “You take lemon juice and write with it and you don’t see it until you put heat under it. Unless you put a match under it, you couldn’t see it.”
On retreating from the Philippines MacArthur had said: “I shall return.” He did, famously wading ashore in October 1944, and after the Japanese surrender the following year he insisted on personally pinning the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart on Ramsey for harassing the enemy for those three years, a major factor in securing an eventual allied victory in the Pacific.
MacArthur later estimated that Ramsey’s guerrilla activity, and the intelligence he gathered, had saved tens of thousands of American and Filipino lives. His operations became a blueprint for modern-day U.S. Special Forces and to this day, to Filipinos of a certain age, the name Ramsey is second only to MacArthur as their most-loved American.
Relics of bygone days, hopelessly overmatched against mechanized forces, the dauntless riders of the 26th Cavalry nevertheless wrote a stirring conclusion to the glorious chronicles of the mounted warriors who had charged with resolute courage onto the battlefields of the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars.
Gen. Wainwright’s official report of the Philippines Campaign provided the ultimate epitaph for the gallant men of the 26th when he wrote: “The savage clash between Ramsey’s riders and the Imperial Japanese Army marked the end of an institution whose roots stretched back to the Revolutionary War. The “hell-bent-for-leather” strike of Ramsey’s troopers, however, was hardly the first mounted action unleashed by the 26th during General Douglas MacArthur’s ill-fated defense of the Philippines. From the first few hours after the Japanese troops had poured from their landing craft onto the shores of Luzon Island to the final months on “The Rock,” the Corregidor fortress, the Scouts had bought time for MacArthur’s Army to fight back. The Cavalrymen fought the last “horseback campaign” in America’s annals, paying a terrible toll but exacting an even higher one upon the Japanese troops.”
After the war, Ramsey became an attorney and worked as an executive with Hughes Aircraft Corporation. He returned to the Philippines as a private businessman before retiring to California. In 1948, in Manila, he married Madeleine Willoquet, daughter of the French Ambassador there and they went on to have four children. He remained active in U.S. Veterans’ affairs for the rest of his life and recorded his wartime exploits in the 1991 book “Lieutenant Ramsey’s War.”
Edwin Price Ramsey died in 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Please view a short video featuring Edwin Ramsey at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNk2fZAmkFs
By Darryl Elmore, U.S. Army (Ret)
In June 1964, I was part of an operation designed to intercept a VC propaganda team reported to be parading a small group of U.S. Prisoners of War along the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. The purpose was to show the locals and the VC units that the Americans were easily beaten in combat. In charge of this operation was Saigon based, Maj. LaMar and the 1st SFG A-Team at Trang Sup, a camp about 12 kilometers north of Tay Ninh.
The operational plan LaMar designed was to employ the classic military hammer and anvil tactics used successfully by Alexander the Great in his conquest of the known world. The first element of his plan was a superior infantry force setting up a blocking position. The second element was an airmobile cavalry using armed helicopters to drive the enemy out of hiding into a clearing into the waiting friendly infantry units ready to blow them away.
Several American Special Forces personnel with a company of Vietnamese CIDG moved to the northwest with the mission of establishing a blocking position. During the planning, the intelligence and terrain dictated that a river crossing was going to be unavoidable. What was missing was a rope long enough span the river. The only possible source to get such a rope was in Saigon. So Maj. LaMar, having no transportation and being a man of personal drive, went to Tay Ninh where he obtained a ride on a local civilian truck. Unfortunately, it was dark and he started the wrong way; he was 20 kilometers into Cambodia before he discovered the mistake. He quickly turned around and made it to Saigon that night.
A day later we were still planning for the operation when a C-47 transport arrived overhead and started circling the camp where the forces involved in the mission were staging. We had no ground to air communications but we figured something was up. The cargo door was open and we could see people standing in it.
So the team sent a jeep with some smoke grenades to the fields a kilometer or so from camp. They got there and popped a couple of white smoke grenades. They had guessed right because the plane made another pass and out popped a man who had a duffle bag dangling from his parachute leg straps. It was Maj. LaMar with the rope we needed for the operation in the duffle bag.
The overland element departed camp and patrolled for two days until they reached the river they had to cross in order to reach the blocking positions. The river spanned over 100 meters and it had a fast current, offering real obstacles.
One of the Special Forces NCOs swam the river to take a line across so they could drag the heavier rope across. Others covered him with fire and several swam to join him and help establish a position on the far bank. Shortly they established a single rope bridge and the entire force crossed to continue the mission.
The same morning the blocking force crossed the river, an H-21 helicopter arrived and parked along the road leading into the camp. Shortly after the Command & Control element flew in from Saigon with a colonel and some staff. Their arrival was almost tragic.
As the Command & Control ship approached, we popped a smoke grenade and I was directed to provide guidance. As is common, the pilot decided that he would land where he wanted to land so he over flew us and landed in the old French mine field left over from 1954. The chopper landed and the colonel and some of his staff started to walk over. We started yelling and finally, I fired a few round over their head with my carbine. That got their attention and finally, they stopped and did their best to retrace their steps back to the Huey. Once on board, the chopper lifted off and the rotor wash detonated two anti-personnel mines. Fortunately, the aircraft did not suffer much damage and was able to continue the operation.
During the days prior to the operation all of us not designated to go on the operation were fully employed in support. We had several missions besides this one and sleep had been mostly absent. I was not scheduled to go but at the last minute, I was detailed to replace a guy who was sick. Otherwise, I would not have been part of the heliborne element.
Finally, we loaded the H-21 helicopters and launched. Shortly after we inserted, my first real combat assault and only one I ever made in an H-21. I was glad I never made another in one. That model was designed for operations in Alaska and did poorly in the heat and humidity of Vietnam. It just performed poorly in high-density altitudes. That poor performance made the pilots fly a long slow approach and shallow glide angles for landing. Take offs were equally poor, slow lift off and flight to climb out from an LZ.
Anyway, we acted as the maneuver element or hammer, our mission to push the enemy until they ran up against our blocking force or the anvil. As it turned out we only encountered small delaying elements; contacts were short lived and designed to make us deploy while small enemy elements evaded us. We would reform, and continued to sweep the area until linking up with the blocking force. We had not found the POWs.
The main target, the VC and the U.S. POWs had left the area. (A decade later I learned that the operation had been compromised in Saigon days before we deployed our forces).
So after linking up, the entire force reformed and began a search mission. We moved parallel to the river and moved down river towards Tay Ninh.
We continued to move down river on foot but late in the day, some Vietnamese Higgins boats arrived to pick us up. We had three Higgins boats but we had over two hundred troops. To accommodate the entire force, the Vietnamese had brought some smaller civilian craft, big sampans actually, which we ended up securing alongside the Higgins boats for the ride back down river.
We loaded the Higgens boats and sampans just as dark settled in and started slowly down river. I was in the lead Higgins boat with the other two following at about 100-meter intervals.
It was a very dark moonless night, visibility was limited which also dictated slow movement. The move was slow and with nothing to do, I stretched out on the deck for a bit. For some reason, I decided to get up and leaned against the starboard bulwark. Sgt. Snyder and I just stood there staring off into the dark.
Shortly after, the VC set off a mine in the river. It was pretty powerful. The mine detonated just off the port bow, the plume of water shot up and the boat heeled over a bit from the shock. Immediately the VC opened up with automatic weapons fire from the shore to our right. The enemy troops were located only a few meters away.
When I went to basic training we learned night fire. They explained that most people shoot high in the dark unless trained otherwise. After the night fire class; another class in night vision and some exercises how to successfully apply the newly learned techniques, we went to the range with our trusty M-1s. We were to engage man sized silhouette targets at about 30 meters distance.
We went on line, assumed the prone position and on the command to commence to an 8 round clip, reloaded and fired a second clip. I was amazed at the results. I got 16 hits on my target just by doing what I had just been taught! All the bullets had hit in the lower chest or lower.
So when the Vietnam Cong opened up on us, Sgt. Snyder, attached to the team for the A-Camp at Go Dau Ha, we were the only guys on that side capable of firing. We immediately opened fire on the enemy as they fired back. I estimated the range to be about 10-15 meters: muzzle flashes and noise!
All their fire went high, every round they fired went above the boat. Not one round struck the boats or personnel. Snyder and I went through several magazines and we were so close we even heard someone on shore cry out followed by a lot of yelling. About the time we heard all the yelling, the enemy fire stopped. Either we had hit some of them or they ran out of ammunition.
When we had a chance to check on possible casualties, I was amazed that we had not suffered any. Later, I figured the reason none of our people were hit was the VC had missed that class on night firing.
While the enemy ceased fire, our boat moved on and as the boat navigated a bend in the river, the Vietnamese boat commander ordered cease fire. If we had continued to fire we would have been created a crossfire situation creating a condition of us firing at our own boats before they made the turn. He knew his business and kept everything under control.
After that excitement, it was a quiet trip to a Regional Forces/Popular Forces (RF/PF) outpost where we disembarked and cooled our heels until sunup when trucks arrived to take us back to our base.
That was my first close range exchange of fire with the enemy. My last close range exchange was in the summer of 1993. Good training works day and night.
By LtCol Mike Christy
Together We Served Dispatches
In the deep silence of the vast Russian pine forest, a small, lonesome figure was walking. It was just a few years before the outbreak of the Second World War. She had set out alone, without the permission of her parents, carrying only enough food to keep her on her feet for the long march. She was used to walking. Every day for years she had walked eight miles to and from her school in the little village closest to her home; she knew she could do it. Her self-belief and determined spirit drove her steadily on. She was fourteen years old.
This was Roza Shanina. She walked one hundred and twenty miles all alone, at last reaching a train station. From the station, she took the train to the city of Arkhangelsk, where she enrolled in the city’s college.
She loved the city. The cinemas, the lights, the people and the bustle were worlds away from the isolation of her early years. She was friendly, quick, talkative, and highly intelligent, and so she made many friends. Often, she would return to her college dormitory after the doors had been locked, entering with the help of a rope of tied bed sheets let down by her friends inside.
When tuition fees were introduced she had to find a job to support her studies. The job was at a Kindergarten in the city, where she was well liked by the children, the parents, and the other staff. The job came with a little apartment, and for the first time, she had a place of her own. She worked during the day and studied at night, and the days were full and happy.
It was in 1943 that she enrolled in the military. Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, launching the colossal Operation Barbarossa. By 1943, Roza Shanina had lost two brothers to the war, and she would lose a third before it was over.
She joined the Central Female Sniper Academy, where she excelled. In April of 1944, she was given command of an all-female sniper platoon and was deployed to the front.
In the aftermath of the hard-won Soviet victory at the battle of Stalingrad, the Russians launched a series of counterattacks against the German army. It was during these actions, in early April of 1944, that Roza took a human life for the first time. She was shaken, but her comrades congratulated her.
As the months passed she became battle-hardened and cold. Seven months after that first kill, her wartime diary recalls her feeling that she had found the true purpose of her life. She writes that, given the chance to go back, she would not change a thing.
It takes a steady hand and a resolute will to kill at range, and these elite soldiers were indeed resolute. Roza Shanina’s unit screened the advancing infantry, hunting enemy snipers. then picked off enemy officers when committed to open battle.
The Soviet commanders were of a mind to keep the sniper units, including the women of Roza’s command, back from the perils of the front in a pitched battle. Despite this policy, the women went where they were needed, and more than once this meant going into action against direct orders. Roza Shanina was sanctioned for disobeying orders, but her actions in combat and the actions of her unit made the commanders relent from pursuing harsh punishment.
Roza Shanina was sanctioned for disobeying orders, but her actions in combat and the actions of her unit made the commanders relent. She was soon back in the fight.
The women fought in battle after battle. In one action, their position was stormed by the enemy, and they fought hand to hand with bayonets and even shovels, killing many of the enemy and capturing the survivors.
In another action, Roza hunted an enemy sniper who was camouflaged in a tree. When dusk fell, the sky behind his tree was lit by the last light of the setting sun, and his sniper’s nest was clearly silhouetted against the wide sky. She fired her trademark, two shots in very quick succession. His body slid silently from the tree and thudded to the ground.
By September of 1944, the Soviet army had crossed into German-controlled East Prussia. The German army, embattled though it was, resisted strongly, and fighting intensified as winter deepened. The Soviets began their full-scale East Prussian Offensive in January of 1945, and the women’s sniper platoon was engaged in heavy fighting. The German army positions held out fiercely against the huge Russian advance.
The East Prussian Offensive involved more than two million soldiers. The Russians advanced steadily toward the city of Konigsberg, and in the freezing winter of 1945, the Germans fought hard for every kilometer of ground. Casualties on both sides were terrible, but always the Germans were pushed back under the weight of the Soviet army.
Everywhere along the front heavy shelling preceded assaults by tanks, field artillery, and infantry. One by one, the fortified positions still held by the Wehrmacht fell. In villages and towns, ridges, valleys, forests and open plains, vicious fighting took place, and always the Russians crept forward.
The Snipers had been committed to the front of the offensive, and it was at the end of January, after ten months of active service, that the war finally claimed the life of Roza Shanina.
Under heavy shelling and machine-gun fire, two Russian officers found her broken body slumped over that of a wounded artillery officer. She had been standing over him with her rifle in her hand and she still clutched it with one hand when they found her. A shell had burst right next to her, and she was mortally wounded. Though they tried to save her life, there was little that could be done, and she died the next day, on January 28th, 1945. She was 20 years old.
Roza Shanina was a prolific writer, and her diaries – kept against army regulations – were published many years after the war. They give a profound insight into the determined mentality of this young woman. Before she died, she told a nurse that her only regret was that she had not done more in the war effort. Talented and utterly committed, she gave up everything she had to resist the advance of Fascism against her people. Her story, just one among the stories of the millions who died in the Second World War, resonates to this day.