When Britain and France went to war with Germany in 1939, Americans were divided about offering military aid, and the debate over the U.S. joining the war was even more heated. It wasn’t until two years later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war against the U.S., that Americans officially entered the conflict.
As America’s industries retooled their factories from manufacturing domestic goods to producing tanks, planes, ships, guns, and ammunition, serious concerns arose about the vulnerability of America’s long coastline to infiltration by enemy saboteurs. To address the concern, the War Departments launched a program to train canines as sentry dogs for the purpose of guarding our country’s factories, transportation lines, and our borders.
A goal to train 10,000 dogs was established and War Dog Training Centers were built and the procuring of suitable dogs began in earnest. But finding enough dog candidates suitable to train as sentry and scout dogs was more difficult than thought.
To address the challenge of not being able to acquire enough suitable dogs in such a short amount of time, the military put out the word for civilians to donate their dogs. Eager to aid the war effort, thousands of patriotic pet owners across America responded by donating their pets.
Chips – a German shepherd, collies, husky mix – was one of those dogs.
Chips’ owner was Edward J. Wren of Pleasantville, New York who enlisted Chips in the Army in August 1942. According to son John Wren, Chips was a rascal. He barked at the mailman and trash collectors occasionally resulting in biting incidents. “It killed my mother to part with him,” said Wren, then a toddler. “But Chips was strong and smart, and we knew he’d be good as an Army War Dog.”
Everyone in the Wren family knew that Chips was a special dog. Just how special, though, it would take a war to discover.
Chips was trained as a sentry dog at the War Dog Training Center in Front Royal, Virginia. Chips, and his handler Pvt. John P. Rowell of Arkansas were assigned to the 3d Military Police Platoon, 3d Infantry Division and served in North Africa, Italy, France, Germany and Sicily with Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Seventh Army.
In the predawn of July 10, 1943, the 3rd Infantry Division under the command of Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott landed on the shores of southern of Sicily near Licata in Operation Husky. Among the troops that hit the beach was the 3rd Military Police Platoon, 30th Infantry Regiment were Chips and Rowell. As dawn broke, the platoon was working its way inland when a machine gun hidden in what appeared to be a nearby peasant hut opened fire. Rowell and the rest of the platoon immediately hit the ground. But Chips broke free from Rowell and snarling, raced into the hut. Rowell later said, “Then there was an awful lot of noise and the firing stopped.” The platoon members then saw one injured Italian Soldier come out with Chips at his throat. Rowell called him off before he could kill the man. Moments later, three badly bitten Italian Soldiers emerged from the hut with their hands over the heads, all shepherded by a very determined Chips.
Chips was also wounded, suffering powder burns and a scalp wound from the pistol fired at close range. Medic treated Chips and released him to Rowell later that day. That night, while on guard duty, Chips alerted Rowell of an infiltration attempt by ten Italian Soldiers. Together they captured all ten.
After the Battle of Salerno in which Chips and Rowell had taken part, General Dwight Eisenhower came to congratulate the unit, and he bent to pet Chips. Unfortunately, only the handler is to touch a War Dog, and so Chips responded as he was trained, he nipped Ike.
Another time, Chips alerted to an impending ambush. Then, with a phone cable attached to his collar, Chips ran back to base, dodging gunfire so the endangered platoon could establish a communications line and ask for the backup they so desperately needed.
Chips was a true hero. He was awarded a Silver Star for valor and a Purple Heart for his wounds. The newspapers back home heralded his exploits. Unfortunately, the press attracted the attention of the William Thomas, Commander of the Order of the Purple Heart. He angrily wrote letters to the president, secretary of war, and adjutant general of the U.S. Army protesting that the Purple Heart was a decoration for humans, not animals. Congress then got into the act. After a debate lasting three months, it was decided no more decorations were to be awarded to non-humans adding “appropriate citations may be published in unit general orders.” This meant that at least they would receive honorable discharges.
The debate surrounding the giving of medals to military dogs not only led to the denying dogs the right to recognition for their efforts but also paved the way for the military to classify them as “equipment” – a classification that would cost them dearly. When the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, the military dogs were classified as “equipment” and left behind.
Despite earnest efforts to bring the dogs’ home, the order to abandon them was firm. Over 4,000 dogs served in Vietnam, many sacrificing their lives. They saved thousands of American Soldiers from death or injury. Stories vary as to what became of these valiant canines, but one thing is known to a certainty is that they shared all 24/7 with their handler. These dogs gave their full measure of devotion – whatever the danger – but they did not get to share the freedom of coming home.
In addition to patrol duty with the infantry, Chips was posted to sentry duty in Casablanca during the January 1943 Roosevelt-Churchill Conference. Through eight campaigns across Europe, Chips was also a POW guard and tank guard dog.
Chips spent 3 1/2 years in the Army. He served in North Africa, Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe. He met President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
His family had requested his return after service, so in the fall of 1945, he was taken back to Front Royal where he was retrained so that he could go back to his family.
In December 1945, Chips was discharged from the military and returned home to the Wren family. He was accompanied by six reporters and photographers who wanted to cover the story. Mr. and Mrs. Wren and son Johnny, who was only a baby when Chips left, met Chips at the train.
Sadly, Chips died just seven months later due to complications from injuries sustained in the war. He was just six years old. Chips is buried in The Peaceable Kingdom Pet Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
So remarkable were his exploits, that in 1990, Disney produced a TV movie based on the life of this heroic, life-saving dog. The title was “Chips the War Dog.”
There are many inspiring pets and animals in the world, but military working dogs have a special place in the hearts of many. In today’s patriotic political climate and the constant presence of war in our lives, we have a special reverence and respect for our Soldiers and there’s nothing like seeing a Soldier and his dog together to instill that feeling of pride, and possibly bring out a tear or two.
Our Soldiers overseas today often have specially trained canine troops along with them. These dogs are well trained and function as part of the unit, doing what they have been trained to do, but the deep devotion between the handlers and their dogs is just as intense as the feeling of family that all Soldiers have toward one another.
Photos emerge online showing our Soldiers in full battle gear with their dogs’ right alongside them. The dogs that are our Soldier’s friends aren’t always fellow Soldiers, either. The troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have rescued and cared for many stray dogs, and programs such as the Puppy Rescue Mission were created to help bring these adopted dogs home with their Soldiers.
For more information on how to help bring adopted dogs home with their Soldiers, visit the Puppy Rescue Mission at http://www.puppyrescuemission.com/
During World War I, one main problem for the Allies was the Germans’ ability to listen in on their telephone lines and to break their codes, which were generally based on either European languages or mathematical progressions. An apocryphal story spread around that a German once interrupted a U.S. Signal Corps member sending a message to taunt his use of code words. Sending out human runners proved equally ineffective since about one in four were captured or killed. And other methods of communications, such as color-coded rockets, electronic buzzers, and carrier pigeons, were too limiting, too slow, too unreliable or a combination thereof.
German intelligence monitoring Allied radios and telephone messages resulted in many lost battles and very heavy casualties. Concerned they war may be lost to the Germans, Allied commanding generals were constantly pushing their signal people to find a solution. Some progress was made but not enough to stop everyday losses.
But it wasn’t until early 1918 that a solution was stumbled upon by chance.
When Col. A. W. Bloor, U.S. Army, noticed a number of American Indians serving with him in the 142nd Infantry in France. Overhearing two Choctaw Native Americans speaking with each another in their native language, he realized he could not understand them. He also realized that if he could not understand them, the same would be true for Germans, no matter how good their English skills. Besides, many Native American languages have never been written down. With the active cooperation of his Choctaw soldiers, he tested and deployed a code, using the Choctaw language in place of regular military code.
The first combat test took place on October 26, 1918, when Col. Bloor ordered a “delicate” withdrawal of two companies of the 2nd Battalion, from Chufilly to Chardeny. Using a field telephone, the code talkers delivered a message in their native tongue which their colleagues on the other end quickly translated back into English. “The enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages,” Bloor observed. A captured German officer confirmed they were “completely confused by the Native America language and gained no benefit whatsoever” from their wiretaps. Thus began the Choctaw “code talkers.”
The Choctaw soldiers were incredibly gracious and willing to share their own language. They didn’t have to but they did. They had something unique and were incredibly proud of that.
Two American Native officers were selected to supervise a communications system staffed by 19 Choctaw code talkers.
The team transmitted messages relating to troop movements and their own tactical plans in their native tongue. Lacking the words for certain modern-day military terms, they used “big gun” for artillery, “little gun shoot fast” for machine gun, “stone” for grenade and “scalps” for casualties, among other substitutions, thereby becoming true code talkers rather than simply communications operators speaking a little-known language.
Soldiers from other tribes, including the Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Osage and Yankton Sioux also were enlisted to communicate as code talkers. Previous to their arrival in France, the Germans had broken every American code used but the Germans never broke the Native America’s “code.”
Ironically, the Choctaw language was under pressure back in America. It was a time of cultural assimilation. Government attempts to ‘civilize’ American Indians involved putting their children in state-run boarding schools, where they were often severely punished for speaking in their native tongue. On the battlefields of France, the Native American language was the much-needed answer to a very big problem.
Like other tribes, the Choctaw’s whole way of life was under threat. Little more than a generation before, they had been forcibly removed from their ancestral land. Under the 1830 Indian Removal Act, they were marched from areas around Mississippi to what is now Oklahoma. It is known as the ‘Trail of Tears.’ It is estimated 12,000 Choctaw moved where 2,500 died of hunger, disease, and exhaustion.
In the autumn of 1918, U.S. troops were involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. Within hours, eight Choctaw speakers had been dispatched to strategic positions. They were instrumental in helping U.S. troops win several key battles. Even if the Germans were listening, they couldn’t understand. It was also the quickest way of coding and decoding information, faster than any machine, giving U.S. troops a crucial edge over the enemy.
Among the soldiers of the Choctaw nation was Pvt. Joseph Oklahombi, the most-decorated from Oklahoma. He served in Company D, First World War I soldier Battalion, 141st Regiment, Seventy-first Brigade of the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division during World War I, where he was one of the Choctaw “code talkers.”
On October 8, 1918, Oklahombi was at St. Etienne, France. According to some reports, he and 23 other soldiers attacked an enemy position and captured 171 Germans while killing some 79 more. They held their position for four days while under attack. Oklahombi was awarded the Silver Star with Victory Ribbon, and the Croix de Guerre from France’s Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain. At the time the members of the Choctaw nation were not formally U.S. citizens.
Oklahombi was married and had a son. He was killed on April 13, 1960, when hit by a truck while walking along a road. He was buried with military honors at Yashau Cemetery in Broken Bow, Oklahoma.
All of the telephone squad returned home to their families. For decades, their role in code talking was barely known outside the tribe and their efforts went unrecognized. In some cases, their own wives and families knew very little.
Native Americans did not receive nationwide citizenship until 1924, yet the Choctaws were both patriotic and valiant, with a desire to serve in the war effort. Many Choctaw code talkers were instrumental in ending the war. Choctaw and other Tribal Nation served with distinction using Native languages in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
In 1989 the French Government bestowed the Chevalier de L’Ordre National du Merite (Knight of the Order of National Merit) posthumously to the Choctaw code talkers of WWI and the Comanche and Navajo code talkers of WWII.
But it was only in 2008 that the Code Talkers Recognition Act was passed in the U.S. Senate recognizing the hundreds of overlooked code talkers from different tribes, including the Choctaw. Each tribal government received Congressional Gold Medals, America’s highest civilian honor. They were inscribed with a unique design to represent their tribe. The families of each code talker received a silver version of the gold medal.
At the ceremony, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: “In this nation’s hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed. The United States Government turned to a people and a language they had tried to eradicate.”
Among these brave warriors were the famed Wind Talkers of the Navajo Tribe in World War II, who were deserving of the Gold Medal they received from Congress in the year 2000.
The legislation was passed in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to award the Choctaw, Comanche and other Indian soldiers who were Code Talkers a Gold Medal. Support and co-sponsorship were requested of all of the Congress. The law was signed in 2008 by the President. “Honoring Native American code talkers is long overdue,” the bill admitted.
Pursuant to the legislation, a medal ceremony took place in November 2013 in Washington, D.C., with 33 tribes known to have had code-talking members in attendance.
It was a bittersweet moment. None of the original code talkers alive from the Choctaw nation to see this moment and none of their children were alive. But it was also an incredible moment. Those men deserved to be honored.
By Staff Sgt Bruce Martin, USMC
When the Viet Cong shattered the Tet truce to enter South Vietnam’s most revered and ancient city of Hue, Marines left their war in the mountains, jungles and rice paddies to fight house to house. For both sides, it was a costly, bitter engagement.
It was the dirtiest kind of warfare.
Marines swapped the war in the rice paddies for the streets of South Vietnam’s most beautiful city – Hue. Here Marines fought North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong in house-to-house combat.
To retake the city which had fallen into the hands of the enemy at the outset of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet), the Marines would have to meet a threefold challenge: first, destroy as many of the enemy as possible; second, keep their own casualties to a minimum; and, third, spare as much of the city from destruction as was humanly possible.
Initially, elements of the First and Fifth Marine Regiments were sent into the city to relieve pressure on the U.S. Military Advisory Command (MACV) compound located on the southern side of the Perfume River, which divides Hue. The Marines, spearheaded by tanks, pushed the Red invaders away from the MACV compound, then turned to securing the southern half of the city.
Fighting was slow, hard, street by street, house by house.
Civilian refugees flooded the streets, often walking into the middle of a firefight between Marines and Communists.
From the rooftops, snipers fired on Marines. From street barricades, the Communists fired rockets at Marine armor. And the enemy gunners indiscriminately mortared and rocketed Marines giving aid to civilian refugees.
For the Marines, it was the first time that they had been involved in street fighting since Santo Domingo in 1965, and the first major fight in a large city since they recaptured Seoul during the Korean War in 1951. Their memory was soon refreshed as they carried the fight to the enemy.
Marine snipers, like Sergeant William L. Hardey who was credited with killing five enemy soldiers in 10 minutes, inflicted severe casualties on the enemy.
Tenacity was the byword for Marines taking the shattered buildings one by one. Private First-Class Norman Estelle led the way for one of the numerous assaults to dislodge the enemy from once-peaceful homes turned into strong points. His own assault routed five of the enemy from their position, forcing them to leave behind a variety of weapons, including machine guns, rocket launchers, rifles, pistols, grenades, satchel charges and several boxes of ammunition.
There were cases when just a hunch on the part of a Marine paid dividends in keeping Marine casualties low. PFC. Bill Tant figured that sniper fire he and his buddies had been receiving came from a harmless-looking tree. His friends laughed when he fired his M-79 grenade launcher at its branches. They stopped laughing when a dead enemy soldier tumbled from the tree.
There were times when the Marines found themselves momentarily outgunned by the enemy. But they responded with determination as did, for example, PFC Donald R. Bergman, who noticed an enemy 57 mm recoilless rifle aiming in on his company from only 100 meters away. The gun barrel protruded slightly from a recessed embrasure. Bergman knocked the weapon out with a light antitank weapon – the hard way.
Because of the angle of the gun to Bergman’s position, the Marine had to ricochet his missile off a pole to make it hit the enemy position. One dead VC was found at the gun site and blood trails indicated two others manning the gun were also wounded. The enemy gun never had a chance to fire its first shot.
The spirit of the Iwo Jima flag raisers also prevailed during the fight when a trio of Marines from Co H, 5th Marines, replaced a VC flag with the Stars and Stripes shortly after they had recaptured the Thua Thien Province headquarters.
The VC flag was hauled down by PFCs. Walter R. Kaczmarek and Allan V. MacDonald. Gunnery Sergeant Frank A. Thomas joined the pair to raise an American flag he had been given by another Marine.
It was shortly after the American flag was raised that the southern half of Hue returned to Allied control. Only small pockets of enemy resistance remained to be mopped up.
On the northern banks of the Perfume River stood the centuries-old Citadel, built to halt invading hordes of Chinese hundreds of years ago. Its 12-foot-thick walls surrounding the ancient Imperial Palace from which Vietnam’s emperors once ruled were commanded by well-entrenched VC holding out in a fight to the death against attacking Republic of Vietnam forces.
It was only after the Marines had assured the allied command that the enemy no longer posed a serious threat to the southern half of Hue that they were sent to battle in the 6-square-mile redoubt. Again, the challenge to the Marines was to carefully measure their destructive power and use only minimum means to destroy the enemy.
The long, straight streets of the Citadel left the Marine armor open to virtually unchecked frontal attacks from Red rocketeers. The thick stone walls harbored impregnable machine guns and automatic weapons emplacements. Even the weather favored the enemy during the Marines’ initial attacks – in the low ceiling, supporting aircraft could not provide cover.
Yet, the Marines fought man to man, rifle to rifle, against the Reds, marking progress on some days by mere feet. When the monsoon rains broke, Marine aircraft flew in to give the riflemen the support needed to dislodge the last of the aggressors, permitting the Marines to capture the Imperial Palace without inflicting any serious damage to the treasures and artifacts stored within.
For the second time, Marines hoisted another American flag, this one on the ramparts of the Citadel. Hours later, the rest of the Citadel fell to ARVN forces who had been fighting on the Marines’ flank. Only isolated snipers remained throughout the entire city.
Marines pondered over the devastation caused during the 22-day-long battle. Allied air support, artillery fire, and Naval gunfire had been held to a minimum. The VC apparently had hoped that destruction caused by the fighting would be blamed on the Americans and incite the city’s 145,000 inhabitants to rally to the Communist cause. However, most of the Vietnamese were incensed by the audacity of the VC in bringing the war to their peaceful city.
One Hue resident rushed to a Marine rifleman to inform him that a North Vietnamese sniper was using his home as a sniper post. The Marine accompanied the Vietnamese to the house where the sniper was dispatched following a brief firefight. There were countless other cases where the Hue citizens, often at the risk of their own lives or those of their families, helped save the lives of Marines by pointing out enemy positions.
In one known case, a mass grave containing the bodies of 140 Vietnamese was uncovered by the allies. The dead had refused to aid the Communists.
When the battle was over, among the rubble and debris were more than 3,000 dead enemy soldiers who had given their lives for nothing more than the dream of obtaining a propaganda victory. Undeniably, they had fought well in a hopeless cause.
But the Marines had defeated the enemy in the place he had chosen to fight. It was the Marine, with his rifle in his hand, and, perhaps, a tight knot in the pit of his stomach, who had routed the invader from Hue.
Editor’s Note: From the Leatherneck Archives: May 1968
Given a choice between jail or the military, Maynard Smith reluctantly opted for the army. This 31-year-old Private was a discipline problem from the start and was reported to be spoiled, insubordinate, and unliked by all he encountered.
When he arrived in England for combat as an aerial gunner, no one wanted to fly with him, and it was only upon direct orders that the other crews would do so. Odd as it may seem it was on his very first mission that Maynard “Snuffy” Smith inexplicably emerged with the Medal of Honor.
Born in 1911 Caro, Michigan, Maynard Smith developed an early reputation as a spoiled kid prone to trouble and the ability to annoy almost anyone. On leaving school, it was apparent his plan was to live off his inheritance for as long as he could until eventually taking up a job in the tax field.
Smith fathered a child which oddly enough led to his unique path to the military. He and the child’s mother separated, but his failure to pay child support put the 31-year-old troublemaker in the hands of a judge. He was given two choices in 1942, go to jail or join the military.
Once in the Army, Smith found it tough taking orders from anyone particularly men nearly ten years younger than him. Consequently, he opted for the quickest route to acquire rank which at the time was to volunteer for Aerial Gunnery School.
Considering the bombers he was to crew often had a 50% survival rate; it seemed an odd choice for a typically selfish man.
By the time he arrived in England in 1943, his obnoxious personality and reputation for failing to be a team player preceded him. Making no friends in his new location, he earned the nickname “Snuffy” for his obtuse personality.
On May 1, 1943, now Staff Sergeant Smith climbed into the ball gun turret of his B-17 and headed out for France. The target was a series of U-Boat pens near Saint-Nazaire which was a heavily defended location with the nickname “flak city.”
Despite its reputation, at least one group of bombers arrived on target and met little resistance from the German forces.
Dropping their bombs and heading for home, the crew of Smith’s B-17 felt they had made it. Unfortunately, the lead plane made a navigational error, and while he believed they were heading for England, he was leading the group straight to the heavily fortified city of Brest, France. As the group began to descend from the clouds, they were met by a welcoming party of German fighters and intense anti-aircraft fire. Smith’s bomber was instantly hit. Enemy fire ripped through the plane’s fuel tanks causing a massive fire to erupt in the middle of the fuselage. Their communications system went down, the oxygen system was destroyed, and the power to Smith’s ball turret was knocked out.
With the fire raging, three of the crew members decided it was time to bail out. They parachuted over the channel never to be heard from again.
Smith, on the other hand, leaped into action. He tended to the wounded crew as the pilots attempted to navigate the plane home. However, German fighters were still riddling the plane with bullets, and the fire continued to rage threatening to melt the fuselage. They were a long way from home and Smith spent the next 90 minutes treating the wounded, manning the machine gun, and fighting the fire.
The temperature in the plane became so intense the extra ammo began to explode. Smith threw the exploding ammunition through the holes in the fuselage the fire had created. Anything not bolted down he ejected. When the fire extinguishers were empty, Smith donned some protective clothing and attacked the fire by hand. As the plane finally approached England Smith had put the fire out, in part by urinating on it.
The plane landed on the first available airfield and broke in half upon touchdown. Somehow they had made it and the man they dubbed “Snuffy” now found himself an unlikely hero.
Unfortunately for Smith, it did nothing to alleviate his personality problems, and his fellow soldiers only seemed to resent him more. The week that Smith was to receive his Medal of Honor from the Secretary of War he was assigned to KP duty for disciplinary problems.
After the presentation, Smith continued to fly on four more missions before being diagnosed with “operational exhaustion”. He was reduced in rank to Private with a clerical job far from the skies where he earned the nation’s highest military honor.
Smith lived until 1984. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery as the war hero with whom no one wanted to fly. His actions on that fateful May day in 1943 will forever remain noted as a real display of inexplicable courage; obnoxious personality or not.
A Training Mission That Left More GIs Dead Than Utah Beach
Exercise Tiger is one of Britain’s most harrowing wartime secrets. It involved the slaughter of young American soldiers on the shores of a Devon beach.
At the time the incident was hastily covered up, and the bodies of the GIs who were killed were buried in complete secrecy.
If Allied high command wanted to use Exercise Tiger to give their soldiers a taste of what they would experience during the D-Day landings, they cut far too close to the core. The sea ran red with their blood as corpses bobbed in the surf.
Officially, the deaths were attributed to a surprise attack launched by German E-boats the day after the exercises. The authorities have never acknowledged what happened on Slapton Sands on April 27, 1944, although as time has passed information about the tragedy has become more widespread.
The whole point of the exercise was to make the dress rehearsal as realistic as possible. Dummy enemy positions were built alongside concrete pillboxes. There were 30 men in each assault team armed with flamethrowers, bazookas, machine guns, and mortars.
Slapton was the perfect place to carry out the exercise. The beach consists of coarse gravel and is similarly shaped to the one in Normandy where the real assault would take place.
To make the exercise as realistic as possible, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered that live ammunition was to be used. He wanted it to smell, look and feel like a real battle. He wanted the men to experience seasickness, wet clothes, and the pressure that comes with performing under fire. Instead of giving the soldiers a taste of what would be waiting for them in Normandy, the mock German defenders cut down their comrades in droves.
The Guardian newspaper at the time reported how Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Wolf heard shots zinging past his ear and saw infantrymen hit the beach and remain there motionless. Royal Engineer Jim Cory recalled that men were ‘mown down like ninepins’ before counting 150 fatalities.
An error in communication was also responsible for further friendly fire deaths. During the landing, a naval bombardment was supposed to fire rounds over the top of the assaulting troops. However, American Admiral Don P. Moon delayed the exercise by an hour. When the second wave of GIs hit the beach, they came under fire from artillery, suffering an unknown number of casualties.
The official death toll of Exercise Tiger was 749 men, which is more than perished at the hands of the real enemy during the Utah beach landings. It was the worst loss of life since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
Officially, many of the deaths were assigned to the Battle of Lyme Bay. It occurred the morning after the training when a Convoy T-4, which consisted of eight landing craft carrying men from the 1st Engineer Special Brigade, was attacked by German E-boats in Lyme Bay.
Two ships had been assigned to protect the convoy, but only one was present. Because of a typographical error, the British and Americans were on different radio frequencies and could not properly coordinate. As a result, they were in the dark about the danger lurking below the depths.
The Germans ruthlessly attacked the landing craft, sending men overboard and sinking others. 496 servicemen were on board; 424 died. After the Nazis had launched torpedoes, Allied commanders ordered boats to scatter to avoid more casualties.
It was a death sentence to those still bobbing in the sea. Men died from exposure to the elements but more died because they put their life jackets on around their waists instead of under their armpits. Doing so turned them onto their fronts and forced their faces under water.
As a result of the Battle of Lyme Bay, the Normandy invasion was nearly called off. Ten officers with BIGOT-level clearance were missing. That level of clearance meant they knew about the invasion plans and subsequently their capture would have compromised the Allies.
In the aftermath of the disaster, there were multiple reports of mass graves being dug in the Devon countryside to hide the shameful carnage that had been carried out that day. The Guardian reported anecdotal evidence that supported the claim, although it was fiercely disputed.
There were some lessons gained from the grim episode – albeit ones that would seem like common sense now. Radio frequencies were standardized. Better life jacket training was also put in place for soldiers, and guidance was provided for small craft to pick up survivors who were floating in the water on D-Day.
All that cannot hide the fact that the death toll was completely unacceptable and the cover-up was shameful. Those men should never have met their death in a training exercise on friendly soil and the lessons learned from the exercise can never mitigate that.
More than likely, many of us have seen the 1963 American World War II epic film “The Great Escape” based on a real escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from a German POW Camp during World War II, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Sir Richard Attenborough.
The film is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book of the same name, a non-fiction first-hand account of the real mass escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Zagan, Poland), in the province of Lower Silesia, Nazi Germany. The characters are based on real men, and in some cases are composites of several men. As in any films depicting real events, many details of the actual escape attempt were changed for the film, and the role of American personnel in both the planning and the escape was largely fabricated.
The actual escape attempt took place one night in late March 1944 when 76 Allied Airmen escape through a tunnel from their Prisoner of War Camp deep in occupied Poland. Their aim was not only to get back to Britain and rejoin the war but also to cause as much inconvenience for the German war machine as possible.
Within a few days, all but three of the escapees were recaptured, having been hampered by incorrect papers, bad weather, and bad luck. The escape so infuriated Hitler that he ordered 50 of them to be shot. They were executed singly or in pairs.
The breakout from Stalag Luft III has become an iconic event of the Second World War, enshrining both Allied bravery and Nazi evil.
But how much of what we know is true?
Myth 1: Airmen had a duty to escape from their POW Camps
One of the most enduring myths about the Great Escape is that the POWs had a duty to escape. Indeed, the myth is so persistent that even some former prisoners maintain they had an obligation to break out of their camps. The short answer is that there was none.
When they were shot down, Allied Airmen were indeed expected to avoid being captured, but once they were in the hands of the enemy, there was no formal expectation that they should try to escape. Instead, as one former POW has said: “There was a kind of corporate policy of intent that it was part of our duty to play a part in escape arrangements.”
In other words, the duty to escape was an expectation of how Airmen should behave – rather like the expectation that they should be brave – and there was nothing in the King’s Regulations that stipulated that the men had to escape.
Indeed, surprisingly, two-thirds of POWs had little or no interest in breaking out, and regarded escape activities with wariness – an attitude that is certainly at odds with the common celluloid depiction of Allied POWs all being desperate to escape. Many were glad not to have to fight anymore and felt that they had ‘done their bit’, and had no wish to risk their lives once more. Others felt that they lacked the necessary escape skills – such as languages or simple physical ability and that their time could be better spent studying or improving themselves.
In fact, there was often hostility between the ‘stayers’ and the ‘goers’. In one camp, it grew so bad that one POW threw over the wire a tin containing a note which informed the Germans that there was a tunnel being built.
Myth 2: The Great Escape took place in beautiful weather
In the movie The Great Escape, the action is played out in glorious spring sunshine that really shows off the use of colored film stock. However, in reality, the escape took place in unseasonably bad conditions, with the temperature hovering around zero, and a thick layer of snow on the ground. According to one POW, it was the coldest winter that that part of Poland had suffered for 30 years, and it was these conditions that did more to hamper the efforts of the escapees than anything else.
Many were equipped with totally unsuitable clothes, such as lightweight trousers that would normally only be issued in the desert, and boots quickly became waterlogged as the escapees tramped through woods and streams. Many came close to suffering from frostbite and were forced to sleep in obvious shelters such as barns, which only increased the likelihood of them being captured.
Myth 3: The escape opened up a new front inside Germany
One of the supposed objects of the Great Escape was that it would help the war effort by wasting German time and manpower – resources that would otherwise be used on the frontline.
Unfortunately, such thinking was misguided. When the Germans searched for the escapees, they only used whatever existing capacity they had within the Reich. They certainly did not requisition fighting men for the hunt.
The escape actually helped the German war effort, as, during the large-scale hunts, thousands of other escaping POWs, regular prisoners, and absent foreign workers were rounded up in the dragnet. In fact, as a result of the Great Escape, the Nazis tightened the Reich’s internal security and thus made it harder for other Allied Prisoners of War also trying to escape. Therefore, the idea that the Great Escape somehow ‘opened a front’ inside Germany is simply wishful thinking.
Myth 4: The Great Escape was unique
It wasn’t. Throughout the war, there were plenty of mass escapes organized by Allied POWs. There were some 11 ‘great escapes’ carried out by British prisoners alone before March 1944.
One example is the March 1943 escape from the POW camp at Szubin, Poland, in which 43 Allied Airmen tunneled out. All the men were recaptured, apart from one, who sadly drowned.
The Germans ridiculed mass breakouts, dismissing them as futile acts of bravado – and the resulting increase in security made mass escapes less likely to succeed. In fact, in Stalag Luft III, one German advised POWs to escape in twos and threes to improve their chances of getting home!
Myth 5: There was a motorbike chase
Of all the scenes in The Great Escape, that of Virgil Hilts, played by Steve McQueen, trying to jump over the border wire on his motorbike while being chased by hundreds of Schmeisser-toting Germans is the most memorable. It’s certainly a thrilling sequence, but it has no basis in truth.
None of those who escaped from Stalag Luft III even used so much as a bicycle to get away. The motorbike scene is so gross a misrepresentation of the true escape that former POWs booed it when they were shown the movie!
Hilts’s nationality also flags up another myth about the escape – that Americans were part of the breakout. Although US Airmen watched out for patrolling Germans during the tunnel’s construction, the commandant moved them to a different compound a few months before the escape.
As The Great Escape is an American film, it is unsurprising that the hero is an all-American boy complete with baseball glove and ball. But, in reality, there was no Virgil Hilts.
On December 6-8, 1915, the Allies met in France for the Second Chantilly Conference, which would lay the groundwork for World War I’s Battle of the Somme, a four and a half month-long battle in France that would prove to be one of the war’s bloodiest.
At the Second Chantilly Conference, held in early December 1915, the Allies agreed to coordinate simultaneous offensives to exhaust German resources and manpower. As part of this, the British and French agreed to a joint French-led offensive on the Somme River for the summer of 1916. But the Germans attacked the French at Verdun in February, forcing the British to shoulder the bulk of the planned Somme offensive, which developed the subsidiary purpose of relieving pressure on the French at Verdun.
The Somme offensive, stretching along a front 25 miles long, began with artillery barrages on June 24h that lasted a week. The plan was to so overwhelm the Germans with the bombardment that the infantry would have a relatively easy time. However, the bombardment was largely ineffective, which meant that when the infantry climbed out of the trenches on July 1 and crossed into No Man’s Land, they were cut down by German machine guns and artillery. It was the single bloodiest day in British army history, with nearly 60,000 British casualties, a third of them killed.
While there was some success in breaking through the German front line along the southern part of the front on that first day of the battle, there was no real progress along the majority of the line. The Battle of the Somme would last for 4 1/2 months, with periods of renewed fighting. One of the most notable of these was the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, the first time tanks were used in battle.
By the time the Battle of the Somme finally ended in November with inconclusive results, both sides had sustained high casualties, with more than a million total killed, wounded, captured, or missing, making it one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
By the summer of 1951, the Korean War had reached a stalemate as peace negotiations began at Kaesong. The opposing armies faced each other across a line which ran with many twists and turns along the way from east to west, through the middle of the Korean peninsula, a few miles north of the 38th parallel. UN and communist forces jockeyed for position along this line, clashing in several relatively small but intense and bloody battles.
One bloody ground battle took place from August 18 to September 5, 1951. It began as an attempt by UN forces to seize a ridge of hills which they believed were being used as observation posts to call in artillery fire on a UN supply road.
It was a joint operation conducted by South Korean and the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division. Their mission was to seize a ridge of hills used by the North Koreans as observation posts to call in artillery fire on a UN supply road. Leading the initial attacks was the 36th ROK Regiment. It succeeded in capturing most, but not all, of the ridge after a week of fierce fighting that at times was hand to hand. It was a short-lived triumph, for the following day the North Koreans recaptured the mountain in a fierce counterattack.
The next assault was made by the 9th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division. The battle raged for ten days, as the North Koreans repulsed one assault after another by the increasingly exhausted and depleted U.S. forces. After repeatedly being driven back, the 9th succeeded in capturing one of the hill objectives after two days of heavy fighting. The weather then turned to almost constant rain, greatly slowing the attacks and making operations almost impossible because of the difficulty in bringing supplies through “rivers of mud” and up steep, slippery slopes.
Fighting continued, however, and casualties mounted. The 2nd Division’s 23rd Infantry Regiment joined the attack on the main ridge while the division’s other infantry regiment, the 38th Infantry Regiment, occupied positions immediately behind the main ridge which threatened to cut off any North Korean retreat. The combination of frontal attacks, flanking movements and incessant bombardment by artillery, tanks, and airstrikes ultimately decided the battle. Over 14,000 artillery rounds were fired in a 24-hour period. Finally, on September 5, 1951, the North Koreans abandoned the ridge after UN forces succeeded in outflanking it.
The American soldiers called the piece of terrain they had taken “Bloody Ridge.” which indeed it was: 2,700 UN and perhaps as many as 15,000 communists were casualties, almost all of them killed or wounded with few prisoners being taken by either side. The much higher communist casualties were probably caused by poor discipline in the KPA and constraining orders so strict to the point where subordinate leaders were often not allowed to withdraw under any conditions, in which case the entire unit would be blooded. Even when permission was granted for a withdrawal, it often came only after the large majority of troops in the unit had been killed.
After UN forces withdrew from Bloody Ridge, the North Koreans set up new positions just 1,500 yards away on a seven-mile-long hill mass that quickly earned the name “Heartbreak Ridge.”
The month-long battle took place between September 13th and October 15th, 1951and was one of several major engagements in the hills of North Korea a few miles north of the 38th parallel-the pre-war boundary between North and South Korea.
If anything, the Communist defenses were even more formidable here than on Bloody Ridge. The U.S. 2nd Infantry Division’s acting commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas de Shazo, and his immediate superior, Maj. Gen. Clovis E. Byers, the X Corps commander, seriously underestimated the strength of the North Korean position.
They ordered a single infantry regiment, the 23rd, and its attached French Battalion, to make what would prove to be an ill-conceived assault straight up Heartbreak’s heavily fortified slopes.
All three of the 2nd Division’s infantry regiments participated, with the brunt of the combat borne by the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments, along with the attached French Battalion.
The initial attack began on September 13th and quickly deteriorated into a familiar pattern. First, American aircraft, tanks, and artillery would pummel the ridge for hours on end, turning the already barren hillside into a cratered moonscape. Next, the 23rd’s infantrymen would clamber up the mountain’s rocky slopes, taking out one enemy bunker after another by direct assault. Those who survived to reach the crest arrived exhausted and low on ammunition. The inevitable counterattack soon came-waves of North Koreans determined to recapture the lost ground at any cost. Many of these counterattacks were conducted at night by fresh troops that the North Koreans were able to bring up under the shelter of neighboring hills. Battles begun by a bomb, bullet and shell were inevitably finished by grenade, trench knife and fists as formal military engagements degenerated into desperate hand-to-hand brawls. Sometimes dawn broke to reveal the defenders still holding the mountaintop.
The battle progressed for two weeks. Because of the constricting terrain and the narrow confines of the objectives, units were committed piecemeal-one platoon, company or battalion at a time. Once a unit could no longer stand the strain a replacement would take its place until the 23rd Infantry as a whole was fairly well shattered.
Several units up to company size of 100ï¿½??200 men were wiped out. The Americans employed massive artillery barrages, airstrikes, and tanks in attempts to drive the North Koreans off the ridge, but the KPA proved extremely hard to dislodge.
Finally, on September 27th the 2nd Division’s new commander, Maj. Gen. Robert N. Young, called a halt to the “fiasco” on Heartbreak Ridge as American planners reconsidered their strategy.
As long as the North Koreans could continue to reinforce and resupply their garrison on the ridge, it would be nearly impossible for the Americans to take the mountain. After belatedly recognizing this fact, the 2nd Division crafted a new plan that called for a full division assault on the valleys and hills adjacent to Heartbreak to cut the ridge off from further reinforcement. Spearheading this new offensive would be the division’s 72nd Tank Battalion, whose mission was to push up the Mundung-ni Valley west of Heartbreak to destroy enemy supply dumps in the vicinity of the town of Mundung-ni.
It was a bold plan, but one that could not be accomplished until a way had been found to get the 72nd’s M4A3E8 Sherman tanks into the valley. The only existing road was little more than a track that could not bear the weight of the Shermans. To make matters worse, the road was mined and blocked by a six-foot (2 m) high rock barrier built by the North Koreans. Using shovels and explosives, the men of the 2nd Division’s 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion braved enemy fire to clear these obstacles and build an improved roadway. While they worked, the division’s three infantry regiments-9th, 23rd and 38th-launched coordinated assaults on Heartbreak Ridge and the adjacent hills.
By October 10 everything was ready for the main operation. On October 11th, led by more than 30 tanks and supported by artillery and airplanes, the 2nd Division started advancing into the valley. The sudden onslaught of a battalion of tanks racing up the valley took the enemy by surprise. By coincidence, the thrust came just when the Chinese 204th Division was moving up to relieve the North Koreans on Heartbreak Ridge. The Chinese unit under fire was the 610th Regiment of the 204th Division (Commander: Wenfang Luo), dispatched by the 68th Army (Commander: Niansheng Wen). The regiment’s mission was to reinforce the North Korean defense along the valley against a possible American armored offensive; more specifically, it was ordered to prevent the Americans from reaching the town of Mundung-ni at all costs.
Before the Chinese could dig in, the 2nd Division had already started the attack. Caught in the open, the Chinese division suffered heavy casualties from the American tanks as the armored vehicles penetrated to a depth of 6 km of the Chinese defense lines and caused great damage. However, the 610th Regiment managed to damage five Sherman tanks before the Americans halted the offensive.
On October 12th the 2nd Division began an airborne and artillery bombardment that lasted for two hours on Hill 635 and Hill 709 before the 23rd Regiment, led by 48 tanks, assaulted Chinese defensive positions. Having learned the American tactics from the previous day, the 610th Regiment of the Chinese army had already reinforced the anti-tank trenches flanking the road that runs through the Mundung-ni Valley; in addition, a battalion of anti-tank guns was assigned to the regiment (49 infantry guns, recoilless guns, and rocket launchers were also distributed among the front-line soldiers.) At point-blank range, the Chinese soldiers fired upon the advancing American tanks. Before the 23rd halted the assault at 4 pm, the Chinese had destroyed or damaged 18 tanks.
The 23rd Regiment did not assault the hills on the next day. The South Korean 8th Division, however, starting from October 13, launched its attack on hills 97, 742, 650, 932 and 922. These battles were subsequently known to be brutal and costly; for example, a company of the Chinese 610th Regiment was defending hill 932. Under the attack of four South Korean battalions, the company resisted for four days to the last man before the South Korean army took the hill on its 11th assault.
On October 14th eight Sherman tanks in arrow formation attacked the Chinese positions along Mundung-ni Valley. All the tanks were knocked out by the crossfire of Chinese anti-tank guns. Two more were lost on October 19th due to mines. During the five days, the Shermans roared up and down the Mundung-ni Valley, over-running supply dumps, mauling troop concentrations and destroying approximately 350 bunkers on Heartbreak and in the surrounding hills and valleys. A smaller tank-infantry team scoured the Sat’ae-ri Valley East of the ridge, thereby completing the encirclement and eliminating any hope of reinforcement for the beleaguered North Koreans on Heartbreak Ridge.
The armored thrusts turned the tide of the battle, but plenty of hard fighting remained for the infantry before French soldiers captured the last communist bastion on the ridge on October 13th.
After 30 days of combat, the Americans and French eventually gained the upper hand and secured Heartbreak Ridge. Yet the Sherman tanks did not penetrate through the Mundung-ni Valley and reach the town of Mundung-ni after 38 of the armored vehicles were destroyed and nine were damaged. The defense of the Mundung-ni Valley (or as it is known today in North Korea, the Battle of Height 1211) is today celebrated as a great victory in North Korea, with a claim of a total of 29,000 enemy casualties (certainly inflated), 60 tanks destroyed and 40 airplanes shot down: North Korean propaganda today enhances the defense of the heights around the valley and a number of significant acts of courage and sacrifice (real or alleged) committed during the battle. Actually, the failure of the Allied offensive inside the valley and the heights above gave to the North Korean Army one of the few victorious actions during the last phase of the war.
Both sides suffered high casualties-over 3,700 American and French and an estimated 25,000 North Korean and Chinese. These losses made a deep impression on the UN and US command, which decided that battles like Heartbreak Ridge were not worth the high cost in blood for the relatively small amount of terrain captured.
However, the UN offensives were to continue with equally high casualty rates for the 1st Cavalry in Operation Commando, and the 24th Division in Operation Nomad-Polar, which was the last major offensive conducted by UN forces in the war.
Public opinion had by this time turned against “limited-objective” operations of this nature, and military censorship resulted in far less media focus on the other October battles that followed Heartbreak Ridge.
Heartbreak Ridge is regarded as a good illustration of simple lessons. First among them as in World War I and World War II, simply using tremendous quantity of firepower did not guarantee victory in mountainous terrain. For attacks to succeed, attacks had to be made on a large scale and combining maneuver where possible. Even then attacks in the mountains would be a slow and laborious process, even where the enemy was vastly outnumbered and suffering grotesquely disproportionate casualties. In this sense what Heartbreak Ridge also showed was that the U.S. Military could be amazingly stubborn about having to re-learn the same lessons over and over again.
In the case of Heartbreak Ridge, it emerged as the consequence of an earlier, also bloody battle for the aptly named Bloody Ridge, where lightly-armed Communist troops used terrain to negate some of the effects of UN firepower, and relied chiefly on stubbornness and willpower to protract the fighting in this first stage.
In spite of the fanatical nature of the Communist resistance on Bloody Ridge, UN troops assigned to Heartbreak Ridge which consisted initially of a U.S. infantry regiment and a French battalion to capture this ridge. Against them were dug in a large number of far more lightly armed North Korean and Chinese troops.
The result was that the UN forces prepared a full-strength divisional attack on the ridge, using concentrated armor in an attempt to outflank the North Koreans. By this time the Chinese were preparing to send their own reinforcements, which is one of those chance co-incidences possible in warfare collided with UN troops which had managed to clear means through a minefield-ridden defensive position for the armored strikes to start pushing through.
At the same time, UN infantry forces began what proved to be an unpleasantly slow, slogging drive against a primarily North Korean defense. The Chinese troops, unpleasantly for them but happily for the UN got caught in the open by the armored detachment, were massacred, but the UN found that mountains canalize armor, and from this one incident at the start came far more slow, steady slogging of air, infantry, and armor that would finally take Heartbreak Ridge at the close of a month’s worth of major combat, between September and October of 1951. The result was an increasing tendency among UN troops to decide that such costly battles, with a sum total of 3,700 UN troops (as opposed to 25,000 Communists) were not a good augur for any kind of significant breakthrough operation.
Editor’s Note: A well-written story of one man’s experience on Heartbreak Ridge gives a personal account on what it was like to fight in this bloody battle. He is Sgt. 1st Class Bill Wilson who served as a Platoon Sergeant in Company I, 23rd Regiment 2nd Division U.S. Army during the Ridge.