The Surprise Landing at Pearson Field

00-valery-chkalov-02-ant-25-05-121

In 1937 Vancouver Barracks and Pearson Field, Washington, along with post-commander, Gen. George C. Marshall became the center of the world’s attention when on June 20 of that year, a Soviet-built ANT-25 monoplane made a surprise landing at Pearson Field, completing the first airplane flight from the Soviet Union to the United States across the North Pole.

By U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class John Tomlinson – Retired

Situated across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon is the much smaller, humbler city of Vancouver, Washington.  It is a town of no particular modern significance, even though it has a port, extensive rail yards and pleasant suburbs.  But Vancouver’s biggest impact on the history of the Pacific Northwest has been its military role, which began in 1849 when the U.S. Army established its presence there at Vancouver Barracks following the 1846 division of the Oregon Country.  This singular event opened the way for the beginning of American settlement on the West Coast.

Vancouver Barracks

VANCOUVER_BARRACKS_1855

Originally established in the winter of 1824-1825 as Fort Vancouver, along the banks of the Columbia River, the outpost first served as the headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the company’s Columbia District. In 1849, the U.S. Army set up the Columbia Barracks adjacent to Fort Vancouver and on June 14, 1860 took over Fort Vancouver itself, renaming the combined location, Fort Columbia – later to become Vancouver Barracks, in the State of Washington.

Originally, Vancouver Barracks had been the site occupied by Fort Vancouver, a British fur-trading outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  It was established in 1825 when the United States and the British government agreed to share the Oregon country until they could determine a territorial boundary line.  Fort Vancouver quickly established itself as the fur trading capital for the entire Pacific Coast until 1846, when the 49th parallel became the dividing line between Canada and the United States, at which time the Hudson’s Bay Company moved its operations north to Vancouver, British Columbia.

In the meantime, American settlers had been arriving since the 1830’s, quickly populating the Oregon Country; hence the arrival of the U.S. Army and the establishment of Vancouver Barracks.  The post eventually became the Army’s principal administrative center for the Pacific Northwest until World War I, after which it became an important recruitment and training center.

marshall_1936

Famed U.S. Army Gen. George C. Marshall as a Brigadier General and post commander at Vancouver Barracks, Wash., in 1936.

Over the years, many important and historic army officers were stationed at Vancouver Barracks, including Phillip Sheridan, Ulysses S. Grant, O.O. Howard, Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall.

General Marshall at Vancouver Barracks

George C. Marshall assumed command of Vancouver Barracks in 1936, and he served there through 1938, seeing the post through that period of the Great Depression when Fort Vancouver was among the many centers for President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.  Marshall was later known as the great understated genius who oversaw the operation of both theaters of World War II, but during his time at Vancouver Barracks, he later said it was his favorite command of a long military career, referring to the pleasant climate and scenic setting of the post, with its old stands of trees and classically-situated views of Mount Hood from the parade ground.

Pearson Air Field

Adjacent to the Barracks is Pearson Field, which is the oldest continually operating airfield in the United States, dating from the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River in 1905 by the blimp, Gelatin, which landed at the polo grounds on the Barracks.

Pearson_Field_1931

Pearson Field, circa 1931. The small airfield adjacent to Vancouver Barracks, Wash., along the banks of the Columbia River is the oldest operating airfield in the United States dating to the landing of the dirigible, Gelatine, in 1905.

 

The airfield, named after local pilot Lieutenant Alexander Pearson who flew the first commissioned aerial survey of the Grand Canyon, is historic for a number of reasons.  It was an early forest patrol base and the original west Coast airmail service stopped here. Also, Pacific Air transport and Varney Airlines used the field, and their cooperative effort led them to later merge to form United Air Lines.

An Unexpected Event at the Barracks

In 1937 Vancouver Barracks, Pearson Field, and General Marshall were to become the center of the world’s attention for an unexpected and unprecedented event that made aviation history.  On June 20 of that year, a Soviet-built ANT-25 monoplane landed at Pearson Field, completing what was claimed to be the first airplane flight from the Soviet Union to the United States across the North Pole.  The landing in Vancouver at the Barracks was a complete surprise, but the flight itself had been tracked for several days around the world, and news agencies were following the progress of a flight which was promoted as the first to cross the Polar Regions from Moscow to San Francisco.

299400_original

The Soviet-built ANT-25 monoplane on the ground at Pearson Field, Wash. The landing in Vancouver at the Barracks was a complete surprise, but the flight itself had been tracked for several days around the world. The Soviet fliers denied the crowds across the river in Portland, Oregon, at the larger Swan Island Airport the glorious landing after becoming alarmed at the massive gathering around the airfield. Instead they landed at the military airfield marked on the map across the Columbia River, making history, and creating a slightly delicate diplomatic situation for the U.S. military, there.

Three Soviet flyers crewed the plane, pilot Valery Chkalov, co-pilot Georgy Baidukov and navigator Alexander Belyakov.  They were all experienced cold-weather pilots, and each was a Hero of the Soviet Union, having been awarded the Order of Lenin for their achievement of a pioneering flight in the ANT-25 across the Soviet Union’s frozen Siberian provinces to the Soviet Pacific coast.

Their trans-polar flight began at Moscow’s Shchelkovo airport at dawn on Friday, June 17, 1937.  Since it was the nature of the Soviet Union to be secretive and paranoid, officials made no announcement of the flight, and it was only when the flight had been underway for some time before news leaked out. Over the Polar Regions, the aircraft’s compass became inoperable, and the crew was forced to employ dead reckoning and a solar heading indicator, with corrections made by regular sun and star observations.

Frequent storms, strong headwinds and dangerous icing slowed the aircraft’s progress and consumed fuel at an alarming rate, and the crew’s oxygen supplies were stretched to the limit.  Engine coolant for the ANT-25 froze up, as did the crew’s supply of drinking water, so ultimately the only fluid that sustained the flight was the pilot’s own reservoirs of urine.

ussrtranspolarteam

Soviet Union aviators (left to right), navigator Alexander Beliakov, pilot Valery Chkalov, and co-pilot George Baidukov posing for a photo at Pearson Field in Vancouver, Washington shortly after their landing on June 20, 1937.

After crossing over the North Pole, the aircraft headed down over Canada, and eventually the Canadian Signal Corps picked up a radio signal.  They forwarded word from the Russians that the flight would come down somewhere between Seattle and Oakland, California.  South of Eugene, Oregon, the aircraft developed a problem with its fuel pump, so the crew turned back to Portland.  Upon breaking the clouds over Portland’s Swan Island Airport, the crew was alarmed to see huge crowds surrounding the airfield, and aware of how unruly throngs had torn Charles Lindberg’s airplane apart in Paris, they decided instead to land at the military airfield marked on the map across the Columbia River.

Touching down at Pearson Field, only the regularly posted guards were on duty, because all the crowds were across the river in Portland. The three Russian aviators staggered out of the plane after having endured over 63hours in their cramped and cold aircraft and covering 5,288 miles from Moscow to Vancouver.  Army personnel at the airfield were shocked to find an unexpected and potentially political situation on their hands, and General Marshall was immediately informed of the event.  He drove straight across the post golf course to greet the Russians, and then he sequestered the fliers at his residence, away from the press and the curious public, awaiting word from higher command on how to best handle the affair diplomatically.

Relations at the time between the U.S. and Soviet Union were tenuous, because the U.S.S.R. was the world’s first communist nation, and the world looked at the fledgling nation suspiciously, well aware that the leaders of the new nation had murdered their king and his family and disposed of them in a swampy pit after destroying their bodies with acid. The nations of the world were shocked at the brutal crime and diplomatic relations were only beginning to warm up with the Soviets.

rsmarsh

Army Brig. Gen. George C. Marshall, along with his wife Katherine (in background) and stepdaughter Molly Brown, host the Russian fliers. Also shown is Soviet Ambassador Alexander Troyanovsky.

Because of Marshall’s deft handling of the unexpected arrival of the Soviets, President Roosevelt was impressed enough to later promote the General to Army Chief of Staff during the trying days of World War II, and he subsequently became Secretary of State under President Truman after masterfully architecting the famous Marshall Plan that rescued an economically devastated Europe.

Pearson Field is still an operating airfield to this day, and there is a prominent Chkalov monument on site to commemorate the historic trans-polar flight.  Sadly, the U.S. Army pulled out of Vancouver Barracks several years ago after a continual presence there of over 150 years. The post is now privatized for commercial development, but all of the significant buildings remain, and the historic Army post is part of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

We here at USA Military Medals salute the rich history of Vancouver Barracks and Pearson Field.

World War II Liberty Ships and The Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation

<img alt="The SS Dartmouth Victory being launched in Portland Oregon in 1945">

The SS Dartmouth Victory, a “Liberty” ship built by Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation at its launching in Portland, Oregon, on February 15, 1945.

By U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class John Tomlinson – Retired

Prior to the advent of World War II, Portland Oregon was a sleepy, working class rail hub and industrial port city that possessed no particular glamor or recognition outside of its own region, in that isolated corner of the United States called the Pacific Northwest.  The Portland area was primarily known then for its incessant rainfall, salmon canneries, forestry and agricultural industries, and visitors to the city were limited to businessmen, ranchers, and farmers, and a handful of tourists who used the city as a jumping off place for mountaineering, or for hunting and fishing expeditions.

That was all about to change in 1937 with the building of Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and the subsequent arrival of the hydroelectric power industry that was later enhanced by even bigger projects such as Grand Coulee Dam and additional dams built along the reaches of the Columbia upstream from Bonneville.  Suddenly, Portland and the Pacific Northwest were on the national map as places with vast available amounts of cheap electricity and untapped port and industrial land resources that could be exploited by millionaire industrialists who were emerging from an increasing war-oriented business environment.

<img alt="Henry J. Kaiser.  Father of American shipbuilding and Liberty Ships">

Henry J. Kaiser. The “father” of American Shipbuilding. His shipyards in Portland, Oregon produced Liberty Ships for the war, in weeks.

One of those industrialists, who would later be looked at as bigger than life, was Henry J. Kaiser, who in 1940 had signed an agreement with the British government, already at war with Germany, to build 31 cargo ships to aid that country in their war effort.  Kaiser was at the time an established ship builder in partnership with Todd Pacific Shipyards and Bath Iron Works, when war broke out in Europe.  He had already established his reputation as the organizer of the completion of Hoover Dam in half the expected time, and he was known for his social and business connections that made his company a natural choice to win U.S. wartime shipbuilding contracts.

What emerged from Kaiser’s fledgling shipbuilding enterprise with the British government was the story of the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in Portland which, from 1941 to 1945, built hundreds of Liberty and Victory cargo ships that were instrumental in helping smash Germany and Japan’s war machines and ending the conflict of World War II.

Kaiser built his shipyards in three locations in the Portland area.  One yard was in St. Johns, near the recently-completed St. John’s suspension bridge, and a second Portland location was known as the Swan Island Shipyard, also in the north part of the city.  A third yard was sited across the Columbia River from Portland in Vancouver, Washington.

Along with shipbuilding yards that Kaiser built in other locations on the U.S. west coast, notably in the San Francisco Bay area, his company ranked 20th among U.S. corporations in the value of wartime production contracts.  Kaiser was favored as a shipbuilder by the U.S. government because he had developed new methods of shipbuilding, which allowed his yards to outproduce similar facilities in other parts of the country. His ships were completed in two-thirds the time and a quarter of the cost of the average of all other shipyards, and his Liberty Ships were typically assembled in a little over two weeks.  Liberty Ships got their name because they were cheap and quick to build, and they came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output.  A story goes that President Roosevelt said the new ships would give rise to liberty for Europe, hence, the name Liberty Ship.

<img alt="Oregon shipbuilding Corporation shipyard in Portland, Oregon.">

One of Henry J. Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation’s shipbuilding yards in Portland, Oregon, during World War II. Pumping out Liberty Ships.

 

Based on ships ordered by Britain to replace vessels torpedoed by German U-boats, they were initially purchased for the U.S. merchant marine fleet, and used for lend-lease deliveries of war materiel to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, routed through Iran.  In all, 2,710 Liberty Ships were built by American shipyards between 1941 and 1945, and they were the largest number of ships ever produced to a single design.  Estimates of the total number of Liberty Ships produced by Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation range from 400 to 500, according to different sources, but when the Vancouver, Washington shipyard output is included, the number was probably much higher.

In the late 1930’s, cargo ship design, as used by Great Britain, was modified by the U.S. Maritime Commission to conform more to American construction practices, which made the ships quicker and cheaper to build. The U.S. version was designated EC2-S-C1, with the EC meaning “Emergency Cargo,” and the “2″ meaning a ship between 400 and 450 feet long, and the S meaning Steam Engine powered. The new design replaced much riveting with welding, which reduced labor costs by one-third, and a modification included power created by oil-fired boilers.

<img alt="Liberty Ship worker, Iona Murphy.">

Iona Murphy welding in a Liberty Ship assembly building at the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in Portland. During World War II, up to 30,000 women worked in shipyards in Portland and Vancouver, Washington, building tankers, aircraft carriers, and merchant marine transportation ships for the war effort. The demand for labor at shipyards offered women an opportunity to work in occupations previously closed off to them. They were hired as welders, helpers, shipfitters, general laborers, and electricians.

By 1941, the steam turbine was the preferred marine steam engine because of its greater efficiency when compared to earlier reciprocating engines.  However, the steam turbine was complicated to build to precision standards, so the Liberty Ships began to be fitted with 140-ton vertical triple expansion compound steam engines of obsolete design because the engine was easier to build, and more companies could manufacture it.  Eighteen U.S. companies eventually built the engine, which had an advantage of ruggedness and simplicity, and parts manufactured by one company were interchangeable with those made by another, and the openness of its design made most of its moving parts easy to see, access and lubricate.  The engine, which was 21 feet long and 19 feet tall, was designed to operate at 76 rpm and propel a Liberty Ship at about 11 knots (12.7 mph). Upon delivery from the manufacturer, the engines were placed into ships being built in Portland and other west coast locations.

 These ships were assembled in sections welded together, as opposed to riveting.  Though riveting was used in traditional shipbuilding practices of the past, it required months, compared to just weeks for final assembly by welding.

Early Liberty Ships developed hull and deck cracks, and a number of ships were lost at sea due to such structural defects.  More seriously, during the war, 12 ships broke in half without warning, with much loss of life.  At first, the shipyards were blamed for using inexperienced workers and new welding techniques, but after extensive testing, it was discovered that it was the grade of steel used in the ships’ construction that caused the fatal weaknesses.  When the war ended, more than 2,400 Liberty Ships survived, some of which were added to the postwar U.S. cargo fleet.  Many international shipping magnates profited greatly from acquiring Liberty Ships after the war, including Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.  Weyerhaeuser operated a fleet of six Liberty ships for many years, using them to carry lumber, newsprint and general cargo.  And in the 1960’s, the U.S. Navy converted three Liberty ships into technical research vessels.
The only traces left of the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in Portland are three hulls that serve as the supports for floating docks.  The site of the former shipyard in St Johns is now Schnitzer Steel Industries.

We here at USA Military Medals salute the innovative Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation Liberty shipbuilding heroes of the second World War!

<img alt="Liberty Ship, The SS Star of Oregon.">

On May 19, 1941, the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation launched the first Liberty ship, The SS Star of Oregon (pictured above). The ship was operated by the States Steamship Company of Portland, under contract from the War Shipping Administration. On August 30, 1942, she was torpedoed and sunk by German U-162 northeast of Tobago.

John James McGinty III

John McGinty

July 18, 1966, Vietnam – If you shut your eyes, the tracers still burned on the inside of your lids. The smell of cordite, blood and mud was nauseating. Enemy shelling was earth-shaking, but SSgt. John James McGinty III refused to concede. He was a Marine, and there was no way in hell he was going to let some rag-tag guerilla force wash over his guys without a fight!

In the midst of the terrible turmoil, a battalion of Leathernecks had been bogged under the mind-numbing fire for three awful days. McGinty and his platoon were tasked with covering the trapped men, so they could finally withdraw from the perilous bombardment. For more than a day and a half, McGinty’s 32-man force held back a blood-thirsty juggernaut of 5,000 Viet Cong.

At times, the skirmish was so intense that squads were separated from one another, lost in the smoke and glare. McGinty personally ran through the hail of bullets and bombs, repeatedly – to rescue and redirect these squads – all the while tending his wounded and rearming them, rallying them to fight.

As he made his way a third time into the devil’s churn, he was struck by enemy fire. The wound was severe, but McGinty shrugged it off. He called in air-strikes within meters of their position, fired his pistol point-blank at the advancing threat and carried injured men to safety all while a hole festered in his shoulder.

“There were 5,000 guys running at him with machine guns and he wouldn’t give up,” McGinty’s son, Mike, said. “And he wouldn’t let his guys give up, and they never did and they came out on top.”

After almost 42 hours of battle, the Marines were able to successfully turn back the large hostile force and withdraw to safety. For his bravery and absolute dedication to his SSgt. John James McGinty proudly wears his Medal of Honor shortly after it was received. men, John McGinty was awarded the Medal of Honor in March, 1968.

At the medal presentation ceremony, President Lyndon Johnson said of McGinty (along with his CO, who had also been awarded the Medal of Honor):

I look at these two gallant Marines and I see America. I see in their countenance the answer to aggression. I see in their face the certainty of freedom and I see in their presence the hope and the promise of peace.

John McGinty spoke rarely of the medal hanging by the starry blue drape in his shadowbox. He was humble about his participation in the Vietnam War and would often change the subject when brought to the table. After his retirement from the Marine Corps, he went to live with his son and their six dogs.

And this Friday last, the Marine passed away peacefully at his home in Beaufort, South Carolina. He was 73.

“If you do the right thing, then you can’t go wrong,” his son notes him as saying. “You obey your last order first and just doing that will get you far.”

We here at USA Military Medals say Semper Fi, Staff Sergeant! Your duty here on Earth is done.

The Pith Helmet

John Wast

John Wast as a young Green Beret, 1968 Vietnam.

In the mid-late 1960s, the CIA was extremely paranoid that Viet Cong influence would swell recruitment among minority troops. To thwart Communist-sentiment, they built facilities like Duc Lap – a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) forward operating base. The Duc Lap compound was an “Area Development Center,” used for training villagers and ARVN troops in defense and strike tactics. Run by CIA paramilitary and U.S. Special Forces, the installation was tucked within the hills of the Quang Duc Province.

And in August of 1968, it was a big fat target.

So when the thousand NVA troops appeared outside the compound in August, 1968, the Americans were ready. The mix of OD green uniforms, their dyes already fading in the Vietnamese sun, stood out against the miles of dying foliage beyond – dying from incessant Agent Orange sprays and indiscriminate napalm drops. These stony-faced warriors eyed Duc Lap with an eerie persistence. In the main trench-works, American Special Forces remained vigilant, but watched with great concern, for they were outnumbered by the NVA mass, 3 to 1.

Vietnamese Helmet

It was this simple carving, that struck Wast’s eye.

In the days to follow, death was incumbent. The NVA charged the facility again and again, breaching the south wall twice and capturing a number of bunkers. There were heroes on both sides as land was lost and taken. For 72 hours the two forces fought it out, and by August 24th the battlefield finally fell silent. Victory went to the U.S. Special Forces, who were able to organize an extremely effective defense and an even more impressive counter-attack. On the losing end, the NVA dead littered the fields for a mile and a half from the main gate at Duc Lap and on.

In the weeks that followed, as the occupants struggled to piece themselves back together, a young U.S. Soldier named John Wast had been tasked with scouring the impromptu NVA graveyard. Intelligence, weapons, unexploded ordinance, anything that could be considered useful, or a threat, was to be tagged, acknowledged and retrieved. No prisoners had been taken, so the dead were many. There is little doubt that Wast’s work was uncomfortable, but on one of his treks into the mess, something caught his eye.

downloadResting upside down in a shallow pocket of earth was a battered pith helmet…the typical topee of the NVA. These things were literally scattered over the hillside, but there was something about this one in particular that drew Wast in; a dove had been carefully carved into its under-brim. Their version of the peace symbol perhaps? Wast admired the image…like a beacon of hope in all that hell. So he tucked the helmet away and went about his duty in Vietnam.

For forty-six years he hung onto the helmet he found among the dead that day in 1968.

Forty-six years Wast kept his war trophy on a shelf in his Ohio home office. Until one day, having heard of the helmet, and the dove, a U.S. veterans’ charity contacted the now 67-year old ex-Special Forces Soldier. They asked if he’d like to return the item from whence it came. Wast thought long and hard about the proposition, before agreeing. On one condition, however: that it bring no more pain. Wast’s war was over, and that’s how he wanted to keep it.

The charity, Development of Vietnam Endeavors Fund, was then able to identify the owner of the helmet by following the unique etching of the dove. After rifling through thousands of wartime documents, a name was recovered: Bui Duc Hung, killed by an anonymous bullet during the Battle of Duc Lap. Another discovery shortly thereafter proved he has family alive and well, still in Vietnam.

Vietnamese Helmet

The helmet is handed over to Bui Dinh Hoe, a relative of its owner, in Huong Non village, northern Phu Tho province, Vietnam on Jan. 14, 2014. (Photo courtesy of AP)

On January 14th, 2014, almost five decades after it was found on that blood stained countryside, the pith helmet was returned by U.S. veterans to the family of Bui Duc Hung in a village outside of Hanoi. The handful of American veterans, some 100 villagers and local officials gathered for a brief, but emotional ceremony. Bui Duc Duc, the 52-year old nephew of Bui Duc Hung, cried when the helmet was settled in front of a family altar.

“We consider this helmet as part of him and we will keep as a reminder for our family’s future generations,” he said, weeping. “This is a very sacred moment for my extended family.”

And although Wast did not make the journey, he was sure to include his thoughts in a brief, handwritten message.

“The time has now come for me to return this helmet to those who knew and cared for Bui Duc Hung,” he said. “I do this with thoughts of love and peace to you all.”

 

 

Bill Overstreet, the Ace who flew beneath the Eiffel Tower

 

Bill Overstreet

A no-doubt restless Luftwaffe heavy weapons operator scans the skies over Paris for Allied intruders.

Around a hundred or so 12.8 cm Flak 408.8 and 3.7 cm Flak guns supported the ebbing Luftwaffe around Paris in the spring of 1944. A fair portion of these artillery pieces stood where they were first anchored, during the Battle of France four years earlier. Broken into perhaps eighteen or twenty mixed batteries throughout the city, the anti-aircraft crews of the Luftwaffe spent most of the war tending to their hardware; cleaning, dismantling, reassembling, clearing, testing, cleaning, sighting, cleaning. These men were ill-supplied, and often spent days without food or water. One of the conditions of the armistice in 1940 was that the economically broken France pay the costs of the three-hundred-thousand-strong occupying force. Ironically, most ground troops in Paris were Frenchmen, conscripted into the German army as a result of the cessation. These men may have been bored, hungry and lost; but in 1944 when the snow melted and the rains began, Nazi military administrators in France were experiencing action like never before.

Bill Overstreet

Bill Overstreet, 1943

On December 7, 1941, as Japanese planes lay waste to the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Bill Overstreet was attending classes at Morris Harvey College in Charleston, Carolina. A Virginia boy who was a proud patriot, Bill had been eyeing the Army Air Corps. So when news of the tragedy on Honolulu reached him, the Air Corps’ aim intensified. By February of 1942, Bill was enlisted and awaiting appointment to the Aviation Cadet fighter pilot program. Not long after, the audacious, twenty-something thrill-seeker found his way to Rankin Aeronautical Academy in Tulare, California, where he began his primary flight training. He flew P-39s from training facilities all over the country. Then, in late 1943, he was declared combat ready and shipped off to the war. By January 30th, 1944, Bill was flying a P-51 Mustang, and stationed on the east coast of England at Royal Air Force Base Leiston.

Bill Overstreet's Berlin Express

Bill’s trusty P-51, the “Berlin Express”

The young aviator proved to be a skilled pilot and flew dozens of sorties into Germany. His P-51, dubbed the “Berlin Express,” was one of the first to practice “fighter sweep.” Fighter sweep was the American form of air supremacy action, where, instead of staying in formation to protect bomb-wing runs, the Mustangs would go on the offensive, intercepting German fighters before they could target the bombers – the success was seismic. In response, the Luftwaffe developed the Gefechtsverband, literally meaning “battle formation.” Instead of attacking the Americans in scattered groups, the Germans amassed in giant formations of heavily armored Fw109As and light fighters, like the Messerschmitt Bf 109. The theory was excellent, but when practiced, took ages to assemble and was wholly difficult to maneuver. Germans were attempting Gefechtsverband when they encountered the 357th Fighter Group – Bill’s – somewhere over Northwestern France, on April 9th, 1944.

The 357th made short work of the German concentration, knocking several fighters from the sky. Some thirty minutes into the engagement, the Americans claimed victory. But Bill was nowhere to be found. Forty miles to the south, the daredevil was in a heated chase that had begun the moment it all started. Whirling in above the hills around Paris, the pilot in the Bf 109 was trying to lure Overstreet over the streets of Paris and the Luftwaffe guns. But the batteries we spoke of earlier were not expecting any activity that day. So when two fighter planes roared in calculatory curlycues over the City of Lights, the Germans simply weren’t ready.

Berlin-Express-Z1The Bf 109 pilot was good, but no match for the ace on his tail. Bill hugged rooftops and narrowly missed bombed out building as he pushed his Berlin Express to its very limits. Then, in an act that will forever be ingrained in time, the German pilot dipped his plane, low over the burnt grass of Champ de Mars, along the column of waking antiaircraft guns and beneath the steel arches of the Eiffel Tower. Bill Overstreet paid no attention to this insane maneuver. He didn’t need to. For in the next second, as enemy flak finally began bursting, he too flew his plane beneath the iconic monument. That’s a space of 180 x 240 feet.

French resistance fighters on the ground witnessed this amazing feat. They peeked further from their hiding spots, aghast, as Bill rolled and fired a long, accurate burst into the German fighter. The Bf 109 belched an inky cloud of smoke, snapped then exploded into the city below. The pilot did not bail out. After the Bf 109 crashed, Bill masterfully punched to full throttle and followed the river until clear of the city’s heavy anti-aircraft batteries, many of whom never had the chance to engage.

Bill Overstreet’s amazing piloting that day served as much more than a simple air-to-air victory, for he had unknowingly inspired hundreds of thousands of Parisians to continue their fight to rid their country of these terrible and uninvited guests. By the end of the year, their resources exhausted and the resistance growing, the Germans finally surrendered on August 25th, 1944 at the Hôtel Meurice, the newly established headquarters of the “Liberator of Paris,” General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc. It is estimated that German losses reached some 3,200 killed.

More than 550,000 French lost their lives to military activity and German crimes during the occupation.

Bill Overstreet

Bill, shortly before his death this last week

Overstreet’s jaw-dropping performance that day saw him assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. There he flew supplies to the Free French, rescued downed airmen and delivered intelligence from behind enemy lines. Bill’s tour of duty ended October, 1944, and he returned to the states. He went on to teach at the gunnery school in Pinellas, Florida and was released from active duty shortly thereafter.

After many years away, he returned to Roanoke, Virginia, where he lived until his death this Sunday past. He was 92 years old. We here at USAMM pay tribute to this great American hero and all the Airmen who fought and died during WWII.

Thank you, Bill!!

Staff Sgt. Timothy Williams and his Silver Star

Taliban Fighters

Taliban Fighters

Droplets of blood followed the hanging hand, leaving a fading crimson trail, which melted into that polluted Afghan dust. For more than a mile Williams dragged his team leader, Staff Sgt. Jason Pennock, over crumbling clay walls, through olinoj shrub and around abandoned mud-brick homes. The penetrating fire from ancient Soviet weaponry crashed around the struggling pair as they desperately made their way toward rescue. Running on adrenaline and immediate action drills, the Combat Support Adviser Team, Regimental Combat Team Six braved the hellish enemy barrage to save the life of their leader. But this was no drill. There were dozens of veteran Taliban fighters at every corner, pouring “very accurate” rifle fire into the coalition team.

This is July 10, 2013.

United States Marine Staff Sgt. Timothy Williams was pushing forward into fixed enemy positions when he learned of his team leader’s misfortune. The 15-man patrol had been battling off this frustratingly deadly Taliban ambush for nearly two hours, making very little progress in the blood-stained streets. Williams, assistant team leader, was 60 some meters away from Pennock when the bad luck came calling. Pennock was organizing counter-attack maneuvers when he was hit two times in the leg. The first round tore through his calf. The second blasted through his femur, spinning his body like a top. He rolled without control into a nearby canal and nearly drowned trying to collect himself.

Staff Sgt. Timothy Williams

Staff Sgt. Timothy Williams

Williams, through sound technical proficiency, coordinated with his team to hold off the ugly opposition and the small-arms fire they expelled. He then darted through wide-open terrain to Pennock, as bullets stirred dust and rock at his boots. Williams reached his fellow Marine just in time. Pennock was struggling weakly to keep his head above the murky cloud of reddish green water surrounding him. The out of breath Marines embraced in the turmoil, silently thanked the world for the extra bit of luck, then set out for rescue.

Pennock was hurt, and bleeding heavily; so much so that at times, Williams had to carry his full weight or he would collapse right there in the middle of the fight. As bullets whirred around their heads, he took control of the team and directed fire to fixed Taliban positions to the right and to the left. As he endeavored survival, Williams carried his wounded friend more than 300 meters to a medical evacuation site, decidedly saving the man’s life. As if this weren’t enough, the battle-hardened Marine immediately rejoined the fight, killing five of the enemy as he traversed the mayhem over a mile and a half to the remainder of his team. Once linked, Williams and the others successfully fought back their attackers, neutralizing some twenty bad guys.

For these heroic actions, Staff Sgt. Timothy Williams was awarded our nation’s third-highest combat valor award, the Silver Star. Not one member of the Coalition team was lost in the grueling, ten hour battle.

There are thousands of heroes out there who deserve recognition, but it also warms the heart to see just one rewarded. Share your thought below and give thanks to the heroes who walk among us.

George Benton Turner and his lone assault on a Heavy Panzer Group

Philippsbourg, France

Philippsbourg, France as she looks today

A commune of crumbling castles, scattered village homes, silver fir and towering large-leaved lime trees, Philippsbourg in north-eastern France sat smack dab in the middle of the Allies’ advance to Berlin. The Germans dug the position for the defensive value of the castles, which had withstood everything save the 14th Armored Division. But the Germans loved Phillippsbourg, and violently refused its surrender; especially to a bunch of back-stabbing-Yanks. Accordingly, when elements of the “Liberators” reached the outskirts of the Moselle department, mere miles from those castles, Hitler threw his best at them.

Among them Yanks was a 43 year old private by the name of George Benton Turner.

Good ol’ George grew up the son of a lawyer in Longview, Texas (that’s Gregg County, east of Dallas) and for as long as he could recall, he wanted to be a Marine. So when his body, his mind, and his parents permitted, George packed his bags and headed for the Wentworth Military Academy and College in Lexington, Mo. There he studied diligently until 1918, when he abruptly dropped out to join the Marine Corps and the First World War beyond. Unfortunately for George, the war ended before he was deployed.

Convinced his chance at glory on the field was over forever, George moved to California. He worked for a spell as a legal secretary for a law office and tried to adjust to the civilian life. But all of that would change on December 7th, 1941.

George Benton Turner

George Benton Turner

By October 1942, George Turner had volunteered once again to defend his country, snagging assignment to Battery C, 499th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 14th Armored Division in the United States Army. In three years’ time, the East Texan finally found himself in combat, peering through field glasses at the massive column of Wermacht bearing down on him from the hills around Phillippsbourg.

Occupied by the disastrous turn of events in the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler had no problem moving divisions that existed only on his private war map. It made no difference to him to send a Panzer group (vital to slowing the Soviet’s advance) into France to meet the retreating and tattered remains of 5th Panzer and XLVII Panzer Corps; the latter of which was almost completely annihilated following the Siege of Bastogne.  Regardless, the reinforcements were a near hit, taking the approaching and tired Americans completely by surprise on January 3rd, 1945. As artillery units of the 14th shelled the dense forests, it was as if they’d stirred a bees’ nest when hundreds of Germans appeared from the wood all around.

You see, George was a forward observer, which meant it was his job to communicate battlefield intelligence such as enemy locations, strength, and activities. When the Panzer group (they could have been of the 101st SS Panzer Battalion, but it’s hard to say) emerged from the hills, he had front row seats. The ensuing attack left many of his friends dead in the streets, and him alone in the dying village. In the ensuing chaos, George spied a company of U.S. Soldiers retreating down the main road, followed closely by two German Tiger tanks and roughly 75 supporting foot soldiers. All at once, things were clear – this was the moment he’d been waiting for all his life.

wrecked_german_tiger_tank

A wrecked German Tiger sits in the rubble, northern France

Lying in the middle of that main road, amongst the clutter of uprooted cobblestones and sprawled dead, was an M9A1 bazooka. George scrambled to the weapon. It was loaded. There was one more M6A3 rocket jutting from a discarded pack. George spun to face the aggressors, aimed and fired at the lead tank. The Tiger, perhaps not seeing Turner, perhaps thinking its reinforced hull would stop the rocket, continued its path undaunted down the center of the street, and died in a ball of fire there. George quickly reloaded and fired at the second Tiger. He hit it just under the turret, disabling the beast permanently. By now the German infantry were aware of this single Yank, blowing up their tanks. They charged Turner, screaming with fury and fear.

George threw the bazooka to the ground and looked around for his next weapon. Blown sideways and leaning against a wall was a half-track, on it was a heavy machinegun. George wrested the piece from its mount, jammed it into his hip and unleashed a crippling shower of lead. The Germans moved down the very middle of the road, perhaps six maybe seven abreast, and when George opened up on them, he was extremely successful. If another had been on the street that day, they would have heard the non-stop “clack” of George’s bullets tearing through that cheap, feldgrau wool, singing into those battered, steel helmets of the Reich.

Truman and George Turner

Truman and George Turner

After twenty minutes or so, and with some 50 German dead, the Wermacht attack was completely broken up. George had done this single-handedly.

When he finally returned to his battery, his comrades had already given him up for lost, dead, captured. He was tired, hungry and dirty, but the only scratch on him was a single hole in his canteen, put there by a poorly placed 7.92×57mm Mauser round.

The incredible fearlessness displayed by Pfc. Turner, his awe-inspiring initiative in the face of certain death and steadfast belief in our absolute victory directly contributed to the successful defense of the French town and the ultimate retreat of the German forces there. For his actions that day in the little town in north-eastern France, George Benton Turner was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman in a White House Ceremony. It goes that Truman whispered to Turner that he would personally “…rather have this medal than be the president.”

George Benton Turner died June 29, 1963, in Encino, Calif. Today he rests in Arlington National Cemetery.

What an incredible story, wouldn’t you say? Leave your thoughts below, and don’t forget to find military medals and other items here at www.usamilitarymedals.com!

Major Thomas B. McGuire, Jr., a true legend of air-power

Maj. Thomas McGuire

Maj. Thomas McGuire

 

You could see clearly from the ground that they were P-38’s. And even though by October of 1944, Tacloban and neighboring towns on Leyte were in the hands of American-Filipino forces, the area was by no means secure. So when the group of twenty US Army Air Corps fighters arced over the airfield there, controllers expected one or two Japanese Tojo fighters. In response, the Americans would generally circle until the enemy-planes were routed – maybe they’d get a kill, maybe they wouldn’t – but it was rare to see a P-38 break from an inbound group, open up to full-throttle and engage the Tojos head on.

On this day, Elements of the 431st Fighter Squadron, 475th Fighter Group watched as their commander, Major Thomas B. McGuire, Jr. sounded warning, hit the gear and flap levers then charged the threat at top speed. In seconds, via several short maneuvers and bursts from his guns, McGuire sent both Japanese planes plummeting to the earth in smoldering collections of oil and steel.

As the pair of intruders lay burning just beyond the airfield, all twenty P-38s landed safely – their leader touching down last in his pride and joy, “Pudgy V.” As he climbed from the cockpit, Major McGuire was smiling ear to ear.  Wiping grease from his brow, he said loudly, “This is my kind of place. You have to shoot down Japs to land on your own field!”  The Tojos marked his twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth air-to-air victories.

Maj Thomas McGuire

With 38 aerial victories, Thomas McGuire is considered by many to be one of the greatest fighter pilots of all time.

The five foot seven ace was well-known for his inspiring ability to knock bad guys from the sky. His aerial prowess and unwillingness to give-in had already made him a legend in WII’s Pacific arena. McGuire was viewed by the Air Corps as an extremely aggressive and arrogant pilot. But he commanded a deep respect amongst his men, who swore they’d seen him do things in a P-38 that were inexplicable. McGuire had only been flying combat mission for one year by the time he downed those aircraft at Tacloban.

McGuire was once seen playing a deadly game of chicken with a Japanese Zero. The Zero, already crippled and out of ammunition, refused to budge…and so did McGuire…until the very last second. Ground crews later spent hours scraping away red paint from the Pudgy V’s fuselage, left there as the two planes scraped alongside one another at 300 miles per hour. It should be noted that the Misubishi Zero was easily the most advanced aircraft of the war, and certainly not one to be trifled with. US strategy at the time consisted of sinking the home carrier, so the Zeros would be left at open sea with no place to land.

Pudgy V

Pudgy V, named after his wife (who was skinny!)

McGuire’s first combat mission took place along New Guinea’s northern coast in August, 1943. The young pilot was extraordinary, blasting five Japanese fighters from the sky. Less than a week later, the 431st flew an almost identical mission; this time McGuire downed two Zeros through actions seeming to defy reality. In a total of two missions, Thomas McGuire was already an Ace.

On Christmas day, 1944, the auspicious pilot volunteered to head a squadron tasked with providing security to a group of B-24 bombers. The B-24s were to release their payloads over enemy targets on Luzon (the largest island in the Philippines) and were expecting heavy resistance. En route to the Liberators, the Americans were jumped by 20 Japanese Zeros. McGuire quickly broke from the ambush, outmaneuvering and destroying three of the deadly craft.

The very next day, he again volunteered to escort the wing with similar results. A B-24 was taking harassing fire and McGuire swooped in from beneath, punching holes through the Zero’s cockpit with his guns. The Japanese fighter burst into flame, rolled over, and crashed to the sea. The unfazed ace leveled out to engage then obliterate three more Zeros.

McGuire had a whopping 38 kills by the time he climbed into his Lightning in January, 1945. The standing record, held by Richard Bong, was 40. Bong had already left the war, however, and McGuire was still very much in the running. Everyone, including McGuire, predicted he would surpass Bong’s number – it was only a matter of time.

McGuire and Bong

Majors McGuire and Bong

On Januray 7, 1945, McGuire led three P-38s on a routine patrol over Negros Island. The others in the group were: Capt. Edwin Weaver (McGuire’s wing), Maj. Jack Rittmayer and Lt. Douglas Thropp.  All four were highly experienced combat veterans. The mission: to locate, and if possible, provoke enemy fighters into the air. McGuire was almost certainly on the lookout for his next three kills.

After a good half an hour of circling known Japanese positions, the P-38s had yet to coerce any bad guys into fighting. But about the time the weather stopped cooperating, a Japanese Ki-43 Oscar appeared on the horizon. At the same instant, a Japanese Ki-84 Frank spotted the American elements and aborted its landing to attack them. Before the group realized what was going on, Thropp and Weaver were hit and Rittmayer’s engine was malfunctioning.

mcguire_lindberg

McGuire with his pal Charles Lindberg

In an attempt to join the fight, McGuire banked left, and hard. His P-38 shuddered violently, threatening to stall right then and there. Ignoring the precariousness of this situation, McGuire continued the turn in a last ditch effort to get his sights on the Ki-84. Pudgy V then suffered a complete loss of momentum, snap-rolled and rocketed into the jungle below. The last anyone saw of Thomas McGuire, was his P-38 in an inverted position, the nose down at 30 some degrees.

The crippling ambush didn’t end there. In the next few minutes, both Rittmayer and Thropp were dead. Weaver barely made his way home.

A hero had been taken, just shy of his coveted goal. He’d longed for the record and the Medal of Honor, the latter, which in a sad twist-of-fate, was awarded posthumously to Thomas McGuire by General Douglas MacArthur. His incredible set of flying skills may have ended that day in January, but his legacy lives on. A number of signature moves created by McGuire are studied by Air Force pilots to this day, and a P-38 Lightning with the name “Pudgy V” forever sits at the gates of namesake McGuire Air Force Base.

Thomas McGuire's Military Awards

Thomas McGuire’s Military Awards

What do you think of this amazing fighter pilot? Share your thoughts below and don’t forget to visit us at www.usamilitarymedals.com!

Ethan Nagel and the Valley

Chief Warrant Officer Douglas M. Vose III

Chief Warrant Officer Douglas M. Vose III

 

As Chief Warrant Officer Douglas Vose lay bleeding in the dust, Marine Corporal Ethan Nagel refused to take his eyes off him. The distinct patter of bullets striking the earth along the hills did not distract Nagel, nor did the heavy concussions from nearby mortar blasts. He had but two concerns: recovering his brother-in-arms, and keeping the enemy at bay.

Cpl. Ethan Nagel

Cpl. Ethan Nagel

Uzbin Valley, Eastern Afghanistan, 2009 – The joint task force comprised of US Marines, Special Forces and Afghanistan army, were heading home from a meeting with local elders when the trouble started. In a time and place where almost no one can be trusted, few were surprised when they were ambushed by Taliban fighters. Pressured onto foot by the attack, the Marines and Special Forces quickly lay down cover-fire for their vehicles’ and the Afghan troops’ immediate withdrawal.

A Russian 82mm projectile (likely older than Nagel by decades) detonated within yards of his position, slinging razor-sharp shrapnel into his face and neck. Though it may have felt like a punch to the face, Nagel was not deterred by the blast and instead pushed forward toward the advancing enemy. At some point therin, Vose was struck once in the chest by AK-47. He dropped his M4 and rolled into a shallow defilade at the rear of the U.S. column.

Dead Taliban

Dead Taliban fighters lay strewn over the valley side. More often than not, the results of facing our troops end in heavy losses for the opposition.

Nagel was perhaps the first to witness his compatriot buckle, but he was not the only, as the Americans speedily coordinated a rescue. With some 30-40 insurgents slowly surrounding the team, Nagel moved along the ancient river bed, exchanging numerous bursts of fire with the enemy. At times, the Taliban were so close to Nagel, he could make out the color of their eyes as they loosed rounds over him. While crawling the thousand yards to his fallen comrade, he was again struck by shrapnel and also shot… twice.

The Marine did not slow. Instead he moved faster, more determined, and made his way up the ridge to Vose. For the next hour, Nagel and a medic crouched over Vose, desperately trying to stop the bleeding from the hole in his chest. They talked to him. They kept him alive. They vowed he would not be left behind.

For that entire hour, the Americans were exposed to enemy fire. Nagel even drew his pistol on several occasions to fall insurgents within feet of them.

After an eternity of gun battle, the men were finally able to move Vose out of the valley to a waiting Humvee and subsequent airlift.

Nagel says of the episode, “They attempted to shoot down the Blackhawk, but we engaged the enemy with machine guns. No matter what happened, [Vose] wasn’t going to die alone, and they weren’t going to capture him.”

The group eventually were able to return to their initial course, battling more enemy for another six hours.

Cpl. Ethan Nagel Silver Star

Receiving the Silver Star

Sadly, the heroes who fought so valiantly to protect their friend, later learned that Vose had succumbed to his wound.

For his actions, for protecting another’s life at the risk of his own, Cpl. Ethan Nagel was awarded the Silver Star. Though Nagel refuses to take credit for the award, saying instead that it was the men beside him that deserve the medal the most.

“They were with me in the fight, in thick of it, alongside me,” Nagel Says. “They would’ve done the same for me if I was hit. It’s not about the medals, but making sure everybody comes back.”

What do you think of this amazing story? Include your thoughts or share your stories below and don’t forget you can find all of your military awards and more here at www.usamilitarymedals.com.

Major Robb McDonald and the attack at Camp Bastion

Camp Bastion

The UK’s Camp Bastion, consists of two sections; Bastion 1 and 2. It’s intimidating size accommodates 28,000 people and acts as the British Military’s hub in Afghanistan.

They were splintered into three teams of five. They were dressed in U.S. Army Advanced Combat Uniforms, complete with proper placement of rank, nametapes and patches. They came for Prince Harry of Wales.

At first glance, the perimeter of the United Kingdom’s remote desert base, Camp Bastion, appears impenetrable. With roughly 24 miles of 30ft blast walls topped with triple concertina wire; 24 watchtowers; heavy machine guns; radar, security cameras; motion sensors and floodlights; Bastion’s supposedly impregnable security is why Prince Harry was stationed there.

But the wall was undermanned the night of September 14, 2012. Only five of the two dozen security towers were occupied. So when 15 battle-hardened Taliban soldiers snaked their way up to the south wall of Bastion, there was simply no one there to notice. Following the blast of a suicide vest and about the time the first Harrier exploded, the base went on full alert.

Marines, many roused from slumber, bolted toward the sounds of chaos as mixed and confused firefights unfolded in the night. The enemy unleashed a barrage of RPG fire, pounding the USMC concentration of 8B Harrier jump jets — each were fully loaded with bullets and bombs. The aircraft responded to the rocket propelled grenades with meteoric results, spitting flame upwards of a hundred feet in the air.

Prince Harry is whisked away to a safe haven by British diplomatic security forces.

As the Taliban slipped in via the five foot hole (punched through the blast wall with the suicide vest) mortars began falling on the base. Disoriented Royal Marines commenced an uncoordinated push to intercept one of the insurgent teams near the base’s fuel depot but were held back by intense rifle fire.  A two-man team of US Marines under Lt. COL. Christopher Raible (who was armed with only his service pistol) advanced on a collection of Taliban amidst the burning correlation of Harriers.

Maj. Robb McDonald

Maj. Robb McDonald

Raible yelled, “Let’s bring the fight to these guys,” and hopped into a Humvee. Within seconds, an RPG detonated above, killing him instantly. Sergeant Bradley Atell, the mechanic next to the colonel, also died in the blast. It’s important to mention that these Marines were aircraft specialists, mostly mechanics, pilots and radar personnel. The very real fact that they quickly transitioned into the battle-ready badasses they truly are, should quickly be noted. As Henry Miller once said, “The ordinary man is involved in action, the hero acts. An immense difference.”

Enter Maj. Robb McDonald. The executive officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211 of Yuma, Arizona, McDonald was already an experienced warrior with TWO Bronze Stars/Valor Devices under his belt. He’d seen tours with recon, MARSOC and JTAC and probably couldn’t have been more prepared when the crack and pop of small arms reached him. Bogeys had entered the wire. They were causing mayhem. They needed to be dealt with.

The Major, awoken by the blasts drifting in from the flight line a mile away, immediately checked on his people to be sure they had a plan to stay safe. He then told them he was headed for the trouble. Armed with only his handgun and his silkies, McDonald raced from billeting toward the breach.

After hauling ass some 5 and a half thousand feet toward the fight, McDonald began engaging the enemy. In a matter of minutes, he’d killed four insurgents and wounded another. Without batting an eye, McDonald radioed the close air support. Danger close. Two skids, a Cobra and a Huey, circled the smoky air above. In the next ten or so minutes, the aircraft pulled two gun runs and obliterated the remaining bad guys.

Marine Sgt. Bradley W. Atwell

Marine Sgt. Bradley W. Atwell’s memorial stands in solitude at Camp Bastion

In the end, as the runway lay smoldering in the moonlight, two Marines were dead and many more hurt. Three refueling stations were burned to the ground. Six Harriers were completely destroyed, in what has been called “worst loss of U.S. airpower in a single incident since the Vietnam War.” Of the initial 15 Taliban attackers, only one survived the Marine Corps’ response.

For his actions, his incredible devotion to duty and country, Major Robb McDonald was awarded the Silver Star.

The attack raised many questions about the security at the base. Two U.S. generals lost their jobs in the ensuing investigations. Today, the Marines have taken the full responsibility of the base’s protection out of Britain’s hands.

What an incredible story, wouldn’t you say?

These are individuals who everyday find strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. Be sure to take time to remember our deployed.