Thursday, March 31, 2011

They Said It... - Doc Clement and a Trial by Antiaircraft Fire

From 1968-1969, a select group of aviators strapped into the cockpits of their two-seat, propeller-driven Cessna O-1 Bird Dog airplanes and went to war in Vietnam. As forward observers, they flew hundreds of feet above one of the deadliest battlefields in modern history, all in an airplane no larger than a small pickup truck. Their work was crucial in finding and stopping the enemy before they could attack American troops, and supporting those troops with artillery and air strikes when the battle was joined.

Of the many army Bird Dog units in Southeast Asia, none operated in as hostile an environment as the “Catkillers” of the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company. Their tactical area of operations was up against the Demilitarized Zone in I Corps, the northern-most combat zone in South Vietnam.

In the following account from A Hundred Feet Over Hell, Catkiller Doc Clement, describes the chaos he and his observer, Steve Bezold, experienced after getting caught in an overwhelming battery of enemy 57mm antiaircraft fire during an ill-advised mission detour near the South China Sea and the village of Dong Hoi.
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"We could see the (USS) New Jersey steaming wide open, but she couldn't fire because we were on the gun target line, up to our ass in smoke from the triple-A and just trying to get the hell out of there. 

"I had that O-1 pulling everything she had. I would spiral down in a 360 and slam the stick back in my lap with full throttle in a forty-five-degree bank, then slam it to the side, then slam it full forward in a turn and pull the power back, each maneuver lasting not more than two to five seconds. I was doing everything I could -- not thinking, just reacting. 

"Steve was hanging on to anything he could grab when his map was sucked out the window. It was like having a swarm of killer bees after you, and you're running with nowhere to hide, and they just keep coming and coming until they get your or someone just gives up. The cockpit was full of the smell of explosives. It was like the films of Kamikaze pilots trying to get through the flak to hit American ships during World War II. 

"Steve was on the radio to the New Jersey shouting, 'We're going down! We're going down! Keep us in sight!' If I had been in the back seat, I'd probably have thought we'd been hit, the way I was flying the O-1, pulling all the Gs the airplane could take."

[After what seemed an eternity, Doc crossed the beach and dove for the water, still throwing the Bird Dog through uncoordinated maneuvers as he made desperately for the New Jersey.]
"It was really quiet on the way back...When Bezold and I walked around the airplane, we couldn't believe there wasn't a single hole in it. Someone was looking after us."

Photo courtesy of Don Long, from 100 Feet Over Hell: Flying With the men of the 220th Recon Airplane Company Over I Corps and the DMZ, Vietnam 1968-1969 by Jim Hooper.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Purple Heart Lane" - Honoring the Dead at Carentan

In the early days of Operation Overlord in Normandy, troops from the 101st Airborne Division were charged with securing the heavily defended Carentan Causeway. A bloody, four-day-long battle ensued between American forces and the town's dug-in German defenders, the 6th Parachute Regiment, two OST (Ostlegionen) battalions, and remnants of other German forces.

On June 10, Lt. Robert G. Cole and his unit (3rd Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment) were called from reserve to attack four bridges on Highway N13. For nearly two days Cole's troops would bear the brunt of an intense German defense, suffering heavy casualties at the hands of German machine gun, mortar, and artillery emplacements. While the U.S. forces would eventually drive the Germans from Carentan, the cost to the 502nd PIR was staggering (nearly 50% casualty rate). Highway N13 was later referred to as "Purple Heart Lane" due to the extraordinary number of Americans killed or wounded in the advance.

The following poem by R.D. Cready and R.H. Bryant was written in memory of the brave souls of the 502 PIR who lost their lives at Carentan. (From 101st Airborne: The Screaming Eagles at Normandy by Mark Bando.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Moving Pictures - Iwo Jima: Portrait of a Battle

For so many Americans, it is the image that defined a war, a nation’s sacrifice, and the freedom so many hold so close. Six brave men raising the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima. All at once, the struggle of battle, the pain of lives lost, and the honor only a soldier can know were brought into the homes—and hearts—of the American public with a simple snap of a photographer’s camera. But for all this image stands for, it tells only one small piece of the story of the U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima.

The complete story of the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima takes place over thirty-four of the bloodiest days of the Pacific War; a campaign that remains as arguably the hardest won and most memorable battle of the United States Marines in World War II.

Available for the first time ever in paperback, Iwo Jima: Portrait of a Battle contains over 500 remarkable photographs, many never before published, from the Marine Corps archives. Woven together with text by acclaimed military historian Eric Hammel, this gloriously illustrated volume vividly recreates this iconic battle, including: the pummeling of inland targets, the strafing, and the rocket fire that accompanied the landing; the eerie silence that greeted the Marines as they set foot on the island; and then, as the newly-landed Marines regrouped on the shoreline, the horrors of all hell breaking loose.

The most complete photographic history of this iconic battle ever published, Iwo Jima is a uniquely fitting tribute to the valiant struggle that helped shift the balance of power in the Pacific and gave us our most enduring image of victory in World War II.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Aviation Snapshot - Navy F-4B Phantom

A Navy F-4B Phantom, from squadron VF-154 off the carrier USS Ranger (CVA-61), drops 1,000-pound bombs on North Vietnamese military targets in 1972. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, from Fighting to Leave: The Final Years of America's War in Vietnam, 1972-1973 by Col. Robert E. Stoffey, USMC (Ret.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

From the Pages - Steeds of Steel

The U.S. Army's mechanized cavalry force served in an astounding variety of ways in World War II -- certainly a greater variety in one three-year period than any other cavalry force in human history. The transition from a traditional horse-mounted force to a mechanized force reliant on tanks, armored cars, and jeeps was not without its learning curve.

In the following excerpt from Steeds of Steel: A History of American Mechanized Cavalry in World War II, author Harry Yeide explores the first true test for America's new fighting force on the battlefields of North Africa during World War II.

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The first mechanized cavalrymen to engage the enemy appear to have belonged to the 1st Reconnaissance Troop, 1st Infantry Division, which landed near Oran, Algeria, at about 0830 hours on 8 November 1942 as part of Task Force Center in Operation Torch. The task force had sailed from England, as had the Eastern Task Force, which was landing British and American troops at Algiers. The Western Task Force deposited troops brought from the United States near Casablanca, Morocco. Mounted in scout cars and jeeps and feeling out the infantry’s route of advance, the 1st Reconnaissance Troop encountered French resistance at Ste. Jean Baptiste crossroads at about 2130 hours on 9 November. The men withdrew and reported the encounter to the commander of the 2d Battalion, 16th Infantry, who immediately ordered his force to engage the foe while the cavalrymen pulled back to screen the rear. This first encounter resulted in no losses of men or material.

The 3d Infantry Division’s Reconnaissance Troop, which landed at Fedala as part of the Western Task Force, had been scheduled to be the first cavalry outfit into action. The men wore special black uniforms for their pre-dawn assault on Yellow Beach. But a series of mishaps in lowering and loading boats prevented their landing until daylight. The troop returned to the transports rather than conduct a frontal attack across a well-defended beach in broad daylight. Elements of the 2d Armored Division’s 82d Reconnaissance Battalion did reach shore as part of the armored landing team of the same task force, but they do not appear to have engaged in battle that day.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Aviation Snapshot - Hail Testing on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner's Turbofan Engine

The GEnx-1B, GE's next generation turbofan engine on the Dreamliner, undergoes a hail test at Site 4D on the Peebles test site in Ohio as part of the initial certification effort. Ice accretion testing was conducted at Mirabel Icing Facility in Montreal, Canada, where tests simulated the sort of sever icing conditions in which slabs of ice would form in the inlet cowl and engine face after a two-minute delay in activating anti-icing systems. Photo courtesy of GE, from Boeing 787 Dreamliner by Guy Norris and Mark Wagner.

Monday, March 14, 2011

They Said It... - Claude Dreno and the Bombing of Valognes, France

In the first days of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June of 1944, many coastal communities in Northern France were subjected to fierce bombing campaigns carried out to soften German defenses posted throughout the countryside. 

One such community, Valognes, would bear the brunt of the seemingly unrelenting, often hasty bombings. Much of the town's ancient architectural jewels in "Normandy's Little Versaille" were lost amidst the force of apocalyptic fire. 

In the following account from Normandy: Breaching the Atlantic Wall, Claude Dreno, fifteen years old in 1944, lived in the center of Valognes near the train station and was caught in the terrible bombing of June 7 and 8.


"On June 7 at 8:30 p.m., we heard a dull sound that started approaching and getting louder. We then saw forty-five bombers flying in three formations of fifteen each, and little black dots began to drop out of the plans and fall through the sky. My mother and I instantly left the house to take shelter elsewhere. We knew it was a bad sign if we did not hear the whistle of the bombs, because it meant they were headed straight for us. And we heard nothingnot until they exploded!

"The noise was unbelievably frightening, like an earthquake. I don't know how long it lasted; probably it was only a few minutes, but in situations like that you totally lose notion of time. You are so afraid, you don't understand anything that's happening. Once it's over, you fell dazed. The atmosphere seems very strange. After all the deafening noise, suddenly everything's gone silent and you don't hear a thing!

"Our house was destroyed. We had gone to my aunt's, who lived right in the center of town. The next day, the bombs started falling again. By some miracle, no one in our family was killed or hurt. This time we took refuge at Yvetot-Bocage, three kilometers from Valognes, where eighty people had already gathered. At moments like that, there are no social barriers, no questions of class. Everyone helps everyone else, and chips in. Some people slaughtered animals for food; others returned to Valognes to bring back whatever provisions they could scrounge up.

"When the Americans arrived, their reception was very reservednot hostile, but reserved. People in Valognes didn't understand the reason for all the bombing. For that matter, neither did the American soldiers!"

Photo courtesy of Lt. Col. G. E. Goodwin, part of the G-5 section of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force Team (SHAEF).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Military Snapshot - Infantry Hugging an M4 During Operation Cobra

American soldiers hug an M4 Sherman medium tank as they enter an enemy-held town during Operation Corbra. Before the armored and motorized infantry units of Maj. Gen. Joseph "Lightning Joe" Lawton Collins' VII Corps could reach Coutances, they had to take the French towns of St. Gilles and Marigny. St. Gilles fell on the afternoon of July 26, and Marigny fell the next morning. Photo courtesy of the National Archives, from Patton's Third Army in World War II by Michael Green & James D. Brown.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Aviation X-Ray - P-47 Thunderbolt Gun Mount

With four Browning .50-caliber machine guns in each wing, the P-47 Thunderbolt had immesne punching power: thirteen pounds of lead per second! The guns were staggered to allow efficient feeding from the ammunition trays located in the outboard wing. Illustration courtesy of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, from P-47 Thunderbolt at War by Cory Graff.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

From the Pages - The War I Always Wanted

Growing up in the shadows of the giant B-52 Stratofortresses that thundered away from the nearby Barksdale Air Force Base, Brandon Friedman dreamed of becoming a warrior and defending his country. But dreams of heroism and the realities of war can look very different, and when Brandon joined the army as a second lieutenant in peacetime, he had no way of knowing how his world was about to change.

In the following excerpt from The War I Always Wanted, Friedman recalls his experiences on the first morning facing off against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Shahi-Kot Valley in "Operation Anaconda."

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An eerie quiet has descended upon the Shah-e-Kot Valley and its surrounding peaks. As the sky turns from black to purple to blue, I sit, unmoved, against my ruck. I am a small, living, breathing dot on a smoking expanse of desolation. The stillness is palpable. All I can hear are my own teeth chattering in the cold air. With the light comes sobriety, and Life itself seems a bit self-conscious about its behavior during the night. Eventually I will learn that the silence and calm following butchery is directly proportional to the amount of bloodletting that occurs.

I am groggy. I think that I must have dozed for nearly an hour because the night’s events are already beginning to seem like a dream. I hear movement around me as guys who aren’t pulling security start to wake from their short naps. As the sky begins to lighten, my heart sinks as I realize mountains buttress us to the east—mountains that will block our only source of heat for hours.

Sergeant Collins is next to me. We make some small talk as I scan our surroundings for the first time in the early morning light. Being in the low ground, I can’t see much. The platoon is facing southwest, stretched in a defensive line spanning a hundred yards. They are on the reverse slope of a rise in the earth. I look for Charlie Company, but can’t see them anywhere. In the night it had come across the net that they had been engaged in a firefight the day prior and are now somewhere on the high ground to our east.