Featured image: “… to the shores of Tripoli…” Lt. Presley O’Bannon leading Marines during the Battle of Derna, inspiring the famous opening line to the Marine Corps Hymn. (painting by Col. Charles Waterhouse, USMC art collection)
1805: Following an extremely difficult march across a 500-to-700-mile stretch of North African desert, a force of eight U.S. Marines, two Navy midshipmen, and band of Arab and Greek mercenaries commanded by U.S. Army officer William Eaton have reached the fortress at Derna (modern-day Libya) during the First Barbary War.
Supported by three warships (USS Nautilus, USS Hornet, and USS Argus), Eaton personally leads the two-and-a-half-hour assault on the fortress. One Marine is killed in action and another mortally wounded in the first U.S. land battle on foreign soil. The Battle of Derna also marks the first time the U.S. flag is raised over foreign soil.
Legend states that newly installed, pro-American pasha Hamet Karamanli was so impressed with Marine 1st Lt. Presley O’Bannon’s leadership and heroics that he presents O’Bannon with a Mameluke sword. U.S. Marine officers today still carry the Mameluke sword, whereas Marine NCOs carry the traditional Naval infantry saber.
1813: Brig. Gen. Zebulon Pike’s 1,800-man American infantry force lands west of the Canadian town of York (present-day Toronto). Supported by a 14-ship naval flotilla, the Americans inflict heavy losses on the outnumbered British regulars, Canadian militia, and Ojibwe warriors. The fort’s magazine explodes during the battle, killing 38 Americans (including Pike) and wounding over 200. York is burned after the town’s capture, enraging the British and inspiring them to retaliate by burning Washington, D.C. the next year.
1865: The overcrowded Mississippi River steamboat Sultana, carrying 2,400 Union soldiers just released from Confederate prison, explodes and sinks just north of Memphis. At least 1,500 soldiers perish in the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history.
1953: As armistice negotiations begin, Gen. Mark Clark – the commander of UN forces in Korea – informs Communist pilots through shortwave radio broadcasts in Russian, Chinese, and Korean that defecting MiG-15 pilots would receive political asylum and $50,000 (the first defecting pilot would be awarded $100,000) to fly an operational jet to South Korea. The Russian MiG-15 was considered to be superior to any Allied fighter at the time and had inflicted heavy casualties on Allied airmen.
Although no pilot would take up the offer until September, Operation MOOLAH had the indirect effect of grounding MiG-15 sorties for several days – perhaps as Communist Party leaders investigated the loyalty of their pilots. And following Clark’s broadcasts, there would be no more sightings of Russian pilots or aircraft, which were considerably better pilots than their Chinese or North Korean MiG counterparts.
1812: The frigate USS United States under the command of Capt. (future commodore) Stephen Decatur – hero of Tripoli and said to be the U.S. Navy’s own Lord Nelson – captures the Royal Navy frigate HMS Macedonian under the command of Capt. John Carden in a brisk fight several hundred miles off the Azores.
1925: The court martial of Col. William “Billy” Mitchell, America’s chief aviation officer during World War I and considered to be the “Father of the U.S. Air Force”, begins in Washington, D.C.. The outspoken Mitchell is charged with multiple counts of insubordination due to his criticism of Navy leadership for investing in battleships instead of aircraft carriers and the handling of numerous fatal aviation incidents. Maj. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, one of Mitchell’s 12 judges, refers to his assignment as “one of the most distasteful orders I ever received.”
1942: On Guadalcanal, Japanese forces launch a series of full-frontal assaults to retake Henderson Field. The defending Marines – led by Lt. Col. B. Lewis “Chesty” Puller – and soldiers kill upwards of 3,000 Japanese troops at the cost of only 80 Americans. Sgt. John Basilone became a Marine legend during the battle, fighting off wave after wave of Japanese soldiers for two days despite being incredibly outnumbered.
1944: During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, torpedoes from the destroyer USS Melvin (DD-680) sink the Japanese battleship Fusō, considered to be the largest warship to go down with all hands during World War II. Rear. Adm. Jesse Oldendorf’s 7th Fleet Support Group, consisting of several battleships sunk or damaged during Pearl Harbor, engage and sink the battleship Yamashiro, marking the last battleship-versus-battleship engagement in history. The escort carrier USS St. Lo (CVE-63) becomes the first major warship to be sunk by Japanese kamikaze pilots. By war’s end, kamikaze attacks would sink 34 U.S. ships.
Elsewhere in the gulf, three Japanese destroyers are sunk at the cost of one U.S. escort carrier, two destroyers, and a destroyer escort.
Aircraft from the U.S. 3rd Fleet, commanded by Adm. Bill Halsey, sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku, the last surviving carrier that struck Pearl Harbor. Also headed for the bottom are two more light carriers and a destroyer. Two more ships – including another light carrier – are crippled. Later that day, naval gunfire and torpedoes will claim another Japanese light carrier, two destroyers, and a light cruiser. The Battle for Leyte Gulf is effectively over.
1950: Well over 200,000 Chinese Communist troops attack UN forces in their first assault of the Korean War. The Chinese force withdraws to the mountains and when they attack again one month later, they will drive the American-led force all the way back to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.
1983: In the largest military operation since Vietnam, nearly 2,000 U.S. troops land on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada to secure American citizens and topple the Marxist regime. On the first day of fighting, members of the 75th Ranger Regiment parachute into the Port Salines International Airport, allowing planes to deliver soldiers of the 82d Airborne Division. When a SEAL team determines that the beach is unsuitable for the planned amphibious invasion to capture Pearl Airport on the opposite side of the island, helicopters ferry Marines ashore and quickly secure their objective.
1776: After the British capture Long Island, Continental Congressional delegates Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge meet with British Adm. Lord Richard Howe for a peace conference at Staten Island. Hoping to bring a quick end to the conflict, King George granted Howe the authority to discuss peace terms, but not including the recognition of American independence. When Howe states that the loss of America would be like losing a brother, Franklin replies that “we will do our utmost endeavors to save your lordship that mortification.”
1814: New York is saved from a possible invasion by British forces when Commodore Thomas MacDonough’s squadron decisively defeats the British fleet led by Capt. George Downie in the Battle of Plattsburgh.
2001: As air controllers learn that several planes appear to have been hijacked, fighter jets are scrambled but do not arrive in time to disrupt a complex terrorist attack that kills 2,997 Americans and injures some 6,000. At 9:37a.m., a Boeing 757 flown by Al Qaeda terrorists slams into the Pentagon, killing 55 military personnel and 70 civilian employees. The area hit by the plane was undergoing renovations at the time of the attack, which meant only a few hundred of what would normally be around 5,000 occupants were endangered. Structural reinforcements and a sprinkler system had recently been added – in response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – which increased survivability.
Although it is too late for the Pentagon, all U.S. military facilities worldwide are ordered to enter Force Protection Condition “Delta” – the highest level of readiness for a possible terrorist attack. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld increases the military alert level from DEFCON 5 (the lowest state of military preparedness) to DEFCON 3. Although the Russians would typically match the increase, President Vladimir Putin notifies George W. Bush that he would order his forces to stand down and denounces the terrorist attack. A report of a possible truck bomb attack targeting the North American Aerospace Command (NORAD) headquarters in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex leads to the first time the facility closes its massive blast doors, which are designed to withstand a nuclear attack. NORAD now controls of all American air space as combat air patrols guarded the skies and enforced a nationwide no-fly-zone.
2012: Terrorists launch a coordinated assault on a U.S. government compound in Benghazi, Libya. Although the battle rages for hours, the military isn’t permitted to mount any kind of effective response. Two CIA contractors – Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods – are killed, as well as foreign service officer Sean Smith and Ambassador Chris Stevens.
1781: The Royal Navy fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Grave’s Royal fleet clashes with Comte de Grasse’s French armada at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. The navies fight each other at close range for two hours before the British disengage and sail for New York. The French victory traps Lt. Gen. Lord Corwallis’ army at Yorktown, preventing their reinforcement or evacuation and ultimately contributing to Cornwallis’ surrender in October.
1813: Off the coast of Maine, the brig USS Enterprise spots HMS Boxer and the two vessels begin maneuvering to attack. Boxer’s captain Samuel Blyth declares “We are going to fight both ends and both sides of this ship as long as the ends and the sides hold together.” Blyth is killed in the opening barrage, and in less than 30 minutes, his ship is wrecked. A mortally wounded Capt. William Burrows refuses to accept Blyth’s sword and orders it sent back to the English captain’s family. The two captains are buried side by side during an elaborate funeral in Portland.
1862: U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Charles F. Adams (the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of Pres. John Adams), informs the British government that sending ironclad warships to aid the Confederacy would lead to war.
1939: As Germany fights its way across Poland, President Franklin Roosevelt issues two neutrality proclamations. While required to put in place an arms embargo by law, Roosevelt will soon ask Congress to remove the ban.
1944: While escorting a bombing mission to Stuttgart, Lt. William H. Lewis shoots down five Heinkel He-111 bombers taking off from Göppingen, Germany, becoming an ace in one mission. His flight of P-51 “Mustangs” would shoot down 16 bombers during the attack.
1814: The British Army routs the Americans in the Battle of Bladensburg, then marches into Washington, D.C. in what is considered “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.” Gen. Robert Ross’ exhausted troops – several died during the battle from exhaustion after long marches – avenge the American destruction of Port Dover (in present-day Ontario) in May by setting fire to the Presidential Mansion (now called the White House), Capitol Building, and numerous other government and military facilities.
However, the British only hold Washington for one day before a massive storm blows through, severely damaging the British ships and causes the occupiers to abandon the area.
1912: The Navy’s first electrically powered ship, USS Jupiter (AC-3) is launched. Ten years later, a flight deck is added to the 542-ft. vessel, and the renamed USS Langley becomes America’s first aircraft carrier.
1942: Vice Adm. Frank J. Fletcher’s Task Force 61 and a Japanese carrier division converge in the Solomon Islands as Japanese troops attempt to reinforce Guadalcanal. The Battle of the Eastern Solomons is fought entirely by aircraft; the Japanese inflict serious damage on USS Enterprise (CV-6), while the Americans sink several vessels, including the light carrier Ryujo.
Over Guadalcanal, Japanese warplanes clash with Army and Marine aircraft of the “Cactus Air Force,” with Capt. Marion E. Carl in his F4F “Wildcat” scores four of the day’s ten Allied victories , becoming the Marine Corps’ first ace.
1945: Just two days after being discharged from the service, Chief Petty Officer Bob Feller returns to Cleveland and is honored by a parade before pitching in his first major league game since becoming the first professional athlete to enlist in the Armed Forces during World War II. Despite losing nearly four years to his military service – Feller served aboard the battleship USS Alabama – the future Hall of Famer strikes out 12 batters and only allows four hits in the Indians 4-2 win over the Detroit Tigers.
1776: The unfinished American garrison guarding Charleston harbor comes under attack by nine British ships under the command of Adm. Sir Peter Parker. The British attack the fort for 12-plus hours, but their cannonballs are no match for the palmetto log defenses of Fort Sullivan. In what has been described as the “first decisive victory of American forces over the British Navy” during the American Revolution, Col. William Moultrie and his South Carolina militiamen inflict heavy casualties on the Royal Navy forces and repel the assault.
1778: The Battle of Monmouth, N.J. is fought between Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army (including the legendary Molly Pitcher) and British forces under Gen. Sir Henry Clinton. Though tactically inconclusive, the battle is a strategic victory for the Americans who prove they can go toe-to-toe with the British Army in a large pitched battle.
1814: 200 miles west of Plymouth, England, the sloop-of-war USS Wasp – the fifth of ten so-named vessels – engages HMS Reindeer. After 19 minutes of intense fire, with the Americans repulsing numerous attempts by the British to board their vessel, Master Commandant Johnston Blakely and his men devastate the British crew, killing the ship’s captain, Commander William Manners, and 24 others. Reindeer is boarded, but is too heavily damaged to be taken as a prize and is burned.
1914: Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated by a Bosnian Serb. One month later, Austria-Hungary will declare war on Serbia, triggering World War I.
1919: Following six months of negotiations, the Treaty of Versailles is finally signed, formally ending World War I five years to the day after the event that triggered the conflict. The armistice of November 11, 1918 put an end to hostilities, but a state of war remained until the treaty. Germany is devastated – disarmed and forced to pay $31 billion in reparations (roughly the equivalent to nearly half a trillion dollars in 2017 dollars).
The U.S. Senate will not ratify a peace treaty with Germany until 1921. The “Carthaginian Peace” brought about by the Versailles Treaty will annihilate the German economy, leading to the rise of the Nazi Party – and ultimately World War II.
1950: As the South Korean capital of Seoul falls to the North Koreans, the first American combat forces – a 35-man anti-aircraft artillery unit – arrive in Korea. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the newly appointed Commander of United Nations forces, also arrives in theater.
1812: Immediately after war is declared, a squadron of American ships led by Commodore John Rodgers sails to intercept a British convoy sailing from Jamaica. When the frigate HMS Belvidera is spotted, Rodgers personally aims and fires the first shot of the War of 1812 – the cannonball striking the British ship’s rudder and penetrating the gun room.
1865: Confederate Brig. Gen. – and Cherokee chief – Stand Watie surrenders his First Indian Brigade of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi to Union forces in Oklahoma Territory, becoming the last general to surrender in the Civil War.
1923: Over the skies of San Diego, an Army Air Service DH-4 biplane flown by Capt. Lowell Smith tops off its fuel tanks from a hose attached to another DH-4, marking the world’s first mid-air refueling operation.
1944: During one of the largest bombing missions of the war, 761 bombers of the 15th Air Force attack the oil fields at Ploesti, Romania.
When one of the B-17s on the raid is damaged by flak and has to drop out of formation, bombardier 2nd Lt. David R. Kingsley drops his bombs and goes to the back of the aircraft to administer first aid to the wounded tail gunner. When another gunner is wounded by enemy aircraft, Kingsley attends to him as well. When the pilot orders the crew to abandon the plane before it explodes, Kingsley gives one of the wounded gunners his own parachute, sacrificing his life. His body is later discovered in the burned wreckage of the plane, and Kingsley is posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
1945: As the Sixth Army drives north to encircle the remaining Japanese forces on northern Luzon Island in the Philippines, paratroopers from the 11th Airborne Division perform their last combat jump of the war and cut off Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita’s Shobu Group’s retreat.
1969: The Special Forces Camp at Ben Het in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, eight miles east of the border with Laos and Cambodia, is cut off and besieged by North Vietnamese Army. Over the next several days B-52s fly 100 strikes while fighter-bombers, artillery, and helicopter gunships hammer the NVA until the Americans are relieved on July 2nd.
1807: Off the coast of Norfolk, Va., the British frigate HMS Leopard attacks the American vessel USS Chesapeake, forcing Commodore James Barron to surrender the ship after only managing to fire one shot. Four Americans are dead and 17 wounded in the attack, and the British board Chesapeake, taking four British deserters. The British impress thousands of American sailors into their service during the Napoleonic War, but “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair” outrages the Americans and will lead to the War of 1812.
1813: Some 2,000 Royal Marines and British soldiers attempt to attack the American fortifications at Craney Island, guarding Hapton Roads, Va. But unlike the crew of the Chesapeake six years ago (which in fact, took place near the site of Craney Island), the defenders are prepared – and repel the invasion. The American guns inflict 200 casualties in one of the first engagements of the War of 1812.
1865: The Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah fires the last shot of the Civil War – a warning shot at a U.S. whaling vessel in the Bering Straight. Shenandoah captured 38 ships and some 1,000 sailors during the Civil War, and becomes the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe when it sails to England to surrender – marking the last time the Confederate colors are struck.
1884: After three years of being stranded by ice in the Canadian Arctic, a rescue expedition led by Cmdr. Winfield S. Schley finds Lt. Adolphus W. Greely and six of his men from the ill-fated Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. 16 of Greely’s men had perished from hypothermia, starvation, drowning, and one man was ordered shot for repeatedly stealing food rations.
1898: The “Rough Riders” of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, led by Col. Leonard Wood and Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, begin landing at Daiquiri, Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
1944: Following a preparatory airstrike, the U.S. 7th Corps launches an assault against German forces at the French town of Cherbourg. The Allies meet stiff resistance at first, but 30,000 German defenders will surrender after a week of fighting. The Germans and Allies take heavy casualties – with both sides losing 8,000 soldiers killed in action or missing apiece.
1963: Four ballistic missile submarines are launched in one day – USS Tecumseh (SSBN-628), USS Daniel Boone (SSBN-629), USS Flasher (SSN-613), and USS John Calhoun (SSBN-630). The James Madison-class subs each carry 16 of the new Polaris A-3 nuclear missiles, with a range of 2,500 nautical miles.
1813: The frigate USS Chesapeake – one of the United States Navy’s original six ships – clashes with British ship HMS Shannon outside Boston Harbor. After being mortally wounded by a sniper round Chesapeake captain James Lawrence’s last words to his crew are “Tell the men to fire faster and [don’t] give up the ship! Fight her till she sinks!” Shannon’s crew boards and will capture Chesapeake, taking her crew prisoner, but Capt. Lawrence’s famous final words live on today.
1864: The bloody battle of Cold Harbor opens in earnest between Union Army forces under the command of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee. Grant will launch a series of futile attacks over the next three days. Lee will defend and hold. Union losses will be staggering: 13,000 to the Confederacy’s 2,500.
1918: At Belleau Wood, the site of an old French hunting preserve near Chateau-Thierry, Germans punch through the French lines, and American soldiers and Marines move up to fill the hole. When Marine Capt. Lloyd W. Williams arrives, he sees French troops withdrawing from battle. After being advised by a French officer to retreat, the Marine officer famously replies, “Retreat? Hell! We just got here!”
Williams will die during the battle, but the crack shooting and tenacious fighting of the Marines at Belleau Wood becomes legend and earns them the nickname “Teufelhunden” – devil dogs.
1944: Airships K-123 and K-130 of the U.S. Navy’s Blimp Squadron Fourteen land at French Morocco following a 50-hour, 3,100 nautical mile flight from Naval Air Station, South Weymouth, Mass. – the first transatlantic flight of a non-rigid, lighter-than-air aircraft. The massive airships made two stops for fuel and maintenance in Newfoundland and the Azores.
1990: As the Cold War nears its end, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev sign a treaty banning the production of chemical weapons and reducing the two superpowers’ stockpiles of the deadly weapons by 20 percent.
In his “This Week in American Military History” series at Human Events this week, W. Thomas Smith Jr. mentions the anniversary of Navy SEAL Michael Thornton’s amazing battle with the North Vietnamese Army:
Oct. 31, 1972: U.S. Navy SEAL Petty Officer (future lieutenant) Michael E. Thornton; his commanding officer, Lt. Thomas R. Norris; and three South Vietnamese Naval commandos are conducting an intelligence-collection and prisoner-snatch operation deep behind enemy lines when they are discovered by a force that outnumbers them at least 10 to one.
Fierce, close fighting ensues. Thornton and Norris are both wounded, Norris badly.
As the team begins a fighting withdrawal toward the beach, Thornton learns that Norris is down, perhaps dead.
Thornton races back through a hailstorm of enemy fire to find and retrieve his commander — dead or alive.
Thornton finds Norris, kills two enemy soldiers who are standing over his wounded commander, then hoists Norris onto his shoulders and sprints back toward the beach for several hundred yards under heavy enemy fire.
When he hits the surf, Thornton ties Norris to his own body and starts swimming. When he sees one of the South Vietnamese commandos shot in the hip and unable to swim, Thornton grabs him too; swimming both men out to sea for more than two hours before they are rescued.
For his actions, Thornton will receive the Medal of Honor.
Norris will survive and receive the Medal himself for a previous action.
The remainder of the article can be found at Human Events or by clicking below.