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The Last of 4 Brothers to See Combat Captain Jay Vargas Picked up the Medal of Honor in Vietnam

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H/T War History OnLine.

Captain Jay Vargas kept up his family tradition of military service and became a Medal Of Honor recipient.

Left: Jay R. Vargas, Medal of Honor recipient. Right: 2/4 Marines search Dai Do village, May 1968. Photo: USMC.

It can easily be said that fighting is a family affair when it comes to military service. It is not uncommon for sons to follow in their father’s footsteps or for brothers to meet each other’s challenge to serve and fight.

Such was the case for the Vargas family where all four brothers were involved in combat. The military service of this family spanned three wars – from the sand of Iwo Jima to the frozen hills of Korea and finally the jungles of Vietnam. Jay Vargas, the youngest, undoubtedly endured his fair share of teasing and fighting from his older brothers as they became combat veterans. However, it was the youngest son who emerged from his combat experience with the nation’s highest military honor.

Despite not having slept for 36 hours due to combat also worthy of merit, Capt Vargas and Company G were inserted near the village of Dai Do. Leading an attack across 700 yards of open ground, Vargas destroyed multiple machine-gun positions by himself. He did it despite wounds he had received during the prior action and more during this assault. Once Company G had taken the village, they were subjected to a voracious counter-attack. Taking refuge in the cemetery and digging up fresh graves for foxholes, Vargas led Company G to hold on. After three days of battle, Captain Jay Vargas had gained the nation’s highest military honor.

A Family Ready to Fight

Jay Vargas was born in 1938 Winslow, Arizona to a family of immigrants. His father was Hispanic while his mother was Italian and together they raised four, fighting fit boys. The oldest Vargas, Angelo, fought his way through the black sands of Iwo Jima. Next, Frank took part in the action during the bloody struggle for Okinawa. Joseph fought during the Korean War, and that left the youngest, Jay, to see if he would follow in their footsteps.

Jay Vargas graduated High School in Winslow, Arizona where he was a standout player in baseball. Moving on to Northern Arizona University, Vargas eventually joined the Class A Portland team of the Los Angeles Dodgers club team. Realizing that a career in baseball was unlikely to happen, Vargas decided to put on another uniform.

His mother reportedly implored him to join the US Air Force but to no avail. In 1963, Jay Vargas entered the United States Marine Corps and became a commissioned officer. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. By 1968, Vargas was genuinely following in the footsteps of his brothers experiencing heavy combat throughout the jungles of Vietnam.

Jay R. Vargas, Medal of Honor recipient

From One Fight to the Next

On April 29, Captain Jay Vargas was serving with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. The last unit in that particular area of operations, Company G was unable to be airlifted out due to heavy enemy fire making any helo lift too dangerous. The result was Vargas leading Company G on foot out of the area under heavy artillery fire to the base camp. Arriving relatively unscathed, rest for Vargas and the men of Company G was short-lived. Despite a lack of sleep for nearly 36 hours, and Vargas wounded, they were sent back into action.

A short distance away, two Marine Companies were under heavy fire from a North Vietnamese Regiment near the village of Dai Do. Upon the arrival of Company G, Vargas was ordered to lead the assault across 700 yards of fire-swept terrain to take the village. Braving the gunfire, Vargas led his men as far as he could until they were pinned down by heavy machine gun fire. Realizing the danger to his Company, Vargas grabbed the reserve platoon and immediately charged the entrenched positions.

Upon arriving at the hedgerows used for cover, Vargas led the assault, destroying three machine guns by himself. During the attack, he was again wounded by grenade fragments but refused care or evacuation. He continued the assault and set up a defensive perimeter as the village was taken. The North Vietnamese wanted their village back, and they executed a ferocious counter-attack. Taking refuge in the cemetery, Vargas and the men of Company G used fresh graves for cover, tossing the buried bodies aside.

Marines provide machine gun cover for a CH-46 near Đông Hà, 5 May 1968. Photo: USMC.

Holding the Line

Throughout the night, Vargas encouraged his men to hold their line and resist the enemy’s efforts. Reinforcements arrived the next morning, and the call to renew the assault on Dai Do was given. The Marines pressed forward and pushed through the village. The North Vietnamese responded, and the result was a brutal hand-to-hand struggle to the death.

In the open, Vargas continued to fight with both small arms and knife while shouting encouragement to his Marines. While assisting wounded Marines, he was hit again for the third time. When he saw his Battalion Commander go down, he ran across the fire-swept terrain to pull him to cover. After three long days of battle, the enemy finally began to pull back, and the Marines were in control of Dai Do.

When Captain Jay Vargas returned from Vietnam to his brothers, he did so having more than lived up to the Vargas family name. In 1970 he was presented with the Medal of Honor as his proud family looked on.

Jay Vargas rightfully earned his distinct place in both the Vargas family and the halls of military history.

 

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Finding A Hero – Veteran Receives Medal of Honor 24 Years After Valorous Actions

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H/T War History OnLine.

R.I.P. Joseph Epps May 16,1870-June 20,1952. 

War History online proudly presents this Guest Piece from Jeremy P. Ämick, who is a military historian and writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.

Though little is known about the early life of Joseph Epps, the veteran of the conflict known at the Philippine Insurrection gained a level of national notoriety when he received the nation’s highest award for gallantry—but 24 years after the heroic actions which earned him the coveted distinction.

Born May 16, 1870 in Jamestown, Mo., Epps was known to be a quiet man and lacking in friends, said Richard Schroeder, a California, Mo., resident who has studied the life of the late veteran.

“I’ve researched newspapers articles about him and interviewed some of his relatives (who are now deceased),” said Schroeder. “He had one close friend while growing up, a neighbor girl who was ten years older. It wasn’t a romance,” he added, “just a close friendship”

As Schroeder explained, the girl died when Epps was 21 years old and his parents passed within the following year, which inspired the quiet man from Jamestown to pull up roots and move to Oklahoma with aspirations of becoming a cowboy.

Though the specific date that Epps left his Missouri home remains uncertain, the December 1, 1928 edition of the The Nashua (Iowa) Reporter noted that in 1899, the Panama, Okla., resident “left his horse and lariat to join the army for service in the Philippines.”

An article in the July 27, 1926 edition of the Reading (Pennsylvania) Times explained that the former cowboy first entered service with Company D, First Regiment of the Territorial Volunteer Infantry from the Oolagah Indian Territory; however, it was his later service with Company B, 33rd United States Volunteer Infantry that would earn him an unexpected recognition.

According to the Texas Military Forces Museum, the 33rd was organized at San Antonio and “recruited almost entirely from Texas.” The regiment deployed to the Philippines in 1899 to help quell an insurrection brewing on many of the islands in the region.

Documentation from the National Archives and Records Administration explains that the Philippine Insurrection unfolded when the U.S. gained territorial control of the Philippines on December 10, 1898 through the Treaty of Paris. Previously, the they had been under the colonial authority of Spain and “(m)any in the islands were not eager to see one colonial power replaced by another.”

Under the leadership of revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo, the islands soon erupted into struggles of armed resistance, which resulted in the United States sending troops to help suppress the guerrilla activity.

Gregory Statler penned an article for the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in which he states Company B, to which Epps was attached, was stationed near the Philippine town of Vigan when chaos erupted around 4:00 a.m. on December 4, 1899.

“Shots were being fired; men were yelling; and the sounds of battle were coming from the plaza …,” wrote Statler.

The revolutionaries or “insurrectos” as they became known, with their forces of 850 men, had begun their attack against the town held by a mere 84 soldiers from Company B.

During the battle that ensued, Epps and another soldier received orders to protect an area near a wall adjacent to a churchyard and, to prevent the insurrectos from crossing the wall. Although Company B was able to repulse the initial attack, some snipers remained behind to harass the American forces with intermittent gunfire from behind the wall.

“I want to go and get those fellows behind the wall,” Epps said, according to the January 28, 1932 edition of The Waterloo (Indiana) Press. His request was granted and Epps was accompanied in his mission by Private W.O. Thrafton of Texas.

The article also stated the pair cautiously approached the churchyard, at which point Epps crawled to the top of wall and yelled at the insurrectos in both Spanish and English, ordering them to throw down their rifles and place their hands in the air. Concurrently, Private Thrafton “let loose a typical Texas whoop,” giving the impression there were additional American troops at their call.

“(Epps) believed that his friend from Jamestown (who had died years earlier) was serving as his guardian angel,” said Schroeder. “Before he jumped up on the wall, he heard her voice tell him, ‘They can’t hit you.’”

Complying with the persuasive command, the insurrectos abandoned their weapons, resulting in Epps’ single-handed capture of 21 armed men.

Congress awarded Epps the Medal of Honor in 1902; however, he essentially disappeared from the public eye after his discharge from the Army, thus leaving the medal unclaimed. It was not until he ran across his former captain years later that he learned of the honor he had been bestowed.

“At first,” Schroeder explained, “he didn’t want a big fuss made about the award. But when he learned it included a $10 bonus, he decided to accept it because he thought he could use the money to start up a chicken ranch in Oklahoma.”

On August 13, 1926, a reluctant Epps stood at attention and received the long overdue medal.

“Epps actually received two medals,” said Schroeder. “The first was the medal that was in effect 24 years earlier and the second was the newly designed medal,” he added.

After the award ceremony, Epps, who had previously avoided any recognition, again faded into the background to live his life in seclusion. The veteran passed away on June 20, 1952 and was laid to rest at Greenhill Cemetery in Muskogee, Okla.

“It is truly a unique and interesting story,” said Schroeder, while discussing Epps. “To have a man who was so quiet and essentially friendless while growing up, to then go on to perform such a heroic task during his military service—it’s amazing.

“It is really a great example of humility, that even when in the receipt of the nation’s highest honor (for valor), Epps did not crave the spotlight; he simply wanted to move on with his life and become a chicken farmer.”

 

Tackling a Suicide Bomber Captain Florent Groberg Saved Lives and Picked Up the Medal of Honor

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H/T War History OnLine.

Calling Captain Florent Groberg a hero is an understatement. 

Left: Florent Groberg patrols the city streets of Asadabad, Afghanistan, on Feb. 9, 2010. Right: Florent Groberg received the Medal of Honor on November 12, 2015.

 

Soldiers in war are repeatedly faced with complex decision making under stressful and ambiguous circumstances – with life and death hanging in the balance. The situation is then profoundly complicated when serving and fighting amongst an active and innocent civilian population.

Captain Florent Groberg was serving as the Commander of a Personal Security Detachment tasked with protecting over 20 coalition and Afghan leaders when he faced such a decision. While escorting them to the Governor’s mansion, he noticed an Afghan male walking suspiciously towards them. Rather than shoot and risk killing an innocent, he rushed toward the approaching man. As Groberg neared him, he realized it was a combatant wearing a suicide vest. With little time to think and lives at risk, Groberg tackled the man. The suicide vest exploded, throwing Groberg 20 feet away. When he awoke, he had become the nation’s newest recipient of the Medal of Honor.

From France to America

Florent Groberg was born in 1983 Poissy, France to a French mother of Algerian descent. Groberg did not speak English until he was 11. Then, having gained an American stepfather, the family made their way to the US. There, he sharpened his English and grew up as a typical American boy. He went on to attend college at the University of Maryland and later joined the Army in 2008. After gaining his commission and working through subsequent training, Groberg joined the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado.

He was sent to Afghanistan in 2009 where he served primarily in the Kunar Province. However, it was not that deployment where he earned his revered place in military history although he did serve with distinction. Returning home in 2010 he continued to serve with the 4th Division as a Company XO. Then in 2011, he was appointed Commander of the brigade Personal Security Detachment of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

By February 2012, he was back in Kunar Province, Afghanistan as part of Task Force Mountain Warrior. It was there he earned his distinction with an act of inexplicable gallantry that saved the lives of countless men. A meeting had been organized between coalition and Afghan leaders at the provincial governor’s compound in Asadabad. Groberg’s mission was to ensure everyone arrived safely and it was obviously a mission he took seriously.

Andrew Mahoney and Florent Groberg.

Sacrificing Everything for the Mission

On the morning of August 8, 2012, Florent Groberg was escorting 28 Afghan National Army and coalition leaders. Included were many military commanders so if the Taliban were to make a successful strike it would be a terrible blow to the coalition. Arriving at the governor’s compound required a risky foot patrol from a Forward Operating Base known as FOB Fiaz.

As the patrol came upon the compound, they encountered a known choke point due to a bridge along the path. Halting and taking stock of the situation, Groberg noticed irregularities. While the presence of Afghan civilians was a normal occurrence, he saw two motorcycles approaching the bridge. Remarkably, the riders dismounted and took off running in different directions.

Alerted, Groberg observed a single individual approaching the group while walking backward. Whether it was a civilian or combatant was a decision Groberg had to make quickly. As Groberg approached him the individual turned towards Groberg and he saw a large bulge under the man’s clothing. Groberg rushed toward the individual and upon reaching him, confirmed it was a suicide attack. Calling for help from another soldier, Groberg pushed the man away from the group. That is when Groberg paid a hefty price for his gallantry.

Groberg with President Obama, his parents Klara and Larry Groberg, and friend, Matthew Sanders, on September 11, 2012 at Walter Reed National Medical Center.

Stepping into Military History

As Groberg tackled the bomber, the suicide vest detonated throwing Grobert over 20 feet away and sending shrapnel into the closest members of the group. Unfortunately for them, there was a second suicide bomber in waiting. Fortunately, the blast caused the second suicide bomber to explode prematurely.

The blasts killed three US military personnel and a US Foreign Service Officer, but the bulk of the group of over 28 military leaders survived unscathed. Were it not for the courage and gallantry of Captain Florent Groberg it could have been a military disaster. Miraculously, Groberg survived. He suffered the loss of nearly 50 percent of his left calf muscle, nerve damage, and a traumatic brain injury.

After recovering for over two years at Walter Reed Medical Center, Groberg retired in 2015.

However, his story was not over. On November 12, 2015, Captain Florent Groberg received the nation’s highest military honor from the President of the United States. America was not the country of Groberg’s birth, but it was the country that he was determined to defend. In doing so, he earned a hallowed place in Military History and the eternal appreciation of 28 military leaders who entrusted their lives to him.

 

Warrior Frank Baldwin Received Two Medals of Honor One, for Fighting the Confederates & Another for Fighting the Indians

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H/T War History OnLine.

Major General Frank Baldwin is one of only nineteen men to be the recipient of two Medals Of Honor and one of even few recipients that was alive.

Major General Frank Baldwin went on to have a long a distinguished military career. 

Receiving the Medal of Honor for valor in combat puts one in the hallowed company of but a few thousand individuals to ever grace the earth.  But by the time you earn two Medals of Honor, you are one of 19 persons to have ever done so.

Perhaps it is because the Medal of Honor is quite often awarded posthumously, but receiving two and living to talk about it is a rare feat in the world.  Frank Baldwin would do just that in the 1800’s and live to become a General by World War 1.  His first would come during the American Civil War in an era where men lined up in pretty neat rows and took turns shooting at each other.

The next would be on the American frontier as the rapidly expanding America put itself in increasing conflict with the Native Americans pushed west.  And while each conflict is the subject of intense historical debate, the gallantry of a man on either side when the bullets start to fly is often the least controversial part of it all.

From Michigan to the Deep South

A native of Michigan, Frank Baldwin was born in Manchester Michigan in 1842.  As fate would have it, he came of age just as America was embarking on a costly Civil War that few could have predicted would take the toll on the nation that it did.  Over 600,000 would die in this conflict, but Frank Baldwin would not be one despite his conspicuous gallantry in the face of heavy enemy fire.

He initially joined the US Volunteer Army as a 2nd Lieutenant for the Michigan Horse Guards in 1861 before eventually making his way to the 19th Michigan Volunteers in 1862.

Confederate Artillery outside of Atlanta via commons.wikimedia.org
Confederate Artillery outside of Atlanta. By GoShow – CC BY-SA 3.0

By early 1863, he would find himself fighting in Tennessee against the Confederate Army.  In March, he would actually find himself a POW after being captured near Brentwood, TN by General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates.

However, a prisoner exchange in August allowed him to return to the fight.  Fighting his way with the Union Army through Chattanooga, he would eventually find himself under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman during his infamous march to Atlanta.

At Peachtree Creek, Georgia on July 12th, 1864 his actions as a Captain with Company D 19th Michigan Infantry would earn him his first Medal of Honor.  When his unit came under an intense Confederate attack, Captain Baldwin led a countercharge that would find him well ahead of his men.

It is reported in this citation that he singly entered the enemy’s lines due to being so far ahead and when it was all said and done, he brought back two fully armed Confederate officers as well as the guidon of a Georgia regiment as if just to rub it in that the Confederates could not stop him.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Peachtree Creek.

As the war ended, he returned to Detroit and was discharged as a Captain on June 10th, 1865.

One More for Good Measure

Like most good things in life, why to have one when you can have two seemed to be the mantra of Frank Baldwin.  After the war, he was commissioned in the 19th United States Infantry in 1866 and served in a variety of duty stations that took him everywhere from being a quartermaster to recruiting duty over the next eight years.

In 1874, he was assigned to join the Indian Territory expedition under the leadership of General Nelson A. Miles of the Fifth Infantry.  Setting out from Fort Dodge, Kansas, he participated in the campaigns against the warriors of the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapahoe, and Comanche, who were resisting American westward expansion.

A depiction of Frank Baldwin's charge at McClellan's Creek Texas via commons.wikipedia.org
A depiction of Frank Baldwin’s charge at McClellan’s Creek Texas

On November 8th, 1874 Baldwin’s unit was called into action when a group of hostile Native Americans had captured two local American women.  Rather than wait for reinforcements as one might think given the numerically superior Native American force, Baldwin led a charge with just two companies.

The attack was a success as it prevented the enemy from escaping and killing the captives.  For his actions that day at McClellan’s Creek, Texas, Frank Baldwin would receive his 2ndMedal of Honor.

He would go on to serve in a variety of campaigns against the Indian forces over the next 15 years to include engagements against the famed Native American Chief Sitting Bull.

His service would take him from Texas to Yellowstone before eventually being transferred to the Philippines for service during the Spanish-American War where for the first campaign against an enemy in his life, he didn’t receive a Medal of Honor.

A Quiet End as General

By 1906, Baldwin had earned the rank of General before being retired from active service after over 40 years of service.  He would otherwise live a quiet retirement before being called upon by his now home state of Colorado.  He would later be recalled to service as a Major General for the Colorado National Guard during World War 1.

While he didn’t deploy to Europe, the recall was more of an admiration for his extensive military experience and an earnest need for men of his character to mentor the next generation of warriors.

Frank Baldwin (right) and Buffalo Bill in 1891 via commons.wikimedia.org
Frank Baldwin (right) and Buffalo Bill in 1891

Major General Frank Baldwin died in 1923 in Denver, Colorado. With over half of his life spent toward military service, his contribution to his nation stands tall.  But when you consider he picked up two Medals of Honor along, history can’t help but take notice.

A Medal of Honor serves as a bookmark in history for all to take notice regardless of what one might think about the nature of the conflict.  For it tells us in modern times that a remarkable feat of human nature took place in the history of war.

Already Wounded from his Gallant Action Cpl Richard Bush Hugged a Grenade On Okinawa to Save His Marines

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H/T War History OnLine.

R.I.P. Master Gunnery Sargent Richard E.Bush  December 23, 1924-June 7, 2004 

 

For many Marines, the cries for “Doc” on the battlefield signal the end of their time in combat. If the doc can patch them up and send them back into the battle, he will. But in most cases, it is time to extract the Marine from the battlefield and send them to the rear with the gear.

Such was seemingly the case for Marine Corporal Richard Bush during the Battle of Okinawa. Leading his Marines through the rocky ridges of Mount Yaedake, Bush braved a heavy barrage of artillery fire and a relentless enemy determined to pay for every square inch of their homeland with blood. Leading from the front, his unit was the first to break through the enemy’s inner defenses, resulting in severe wounds to Bush.

Having been evacuated and under medical care, Bush was resting with others under cover of protecting rocks when an enemy grenade fell among the Marines and Corpsmen. Despite his injured and weary state, Corporal Bush pulled the grenade to his body ready to make one last sacrifice for his Marines and country. The grenade exploded causing devastating injuries to Bush. With those around him safe, Bush had earned himself the Medal of Honor for this action. Most importantly he somehow survived his gallant deed and lived a long and fruitful life.

From the Farm to the Pacific

Richard E. Bush was born just before Christmas in 1924 Glasgow, Kentucky. Like many men of the area and time, agricultural needs took precedent over his education. Working with his father on a tobacco farm as a tractor driver, Bush had only completed one year of high school by the time his nation came calling. In September 1942, Bush enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserve and was sent to Camp Elliott, California to await his fate in the Pacific.

Bush later joined the famed Marine Corps Raider unit. The Raiders were initially intended to be deployed for special warfare operations but were primarily used as regular infantry during the many island assaults needed in the Pacific Theatre. By April 1945, Bush was serving as a squad leader with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, 6th Marine Division. For Bush, it meant a rendezvous with military history during the brutal assault on Okinawa.

The Battle of Okinawa pitted hundreds of thousands of American troops against over 100,000 Japanese soldiers and conscripts. Just 340 miles from the Japanese mainland it was considered hallowed Japanese territory. Its defenders understood the importance of the battle and were determined to make the Allies pay a hefty price. It took 82 days of hard fighting to secure the island and resulted in the horror of thousands of Japanese civilians committing suicide to avoid being captured by the allies.

Richard E. Bush

The Battle for Mount Yaedake

On April 1, 1945, hundreds of thousands of American troops hit the beaches of Okinawa and began to push inland. The fighting was as dense and fierce as the Americans had expected on land, air, and sea. Offshore, American ships were subjected to hundreds of sorties from Japanese kamikaze aircraft. With devastating effect, the Japanese had turned their once-prized aircraft into missiles of destruction and death. Inland, the Marines were finding the rocky terrain of Okinawa a tough fight.

By April 16, 1945, Bush and the Marines of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines were pushing up against an enemy stronghold centered on Mount Yaedake. Rimmed with sharp rocky ridges, the terrain was a strong, natural defense. The Japanese had trained their guns and artillery on the American approach, and the mountainside lit up with fire from their massive bombardment. Bush could be seen leading his squad from the front.

With confidence and serving as an inspiration to his Marines, Bush led them over the face of the mountain, and they were able to sweep the enemy of the ridge. Despite the Japanese being heavily entrenched, Bush continued to press the assault and was successful at dislodging the determined enemy. His unit was the first to break through the inner defenses of Mount Yaedake and paid a heavy price for their achievement. During the final assault, Bush was severely wounded and required evacuation. Having already displayed gallantry worthy of commendation, he was withdrawn to the cover of a rocky precipice to receive emergency aid.

Group of marines on a hillside.

One Last Act of Gallantry

Despite having been withdrawn from the front, every square inch of Okinawa was still very much a dangerous place to be. As Bush was being treated, a Japanese grenade rolled down the hill and came to rest next to the Marines and Corpsmen. Despite being attended to, Bush was cognizant enough to analyze the situation quickly. Either he would have to act immediately, or the already wounded Marines all around him would be killed. With just seconds to decide, Bush corralled the grenade and drew it to his body while bracing himself for the worst.

The grenade exploded, sending hot metal shrapnel through his body. When the Marines and Corpsman looked up to see what had taken place, they knew they had seen one of the bravest acts of the war. Fortunately, due to the skill of the Corpsman and the indomitable spirit of Corporal Bush, he survived. He lost several fingers along with his vision in one eye, but Bush emerged having earned the nation’s highest military honor.

He received his Medal of Honor in October 1945 from President Harry S. Truman. After the war, he continued to serve his fellow veterans by working as a counselor with the Veterans Administration. Despite his willingness to invite death that April day in 1945, Bush lived to the ripe old age of 79 before passing away in 2004. One of the few men to jump on a grenade and live to talk about it, Bush had rightfully earned his place in military history.

 

Korea: Marine Manned Machinegun Alone – Found Dead Next Morning With Over 200 Dead Enemies Around Him

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H/T War History OnLine.

R.I.P. Corporal Joseph Vittori August 1, 1929-September 16, 1951.

The history of war is comprised of many occupational specialties necessary for military victory.  Within the culture of Military Service, one would often find rivalries associated with these roles.  For the Marine Corps, which is an organization centered around the infantry, this is most certainly the case.

Modern Marines will refer to infantry as Grunts and non-infantry types as POGs, or Persons other than Grunts.  The POGs are reported not to be very fond of that term while Grunts are reported as caring very little about what the others think.  Past eras – such as Vietnam – would demonstrate this rivalry as well where infantry were still known as Grunts, but those not on the front lines.

Those who had no front line experience were lovingly referred to as REMFs. RE stands for Rear Echelon – I’ll leave the rest of that acronym to the reader’s imagination. It may not quite be publishable, but it’s no less part of the nuance of military history for that.

Soldiers from the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division in action near the Ch'ongch'on River, 20 November 1950.

Soldiers from the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division in action near the Ch’ongch’on River, 20 November 1950.

For one Infantry Marine in Korea, a combat wound would place him in the rear with the equipment as a property Sergeant.  Within a week, he was begging to be sent back to his unit fighting in the hills of Korea where he would eventually fall in combat and be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Corporal Joseph Vittori

Born in the small Massachusetts town of Beverly in 1929, Joseph Vittori would grow up as a teenager watching the Marines battle the Japanese in the Pacific.  Upon graduating High School in 1946, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was sent to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island to begin what would be a legendary career in the Marines.  However, this legendary career would get off to a somewhat mundane start.

When a new Marine joins the fleet in modern times, they are often referred to as a “boot,” in reference to their having just left boot camp.  Life can be hard as a boot, but it must have been spectacularly difficult for a new Marine in 1946 when the Corps was comprised of battle-hardened veterans who had fought their way from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima.

Joseph Vittori, posthumous Medal of Honor recipient.

Joseph Vittori, posthumous Medal of Honor recipient.

Upon becoming a Marine, Vittori would serve in a variety of roles from 1946 to 1948 including time at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, sea duty aboard the USS Portsmouth, and the Philidelphia Navy Yard before he was eventually transferred to the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

In 1949, Vittori was discharged after three years of service, and in these non-combat years, he returned home to Beverly where he would work as a plasterer and bricklayer. Then war broke out in Korea in June of 1950.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in September of 1950 for what he knew would mean a combat deployment to Korea.

The Marine, who had been too young for World War 2, no doubt spent his active duty time listening to the stories of that war from combat veterans. Well, he was about to get his chance to jump into the fray.  After a period of training, he landed in Korea to join Company F, 2nd Battalion First Marines.

Fighting for Hill 749

U.S. Marines move out over rugged mountain terrain while closing with hostile North Korean forces.

U.S. Marines move out over rugged mountain terrain while closing with hostile North Korean forces.

Once in Korea, he would quickly find himself immersed in the back and forth struggle between the two Koreas.  The South was bolstered by American and UN forces while the North would be aided by hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops.  Vittori was wounded in June of 1951 near Yanggu and spent time in a field hospital where he was promoted to Corporal.

Once he recovered, he was assigned to be a property sergeant, which was a hard role for this Grunt to accept.  Within a week, he was pleading to be sent back to his unit fighting it out in the hills of Korea so that he could serve alongside his friends.

His request was granted, and while it would prove a fatal decision for him, the Marines he likely saved with his heroic actions would have much reason to be thankful.  In September of 1951, during the Battle of the Punchbowl, Company F was given the task of assaulting up Hill 749.

Coming head-on towards the fortified positions, the Marines assaulted and made great progress until they were hit by a counter-attack that pushed them back.  During the chaotic attempt to consolidate their positions, Corporal Joseph Vittori gathered up two other volunteers and charged the counterattacking North Koreans.  In what would become a fierce hand-to-hand struggle, Vittori overwhelmed the enemy giving his company time to prepare for more attacks.

Marine Helo delivers supplies during the Battle of the Punchbowl via commons.wikimedia.org

Marine Helicopter delivers supplies during the Battle of the Punchbowl.

The next phase of his Medal of Honor action that day would see him volunteering to defend a machine gun position on the northern point of the line that was almost entirely isolated from the rest of the unit.  When a 100-yard breach was made in the American lines due to dead or wounded, Vittori would find himself running from flank to flank firing upon the enemy from this position during the North Korean night attack.

In the pitch black, Vittori held off the enemy and manned the machinegun alone after the gunner was killed.  The enemy had approached within 15 feet of Vittori’s position, but he held until mortally wounded by machine gun and small arms fire.

The Morning After

Vittori’s gallant one man stand allowed the Americans to hold the lines and deny the enemy physical occupation of the ground.  His Medal of Honor citation would go on to say that he prevented the entire battalion position from collapsing.

When Vittori was found the next morning, there were over 200 dead enemy bodies strewn out in front of his position.  And while he can’t be credited with all 200 himself, it is a safe bet that a high percentage of those dead North Koreans wished Corporal Joseph Vittori would have stayed a POG, REMF, or whatever they might have called those who spend the war in the rear with the gear.

US Marines in Korean War via commons.wikimedia.org

US Marines in Korean War.

All positions are of value in warfare and any who wear the uniform serve with honor and respect.  However, it would seem that for some men the infantry is a calling and despite the high probability of death in a fierce struggle, they truly belong on the front lines rather than inventorying property in the rear.

Joseph Vittori’s Medal of Honor was presented to his parents in 1952 by President Harry Truman as a grateful nation, Marine Corps, and the men of Company F 2nd Battalion 1stMarines were truly thankful for his sacrifice.

 

Medal of Honor, 3 Navy Crosses and Highest Ship Kill Count for a Submarine Commander in the Pacific

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H/T War History OnLine.

R.I.P Rear Admiral Richard Hetherington “Dick” O’Kane (February 2, 1911 – February 16, 1994) 

 

The War in the Pacific was perhaps the last time that history has given us all-out open warfare between two mighty naval fleets on a global scale.  Yes, there have been Naval engagements since, ships lost, and men sent to the bottom, but never on the scale that was seen in the 1940s, in the Pacific Theater of World War Two.

The Japanese and American navies using every ship that could float to try to kill one another throughout the Pacific is something hard to conceptualize today.  The Battles revolved around their commanders, and for the American fleet, few men did it better than Commander Richard O’ Kane.

Credited with taking out more than 30 Japanese ships before his own submarine was sunk in late 1944, this future Medal of Honor recipient brilliantly and boldly took the fight to the Japanese in waters where they claimed superiority.  Until the day he was captured and made a POW, if O’Kane and his USS Tang were in the water, some Japanese would soon be swimming.

Commander Richard H. O'Kane.
Commander Richard H. O’Kane.

Born for Life at Sea

Richard O’Kane was born in 1911 Dover, New Hampshire.  Recognizing his calling to serve at sea, he attended the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and graduated in 1934.  He initially served aboard the heavy cruiser Chester and the destroyer Pruitt.  However, his future would be with those who dwell beneath the surface and after submarine instruction in 1938, he was assigned the USS Argonaut.  This would be his new home until 1942 when the Argonaut, a sub commissioned in 1928, was put in to be overhauled.

With the war in the Pacific now in full swing, Lieutenant Commander O’Kane joined the new submarine Wahoo as her Executive Officer.  He would serve under Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton, who was just four years ahead of him at the Naval Academy but commanded his own submarine.

Together, they would perfect the art of the submarine attack.  The Wahoo would become one of the most celebrated ships World War 2 as it racked up 19 Japanese ships sunk.

Morton and O'Kane aboard the Wahoo in 1943 via wikimedia.org
Morton and O’Kane aboard the Wahoo in 1943.

Fortunately for O’Kane, he was given command of his own sub in 1943 when he took the helm of the USS Tang.  Meanwhile, the Wahoo would go on to disappear at sea never to be heard from again – presumably lost in combat.

But the USS Tang still had a great deal of fighting ahead of them and together, O’Kane and the USS Tang would make history together

Mastering the Art of the Submarine Warfare

USS Tang (SS-306), off Mare Island Navy Yard, December 1943.
USS Tang (SS-306), off Mare Island Navy Yard, December 1943.

For a submarine commander, he had a responsibility to take the fight to the enemy often in very contested waters.  O’Kane and the USS Tang would make five war patrols into enemy territory attacking Japanese ships and performing “Lifeguard Duty” where a submarine would be placed off the coast of an enemy island under air attack in order to rescue any down pilots that might have to ditch their planes.

During one such lifeguard session off the island of Truk, the USS Tang would rescue 22 airmen in one mission earning them a Presidential Unit Citation.

However, it would be sinking ships, not rescuing men, that would become his claim to fame.  The records of how many ships sunk have regularly been in question as post-war Japanese records were examined to confirm or add to American accounts.

USS Tang rescuing airmen off Truk in May 1944.
USS Tang rescuing airmen off Truk in May 1944.

Officially during their five war patrols, the USS Tang, led by O’Kane, was credited with 24 Japanese ships sunk would make the Tang the second highest total for an American Submarine and Lieutenant Commander Richard O’ Kane, the highest for a single commanding officer.  Other reports using Japanese records could put the total as high as 31.

O’Kane would make dashing in and out of enemy convoys seem easy as they constantly scored wins navigating the submarine through the burning heaps of floating metal that they created.

Unfortunately, O’Kane’s remarkable run would come to an end in late October of 1944 when it is believed that one of their own torpedoes malfunctioned and made a circular run striking the USS Tang and killing all but 8 of its 87 man crew.

O'Kane with airman that were rescued off Truk Island in May 1944.
O’Kane with airmen who were rescued off Truk Island in May 1944.

O’Kane was one of the fortunate few who made it out alive, but the only people conducting “lifeguard duty” in these waters were the Japanese. O’Kane and the surviving crew were “rescued” by an agitated Japanese crew none too happy about what O’Kane had just been doing to them.

Time as a POW

For Richard O’Kane and the surviving crew, they would have to sit out the rest of the war a Japanese prison camp near Tokyo where they would endure beatings and starvation for the next ten months before the war would end.

Downed American airmen near Truk Lagoon are ferried by a Vought OS2U Kingfisher to USS Tang.
Downed American airmen near Truk Lagoon are ferried by a Vought OS2U Kingfisher to USS Tang.

Upon his release, Richard O’Kane was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions aboard the USS Tang before it sunk.  And there are few better ways to recount such a fascinating tale than to take it directly from the Medal of Honor citation. It reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Tang operating against two enemy Japanese convoys on 23 October and 24 October 1944, during her fifth and last war patrol.

Boldly maneuvering on the surface into the midst of a heavily escorted convoy, CMDR O’Kane stood in the fusillade of bullets and shells from all directions to launch smashing hits on three tankers, coolly swung his ship to fire at a freighter and, in a split-second decision, shot out of the path of an onrushing transport, missing it by inches. Boxed in by blazing tankers, a freighter, transport, and several destroyers, he blasted two of the targets with his remaining torpedoes and, with pyrotechnics bursting on all sides, cleared the area.

Twenty-four hours later, he again made contact with a heavily escorted convoy steaming to support the Leyte campaign with reinforcements and supplies and with crated planes piled high on each unit. In defiance of the enemy’s relentless fire, he closed the concentration of ship and in quick succession sent two torpedoes each into the first and second transports and an adjacent tanker, finding his mark with each torpedo in a series of violent explosions at less than 1,000-yard range.

With ships bearing down from all sides, he charged the enemy at high speed, exploding the tanker in a burst of flame, smashing the transport dead in the water, and blasting the destroyer with a mighty roar which rocked the Tang from stem to stern.

Expending his last two torpedoes into the remnants of a once powerful convoy before his own ship went down, Comdr. O’Kane, aided by his gallant command, achieved an illustrious record of heroism in combat, enhancing the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Commander Richard H. O'Kane being awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman.
Commander Richard H. O’Kane being awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman.

After the war, Richard O’Kane would remain in the Navy, rising to the rank of Rear Admiral.  He passed away in 1994 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  A Medal of Honor recipient and not to mention the three Navy Crosses, he is one of the most highly decorated sub-commanders of the Pacific.

 

 

Charles Rogers: Medal of Honor Recipient – Far too wounded to lead the counterattack again, Rogers continued to inspire and encourage his men in defense of the base

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H/T  War History OnLine.

R.I.P.Major General Charles Calvin Rogers September 6,1929-September 21,1990.

 

In warfare, it is often the lower ranking enlisted men or junior officers that find themselves in a position to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor. Higher ranking commanders tend to stay well away from the front line, and it is usually the NCOs or junior officers leading a charge. However, when the highest ranking African-American Officer earned his Medal of Honor, he was right in the mix beside the men he led.

Ready to Fight

Charles Rogers was born on September 6, 1929, in Claremont, West Virginia. Staying local, he attended West Virginia State College where he enrolled in the Army ROTC program. Serving in a variety of capacities throughout his career, Rogers proved himself a reliable, capable, and effective combat leader. By 1968, he was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam.

On November 1, 1968, 1st Battalion was manning a fire support base near the Cambodian border when North Vietnamese troops attacked it. A fire support base is a temporary military camp providing artillery support to infantry operating outside the permanent camp. It was typical for the bases to be subjected to frequent harassment by the enemy ranging from snipers to the occasional mortar.

More feared by the US troops was a full assault by the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong human waves. With reckless disregard for their lives, they threw themselves at the American defenses willing to endure enormous casualties for the opportunity to overrun a position.

At dawn, the calm and quiet of the fire support base was broken by a most unwelcome surprise. A shower of mortars, rockets, and rocket propelled grenades descended upon the base. It was immediately evident from the heavy concentration of shells that it was not a case of harassment fire. The North Vietnamese had something major planned for the base, and their first assault was determined to achieve it. Vietnamese Sappers breached the defensive perimeter deploying Bangalore torpedos – tubes with an explosive charge placed in them.

Charles Rogers as a brigadier general.

Commanding From the Front

Without hesitation, Lieutenant Colonel Rogers jumped into the action. Many of his artillery crew had been dazed in the initial attack. With complete disregard for his safety and through a hailstorm of fire and shrapnel, he rallied them to man their howitzers but was knocked to the ground and wounded by an exploding round. Rebounding to his feet and ignoring his injuries, Rogers directed gunfire upon the incoming enemy. With his men back in action, something had to be done about the enemy soldiers that had penetrated the base.

Personally rallying a small group of troops, Rogers led a counterattack against the enemy forces that had breached the perimeter of the US encampment. Despite being again wounded, he and his men were able to successfully repel the enemy from their position. Refusing medical treatment, Rogers knew the attack was far from over. Reorganizing and reinforcing their defenses, he inspired his men.

The Viet Cong launched a second human wave attack against another sector of the US base. Rogers repeated his example of inexplicable gallantry. Again directing fire on the incoming enemy, he could be seen leading the defense as he moved from position to position encouraging his men. Rallying his forces at every turn they could not help but be inspired by his example. Again he led a counterattack on the enemy forces and again they were repulsed. However, the numerically superior enemy was not yet finished.

Marines complete construction of M101 howitzer positions at a mountain-top fire support base, 1968.

One Final Stand

They launched a third human wave attack on the fire support base, and US casualties were starting to mount up. Rogers realized a howitzer was inoperable due to a lack of manpower, so he jumped into the position. Working with the surviving members of the crew, Rogers enabled them to return the howitzer to action and rain fire upon their attackers. At that point, Rogers was severely wounded by fragments from a heavy mortar round which exploded on the edge of his gun position.

Far too wounded to lead the counterattack again, Rogers continued to inspire and encourage his men in defense of the base. When the battle was over the Americans were still in control of the fire support base, and Rogers was nominated for a Medal of Honor. He went on to serve a full and distinguished career in the United States Army eventually rising to the rank of Major General.

After his distinguished military career, Rogers lived out his dream career as a minister. Not forgetting the men with whom he had for so long served, Rogers chose to minister to US troops stationed in Germany. Unfortunately, he died from cancer at the age of 61.

Rogers awards included the Medal of Honor; Legion of Merit; Distinguished Flying Cross; four Bronze Stars with a “V” and a Purple Heart. His entire career was in keeping with the finest of military traditions exemplified by his actions near the Cambodian border.

 

 

Robert Cole, Hero of The Carentan Bayonet Charge, Tragically Killed Two Weeks Before Being Awarded The Medal of Honor

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H/T War History OnLine.

R.I.P.Lt.Colonel Robert G.Cole March 19, 1915-September 18, 1945.

Operation Market Garden would claim countless American lives in September of 1944, one of whom was a man set to receive the Medal of Honor just two weeks later.

In the largest airborne assault ever seen, tens of thousands of American paratroopers descended from the skies over the Netherlands to secure vital bridges ahead of rapidly advancing ground forces. For Lieut. Col. Robert Cole and many other men of the 101stAirborne Division, this was not their first jump into combat.

Already hardened veterans from the D-Day invasion, Lieut. Col. Cole led his men into the face of a surprisingly resilient and prepared German defense in the Netherlands. But Cole had been here before. Just months earlier outside of Carentan France, he led his battalion on a ferocious bayonet charge into the German-occupied hedgerows that would earn him the Medal of Honor.

As is often the case in war, Lieut. Col. Cole would never live to receive it as he fell in the fields of the Netherlands where he remains to this day.

Always Leading from the Front

Robert Cole was born in Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas in 1915. His father was a Col. and Army doctor who laid a foundation of military service for his son. Cole joined the Army in 1934 but was honorably discharged in 1935 after he received a successful appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

After graduating with the class of 1939, he was commissioned a second lieutenant to the 15th Infantry at Fort Lewis Washington. However, Cole was destined to enter the battlefield not from the ground, but from above.

In 1941, he was transferred to the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion and earned his jump wings at Fort Benning Georgia. As the American military was fully embracing the potential of airborne assault, the parachute ranks were rapidly expanding. As a result, when the battalions were expanded into regiments Cole would quickly find himself a Lieut. Col. by early 1944 and in command of the Third Battalion of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment.

In 1943, the hundred and first Airborne Division made its way to England in preparation for the European invasion.

American paratroopers just before taking off for D-Day
American paratroopers just before taking off for D-Day

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, Lieut. Col. Cole’s battalion descended over Normandy. Gathering what men he could find after the chaos of the jump, he secured his objective behind Utah Beach and was there to greet the 4th Infantry Division as they pushed past the beachhead.

During the ensuing days, the allies were in a fight to take Carentan. By June 10, Lieut. Col. Cole and 400 other paratroopers were advancing towards the target city along a very dangerous and exposed causeway surrounded by marshes and the infamous hedgerows of France.

It was here just outside of Carentan that Lieut. Col. Cole would lead a rare bayonet charge and secure his place in military history.

Hand to Hand Combat

During the advance on the city, Cole’s Battalion was riddled with continuous artillery, machine gun, and mortar fire. The Germans had set up obstacles that made a bottleneck out of any attempt to press forward. As a result, Cole set up defensive positions for the night where they continued to suffer from heavy enemy fire.

By morning, approximately 250 of his original 400 men were left in fighting condition. Realizing the situation was becoming grim, Cole ordered smoke thrown towards the heavily defended hedgerows and personally led a bayonet charge towards the German lines with a pistol in one hand and bayonet in the other.

The Road to Carentan via commons.wikimedia.org
The Road to Carentan

While the charge initially began as just Cole and a small portion of his unit, the rest of the Battalion took notice at what was happening. Feeling inspired by their commander’s leadership, the battalion picked up and thrust themselves into the German-occupied hedgerows.

The fighting was at close quarters and hand-to-hand, but the men of Lieut. Col. Cole’s battalion overpowered the German defenders and made them pay a high price as they fled from the assault. Approximately half of the men who took part in this dangerous charge became casualties, but it was credited as a key moment in breaking through the German defenses and pushing on towards Carentan.

For his leadership and conspicuous gallantry, Lieut. Col. Cole was recommended for the Medal of Honor. However, there was still a lot of war to be fought and Lieut. Col. Cole pressed on with his battalion in the ensuing campaigns to take Germany.

After Normandy, the 101st returned to England to replenish their forces with replacements and prepare for the next jump. It just so happens that for Lieut. Col. Cole’s battalion that would be Operation Market Garden and the largest airborne assault ever seen.

At the Front Till the End

After descending upon the Netherlands, the paratroopers found themselves in a pitched battle with the Germans as they attempted to secure the key bridges necessary for the rapidly advancing armor behind them. Cole’s battalion was tasked was seizing the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal in Best.

Under heavy artillery fire, his battalion was pinned down and seeking Allied air support to direct fire on the German positions. However, during the chaos of the battle, the Allied planes were actually firing at Lieut. Col. Cole’s men.

Furious, he ordered his men to place airplane recognition panels in front of their lines to redirect the American airpower. When this wasn’t happening fast enough, Lieut. Col. Cole ran out himself in front of the lines to place the panels. The American airplanes recognized the signal and directed their fire back upon the Germans.

While looking up into the skies for the planes, Lieut. Col. Cole was struck by a single sniper bullet to the head which killed him instantly on September 18, 1944.

Lt. Colonel Cole’s grave in the Netherlands. By Wammes Waggel – CC BY-SA 3.0

Lieut. Col. Cole was buried at Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten the Netherlands. Two weeks after his death, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bayonet charge near Carentan.

Cole’s widow and two-year-old son were present while his Medal of Honor was posthumously given to his mother at Fort Sam Houston Texas. Lieut. Col. Cole always saw it his duty to be at the front where his men were doing the fighting.

While his conspicuous gallantry might have cost him his life in combat, he inspired his men with such leadership and laid a foundation for the elite class of men that can call themselves airborne.

 

In 1943 several US airmen went on a suicide mission. Two men were awarded a Medal of Honor for Separate Acts of Heroism in One Cursed Bomber

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H/T War History OnLine.

Just over eight hours after the mission began, Old 666 landed in New Guinea

In 1943, several US airmen went on a suicide mission. Two men were awarded a Medal of Honor – the only time in WWII that two men received the same award for the same engagement. Interestingly enough, their careers didn’t start out well.

Jay Zeamer, Jr. got his wings in 1941 at Langley Field. All his classmates became pilots and got their own planes and crews, but not Zeamer. Although he could fly and had a passion for it, he just didn’t have what it took to be a pilot.

Still, he could fly, so when America entered the war, they made him a co-pilot. In March 1942, they sent him to Australia where he again tried to become a pilot but again failed. So they sent him to the Solomon Islands – same thing. Zeamer was to spend WWII as a co-pilot, navigator, gunner, and anything else; just not a pilot.

Joseph Raymond Sarnoski met Zeamer at Langley. Sarnoski got his wings, but they made him a bombing instructor, something he wasn’t happy about. In 1942, they sent him to Australia where he became a Technical Sergeant, but he wasn’t happy about that, either.

He wanted to see combat, so they let him fly a few missions, promoted him to Master Sergeant then sent him to the Solomon Islands to train others. Despondent, he turned to the one person who couldn’t fly a plane. As to what happened next, you first have to understand what was happening on the islands.

Lt. Col. Jay Zeamer, Jr. (left) and Joseph Raymond Sarnoski (right).
After bombing Pearl Harbor, Japan occupied territories in the South Pacific, including the Philippines (which was American property). The island of Rabaul was, therefore, Japan’s key to the region.

America’s priority, however, was on Europe. Since it couldn’t ignore Japan, the original plan was to contain them till Hitler and Mussolini were out of the way.

General Douglas MacArthur fired the air chief in early 1942 and replaced him with General George Kenney’s Fifth Air Force.

General George Churchill Kenney
General George Churchill Kenney
The Fifth began calling themselves “Ken’s Men” and began receiving awards, including several Medal of Honors. Even Sarnoski earned a silver star for an earlier engagements. And Zeamer? The Intelligence Section in Port Moresby.

The Japanese at Rabaul were stepping up their activities to retake the rest of the Solomons and Papua New Guinea, but US reconnaissance flights were impossible because the island’s volcano kept spewing smoke. Zeamer volunteered for the job, flew below the smoke, and got his photos while the crew fought off the enemy.

Rabaul’s volcano is the lower mountain on the right
Rabaul’s volcano is the lower mountain on the right. By Masalai CC BY-SA 3.0
He still wasn’t an official pilot, but he had flown so well they stopped caring. On 16 January 1943, he sank an 8.000-ton ship and was awarded a Silver Star. That should have earned him a plane and crew, but they had none to give him.

Their eye fell on old 666 a B-17E 41-2666 which was assigned to the United States’ 43rd Bomb Group. By 1943, Old 666, tail number 41-2666, had suffered heavy battle damage and had gained a reputation as a cursed bomber, often coming back from missions with heavy damage.

Grounded at Port Moresby Airport, it was parked at the end of the runway where other aircrews could cannibalize it for needed parts. A military photographer told Zeamer, “I know where there’s a bomber, but no one will fly it anymore because every time it goes out it gets shot to hell!”

Still, it flew and was more heavily armed than other Flying Fortresses because they’d rebuilt it almost from scratch. They increased the number of machine guns from 13 to 19, replaced the waist gunners’ standard single guns with twin guns, replaced all .30 cal machine guns with the larger and more powerful .50 cal, and added a fixed-position gun that could be fired from the pilot’s station. Zeamer’s crew put guns where they did not even need them and left spare machine guns on the aircraft’s catwalk; if a gun jammed at a critical moment, they could dump it and quickly replace it. They also mounted a gun behind the ball turret near the waist.

Zeamer’s crew put guns where they did not even need them and left spare machine guns on the aircraft’s catwalk; if a gun jammed at a critical moment they could dump it and quickly replace it. They also mounted a gun behind the ball turret near the waist.

The group volunteered for missions no one wanted and were called the Eager Beavers – always taking the most dangerous jobs but always making it back alive. All received Silver Stars while Sarnoski got an Air Medal and became a second lieutenant.

Boeing 17B Flying Fortresses at Marchfield, California
Boeing 17B Flying Fortresses at Marchfield, California
By March, skirmishes against the Japanese were increasing, culminating in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. The Japanese defeat gave MacArthur the plan to take the Philippines back. Called Operation Cartwheel, it meant attacking their bases at Bougainville, Buka, and Rabaul. If those fell, the Americans could take the other islands till they reached the Philippines.

But a raid against such heavily defended positions would be suicide unless they knew what they were up against. No one volunteered, so MacArthur settled on a reconnaissance flight over Bougainville. The Eager Beavers stepped forward. Two caught malaria and Sarnoski was ordered back to the US to teach, but he couldn’t let the rest go without him.

Just before their 4 AM takeoff on June 15, however, Zeamer was ordered to make an additional reconnaissance flight over Buka. He was determined to ignore it. Bougainville was dangerous enough, and he wanted all the Eager Beavers back alive.

They reached Bougainville too early, however, still too dark for picture-taking, so Zeamer flew to Buka. It was worse than they thought. There were 400 new enemy fighters, and 17 were revving up to meet them. The Old 666 zoomed to 25,000 feet and flew toward Bougainville.

Chief Flight Petty Officer Yoshio Uki of the 241st Kokutai was among the recent arrivals, so he couldn’t wait to take out the Americans with his A6M Zero. As they took to the skies, however, the Fortress took neither evasive maneuvers nor sped up. It was as if the Americans didn’t see them.

They did, but to get proper pictures, they had to fly steadily for 20 minutes. To buy time, Sergeant “Pudgy” Pugh shot at the Japanese from the tail, while Technical Sergeant Forrest Dillman shot from the waist.

Sarnoski manned the guns at the nose, waiting for them to attack from the front. He didn’t have to wait long. Uki and five others had flown ahead and were turning back to hit the Fortress from its most vulnerable point – the front.

A Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero Model 22 (NX712Z) that was recovered from New Guinea in 1991 and restored
A Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero Model 22 (NX712Z) that was recovered from New Guinea in 1991 and restored. By Kogo – GFDL
It took them over 15 minutes to complete their maneuver. By 8 AM, the two sides were on a collision course at over 500 mph over Empress Augusta Bay. Zeamer needed only one more minute before he could break off, but it was too late.

The Japanese opened fire with 20mm cannons and 7.7 machine guns. Zeamer fired back from his nose gun, hitting Uki’s wings… but not before Uki’s 20mm cannon smashed the Plexiglas, hit Sarnoski, cut open his side, sent him flying back into the catwalk beneath, and shredding Zeamer’s legs and feet with shrapnel.

A Mitsubishi Ki-46 “Dinah” twin-engined reconnaissance plane with two 20 mm cannons in the nose and one 37mm cannon in an “upwards-and-forwards” position
A Mitsubishi Ki-46 “Dinah” twin-engined reconnaissance plane with two 20 mm cannons in the nose and one 37mm cannon in an “upwards-and-forwards” position. By Tony Hisgett – CC BY 2.0
Second Lt. Ruby Johnston, the navigator, ran to help Sarnoski, but the latter waved him off and dragged himself back to his guns. He took out a Dinah and a Zero, but not before the Zero’s cannon hit the cockpit, taking out their instruments and oxygen supply. More bullets found Zeamer’s arms and feet, but he managed to dive down to 2,000 feet so they could breathe. Then they crashed into the sea.

Or so the Japanese official report claimed. Despite blacking out several times, Zeamer got them back to base, but Sarnoski never got up from his machine gun. He had died firing his machine gun, the only men Zeamer failed to return.

Upon landing, the co-pilot told the ground crews to get Zeamer first, but the ground crew said, “He’s gone!”; Zeamer, however, was not dead,

Thanks to their mission, however, the Allies knew exactly how to avenge Sarnoski at Buka and Bougainville. For completing a vitally important mission, both Sarnoski and Zeamer each were awarded the Medal of Honor, every other member of the crew was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Old 666 was returned to the United States in February 1944 and was salvaged at Albuquerque in August 1945.

 

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