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Which military commanders burned their own ships?

Which military commanders burned their own ships?



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I understand it happened more than once where a general arrived by sea and shortly after landing ordered the ships to be burned, so that retreat would never be an option.

Which military commanders/generals did this, and under what circumstances?

EDIT: From searching online, I've found : Agathocles of Syracuse in 310 BC, Emperor Julian in 363, William of Normandy in 1066, and Cortez in 1519; I don't if any of these are accurate.


(1) One account of the Danaan invasion of Ireland has it that upon landing, they burned their ships, causing a great mist to rise up and terrifying the inhabitants who thought the Danaans arrived in a cloud.

(2) In Book V of the Aeneid, the Trojan women attempt to burn the ships after they arrive on Sicily, but a rainstorm thwarts their plans.

(3) In 351 BC, Sidon rebelled against Ochus, the King of Persia. They burned all the ships in the harbor to prevent anyone from fleeing. When it became clear that the city had been betrayed and the Persians were entering, they set fire to their own homes and the entire city was obliterated.

(4) In 296, the Praetorian Prefect, Asclepiodotus, commanded an army belonging to the emperor Constantius Chlorus, and led it against the usurper Allectus. Having arrived in Britain to confront Allectus, Asclepiodotus burned his own ships to prevent his men from retreating.

(5) In 363, Julian the Apostate, Emperor of Rome invaded Persia. After his army crossed the Tigris he had all the pontoons and barges burned so there would be no thought of going back.

(6) In 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, for whom Gibraltar is named, landed there, burned his ships and embarked on the conquest of Spain.

(7) Some accounts claim that William the Duke of Normandy burnt his ships on arriving in England in 1066.

(8) In 1169, a group of about 250 English freebooters under the bastards Robert Fitz-Stephen, Meiler Fitz-Henry, and Meiler Fitz-David, along with a vassal of king Henry, named Hervey Montmorency, raided Wexford, and having been repulsed they were so ashamed, they burnt their ships and determined to succeed or die trying.

(9) Hernando Cortez supposedly burned his ships in 1519 to prevent anyone returning to Cuba and reporting his mutiny to the Spanish governor there.

(10) According to a book published in 1689, which purported to be the journal of a pirate named Raveneau de Lussan, he at one point led his men across the isthmus of the Americas through Honduras after first burning their ship to prevent anyone from defecting.

(11) In 1779, during the celebrated battle between John Paul Jones and the English ship of the line, Serapis, rather than flee or surrender Jones desparately kamikazeed his sinking ship into the Serapis and captured it va banque.

(12) In 1789, sailors serving on the HMS Bounty under the notorious Captain Bly mutinied and sailed to Pitcairn Island where they burned the Bounty.


Tyler has given a very interesting long list. There is no doubt that the motive of an admiral burning his own ships to pre-empt any thought of retreat is an ancient and wide-spread narrative topos. But I think it is difficult to find any examples where it is reliably documented that this actually happened. Maybe only the story about the “Bounty”.


Bombardment of Papeete

Scharnhost ' s and Gneisenau ' s path across the Pacific.

The Bombardment of Papeete occurred in French Polynesia when German warships attacked on 22 September 1914, during World War I. The German armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau entered the port of Papeete on the island of Tahiti and sank the French gunboat Zélée and freighter Walkure before bombarding the town's fortifications. French shore batteries and a gunboat resisted the German intrusion, but were greatly outgunned. The main German objective was to seize the coal piles stored on the island, but these were destroyed by the French at the start of the action.

The German vessels were largely undamaged but the French lost their gunboat. Several of Papeete's buildings were destroyed and the town's economy was severely disrupted. The main strategic consequence of the engagement was the disclosure of the cruisers' positions to the British Admiralty, which led to the Battle of Coronel where the entire German East Asia Squadron defeated a Royal Navy squadron. The depletion of Scharnhorst ' s and Gneisenau ' s ammunition at Papeete also contributed to their subsequent destruction at the Battle of the Falklands.


Penobscot Expedition

In 1779, British warships and troop transports sailed into Bagaduce (now Castine, Maine), on the Penobscot Bay. Seven hundred British troops built a fort to defend Canada, deny timber to the rebels and interrupt their privateering. Ultimately they intended to settle the outpost as a haven for Loyalists. The British planned to call it New Ireland.

Maine then belonged to Massachusetts, which soon got word of the British presence on its soil. Civilian officeholders of the commonwealth decided to force them out. They called up the militia and commandeered ships from the Massachusetts Navy, the Continental Navy and the fleet of privateers.

The Penobscot Expedition included 40 vessels, nearly 2,000 seamen and marines, 100 artillerymen, 870 militia and 350 guns.

The operation was planned by civilians with little military input and carried out by badly trained part-time soldiers. Commodore Dudley Saltonstall and Brigadier General Solomon Lovell were put in joint command of the expedition. Saltonstall was timid and indecisive, while Lovell latter had little field experience.

Paul Revere took charge of the artillery train. He didn’t have much military training, but he had repaired the guns damaged when the British evacuated Boston.

When the massive flotilla left Boston Harbor, everyone expected it to take the garrison – even the British. They hadn’t taken into account the expedition’s shortcomings.


Battles That Saved America: North Point and Baltimore 1814

These few words—the opening line of the United States’ national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”—are some of the most recognizable in American history and move the heart all that hear them. Nearly every school child in America knows that Francis Scott Key wrote the anthem as a poem after observing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor throughout the night of 13 September and into the morning of 14 September 1814. From his vantage point on a British ship he watched through the rainy night as British guns pummeled the fort. As dawn broke, Key saw a massive American flag defiantly flying over the fort signaling that the British attack had failed. Had the British captured and burned Baltimore, as they had Washington the month before, Philadelphia and New York City would have been the next likely targets.

This story is well known but only tells a small part of what are known as the Battles of North Point and Baltimore, depending on which part of the engagement is being discussed. In truth these are just part of the same combined arms effort undertaken by the British on land and sea against Baltimore in September 1814. Fort McHenry is important and the most famous aspect of the battle, but there is much more to the events of 13 and 14 September 1814. This article will discuss some of those important and little known aspects of the battle.

The story begins in August 1814. After sailing up the Chesapeake Bay, British troops marched on Washington, DC, where they easily scattered the militia and handful of Regulars, Marines, and sailors assembled at the Maryland village of Bladensburg. This engagement, often derisively referred to as the “Bladensburg Races,” left the nation’s capital defenseless. Soon much of Washington, including the Capitol building, the White House, and other federal buildings, was in flames and President James Madison was forced to flee. Only severe thunderstorms saved the entire city from burning to the ground.

The British then focused their attention on Baltimore, a significant commercial and naval center, just forty miles northeast of Washington. Perhaps more than any other American city, the British wanted to capture Baltimore. One London newspaper declared, “The seat of the American government but particularly Baltimore, is to be the immediate object of the attack.”

Situated on the Patapsco River which offered entry to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, Baltimore was the homeport for a group of nautical soldiers of fortune called privateers. Privateering was a legal activity of the day in which privately armed and outfitted sailors roamed the seas under the license of a combatant nation looking for commercial and military prey of an enemy nation. These privateers seriously damaged British naval aims while bolstering the local economy. Other cities saw the effectiveness of privateering and soon commissioned their own schooners, but Baltimore alone accounted for thirty percent of British merchant ships seized during the war. The British response was an attempt to seize the privateers’ homeports and strike blows against America’s economy as well as its morale. They hoped to destroy Baltimore’s ship building facilities at the Fell’s Point Naval Yard, where the large frigate USS Java was nearing completion, along with stockpiled naval stores. The potential economic damage made Baltimore a lucrative target for British military might.

During their march back to their ships after torching Washington, British troops took Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, into custody. Dr. Beanes was said to have harassed British troops on the march—specifically he jailed two drunken British soldiers as they passed through Upper Marlboro. In retaliation for his bold actions the British seized Dr. Beanes and threw him in irons aboard the ship HMS Tonnant. Friends enlisted the aid of local lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, to gain the release of Dr. Beanes. Key approached the British and was taken aboard a ship to negotiate Dr. Beanes’ release. The ship sailed up the Chesapeake to the Patapsco River, taking a station about eight miles before Fort McHenry. The British agreed to release Beanes but insisted that Key remain on the ship until after the imminent battle was over. From his vantage point on that ship, just beyond where the modern Francis Scott Key Bridge (Interstate 695) crosses the Patapsco today, Key observed the 25-hour bombardment of the fort.

Baltimore was not surprised by the approach of the enemy in mid-September 1814. They expected that the British would target the city sooner or later. A year and a half before the battle the governor of Maryland, Levin Winder, instructed Revolutionary War hero and Whiskey Rebellion veteran, congressman, senator, merchant, and commander of the state militia, MG Samuel Smith, to improve the defenses of Baltimore. Using extremely limited state and federal funds, and continuously soliciting funds from the local citizenry, Smith was able to emplace fifty-six long-range cannon at Fort McHenry. In addition, Smith ordered the construction of several other lesser installations around Baltimore Harbor.

Among the improvements were upgrades of Fort McHenry, a 32-pound cannon battery along the water’s edge, fortifications at Lazaretto Point, and additional batteries arrayed along the banks of the Patapsco. Barges were stretched across the watery approaches creating choke points that were covered by supporting batteries at Fort Covington (named for BG Leonard Covington, a Marylander who was killed at Chrysler’s Farm, 11 November 1813) and Fort Babcock (named for Army CPT Samuel Babcock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who was the foreman in charge of the improvements and emplacements around the harbor). Channels were left open to lure the British ships into kill zones. All the improvements were designed to absorb the punishment expected from the better armed British in a “bend but do not break” strategy. A committee of public supply raised funds for construction projects. Volunteers dug huge entrenchments east of town. The city militia drilled regularly. Additionally, Smith anticipated that a naval bombardment would be just one aspect of the operation. He not only surmised that British troops would mount a ground campaign, he correctly predicted their route of march and prepared defensive positions along North Point.

The British plan was to squeeze the city in a combined land/sea pincer movement. Part of the plan was a naval bombardment to reduce the harbor defenses and land troops along the northern branch of the Patapsco. At the same time 5,000 infantry troops would land at North Point and march in an arc into the city from the east. Caught in the middle of these two overwhelming forces, the city was expected to capitulate just as quickly as Washington did a few weeks before. It all began in the predawn darkness of 12 September 1814.

At 0300 six British ships anchored off of North Point and began to offload troops and supplies under the command of MG Robert Ross, getting everyone on shore around 0700. Ross had three brigades of infantry, plus a company of Royal Sappers and a contingent of Royal Marines, under his command. British Rear Admiral George Cockburn accompanied Ross but had no authority to command. Once assembled into march formations the British began advancing up Long Log Lane, now Old North Point Road. The head of the mile-long column reached a homestead owned by Thomas Todd, established in 1664. The central feature of this 1,700 acre farm was a house called Todd’s Inheritance with a commanding view of the Chesapeake Bay. This aspect of the house doomed it to the British torch upon their retreat back down Long Log Lane.

Just over two miles along the march from Todd’s Inheritance, the British encountered an unfinished trench line designed to obstruct the British on a strip of land barely one mile across between Back River on the east and Humphrey Creek on the west. Today it is hardly visible and Humphrey Creek no longer exists. The line was abandoned for one a few miles closer to Baltimore at a point more strategically advantageous to the defenders. Although unmanned, this line did delay the British, as they had to deploy to meet the potential threat. Further up the road American BG John Stricker, who, like Smith, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and the Whiskey Rebellion, posted his 3d Maryland Militia Brigade (also known as the City Brigade) of Maryland’s 3d Militia Division in three lines between the Back River and Patapsco River. Stricker had 3,185 men in five infantry regiments (5th, 6th, 27th, 39th, and 51st), one cavalry regiment, one artillery regiment, and a battalion of riflemen.

Battle of North Point, by Don Troiani (National Guard Heritage Series)

Approximately seven miles into the march, the British commander, MG Ross, stopped at Gorsuch Farm to eat breakfast. When Stricker learned of this he assembled a volunteer force of 250 men to reconnoiter the British advance. After breakfast, Ross rode to the front to observe and command his troops. As he moved forward of his own men, Ross presented a tempting target, all the while ignoring Admiral Cockburn’s warnings that he was too exposed. Legend has it that two youthful–some say as youthful as 14 years of age–American sharpshooters, PVT Daniel Wells and PVT Henry G. McComas from CPT Edward Aisquith’s rifle company from the 1st Rifle Battalion, Maryland Militia, took aim and fired at MG Ross.

Whether it was Wells and McComas or other soldiers that fired at Ross remains in dispute, but beyond question is that Ross was struck in the arm and the projectile lodged in his chest, knocking him to the ground. Although mortally wounded Ross refused the use of a rocket wagon to evacuate him, saying that he did not want to deprive his troops of an important weapon. Instead, soldiers commandeered a cart from the farm of George Stansbury to carry the general from the field. He died at a spot approximately one mile from the site where he was wounded. As British soldiers carried him to the rear, Ross’ blood-soaked horse ran back to the main body alerting the British troops to the wounding of their commander.

Ross’ body was taken to the HMS Tonnant, flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane where he was preserved in a barrel of rum. On 29 September 1814 he was buried with military honors at Saint Paul Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His assailants, Wells and McComas, were themselves killed in action shortly after Ross was hit on 12 September.

Upon the death of Ross, COL Arthur Brooke, commander of the 1st (Light) Brigade, took command of the British ground forces. The American defenders were deployed in a line across Bolden’s Farm on the afternoon of 12 September. British and American artillery traded shots while the British attacked in an orderly and disciplined manner. As the enemy got closer, Stricker ordered the artillery to charge their guns with canister, which proved effective against the approaching British infantry. As the British ranks closed to within 100 yards–the effective maximum range for most smoothbore muskets of the day–the Americans kept up a heavy fire against the approaching infantry. In particular, the 5th Maryland, holding the American right flank and commanded by LTC Joseph Sterrett, put up stiff resistance in the face of murderous British rocket and artillery fire. Unlike the American forces at Bladensburg, Stricker’s troops did not panic and break when confronted by highly disciplined veteran British regulars. Once the British adavance was slowed, the Americans conducted a fighting retreat through a heavily wooded area to their next defensive line at Bread and Cheese Creek. Colonel Brooke did not pursue the Americans, choosing instead to camp for the night.

When Stricker saw that the British were not going to continue the attack he ordered his troops to fall back into the city to Hampstead Hill, part of an expanse owned by the second wealthiest Marylander at that time and the biggest contributor to Baltimore’s defenses. At this spot 5,000 defenders manned two and half miles of entrenchments. In some reports Hampstead Hill is also known as Loudenslager’s Hill or Chinquapin Hill. Today it is known as Patterson Park. As the American’s fell back they burned a large building used for making ship’s rigging commonly called in that day a “rope walk.” The fire’s glow seen from the city caused some panic among the populace.

The first day’s losses were significant for both sides, but the British suffered the heaviest casualties. Twenty-four Americans were killed that day and 139 were wounded. British losses were forty-six killed, including MG Ross, and 300 wounded. Many of the wounded, American and British alike, were treated at a local Methodist church where British surgeons worked through the chilly and damp night to save them.

The British suffered through the night for lack of shelter as they left their tentage and coats back at North Point, expecting that they would have been in Baltimore by nightfall. Heavy rain drenched the soldiers and rendered many weapons inoperable. As the British infantry shivered through the night, British warships moved up the Patapsco to within two miles of Fort McHenry. The second phase of the Battle of Baltimore had begun. Before dawn on the morning of 13 September the British continued their march on Baltimore along the Philadelphia Road. By first light they were within sight of the city at a position where the present day Francis Scott Key Medical Center is located.

At 0630 the Royal Navy opened their bombardment of Fort McHenry with five bomb ships, a rocket ship, and ten other warships of various types. British troops outside Baltimore were probably heartened by the sound, but what they saw must have shocked them. They believed that the day before they had defeated the entirety of the American defenders and expected to march easily into the city. The rising sun revealed the spectacle of 12,000 soldiers facing them. Among the defenders were militia units from the city and surrounding counties some units came from as far away as Pennsylvania. Furthermore, the Americans possessed 100 cannon, giving the Americans a three-to-one advantage over their British foes. The land between the American and British lines had been largely cleared, offering little in the way of cover of concealment, and the heavy rains from the night before turned much of it into a quagmire. COL Brooke sent patrols out to probe for weaknesses in the American lines, but none were discovered. All Brooke could do was wait for support from the heavy naval guns of the British fleet. Before it could get within supporting range of the troops in Baltimore, however, it would have to reduce Fort McHenry.

The garrison commander of Fort McHenry, MAJ George Armistead, a Regular Army officer, had completed the preparation of the fort’s defenses only days before the British landings. Armistead had a 527-man composite unit comprised of soldiers from the 12th, 36th, and 38th U.S. Infantry Regiments, in addition to Regular and militia artillery units. The fort was well protected except for one glaring weakness: the magazine was a simple brick structure with only a shingle roof and vulnerable to a direct hit by enemy fire. One shell actually struck the magazine during the bombardment but failed to explode. Eventually, the 300 barrels of power stored within the magazine were distributed throughout the fort to reduce the chance of a devastating explosion.

The bombardment opened with rockets (the newfangled Congreve rockets made famous by Key’s line “rocket’s red glare”), bombs (actually mortars that exploded above the fort as in Key’s line “bombs bursting in air”), and cannon balls all aimed at the fort. For the defenders in the fort, the noise was deafening (CPT Frederick Evans described it as “overwhelming”). Four men were killed and 24 wounded, but overall, casualties were light and only a few guns were ever put out of action.

The bombardment continued until early in the afternoon when the fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Cockburn, attempted to move closer so that their fire would be more effective. This maneuver failed when the return fire from Fort McHenry forced them back to their original positions. From there the British fleet resumed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

After dark, with the rain falling and their army still menacing the outskirts of Baltimore, the British attempted to bypass the guns of Fort McHenry. Just before midnight on 13 September, boats carrying 1,200 soldiers slid under the guns of Fort McHenry making their way into the middle branch of the Patapsco River. The British obviously intended to mount a ground attack on the rear of the fort. Thinking that they were out of danger from the fort’s guns, they sent up rockets. Perhaps the firing of the rockets was an ill-advised celebration of their having bypassed Fort McHenry, or perhaps it was meant as a signal. In either case, it gave away their position and pinpointed them as targets for the guns at Forts Babcock and Covington. Many of the 1,200 unfortunate British troops were killed or drowned in the ensuing crossfire. Most of those who survived were taken prisoner.

With the coming of dawn on 14 September the British realized that despite firing 1,500 to 1,800 rounds at the fort, they were not going to prevail. The cold rainy night gave way to a breezy dawn. As the wind kicked up, Fort McHenry’s commander, MAJ Armistead, ordered the raising of a huge American flag that he had made by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill just for such an occasion. It is said that the fort’s musicians played “Yankee Doodle” as the garrison rasied the flag. The sight of that flag broke the will of British military commanders and convinced them that they could not take Baltimore.

This flag, the standard garrison flag measuring 42 feet by 30 feet, was large enough so that ships on the river would be able to see its fifteen 26-inch stars and fifteen two-foot wide stripes clearly from far away (the flag did not revert to the thirteen stripe version we know today until 1818). Some are under the impression that that flag flew during the entire battle but that is unlikely due to the weather. It is more likely that a smaller flag flew during the height of the bombardment. Today, the Smithsonian Institution is repairing damage done to the famous large flag by souvenir hunters and time.

As the fleet withdrew, COL Brooke retreated from Baltimore. The British infantry boarded the ships where they had disembarked two days earlier and the fleet sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay. For several days the defenders of Baltimore stood by to repulse an expected second assault, but the British did not return. British forces were as disheartened as Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words that would become the United States’ national anthem 116 years later.

The burning of Washington during the British Chesapeake Bay offensive was their highlight of 1814. After being repulsed in the Chesapeake, and in upstate New York at Plattsburgh on 11 September, the British concentrated their operations in the Gulf of Mexico which resulted in further defeats and culminated in the disaster at New Orleans. The Battles of Baltimore and North Point silenced opponents of the war, restored national pride, and helped convince the British that the cost of the war would be more than they could bear.

There were many American heroes of the battle including MG Smith, MAJ Armistead, and the garrison of Fort McHenry. Smith used his military, political, and business connections to get the city prepared. After the battle he was held in such high esteem that the citizens returned him to Congress. The people of Baltimore honored him with a park in his name that disappeared in the urban renewal movement of the 1970s.

MAJ George Armistead was also a hero of the battle. This Regular Army officer saw to the preparations of Fort McHenry and was the backbone of the defenses throughout the 25-hour bombardment. Just when the time was right he ordered the raising of the most famous flag in American history signaling his defiance to the British leaders and inspiring Francis Scott Key. Coincidentally, he is not the only Armistead with a significant place in American military history. His nephew, Lewis Armistead, gained fame for himself as a Confederate general in the Battle of Gettysburg when he breached the Union lines during Pickett’s Charge before being mortally wounded. Both George and Lewis are interred together in Baltimore.

Fort McHenry is an icon of American history. It was built to withstand foreign invasion, a role it filled admirably. After serving in the War of 1812, Fort McHenry stayed on active duty into the twentieth century. During the Civil War it served as a Union prison for Confederates and southern sympathizers. At one point a son of Francis Scott Key was imprisoned there under suspicion of being a secessionist. Later it served as a training installation and hospital. Today it is part of National Park Service and host to thousands of visitors annually. Occasionally it still sees active service as the landing pad for the Presidential helicopter (Marine One) when the President of the United States pays a visit to Baltimore.

Most of the details of the Battles of North Point and Baltimore are seldom talked about today. Fort McHenry is more than the coincidental location of writing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Both Fort McHenry and North Point are testaments to American bravery and commitment to the nation. Had it not been for the courageous defenders of Baltimore in September of 1814 the United States might have gone the way of Washington, DC. The young nation known as the United States of America might have ceased to exist and may have become a mere footnote in the history of the world. For that, all Americans owe the defenders a significant debt.

For additional information on the Battles of North Point and Baltimore, please read: The Battle for Baltimore, 1814, by Joseph A. Whitehorne Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay, by Christopher T. George The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake Bay, by Gilbert Byron The Darkest Day: 1814, The Washington-Baltimore Campaign, by Charles G. Muller Amateurs to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812, by John R. Elting and The War of 1812, by Harry L. Coles.


Commanders of Chaos: The 5 Worst Generals in U.S. History

These American commanders have lost the battle for history.

It would be nice if all American generals were great. How might Vietnam or Iraq have turned out if a George Washington, a Ulysses Grant or a George Patton had been in command?

Alas, call it the laws of probability or just cosmic karma, but every nation produces bad generals as well as good ones—and America is no exception.

What is a bad general? Defining that is like defining a bad meal. Some would say that failure on the battlefield warrants censure. Others would say that it is not victory, but success in fulfilling a mission that counts.

But for whatever reason, some American commanders have lost the battle for history. Here are five of America's worst generals:

Horatio Gates:

Great generals have great talents, and usually egos and ambitions to match. Yet backstabbing your commander-in-chief in the middle of a war is taking ambition a little too far. A former British officer, Gates rose to fame as Continental Army commander during the momentous American defeat of a British army at Saratoga in 1777.

Many historians credit Benedict Arnold and others with being the real victors of Saratoga. Gates thought otherwise, and fancied himself a better commander than George Washington. It's not the first time that someone thought he was smarter than his boss. But Gates could have doomed the American Revolution.

During the darkest days of the rebellion, when Washington's army had been kicked out of New York and King George's star seemed ascendant, the "Conway cabal" of disgruntled officers and politicians unsuccessfully schemed to out Washington and appoint Gates.

How well that would have worked can be seen when Gates was sent to command American troops in the South. His poor tactical decisions resulted in his army being routed by a smaller force of Redcoats and Loyalists at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780.

Washington also suffered his share of defeats. But his persistence and inspiration kept the Continental Army in the field through the worst of times, which is why his face is on the one-dollar bill. If Gates had been in command, we might be paying for our groceries with shillings and pence.

George McClellan:

The American Civil War was a factory for producing bad generals such as Braxton Bragg and Ambrose Burnside.

But the worst of all was McClellan, the so-called "Young Napoleon" from whom Lincoln and the Union expected great things. McClellan was a superb organizer, a West Point-trained engineer who did much to build the Union army almost from scratch.

But he was overly cautious by nature. Despite Lincoln's pleas for aggressive action, his Army of the Potomac moved hesitantly, its commander McClellan convinced himself that the Southern armies vastly outnumbered him when logic should have told him that it was the North that enjoyed an abundance of resources.

Men and material the Union could provide its armies. But there was something that not even the factories of New York and Chicago could produce, and that was time. As Lincoln well knew, the only way the Union could lose the war was if the North eventually grew tired and agreed to allow the South to secede. Haste risked casualties and defeats at the hands of a formidable opponent like Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The alternative was to split the United States asunder.

Ulysses S. Grant, who replaced McClellan, understood this. He gritted his teeth and wore down the Confederacy with incessant attacks until the South could take no more. McClellan was a proto-Douglas MacArthur who bad-mouthed his president and commander-in-chief. Grant left politics to the politicians and did what had to be done.

Had Lincoln retained McClellan in command of the Union armies, many former Americans might still be whistling "Dixie."

Lloyd Fredendall:

Not that Fredendall didn't have real issues that would have tried any commander. Woefully inexperienced U.S. soldiers found themselves against Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps veterans. The Americans lacked sufficient troops, supplies and air cover (when was the last time an American general had to fight a battle while being pounded by enemy bombers?)

Yet Fredendall's solution was to order an Army engineer company to build a giant bunker a hundred miles from the front lines. He also issued orders to his troops in a personal code that no one else understood, such as this gem of command clarity:

Move your command, i. e., the walking boys, pop guns, Baker's outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baker's outfit and the big fellows to M, which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boss report to the French gentleman whose name begins with J at a place which begins with D which is five grid squares to the left of M.

The Kasserine disaster had repercussions. It was a humiliating baptism of fire for the U.S. Army in Europe, and more important, caused British commanders to dismiss their Yank allies as amateur soldiers for the rest of the war.

Douglas MacArthur:

Listing MacArthur as one of America's worst generals will be controversial. But then MacArthur thrived on controversy like bread thrives on yeast.

He was indeed a capable warrior, as shown by the South Pacific campaign and the Inchon landing in Korea. But he also displayed remarkably bad judgment, as when he was commander in the Philippines in 1941. Informed that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and were certain to attack the Philippines next, MacArthur failed to disperse his aircraft—the only force that could disrupt the Japanese offensive in the absence of the American fleet—and to attack Japanese airfields before the enemy wiped out his air force.

But his crowning achievement was bad generalship in Korea. Yes, the landing at Inchon unhinged the initial North Korean offensive. But the rash advance into North Korea was a blunder of strategic proportions. Advancing in dispersed columns across the northern half of the peninsula was an invitation to be destroyed piecemeal. Advancing to the North Korean border with China also was a red flag for Mao-Tse Tung, who feared that American troops on his border were a prelude to U.S. invasion.

Perhaps Mao would have intervened anyway. But MacArthur's strategy certainly helped unleash 300,000 Chinese "volunteers" who inflicted significant casualties on United Nations forces. Instead of holding a natural defense line around Pyongyang, which would have given the United Nations control of most of the peninsula, the UN troops retreated all the way back into South Korea in a humiliating reverse for U.S. power after the crushing victory of World War II.

Finally, there was MacArthur's insubordination. He called for bombing China, as if liberating Korea was worth risking 550 million Chinese and possibly war with Russia as well. Whatever its military wisdom or lack thereof, it was a decision that should not have been made by generals under the American political system. When he made public his disagreements with President Truman, Truman rightfully fired him.

Tommy Franks:

The early days of the 2003 Iraq War were bound to be a graveyard for military and political reputations, given the misperceptions and misjudgments behind America's ill-fated adventure in regime change and nation-building. But Franks, who commanded the invasion, made a bad situation worse.

Critics say that Franks and senior officials, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, concocted an invasion plan that used too few troops. It wouldn't take a large force to slice through the ramshackle Iraqi army and topple Saddam Hussein, but securing a country the size of Iraq required a larger force.

And what then? There appeared to be little serious planning for what would happen the day after Saddam was gone. Like it or not, the U.S. military would become the governing authority. If it couldn't or wouldn't govern the country, who would? America, the Middle East and the rest of the world are still reaping the consequences of those omissions.

Finally, when it comes to bad generals, let us remember Truman's immortal words about firing MacArthur:

I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for War Is Boring. Follow him on Twitter:@Mipeck1.


America’s Dark History of Killing Its Own Troops With Cluster Munitions

The weapons are notorious for their effects on civilians. But five years of reporting and hundreds of interviews have revealed they’ve also killed and wounded scores of Americans.

First Lt. Des Walton salutes during a memorial service for seven members of his company who were killed in an explosion at As Salman Airfield in Iraq. Walton was injured in that same explosion, and was recovering from his wounds at the time. Credit. Kirby Lee Vaughn

Staff Sgt. Michael S. Crick huddled in the howling wind and wrote in his diary. It was just past noon on Feb. 26, 1991, the third day of the American-led invasion of Iraq during the Persian Gulf war. The day before , a French and American force had seized As Salman airfield, an Iraqi military installation about 70 miles from the Saudi Arabian border.

In a sandstorm driven by cool desert winds, Crick and three fellow explosive-ordnance disposal technicians discovered the presence of small yellow cylinders on the ground where coalition warplanes had struck. “Found about 10 to 15 BLU-97/B bomblets,” he wrote. Since mid-January, the allies had repeatedly blanketed As Salman in cluster munitions, as they had done with other military targets across Iraq and Kuwait.

Crick’s team was working for the 27th Engineer Battalion, which was supporting the French Sixth Light Armored Division. Later in the same day on which the invading column had captured the airfield, the engineers told Crick and the senior-ranking bomb technician, Staff Sgt. Scott Bartow, that the E.O.D. soldiers were to dispose of any large bombs on the runway and that the engineers would handle the rest, including cluster-munition bomblets and mines. Bartow and Crick were concerned, but they were not in charge though they were the experts in the defusing and disposing of munitions, the engineer officers outranked them and disregarded their advice. “Want to leave these people ASAP,” Crick wrote. “Got a bad feeling.”

Cluster munitions are a variety of weapons, including rockets, bombs, missiles and artillery projectiles, that break apart midair and dispense smaller lightweight weapons called submunitions or bomblets across a large area. They are meant to explode or light things on fire when they hit the ground. The United States military designed many of its modern models in the 1970s and 1980s with a principal mission in mind: stopping an invasion of Western Europe by dropping tens of millions of submunitions on Soviet Army divisions staging for an attack. Once the cluster munitions were in the inventory, the military found other uses for them to fight conventional foes and militants alike.

In early 1991, BLU-97s were a type of explosive submunition making their combat debut. But Crick and other munition s experts knew they were exceptionally hazardous . Cluster munitions are bedeviled by a widespread failing: a high dud rate, meaning that a large percentage fail to detonate when they are supposed to. BLU-97s in particular were sensitive to disturbance and possessed no timed self-destruct feature. Further, whether because of an oversight or by design, they had a particularly nasty feature — once a bomblet was armed, there was no way to disarm it. The weapo n’s fuzes could not be safely broken apart or removed, a nd an armed bomblet was too sensitive to handle. The sole official protocol in 1991 for making a BLU-97 dud safe was to use another explosive to destroy it.

By scattering this new weapon in Iraq and Kuwait, American pilots had essentially placed unmarked, indiscriminate and long-lasting minefields in their own ground forces’ path — in this case on a runway other American soldiers planned to reopen quickly.

What happened on Feb. 26 , just a day after Crick confided in his journal the sense of dread that filled him, would become one of the single deadliest incidents of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Seven combat engineers from 27th Engineer Battalion were killed when a pile of the BLU-97 duds they were tasked with clearing from the airfield detonated at once. The fatal accident did not happen in isolation. In total, at least 18 incidents involving unexploded cluster munitions occurred during Desert Storm. Exact figures are extremely difficult to establish, but a methodical review of the casualty records from that conflict indicate that at least 12 American service members were killed and dozens of troops were wounded by dud bomblets during the four days of the ground invasion. Approximately 12 more American service members were killed in Iraq and Kuwait by dud bomblets after the cease-fire.

The devastating effects that dud bomblets from cluster munitions have inflicted on civilians is well documented. They have killed or injured an estimated 56,000 to 86,000 civilians since World War II. The United States alone has spent more than $3.4 billion on demining operations since 1993, including in countries where it released hundreds of millions of bomblets in past wars that continue to kill and maim civilians. But the incident at As Salman airfield and the broader pattern of fratricidal cluster-munition deaths among American troops have never been documented in full, until now. Five years of reporting and hundreds of interviews reveal that As Salman was just one incident in a dark history of bomblets repeatedly cutting short American and allied lives. Among these submunitions, the BLU-97 in particular exemplifies the perils of this class of weapon — and the extent to which the deaths of service members have been played down by military planners.

The United States is one of a dozen or fewer countries that has used cluster munitions, still stockpiles them and reserves the right to use them again in the future. An international outcry against them led to the ratification, in 2008, of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty that prohibits the production, use, transfer and stockpiling of these weapons. Cluster weapons, advocates of a ban said, pose unacceptable risks to civilians, as unexploded bomblets endanger anyone who happens upon them. To date, the ban has been signed by 108 nations. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have chosen to stay out of the agreement. So has the United States.

The same year the treaty was adopted, the Department of Defense appeared to be finally reversing its position when it committed to retiring old stockpiles by a 2018 deadline and replacing them with a new generation of cluster weapons, as yet undeveloped, with a failure rate of no more than 1 percent. The change in policy was “intended to minimize the potential unintended harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure of U.S. cluster munitions employment to the extent possible,” according to the policy order signed by Robert Gates, the defense secretary at the time.

That trajectory changed abruptly in late 2017. Under the direction of James Mattis, then the secretary of defense, the Pentagon abandoned the 2008 policy less than a year before it would become irrevocable. A year later, Patrick Shanahan, who was Mattis’s deputy, attributed the policy change to “the North Korean situation” and contingency planning for a future war with Kim Jong-un.

Former defense officials have since told The Times that the 2017 reversal was also tied to fears of war with Russia and China. Amid growing tensions with multiple adversaries, military leaders were determined to retain their existing stockpiles, of which BLU-97s make up the majority of airdropped cluster munitions.

The message delivered by the Defense Department and by officials familiar with the 2017 policy change was clear: The Pentagon has steadfastly returned to its argument that cluster munitions have valid roles in modern warfare and has retained the right to attack with them when the military sees fit, no matter their long record of killing Americans.

Cluster munitions are rarely demonstrated for civilians, though a handful of old video clips can be found on YouTube.

The BLU-97 bomblets at As Salman were the latest offering in roughly 60 years of cluster-munition evolution, a process started by German arms designers before World War II. In 1932, Luftwaffe munitions handlers repackaged incendiary bomblets conceived in World War I in aerodynamic containers that opened in the air, near the ground. This allowed bomblets to land closer to one another than if they had been dropped individually. A tight pattern meant a density of flame. The goal was to spark “fire storms” and consume cities.

Kaiser Wilhelm II forbade incendiary bomblet attacks on Paris in 1918. But Hitler had no reservations and used the Spanish Civil War to test his generals’ secret new weapons. In late 1936, German pilots began dropping incendiary cluster munitions on Madrid while propaganda officers, the public-affairs wing of the growing Nazi war machine, lied to the press and denied German involvement, even as the cluster-bombing campaign expanded. In this way, the use of cluster munitions from the very beginning was coupled to official lies. The weapons’ most memorialized victim was Guernica, the Basque village burned to ashes in 1937. George L. Steer, a reporter for The New York Times, visited Guernica’s charred ruins after the attack and found dud bomblets bearing German markings. The era of cluster munitions had begun.

Soviet, Japanese, Italian, British and American engineers soon rolled out their own versions, and these new models were dropped across Europe, Asia and parts of Africa during World War II. In America’s first airstrike on Japan, in 1942, Lt. Col. James Doolittle led a mission that dropped incendiary bomblets on Tokyo alongside high-explosive munitions. With thermite and white phosphorous, British and American incendiary cluster bombs torched German cities, including Dresden, where tens of thousands of people were killed. In one day alone in March 1945, American napalm-filled cluster bombs started fires that killed an estimated 100,000 Japanese citizens. Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, of the Army Air Corps, used the same weapons to destroy 65 of Japan’s 68 largest cities. Nuclear weapons leveled two more.

In the early years of the nuclear arms race, American engineers experimented with cluster bombs that dispensed radioactive submunitions, dropping them on a Utah proving ground. Air Force bombers in Korea flew the United States’ first large-scale missions with antipersonnel cluster bombs, scattering them freely over suspected North Korean supply routes. Other bomblets in the development pipeline around that time dispersed chemical or biological weapons, including insects that could be infected with communicable diseases, like the bubonic plague. Later, the Pentagon fielded a submunition that dispensed spools of carbon fibers designed to shut down electrical power by shorting out part of a grid.

For all the indiscriminate killing and apocalyptic arms-testing, it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that these weapons entered public consciousness when some antiwar protesters mobilized specifically against their use. One such movement was started by Marv Davidov, an Army veteran, in 1968 when he launched an initiative called the Honeywell Project, which staged large protests against the Honeywell Corporation’s production of cluster bombs in Minnesota.

In an eight-year period during the war, according to declassified records, the Air Force dropped nearly 350 million bomblets in Southeast Asia. But the weapons enabled the killing of American troops, as bomblet duds gave the Viet Cong small explosive charges they adapted into improvised explosive devices. (Marine Corps guidance to its forces in 1969 stated that early in the war as many as 75 percent of its casualties came from such booby traps, and 90 percent of them incorporated American supplies — often bomblet duds.) From 1964 to 1973, American pilots dropped more than two dozen distinct cluster-munition models on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, raining bomblets into the jungle to try to disrupt supply lines from Laos and deter surface-to-air missile crews who had been knocking American warplanes from the sky.


The Münster Rebellion Cult Rush

The Münster Rebellion started when the city was seized from Anabaptist rule in 1534. One of the leaders, Jan Matthys, had a vision that he would destroy the invaders if they rode forth on Easter Sunday. He managed to round up 12 zealots, and the 13 of them charged into battle against an army of 8,000. Naturally, they were slaughtered. Matthys was dismembered, and his head was stuck on a spike.


Reflecting on Military Women who Made History

This year, in the month of March, two female generals were nominated to positions as 4-star combatant commanders: General Jacqueline Van Ovost and Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson. It is a significant milestone, but that it happened during Women’s History Month makes it an especially fitting time to remember that women have been “in the fight” for centuries.

It was not until the second term of the Obama administration, in late 2015, that the U.S. military lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles. The goal, according to former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, was to guarantee the military was equipped to “recruit from the broadest possible pool of talent.” For the first time since that storied committee drafted a document declaring our independence in 1776, American women in all branches of the military were now officially permitted to be on the front lines, and they serve with commendable skill and relentless courage.

But, in the interest of transparency and historical accuracy—it was not exactly the “first time” that women have been “in the fight” and did so valiantly.

There was Joan of Arc: The Patron Saint of France. About 75 years into the Hundred Years’ War, a young peasant girl in northeastern France received a message from God: lead the French to victory and expel the English from the country once and for all. Despite her lack of military training, Joan of Arc convinced Prince Charles of Valois to give her the chance to lead a French army—and she did so, achieving a momentous victory that eventually led the prince to be crowned King Charles VII. Although his court was exceedingly uncomfortable with how powerful Joan of Arc became, King Charles ordered the teenager into further battle. She was captured by allies of the English, and charged with more than 70 crimes, including witchcraft. In an attempt to distance himself from the implications of such charges, namely that the foundation of his reign was heresy and witchcraft, King Charles made no attempt to interfere on Joan of Arc’s behalf. She burned at the stake in May 1431, at the age of 19.

And we cannot forget the Irish in this month of March. Grace O’Malley: The Pirate Queen of Ireland, was the young daughter of an Irish Chieftain. She inherited her father’s responsibilities upon his death, and for most of her adult life, Grace controlled several castles acquired through conquest and marriage, each of significant strategic value in the defense of her ancestral lands. She lived a life of adventure, something incredibly rare for a woman of her time, but following her death in 1603, Grace O’Malley was largely written out of Irish history because of her gender, ignored by the typically male historians of the age.

Fast forward to the fight for our own independence, to Sybil Ludington: The Female Paul Revere. In April 1777, this 16-year-old daughter of a Patriot colonel rode more than 20 miles through rural Connecticut to rally her father’s men. The town of Danbury was under attack, but the regiment had been disbanded for planting season, the soldiers scattered across the countryside readying their farms. Colonel Ludington’s troops would arrive too late to defeat the British, but Sybil’s ride through dark woods and pouring rain rallied hundreds of Patriot soldiers eager to do battle. Despite her heroism, Sybil was denied a military pension, and died in poverty in 1838, at the age of 77.

For Sybil and so many women who followed in her footsteps, serving their country was a passion often too great to ignore, no matter the things—namely gender—that might’ve stood in their way. During the Civil War, it is reported that more than 400 women posed as men to fight for the Union Army, including Cathay Williams and Sarah Emma Edmonds.

Cathay Williams was born in 1844 to an enslaved mother and a free father in Independence, Missouri. At the start of the Civil War, slaves in Confederate-occupied territory were forced to serve in military support roles, and Cathay accompanied the infantry all over the country as an Army cook and a washerwoman. After the war ended, she enlisted in the U.S. Regular Army under the alias “William Cathay,” but was unable to complete her three-year engagement when frequent hospitalizations for smallpox revealed her secret. She was honorably discharged, and Cathay then signed with an emerging all-black regiment that became part of the Buffalo Soldiers. She was the first African American woman to enlist and remains the only documented woman to serve in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars.

Around the same time, in the mid-1850s, Sarah Emma Edmonds moved to Flint, Michigan and discovered life was easier when she dressed as a man. She enlisted in the military as a male field nurse named Franklin Flint Thomas, and her sense of duty saw her through the Second Battle of Manassas as well as the Battle of Antietam. The latter remains one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. military history. Although there is no official record, Sarah Emma Edmonds reportedly served as a Union spy and infiltrated the Confederate army several times to gather intelligence for the federal cause. One of her aliases, a black man named Cuff, required her to dye her skin with silver nitrate.

When she contracted malaria, Edmonds’ military career as Franklin Flint Thomas was over. However, once she recovered, Edmonds enlisted again, this time as a female nurse caring for wounded soldiers at a hospital in Washington, D.C. When the war came to an end in 1865, she published her experiences in Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Sarah Emma Edmonds received an honorable discharge from the military, as well as a government pension, and she was the only female member of the Grand Army of the Republic.

In the generation between the Civil War and the dawn of the twentieth century, women across the societal spectrum fought steadfastly for equal rights, but by the time war broke out in Europe in 1914, American women still could not vote, let alone serve in combat. Still, in what by this point was, in essence, a tried and true American tradition, millions of women worked in manufacturing and agriculture at home, or as nurses or ambulance drivers on the front lines—anything to support the war effort. Two examples of note: The Yeoman (F) and the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit.

The Yeoman (F) were a consequence of vague wording in the Naval Reserve Act of 1916. In failing to mention gender as a condition of military service, the Act opened the door for thousands of women to enlist shortly before the United States formally entered World War I. Although they served primarily in secretarial positions, some of the Yeoman (F)—or “Yeomanettes”—worked as translators, fingerprint experts, and even ship camouflage designers.

And then there were the “Hello Girls,” the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit created by General John Pershing to improve communications on the Western Front. More than 200 women operated switchboards throughout Europe, and although they served long hours under combat conditions, the “Hello Girls” would not receive veteran status until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter signed the requisite legislation.

Not that the women who came after these trailblazers needed legislation to be inspired. Thanks in large part to the barriers broken by females during World War I, nearly 350,000 women would serve in uniform during World War II—at home and abroad. Rosie the Riveter symbolized the tens of thousands of women who went to work in factories across America to optimize production and supply the Allies with necessary material and munitions. On the front lines, women took on a variety of assignments: in the Army Nurse Corps, 16 women were killed by direct enemy fire. In the Philippines, 68 servicewomen were captured as POWs, and 565 women were awarded combat decorations for service in the Pacific Theatre. In Europe, according to Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The contribution of the women of America, whether on the farm or in the factory or in uniform, to D-Day was a sine qua non of the invasion effort.” But when they came home, they were challenged in leveraging their courage and their sacrifice to access the benefits afforded to their male counterparts—including the GI Bill.

For generations of women, it is a familiar story, and it is similar for each succeeding conflict. Women have been and will continue to be “in the fight,” serving in or supporting our military, regardless of the conditions or the compensation—or lack thereof. Their passion for service has never been contingent on recognition, but as Women’s History Month draws to a close, it is more important than ever to acknowledge the warriors who came before us—and consider how we might pave the way for those who will come after us, for that is the greatest of all American traditions—if we’re going to talk history.


Contents

Fire Army soldiers are well known for their distinctive uniform.

Fire Nation's army, officially called the "Fire Army", Δ] is comprised of both nonbending and firebending soldiers. ΐ] For much of its history, it included both male as well as female soldiers, Ε] although the latter were excluded by the Hundred Year War's end. The army is very large and employs infantry, cavalry, and artillery. ΐ]

The Fire Army traditionally emphasizes hard training, esprit de corps, aggressive strategies, and up-to-date technologies, making it capable of almost any military ground operation. ΐ] As one of the most advanced ground warfare forces in history, ΐ] the Fire Army was the first force in the world to use tanks on a large scale. ΐ]

Avatar Kyoshi's girlfriend Rangi was a Fire Army soldier.

The Fire Army has played a major part in the Fire Nation's history. As standing force loyal to the Fire Lords, it initially kept the country's noble clans and their private militias in check. Δ] In the 3rd century BG, a Fire Army soldier named Rangi became Avatar Kyoshi's girlfriend, firebending trainer, and bodyguard. Ζ]

The Fire Army was eventually used by Fire Lord Sozin and his successors Azulon as well as Ozai to conquer much territory during the Hundred Year War. In this conflict, the Fire Army proved to be the strongest army in the world, defeating the militaries of the other nations numerous times. ΐ] Following the Hundred Year War's end, it was used by Fire Lord Zuko to protect the Fire Nation colony of Yu Dao amid the crisis surrounding the Harmony Restoration Movement. Η]


Tell: An Intimate History of Gay Men in the Military

On a day to come very soon—September 20, 2011—a serviceman’s sexuality will no longer be grounds for dismissal from the U.S. Armed forces. These are the voices explaining what it has been like to be a gay man1 in the American military over the previous seventy or so years, from World War II veterans in their late eighties to young servicemen on active duty.

1. Life Today as a Gay Serviceman

How we got here: In 1992, many people thought that the discrimination was nearly over. "I remember being in the Castro," says John Forrett (army reserve, 1987–99), "and watching the TV at a bar with some friends, watching Al Gore and Bill Clinton swearing that if they became the tag team for America they were going to get rid of the harassment of gays and lesbians serving in the military." But when the tag team prevailed, they underestimated the resistance to such a reform from a coalition of social conservatives, religious groups, and a large part of the military itself. The consequence, the following year, was a messy kind of compromise that became colloquially known as "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." Gay people were allowed in the military but only as long as they didn’t reveal their sexuality to facilitate this, all members of the military were also prohibited from inquiring about anyone’s possible orientation. This was presented as a kind of victory for the forces of progress—you were no longer excluded from serving—but it could instead be seen as solidifying discrimination. Gay people were only acceptable, in effect, to the degree to which they could successfully masquerade as nongay. Still, the whispered message from Clinton and Gore seemed to be that this was only a temporary stopgap while the nervous military took a large deep breath: Trust us, they seemed to imply. We’ll be there soon.

It took seventeen years. Seventeen years in which gay servicemen have existed in a paradoxical kind of netherworld. Even when it worked as it was supposed to, it was a very weird way to ask anyone to live.

The moment last December when President Obama signed the bill repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" only marked the start of a period of training and preparation leading up to the final removal of the policy. Servicemen were advised that until then the policy would still apply, and that they could potentially face its sanctions if they identify themselves publicly as gay. That is why the active service personnel interviewed here—whom I met with off base across America and in England or communicated with electronically in Afghanistan—are only referred to anonymously.

Air Force #1 (lieutenant colonel, eighteen years of service): "It’s always in the back of my mind. Even as private as you try to keep, you may slip up. Someone may find a Facebook post. See you out and about. So frustrating because, if it happened, there was no ability to assume that your record stood for itself. All of a sudden there was this mystical discovery that made your record go into the trash."

Navy #1 (lieutenant, fourteen years): "There’s always been a fear that people would find out and then hold it over you for some kind of leverage. I have seen it happen: ’If you don’t do this, I’m going to report you.’ "

Air Force #1: "Two of my friends were discovered, both officers—it’s a long and arduous process for an officer to get kicked out for being gay. For an enlisted member, it takes about five days. Paperwork is much easier. It’s really just ’You do not meet standards.’ Within five days, out the door."

Air Force #2 (senior airman, three years): "No one at my job would ever, ever suspect that I was gay at all. I talk about Sam, I even say ’Sam’ at work, ’I’m meeting Sam, we’re going to do this and that,’ and they’re like, ’Oh yeah, how’s she been?’ The worst part is when they start asking me about our sex life and I have to make shit up. But I’m ’That’s the woman I’m going to marry, so I’m not cool with you guys talking about my wife like that,’ and everybody goes, ’Yeah, you’re right.’ "

Marines #1 (major, fourteen years): "I’m older, I’m single, and I don’t talk about a girlfriend. I don’t what we call ’gender fuck,’ don’t do any of that. So I always feel like there is a bright light shining on me."

Marines #2 (captain, nine years): "Part of what has really allowed me to hide in plain sight is the fact that I don’t meet the stereotype. And you’re good at your job—a gay person wouldn’t be good at his job, so obviously you’re not gay. You’re a Marine, you don’t mind getting dirty, going out into the field and not showering for weeks at a time. and, if you were gay, when you have to shower with all these other guys you’d get all excited. You’re not getting excited so you’re clearly not gay. I mean, if you want to hide, the Marine Corps is one of the best places to do that, because nobody wants to admit they are standing next to a gay guy. Nobody wants to admit that they have gone to war with gay people."

Air Force #3 (captain, eleven years): "You can be upset about a lot of things—you can be upset that the law was what it was. But I don’t think you can be upset about your service, because ultimately it was your choice. You know, we’re a volunteer force."

Marines #2: "When I went into the recruiter’s office to sign all the paperwork and we got to ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ I started reading through it, because this was significant to me. I was raised by an attorney—it’s important to know what you’re signing. I had made it about halfway through and the recruiter was frustrated with how long it was taking me, and he said, ’Well, basically, are you gay?’ I hadn’t even joined the military yet, and here he had asked me! If my life had been a movie, that would be the dramatic foreshadowing of what was to come. Of the way it was going to be."

2. One Man’s Operation Iraqi Freedom

Many gay servicemen in the modern era—including Eric Alva (Marines, 1991–2004)—have completed long military careers without their sexuality ever being revealed. And therefore few people realized that the first American seriously wounded in the invasion of Iraq during the second Gulf war was a gay man.

When Alva signed up, before "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," he had to lie on his paperwork. "I knew I was lying," he says. "But I loved what I did, I loved my job, and I didn’t want to tell anyone. I said, ’It’s going to be my secret.’ I knew I was not going to be happy in a way, but I knew this was what I wanted." In 2003 he was deployed to the Middle East, and on March 21 he crossed the border from Kuwait. His unit was part of a huge convoy that stopped outside Basra. Alva got out of his Humvee and went to fetch something from the back of the vehicle. "That’s when I triggered the IED. I was awake, my hearing was sort of gone. My hand was covered in blood and part of my index finger was gone. The chaplain was holding my head and I was telling him I didn’t want to die. I was taken off a helicopter in Kuwait—it was estimated that I was only in Iraq about three hours—and carried into surgery. I woke up later and when I looked down I saw that the right side of my sheet was flat. I cried myself asleep, only to wake up hours later and see that it’s true: My leg is gone."

As he recuperated, he learned about his inadvertent status. "I don’t know who designated me to be the first. I was never given a certificate or anything. One-millionth shopper. Now I have the dubious distinction of being the first American injured when the war started. It didn’t make it better or worse. I mean, my life was changed forever. I was angry that my leg was gone. Even when I was still in the hospital, hours would go by so slow, and I actually said to myself: ’Who is going to love me now?’ I’d never really experienced dating anyone. ’Who is going to love me now? I’m missing a leg.’ "

1. Lesbians have suffered under the same prohibitions and prejudices and share many of the same experiences, as well as some that are distinct, but this article concentrates on the experience of gay men.

Meanwhile, the media picked up on his story. He went on Oprah. People magazine gave him an award. But nobody thought to pry too deeply into his personal life. After the attention died down, his post-military world began to take shape. He went back to college he did find a boyfriend. And when, in 2006, the battles over "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" in the military and gay marriage in the wider community were simmering, Alva’s boyfriend at the time pointed out to him that he did have some notoriety that might be of use. "I finally said, you know what, I’m going to tell my story. The first American injured in the Iraq war is a gay Marine. He wanted to give his life to this country."

3. Invisible Partners

It is often difficult enough for straight men and women to balance the demands of a military career—the extended periods away, the risks involved—with that of a romantic life. For gay military members who choose to do so, there has been the extra burden that their partners must remain invisible. In one of the meetings I hold with active military men, three meet me in a chain restaurant. (These meetings have been arranged through a private online network called OutServe, set up only last year, which allows gay and lesbian servicepeople a safe and secure way of finding and communicating with one another.) This evening, two arrive with their boyfriends. One of the boyfriends tells me how difficult it was when his partner was recently in Afghanistan. "If something happened," he points out, "I wouldn’t have got a phone call. I would have known nothing about it at all. If he didn’t call for two days, I was freaking out." While sitting here with me, the couples often hold hands under the table, but they are also ever watchful of the restaurant door in case someone from their base walks in. To be in the military and still try to live any kind of life as a gay man, it’s not easy.

Air Force #4 (senior airman, four years): "Right now our relationships don’t exist."

Air Force #3: "I’ve had three deployments [while] with the same person. Every time it’s been ’All right, see you later.’ All the spouses get together, do stuff. He’s just there by himself, fending for himself."

Marines #2: "The relationship lasted for about four years, but I always felt like I was disrespecting him, to have to pretend he didn’t exist when I went to work. When I got deployed, he was there with my family when I left. It kind of sucked—to shake his hand and a little pat on the back and ’I’ll see you when I see you’ kind of thing. And when you’re getting ready to come back, the spouses were getting classes—here’s how you welcome your Marine back into the family—and my boyfriend didn’t get any of that. I had a really hard time adjusting to being home. We tried to make it work for a year but he was getting more and more paranoid about people finding out about us. It killed me that he felt that way because of me. I don’t think we ever really had a chance, ultimately."

Air Force #3: "When I was deployed, every Sunday we would sit down on opposite sides of the world and we would each order a pizza and we would watch a movie together over Skype. We weren’t doing anything bad except trying to spend some time together. But there was no ’I love you.’ Certainly nothing sexual, or anything like what some straight guys do over Skype."

Navy #2 (captain, twenty years): "Personally, I haven’t had a lot of struggles. The hardest thing that I faced was about eight years ago. I was dating somebody for about two years who had gotten out of the army. He was HIV positive, and I didn’t know that, and he ended up dying—it just happened very quickly. I am not positive, luckily. So I had a lot of difficulties grasping with that personally, dealing with his death, and I had to take time off work, but still not tell them. I couldn’t go to the doctor or the psychologist. There wasn’t really anybody to talk to."

Army #1 (lieutenant colonel, seventeen years): "I met my boyfriend in ’97. We’ve been together ever since. This will be our fourteenth year. It’s worked out. Honestly, while I’m certainly happy to see its demise, I’ve never had a ’close call’ or any significant hardships serving under DADT."

Navy #2: "I take my boyfriend to the commissary and to the grocery store on base, and it’s always an interesting dynamic when I see people that I know. Just doing the same thing that every other couple is doing—buying Wheaties and milk and yogurt and dog food."

Air Force #2: "As soon as we see someone, we always split in separate directions. Even going to the movies, I go and line up at one end of the line and he is at the other end of the line."

Navy #2: "My boyfriend is not in the military. In fact, he’s left of Che Guevara in his social viewpoint. And he thinks it is just all great fun and he’s corrupting the military. I think it’s funny, because he’s not changing me. Just today we put down money on a house that we’re buying together and, now I’m retirement-eligible, that’s part of what’s buying this nice house. [laughs] So, as much as he thinks he’s corrupting the moral fabric of military society, he’s actually sucking off the teat of Uncle Sugar."

4. One Man’s Tale of Life Under "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell"

Silence can protect, but it can also provide a potent and despicable weapon. In the shadow of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," whenever gay servicemen did face any kind of homophobic harassment, they were powerless to draw attention to it without potentially triggering the end of their military career. The rule itself became the very tool of their oppression: "The ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy," says Joseph Rocha (navy, 2004–7), "punishes homosexuals who comply, and it protects bigots."

Before his own experience turned ugly, Rocha was exactly the kind of idealistic, motivated recruit the military must wish for. He signed the paperwork on his eighteenth birthday, and eventually applied to join a K-9 unit in Bahrain, training to be a dog handler. "I just got caught up in this little unit with no oversight, with a history of corruption and a history of abuse and harassment and hazing, and I didn’t survive it. It was a boys’ club—they liked to gamble, they liked to drink, they liked to smoke, and there was a large aspect of the solicitation of prostitution. None of these things appeal to me—one, because my mother was a drug addict two, because I had a Catholic upbringing. Nothing to do with the fact that I was gay. But when you get caught up in these little groups of boys, the first excuse for anything that doesn’t fit in with them is that you’re gay. And I had too much pride to say that I wasn’t gay. I felt that I deserved to not have to answer that question. So then all I did was make it worse for myself, in that it became a curiosity that was insatiable for them. I think my downfall was the fact I didn’t stand up for myself. but how would I have?"

The harassment grew worse. Of a number of escalating events—Rocha was also force-fed dog food and locked into a shit-filled dog kennel—the most abusive and explicitly homophobic was when he was ordered by his commander to act in a dog-training scenario, repeated over and over so that every dog in the unit could be run through it. "The scenarios were supposed to be relevant to what the dogs or the handlers would experience. Like a domestic dispute, or an armed individual who has been spotted on the base, or someone strapped with explosives. This day he chose that the scenario would be that I would be getting caught giving another service member a blow job and, once the dogs came in, I was supposed to jump up from having been in between this guy’s legs. He would coach as to how exactly he wanted it played out, which was the sickest part of it." Rocha says he had to act this out between half a dozen and a dozen times, about fifteen to twenty minutes each time. As they repeated it, his commander ordered Rocha to make the scenario more extreme. "He wanted me to be very queer and flamboyant. He wanted me to pretend like there was stuff on my face. Loving it so much that each scenario was gayer and more disgusting—the introduction of fake semen, that I would have to wipe my face, or that I would have to make slurping noises. The level of humiliation I experienced that day, that’s when I knew I wasn’t safe in the military."

Nonetheless, Rocha chose to say nothing about what had happened. "There’s this self-righteous and cocky attitude that if it was really so bad then I would have reported it. Anyone who gets off thinking that in ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ under the Bush administration anyone could have gone and said, ’Hey, I’m being antagonized under the principle that I might be gay’ and feel safe is absurd." Eventually these events—details of which are still disputed by other participants—came to light in a broader investigation in its aftermath one of the senior officers being held responsible—a woman who happened to be Rocha’s best friend in the unit—committed suicide. Rocha’s sexuality was not exposed, and he was subsequently admitted into the Naval Academy Preparatory School. There he reluctantly decided that he was no longer prepared to live with the fear of being discovered: "In order for you to be protected by ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ it would require such a level of deceit and deception and such a removal of everything that is beautiful in your life—of relationships, of meaning, of friendships. You would have to have no gay friends, no friends that knew you were gay, no friends who understood what it was like to be you. That’s not human and shouldn’t be asked of anyone, especially not of our service members."

Following full repeal, Rocha intends to rejoin. "I’m lucky," he notes, "because a lot of people whose lives and careers were ruined by ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ don’t have that opportunity anymore. I just can’t wait to be in uniform again."

5. Life Seventy Years Ago as a Gay Serviceman: World War II

It was only really around the Second World War that military discrimination became codified and organized, and that the focus moved from simply sanctions against homosexual acts to an attempt to identify and weed out homosexual tendencies—though, as would be seen again and again, when fighting bodies were needed badly enough, such concerns would often evaporate. Here, as over the years, people’s experiences vary greatly one of the pernicious aspects of prejudice is that it is often applied, or not applied, in such an arbitrary manner.

Arch Wilson,2** 87:** "We’re going back a hell of a long way. I was 19 then. The myth was, if you volunteered instead of waiting to be drafted, you would be treated better. Well, that was false. I do have to thank the military for tearing me out of the typical hometown setting where I would have been trapped in Scranton, Pennsylvania. If I had stayed there, I would have had to get married like everybody there, and it would have been a disaster. I would have been crushed. No space for homosexuals back then. It was something to be ashamed of and hide."

Jack Strouss, 88: "We had heard about these very frightening psychiatrists who were going to grill you. We thought they were the all-seeing people. So we were a little apprehensive. But it certainly didn’t happen that way. I was called in, and there was a man sitting behind this desk, and he pulled down his glasses and looked at me, and the only thing he said to me was ’Do you like girls?’ I said, ’Oh yes. And I love to dance.’ And he looked over at the door and said, ’Next!’ "

John McNeill, 85: "They were in desperate need of more cannon fodder—they didn’t care whether we were gay or straight."

AW: "In January ’45, the Belgian Bulge occurred, and American troops, Patton’s Third Army, were slaughtered, and the army decided: We don’t need any more hot pilots, we need more infantry, so I did go overseas as an infantry rifle replacement in the spring. This man tried to rape me on the troop ship between Boston and Le Havre. I was small and I was cute—who wasn’t cute at 19, 20?—and he was a big, horny guy. I was afraid to scream, because people would wonder, ’Why was he after you?’ I was afraid I had it coming to me because I was made that way."

Edward Zasadil, 86: "I was not revealing my gayness to anybody. I did have one or two incidents, but no one noticed it. We were in two-man tents, a good-looking fellow from another platoon was bunked with me, and I woke up at night, finding he was playing with my penis. And we did that every night after that. It was taking a chance. But all in all I just kept everything very straight. There were the usual nasty remarks about gay people—’homos’ and whatnot. But I passed it off. All my life. Acted as straight as possible. Listen, my life was a pretense the whole time."3

JM: "Many of us were in army divisions primarily composed of 17- and 18-year-olds. We tended to be intellectuals, who don’t make good soldiers. We were sent into combat right at the Battle of the Bulge—I was with the 87th Infantry Division and we were the first in the Alsace-Lorraine to cross the border into Germany. And the Germans counterattacked with Tiger tanks and the whole group was either killed or captured. I ended up a prisoner of war within two weeks of arriving at the front. We were literally starved—I went down to about eighty pounds. All we could think of was where the next meal was going to come from. The drive for survival greatly outweighs the drive for sexual fulfillment—under those circumstances, this is not an issue. As soon as I got back and started eating well, the problem was back again."

AW: "In this boxcar going overnight from France to Germany, May of ’45, I had a little romance with a married man next to me. Oh, that was a kick. There we were, sleeping on straw. Absolutely no lights. We wound up next to each other. And it was just easy, it was natural. That was it. Troops that pass in the night. In the morning we opened the boxcar doors and we were in Germany, and very quickly the word came to us that Germany had that morning surrendered. Wow, can you imagine the exhilaration in that boxcar? A day earlier, I could have become a statistic. We were flown out to the Philippines to form a new army to invade Japan. Well, timing. The day my plane landed in Manila, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb. We didn’t have to invade. We were brought home, sent to a big camp in North Carolina. In the rec center, the men’s room was so busy—big glory holes in the toilet partitions. Play out in these vast fields at night. Everybody was just waiting to be discharged, so lots of people were taking chances. It just happened, it was spontaneous. Just because: Mission Accomplished."

JM: "I found out right after the war that if someone were discharged as homosexual, a notice of that fact was sent home to their local draft board, so that their whole community would come to know that they were gay. And this led indirectly to the formation of gay ghettos in the major cities, where people who couldn’t go home, because their sexuality had been revealed by the army, had to move into Greenwich Village or the San Francisco Castro. This was the beginning of the huge gay communities in the major cities."

6. An Out American Soldier at War

If sometimes "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" has been compromised by persistent asking, then, as Darren Manzella (army, 2002–8) discovered, there have been other times when, curiously, the military shut their ears to what they’d been told.

"I finally accepted that I was gay the first time I went to Iraq in 2004. We were being hit by mortars and rockets every day, we had car bombs going off. A friend of mine was killed the fourth day we were there. That experience made me come out to myself and accept it." It was when he returned to Texas from his tour of duty that the problems started. "I started getting e-mails harassing me, getting phone calls at work. Finally my supervisor said he could tell something was wrong, and I told him: ’I’m getting these e-mails, I have a boyfriend in Austin, and I don’t know what to do anymore—I need some guidance here.’ He was very understanding at first. He said, ’Okay, take the rest of the afternoon off, go home, and we’ll see you tomorrow morning.’ After I left, he went to the legal department and turned me in."

2. Sadly, Wilson passed away in July, just before this article went to press.

3. Zasadil did not come out until the age of 80.

This was the summer of 2006. From here, Manzella’s case was supposed to follow a well-established one-way path under "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" that would lead to his inevitable discharge. But that is not what happened. Manzella cooperated fully with the investigation when he was asked for evidence that he wasn’t just claiming to be gay in order to trigger a discharge, he even supplied photos, and footage of him and his boyfriend passionately kissing on a road trip. A month later he was called in to see his battalion commander and told that the investigation had been closed: "His words were ’We found no proof of homosexuality.’ " While wary of putting further words in the commander’s mouth, Manzella felt what was clearly being communicated was: You’re a good soldier. We don’t want to lose you. Manzella was puzzled. "It doesn’t make sense, but in my mind I was able to stay in the military and keep serving my country."

As far as he was concerned, this meant that he no longer had to hide his sexuality, and in an era when no such category of person was supposed to exist, he started to live as an out soldier in the U.S. military. When he returned to Iraq, it was on that basis. "I was open, and my colleagues knew and my bosses knew. The generals knew. I looked at everybody else’s desks and they had pictures of their wives, husbands, or boyfriends or girlfriends, so I had pictures of my boyfriend up."

While he was deployed, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a campaigning group who had been giving him guidance, told him that 60 Minutes wanted to do a piece about an openly gay man serving in a combat zone, persuading him that it would give a voice to the "65,000 men and women in the military" who weren’t able to live as openly as he was. Even after the interview aired in December 2007, the military took another four months to decide. This time it was agreed that he would leave with an honorable discharge. "I met people who have horror stories. I was very lucky at every step."

7. A Report from a Trailer Park in the Desert

Just before 10 a.m. each weekday morning in a Desert Hot Springs trailer park in California, a few old men gather to watch The Price Is Right. I first came here a day earlier to find Chuck Schoen, an 86-year-old veteran slowed down just a little by his Parkinson’s, but after I arrived he asked whether I would like to speak to anyone else. I was confused until it became clear that, partly by chance and partly by a chain of personal recommendations over the years, this trailer park had become some kind of gay-veteran hot spot: There are eight or ten others living here, and more nearby. And some of them like to gather in the trailer shared by Schoen and his partner of forty-two years, fellow veteran Jack Harris, for this morning ritual.

Though I’m forewarned when I arrive this morning that "we all suffer from CRS—Can’t Remember Shit," most of these trailer-park veterans remember plenty. They had very different experiences, too. David Schneider, for instance, served in the navy until 1980 doing aircraft maintenance, retiring with a pension after twenty years of being secretive and careful. He says that he didn’t seek promotion past a certain point because it would have required an investigation to get him clearance, and he was concerned they would discover his subscriptions to gay magazines. He avoided gay bars because he was worried about undercover agents and so would use prostitutes and hustlers instead. When he had a relationship with someone for three years, he never told his partner he was in the navy. "He figured it out, but that’s how paranoid I was." Right toward the end of his service, he remembers being very tempted by someone he was giving after-hours counseling to at work. "There was a real opportunity. The thing that went through my head: ’Don’t be an idiot and throw it all away.’ I was only six months from retirement. And to this day I am very happy with the decision that I made."

Mel Tips, conversely, seemed to have threaded a path through the military that was the most open and least problematic of any I hear. He says that when he would travel aboard ship after joining the naval reserve in 1949, sexual opportunities were rampant: "They were giving blow jobs in the laundry almost every night. Somebody knocks, they’d let me in, close the door, and there would be a whole roomful just carrying on like mad. I thought it was funny. On the ship going up to Halifax, Nova Scotia, we would sit out on the fantail jacking each other off, watching movies." Tips says he also owned and ran a male go-go bar called The Brig with male strippers on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. "Remember Sal Mineo? He came to my bar. Oh, and Liberace. He loved to come in and watch my dancers." Even more brazenly, when Tips opened a bar next door, he called it Tips Tavern. "It was advertised in magazines as a gay bar owned by Mel Tips. I never had anybody accuse me or say anything."

But it is Schoen who I had initially come here to see, for his tale seems emblematic of many who fell afoul of the more vindictive scrutiny that became commonplace in the ’50s and ’60s. Schoen joined the navy on July 20, 1942. He was 17. "I knew I was gay, and I knew that they kicked you out in the military," he says. "I don’t know if I gave it any thought." Like many, his chosen path was one of discretion. "Most of them were quiet like me. There were very few who weren’t quiet. Privately I was comfortable with it, but I was never open about it. My success for nineteen years was: The people I was with didn’t know or never said anything, and I never said anything." Whatever sexual activity he engaged in, he waited until he was off the ship. "As a matter of fact, I wasn’t that active sexually. It seemed like it was safer just not getting involved with anybody." Then, in 1953, he met a man at the YMCA, and they were together for seventeen years. "We had a house like this and we lived together. Come home at night and did what we wanted to do. A normal life."

His navy career flourished: "I was in an assembly team for nuclear weapons which took the top-secret clearance." But in 1963, when he was only months away from earning his pension, things went awry. "The commanding officer gave me the message that I was to report to the office of naval intelligence. I thought, ’Oh, it’s them, they’ve got me.’ " They claimed that he had been named as a homosexual and pressured him to confirm the details, showing him photos of other men who were implicated. "Of course, I denied everything they asked me," he says. He has always considered what happened three months later to be entrapment. "An undercover cop, we had a few drinks at the bar and talked and so on. We went upstairs to his hotel room and, after we got started, he pulls a badge out." Another police officer had also been watching from the room next door. That same night, they released him to the navy, and it seemed clear to him that this whole chain of events had been instigated by navy investigators.

"I thought I should commit suicide," he remembers. "I was pretty depressed. You think of so many things." The next day the navy gave him a choice—he could either go through a court martial (it was suggested to him that he could get five years of military prison and hard labor for each offense) or accept an other-than-honorable discharge. So he agreed to the latter, even though he knew he would lose his pension.

Back then, people were yet to raise their voices and suggest that this wasn’t right. The first high-profile legal attack on this system would not come until 1975, when an airman named Leonard Matlovich initiated a long battle in which he managed to highlight many of the system’s absurdities, inconsistencies, and cruelties—most pithily summarized by the quote on his gravestone: "When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one." In Schoen’s era, there were many men like him who, after years of service, were summarily dispensed with. "I don’t ever expect to get a retirement check," he says.

8. One Man’s Vietnam

"Back in the ’50s in Oregon," recalls Tom Norton (Army, 1968-71), "they were still putting people in jail for homosexual activity, and that certainly sends a strong message to a young kid. I realized I was gay when I was 5 years old, and I struggled with it my whole childhood, thinking about suicide. I decided I would join the army, thinking that would change me. Make me a man, so to speak. The day I joined the army was the first I had had a good night’s sleep in as long as I could remember, that I didn’t think about committing suicide.

"I wanted to be a pilot. Again being dumb and naive, when I graduated from flight school I thought, I’ll do the honorable thing and volunteer to be a medevac pilot in Vietnam. I got shot down four times in a month. I was in so much emotional pain over being gay that anything was better than that. I went to Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder, which I had had from the age of 5 when I learned the word homosexual and knew that’s what I was. Whatever I experienced in Vietnam was better than that."

Norton wasn’t sexually active in Vietnam—"I would numb myself and avoid anything sexual"—and it was only years later that he realized that some of the men in his social circle there were gay. "A group of enlisted gay men that seemed to be at ease with who they were. They smoked a lot of marijuana, and they would mince heroin in with their cigarette tobacco—that was kind of the drug of choice. Medevac companies, we were treated differently than other military units just because of the danger of our job. Our life expectancy was so short they let us do our own thing. I literally got shot down over twenty times—I stopped counting at twenty. It’s just a miracle, really, that I didn’t get killed."

Norton, who has spent many years recovering, now lives in Portland with his partner, a man who happens to be Vietnamese and grew up there during the war. "It is quite ironic," Norton reflects. "You never know where life is going to lead you. He struggled so much with growing up gay in Vietnam and being ostracized for his sexuality, just wanting to be loved and cared for with the war going on around him. He’s never really asked me about the war, and I’ve never really talked to him about it."

9. Silence or Trust

Many servicemen serving under "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" decided that their only option was literally to tell no one for the length of their military career. Others, inevitably, concluded that the only way to survive was to take some people into their trust. Given the potential implications, the decision of whether—and whom—to trust is an enormous one.


The Battle Begins

On May 3 the Japanese invaded and successfully captured Tulagi. The US sent 12 torpedo bombers and 28 dive bombers, which severely damaged one Japanese destroyer and sunk three minesweepers.

Japanese planes shortly before the Battle of the Coral Sea

The Japanese finally entered the Coral Sea on May 5, and the Americans prepared to attack. Japanese spotter planes were keeping an eye out for the Americans and reported their warships were in the area. Their bombers attacked eventually sinking a destroyer with the loss of more than 375 lives. In confusion American pilots accidentally thought their own ships were Japanese and began bombing them.

The Americans continued to attack the Japanese ships that were spotted by their circling planes. A force of 93 aircraft attacked two light cruisers and two gunboats which were part of the Japanese support group. Another group of planes attacked the Japanese light carrier Shoho, which was hit with 13 bombs and 7 torpedoes before it sank.

The Japanese ship Shoho burns after an explosion during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The Japanese attacked again at night sending aircraft to sink the American carriers. However, poor weather and bad planning ended in disaster. Of the 27 planes that went on the mission, 21 never returned.

The battle continued, sending planes to attack one another’s carriers. The Americans damaged one of the Japanese carriers so badly it was only able to land planes, but they could not take off. The same ship later caught fire.

The Americans suffer their largest loss in the Battle of the Coral Sea

One of the American carriers was hit by torpedoes and bombs, resulting in an ammunition explosion. The fires became so extensive the crew had to abandon ship, without loss of life. A US destroyer then fired five torpedoes into the ship to sink it.

The USS Lexington abandoned and left to burn, before being sunk by US troops


Watch the video: 100 Greatest Generals in History (August 2022).