WWII Veteran Present At D-Day, and German Surrender Receives French Legion of Honor

H/T War History OnLine.

An American veteran present at D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the German surrender has been awarded the French Legion of Honor. It is France’s most distinguished decoration and has historically been given to French citizens and foreign nationals who have served the country and its ideals.

Louis Graziano sitting at his desk
Graziano, 2019. (Photo Credit: Ike’s Soldiers / YouTube)

Louis Graziano received the honor on September 17, 2021 at First United Methodist Church Family Life Center in Thomson, Georgia. Hundreds of the 98-year-old’s friends and family were present at the ceremony, and gave him a standing ovation when Vincent Hommeril, consul general of France in Atlanta, presented him with the medal.

“France is what it is today, a free and sovereign country, thanks to the bravery of such veterans and thanks to America,” Hommeril said during the ceremony. “You are a true hero. Your example is an inspiration for the future and your legacy provides a moral compass for generations to come.”

The French Legion of Honor is enameled in white and suspended from a red silk ribbon. It features oak and laurel branches and a medallion representing the French Republic. It was conceived by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. Among its best-known American recipients are Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur.

“It’s a great thing. I appreciate them giving me that,” said Graziano in an interview prior to the ceremony.

Troops disembarking from ships and wading through water
Troops disembarking during the D-Day Invasion, June 1944. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Louis Graziano was born in 1923 to Italian immigrant parents. He was working at his sister’s beauty parlor when he was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1943. After completing his military training at various bases, including Forts Niagara and Dix, he boarded a ship to Scotland and eventually arrived in England by train.

He took part in the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, where he crawled over the cliffs under the rain of German gunfire. He was able to take out a machine gun using his flamethrower, and once on the other side, signaled the Navy, which took out German shooters.

In the weeks following D-Day, Graziano took part in the fighting across Normandy. Six months after, he was present at the Battle of the Bulge, with he and his captain ordered to find General George Patton‘s troops, who were needed in Bastogne. They got lost, but eventually located the soldiers. Unfortunately, Graziano experienced severe frostbite and nearly lost his feet.

He later became the utilities foreman for the 102nd Infantry Field Artillery Battalion, Special Headquarters Command in Reims. At this point, he was a master sergeant and was charged with helping rebuild and maintain the city, including the Little Red Schoolhouse, where the Germans signed their surrender documents in 1945.

Graziano is believed to be the last living witness to the German surrender, which featured representatives from Germany, Britain, Russia, and France. “They came in straight-faced,” he recalled. “They didn’t have much to smile about. I had the room set up where they were all going to sit. It didn’t take them no time to sign the papers.”

After the papers were signed, Graziano led the Germans to another room to meet with Gen. Eisenhower.

While awaiting discharge, Graziano met his future wife, Eula “Bobbie” Shaneyfelt, a staff sergeant with the Women’s Army Corps. The pair moved to Georgia, where they raised a family and built a life for themselves. Shaneyfelt passed away in 2007.

Louis Graziano wearing a suit and baseball cap
Graziano, 2020. (Photo Credit: American Veterans Center / YouTube)

Graziano has published a book about his experiences during the war, titled A Patriot’s Memoirs of World War II.

World’s Oldest Surviving WWII Veteran Celebrates 112th Birthday

H/T War History OnLine.

Happy Birthday Lawrence Brooks.

Happy birthday Lawrence Brooks! The World War II veteran celebrated his 112th birthday on Sunday, September 12, 2021. Brooks is the oldest surviving veteran of the war. He currently resides in Louisiana.

 

Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Brooks celebrated his birthday with a drive-by party. The gathering was hosted by the National World War II Museum.

The event wasn’t just a parade, but also included a live performance from the museum vocal trio and entertainment from New Orleans musicians, according to ABC 12.

The World War II Museum hosted Brooks’ previous birthday which was also a drive-by event due to Covid concerns. Last year’s party included a flyover of WWII-era aircraft, according to WPXI.

Surviving the war and then living to 112-years-old is a feat that was met with congratulations from Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards who tweeted. “Mr. Brooks, the entire state of Louisiana thanks you for your service and we all wish you a joyous birthday.”

 

 

Mr. Brooks was drafted in 1940 at the age of 31. He served in the 91st Engineer Battalion which was comprised mostly of Black soldiers. He was stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines. His unit built bridges, roads, and airstrips that offered important ground support for Allied troops.

The National World War II Museum has provided an oral history as told directly by Lawrence Brooks.

Veterans Affairs notes that Mr. Brooks was drafted in 1940, trained at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and was honorably discharged in November 1941. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was called back into service.

After the war ended, Brooks left the Army to become a forklift operator. He has lived a long life that includes two marriages and five children. His family has grown considerably over the years and now included 13 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.

His daughter says that minus some sight issues in his left eye, he has lived a very healthy life that hasn’t included any major illnesses.

Happy birthday Mr. Brooks, and thank you for your service.

Ike Learns to Fly

H/T Smithsonian Magazine.

How Dwight D. Eisenhower got his ticket punched.

Eisenhower meeting troops
Meeting troops at Greenham Common Airfield in England on the eve of D-Day, Eisenhower kept the conversation light. They talked about face paint (a mix of cocoa and cottonseed oil), civilian life, and fishing in Saginaw, Michigan. (Library of Congress)

Here is an enduring image of the Second World War—Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, huddling with members of the 101st Airborne Division on the eve of D-Day. Later he watched as a procession of C-47s took off carrying numerous paratroopers, many of whom died later that night. Eisenhower and his companions saluted each plane. “It was a painfully moving and exhilarating experience,” his biographer Carlos D’Este wrote, “and the closest he would come to being one of them.”

In fact, Eisenhower did know a little of the terror and thrill of flight. Between 1935 and 1939, while serving as military adviser to the Philippine Commonwealth Government and assistant to General Douglas MacArthur, he helped create the first Philippine air force. And he fulfilled a lifelong dream, according to biographers—learning to fly.

It wasn’t easy. There were near-crashes as he learned to pilot a Stearman trainer. “Because I was learning to fly at the age of forty-six,” Eisenhower wrote, “my reflexes were slower than those of younger men.” Once, a sandbag jammed the control stick and Eisenhower had trouble landing the airplane. (“He made it down all right but he was disturbed and I don’t blame him,” his instructor Bill Lee said.) On a flight to Jolo, Lee pretended to take a nap, to test him. “Sheer panic crawled up and down my spine, shook my knees and, worst of all, paralyzed my tongue,” Eisenhower recalled.

One of his instructors was Jesus Villamor, the celebrated Filipino pilot. “I grew more and more irritated as I watched Eisenhower make mistakes time and again,” Villamor remembered. He thought Eisenhower was “a poor pilot but a good student.” (In 1957, Villamor wrote to tell Eisenhower how “that ‘poor pilot’ had made a great President.”) Another instructor said: “The biggest trouble I had with Colonel Eisenhower was eyesight. He was farsighted.” Despite setbacks, Eisenhower enjoyed himself. “I have a lot of fun—and even better than that—I think I furnish a lot of fun for the others out at the field,” he wrote.

Eventually, Lee thought Eisenhower could fly solo. (“Off he went alone, circled, and landed several times. He was one happy fellow.”) And though it took him over two more years—much longer than younger trainees—to log enough hours and acquire a license “under both the American and Philippine bureaus,” he succeeded.

DDE_Pilot_License_Front.jpg
A licensed pilot at last. (Courtesy Eisenhower Library)

“So now I’m a licensed pilot,” Eisenhower wrote in his diary on July 20, 1939. “While I’ll never be good and after going to the States perhaps I’ll never get a chance to handle a stick—still I’ve realized one ambition.” Even though several biographies note that he earned only a private pilot’s license, in fact, the Philippine air force, after reviewing his credentials, awarded him its own pilot rating and wings in 1945.

But on that evening before D-Day, piloting was far from his thoughts, and the invasion order weighed heavily. A high casualty rate was expected among the paratroopers. “It’s very hard really to look a soldier in the eye,” he told his aide Kay Summersby, “when you fear you are sending him to his death.” After the last airplane left, she recalled how “General Eisenhower turned, shoulders sagging, the loneliest man in the world. Without a word, he walked slowly toward the car.”

The “Bazooka”, and Its Evolution, in Photos

H/T War History OnLine.

In 1942, the use of tanks in World War II was a threat to infantry soldiers mostly because of the tanks’ impenetrable armor and lethal armaments. This required a weapon powerful enough to take out an armored tank, and subsequently led to the development of the shaped charge anti-tank hand grenade, effective against vehicle armor 2.4″ thick.

However, it weighed 3.5 pounds, which is quite heavy to throw by hand. So another idea arose: a device that could deliver such a grenade from a distance, at an adequate velocity to exceed the range of a hand-thrown grenade, also with high accuracy.

An early RPG-40 anti-tank hand grenade at Great Patriotic War museum in Smolensk. By Vitaly V. Kuzmin CC BY-SA 4.0
An early RPG-40 anti-tank hand grenade at Great Patriotic War museum in Smolensk. By Vitaly V. Kuzmin CC BY-SA 4.0

Lieutenant Edward Uhl of the U.S. Army was tasked with creating a delivery system for an M10 shaped charge grenade capable of stopping German tanks. To do this, the Lieutenant created a small rocket, but still needed to find a way to protect an operator from rocket exhaust while aiming the weapon. According to Lieutenant Uhl, he stumbled on a tube that happened to be the same size as the grenade, and that’s when he had the idea for a rocket grenade launcher.

During the testing of the rocket launcher, it performed well in aiming and firing effectively, so that all senior officers present were impressed. Major General Barnes, Chief of Research and Engineering in the U.S. Ordnance Department humorously commented, “It sure looks like Bob Burns’ Bazooka.”

Bazooka soon became the generic name for the grenade launcher. The variants were the M1 and M1A1 Bazookas which were 4.5 feet in length and could penetrate up to 3″ armor, the M9 and M9A1 which were 5 feet long and could penetrate up to 4″ armor, and the M20 and M65 which could penetrate up to 11″ armor.

The M1 Bazooka with M6A1 and M6A3 rocket. By Carl MalamudCC BY 2.0
The M1 Bazooka with M6A1 and M6A3 rocket. By Carl MalamudCC BY 2.0

The premier versions of the M1 launcher and the M6 rocket were first used in November 1942 in North Africa, but did not play a vital role in combat. This was partly because military personnel were not provided with information on how to use the weapon, and mostly because the M6 rocket was highly unreliable.

By May 1943, no report of the weapon actually stopping a tank had been received, so further use was suspended. The M1A1 launcher with the M6A1 rocket was then introduced and used in combat by U.S. forces.

A U.S. soldier fires an M9 bazooka at a German machine gun nest, Lucca 1944.
A U.S. soldier fires an M9 bazooka at a German machine gun nest, Lucca 1944.

The M1A1 stopped four medium German tanks and a Tiger I heavy tank–however, it had a huge backblast which exposed the shooter’s position.

In late 1943, the M9 Bazooka was introduced with an improved M6A3 rocket, but its effect didn’t last long as the Germans improved the armor of their tanks, making penetration a Herculean task.

A German StuG III with “Schürzen” armor skirts By Bundesarchiv Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0
A German StuG III with “Schürzen” armor skirts By Bundesarchiv Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0

The end of World War II saw the Bazooka design changing to be like the German-designed Bazooka, and led to the development of the M20 Super-Bazooka. This Bazooka had a higher range and penetration capability.

It was also operated by two people, and could fire as many as six shots per minute. Budget cuts made the mass production of the M20 impossible, so soldiers in the Korean War were armed only with the M9 and M9A1 Bazookas, which proved to be very effective against Soviet tanks.

German Anti-tank guns; High Fortress, Salzburg, Austria. By Andrew Bossi CC BY-SA 2.5
German Anti-tank guns; High Fortress, Salzburg, Austria. By Andrew Bossi CC BY-SA 2.5

The Vietnam War marked the gradual replacement of the M20 with the more effective M67 Recoilless rifle and M72 LAW rocket.

M67 recoilless rifle
M67 recoilless rifle
M72 demonstration at Fort Benning, Georgia in the 1960s
M72 demonstration at Fort Benning, Georgia in the 1960s
US soldiers during the Korean War
US soldiers during the Korean War
101st Engineers near Wiltz, Luxembourg during Battle of the Bulge
101st Engineers near Wiltz, Luxembourg during Battle of the Bulge
A soldier preparing to fire the FGR-17 Viper, an American one-man disposable antitank rocket.
A soldier preparing to fire the FGR-17 Viper, an American one-man disposable antitank rocket.
Person holding a M6 rocket for a bazooka
Person holding a M6 rocket for a bazooka
Indonesian Navy bazooka
Indonesian Navy bazooka
A US soldier holding a Bazooka. Overloon War Museum. By Johan Fredriksson CC BY-SA 3.0
A US soldier holding a Bazooka. Overloon War Museum. By Johan Fredriksson CC BY-SA 3.0
Shoulder-launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon a modern day bazooka
Shoulder-launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon a modern day bazooka
American soldier with Bazooka of 80th Infantry Division near Wiltz
American soldier with Bazooka of 80th Infantry Division near Wiltz
Special Security Forces Bazooka. By Qrmoo3 CC BY-SA 4.0
Special Security Forces Bazooka. By Qrmoo3 CC BY-SA 4.0
Marines with a bazooka and machine gun set up a security post against possible tank counter-attack
Marines with a bazooka and machine gun set up a security post against possible tank counter-attack
Displaying the bazooka which knocked out four Japanese light tanks are bazooka men PFC Lauren N. Kahn, left, and PFC Lewis M.
Displaying the bazooka which knocked out four Japanese light tanks are bazooka men PFC Lauren N. Kahn, left, and PFC Lewis M.
M20 super bazooka. By Tomás Del Coro CC BY-SA 2.0
M20 super bazooka. By Tomás Del Coro CC BY-SA 2.0
“Marine riflemen in background stand by while their 3.5 bazooka man puts a round into a Communist position down the hill. This action took place in mopping-up operations in Korea.
“Marine riflemen in background stand by while their 3.5 bazooka man puts a round into a Communist position down the hill. This action took place in mopping-up operations in Korea.

How A Jazz-Playing Comedian In The Marines Gave Us The Name “Bazooka”

H/T War History OnLine.

We now know where the term Bazooka came from.

The word bazooka is synonymous with shoulder-fired anti-tank weaponry today, but this strange term actually dates all the way back to WWI, when it was used to identify a much more peaceful, yet still-tubular object.

Man-portable anti-tank weapons

Man-portable anti-tank weapons
A US Army sergeant holds up a bazooka shell in front of his men. It is a new type of anti-tank weapon. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As long as there have been tanks, engineers have come up with ways to destroy them. To begin with, the most effective and available method was with large-caliber guns that were heavy, slow to reload, and difficult to transport.

When troops faced tanks without such weapons, they had essentially no chance of stopping them, aside from relying on tank traps and obstacles. Early attempts to combat tanks saw German troops being armed with K bullets, which were a type of armor-piercing ammunition. When these became ineffective the Germans then introduced the Mauser T-Gewehr, the world’s first anti-tank rifle.

However, as tanks kept improving and their armor became thicker, more capable weapons were needed.

US engineer and professor Dr. Robert H. Goddard designed the early ancestor of the bazooka during WWI, but the development of this promising weapon was canceled when the war ended. The design was revived in the early 1940s under the guidance of Army Colonel Leslie Skinner. He assigned Lieutenant Edward Uhl to the task of delivering the M10 shaped-charge grenade to the target.

“I was walking by this scrap pile, and there was a tube that … happened to be the same size as the grenade that we were turning into a rocket,” Uhl said. “I said ‘That’s the answer!’ Put the tube on a soldier’s shoulder with the rocket inside, and away it goes.”

This resulted in the overall design of the M1 “Bazooka.” A tube that fired a rocket-powered high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) projectile up to a maximum range of about 300 meters. The weapon was able to penetrate between 75 and 100 mm of armor.

Bob Burns’ bazooka

Bob Burns
LOS ANGELES,CA – APRIL 8,1938: Musical comedian Bob Burns Bazooka poses at home in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by William Grimes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Bob Burns was a musical comedian from America who joined the US Marine Corps during WWI. He was part of the 11th Marine Regiment, which was supposed to be a light artillery regiment but went into action as an infantry unit.

As they were sent into Europe in the final year of WWI, the 11th Marine Regiment did not see any action. This was no problem for Sergeant Burns though, as he was had become the leader of the Marine Corps’ jazz band in Europe.

Before joining the Marines, Burns had been in a band. While practicing one evening, Burns picked up a length of pipe and blew into it, producing a particular sound. He made some additions to the pipe and named it the “bazooka.”

Burns created the name from the word bazoo, meaning mouth, which is suspected to originate from the Dutch word bazuin, meaning trumpet.

With plenty of spare time, Burns was able to recreate his old musical instrument. This time it was constructed from a stovepipe and a whiskey funnel.

Burns would sometimes play his bazooka in the Corps band. In 1919, Burns and his instrument gained popularity when they were featured in a New York Evening Telegram article. In it, he spoke about his activities in the Marine Corps band.

“We play everything from Berlin (Irving) to Mr. Beethoven and will tackle anything except a funeral march,” Burns said. “The outfit consists of two violins, a banjo, piano, drum, and the bazooka.”

The M1 “Bazooka”

Bazooka
Soldiers of the 9th US Inf, Div, show a new-type of rocket-firing bazooka used by th US Army, Germany 1945. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

Fast forward to 1942, and Colonel Skinner and Lieutenant Uhl’s rocket launcher was undergoing testing at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. One of those in attendance described the strange-looking device by saying it “looks like Bob Burns’ bazooka.”

After this, the name stuck, and the M1 “Bazooka” was born.

The weapon gave infantrymen a fighting chance against the newer heavily armored tanks the Allies were starting to face. However, this bazooka quickly fell into Nazi hands, who were able to reverse engineer it. This version was given the fearsome name “Panzerschreck,” and featured a number of modifications compared to the US weapon.

German Raketen Panzerbuchse 43 “Panzerschreck”
Four GIs with a German Raketen Panzerbüchse 43 Panzerschreck (tank terror) taken from the enemy. The soldier on the left is holding the projectile RPzBGr 4322. The 88mm anti-tank rocket launcher nicknamed “stovepipe” seems to be in perfect condition. It was made from an U.S. Bazooka M1 captured in North Africa. Normandy, France. (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

The bazooka was continually improved, reaching its peak with the M20 “Super Bazooka,” although this weapon missed WWII. The super bazooka was used in the Vietnam War but was eventually replaced by recoilless rifles and the M72 LAW.

Today, even though the bazooka is no longer in use with the US, its name lives on as a generic term for any shoulder-fired rocket launcher.

The Boy Who Became a World War II Veteran at 13 Years Old

H/T Smithsonian Magazine.

R.I.P. Calvin Graham.

In 1942, Seaman Calvin Graham was decorated for valor in battle. Then his mother learned where he’d been and revealed his secret to the Navy.

With powerful engines, extensive firepower and heavy armor, the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia in August of 1942 spoiling for a fight. The crew was made up of “green boys”—new recruits who enlisted after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor—who had no qualms about either their destination or the action they were likely to see. Brash and confident, the crew couldn’t get through the Panama Canal fast enough, and their captain, Thomas Gatch, made no secret of the grudge he bore against the Japanese. “No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific,” one naval historian wrote.

In less than four months, the South Dakota would limp back to port in New York for repairs to extensive damage suffered in some of World War II’s most ferocious battles at sea. The ship would become one of the most decorated warships in U.S. Navy history and acquire a new moniker to reflect the secrets it carried. The Japanese, it turned out, were convinced the vessel had been destroyed at sea, and the Navy was only too happy to keep the mystery alive—stripping the South Dakota of identifying markings and avoiding any mention of it in communications and even sailors’ diaries. When newspapers later reported on the ship’s remarkable accomplishments in the Pacific Theater, they referred to it simply as “Battleship X.”

Calvin Graham, the USS South Dakota‘s 12-year-old gunner, in 1942. Photo: Wikipedia

That the

vessel was not resting at the bottom of the Pacific was just one of the secrets Battleship X carried through day after day of hellish war at sea. Aboard was a gunner from Texas who would soon become the nation’s youngest decorated war hero. Calvin Graham, the fresh-faced seaman who had set off for battle from the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the summer of 1942, was only 12 years old.

Graham was just 11 and in the sixth grade in Crockett, Texas, when he hatched his plan to lie about his age and join the Navy. One of seven children living at home with an abusive stepfather, he and an older brother moved into a cheap rooming house, and Calvin supported himself by selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school. Even though he moved out, his mother would occasionally visit—sometimes to simply sign his report cards at the end of a semester.  The country was at war, however, and being around newspapers afforded the boy the opportunity to keep up on events overseas.

“I didn’t like Hitler to start with,” Graham later told a reporter. When he learned that some of his cousins had died in battles, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to fight. “In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent, but they preferred 17,” Graham later said. But he had no intention of waiting five more years. He began to shave at age 11, hoping it would somehow make him look older when he met with military recruiters.  Then he lined up with some buddies (who forged his mother’s signature and stole a notary stamp from a local hotel) and waited to enlist.

At 5-foot-2 and just 125 pounds, Graham dressed in an older brother’s clothes and fedora and practiced “talking deep.” What worried him most was not that an enlistment officer would spot the forged signature. It was the dentist who would peer into the mouths of potential recruits. “I knew he’d know how young I was by my teeth,” Graham recalled. He lined up behind a couple of guys he knew who were already 14 or 15, and “when the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17.”  At last, Graham played his ace, telling the dentist that he knew for a fact that the boys in front of him weren’t 17 yet, and the dentist had let them through. “Finally,” Graham recalled, “he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go.” Graham maintained that the Navy knew he and the others on line that day were underage, “but we were losing the war then, so they took six of us.”

It wasn’t uncommon for boys to lie about their age in order to serve. Ray Jackson, who joined the Marines at 16 during World War II, founded the group Veterans of Underage Military Service in 1991, and it listed more than 1,200 active members, including 26 women.  “Some of these guys came from large families and there wasn’t enough food to go around, and this was a way out,” Jackson told a reporter. “Others just had family problems and wanted to get away.”

Calvin Graham told his mother he was going to visit relatives. Instead, he dropped out of the seventh grade and shipped off to San Diego for basic training.  There, he said, the drill instructors were aware of the underage recruits and often made them run extra miles and lug heavier packs.

Just months after her christening in 1942, the USS South Dakota was attacked relentlessly in the Pacific. Photo: Wikipedia

By the time the USS South Dakota made it to the Pacific, it had become part of a task force alongside the legendary carrier USS Enterprise (the “Big E”). By early October 1942, the two ships, along with their escorting cruisers and destroyers, raced to the South Pacific to engage in the fierce fighting in the battle for Guadalcanal. After they reached the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, the Japanese quickly set their sights on the carrier and launched an air attack that easily penetrated the Enterprise’s own air patrol. The carrier USS Hornet was repeatedly torpedoed and sank off Santa Cruz, but the South Dakota managed to protect Enterprise, destroying 26 enemy planes with a barrage from its antiaircraft guns.

Standing on the bridge, Captain Gatch watched as a 500-pound bomb struck the South Dakota’s main gun turret. The explosion injured 50 men, including the skipper, and killed one. The ship’s armor was so thick, many of the crew were unaware they’d been hit.  But word quickly spread that Gatch had been knocked unconscious. Quick-thinking quartermasters managed to save the captain’s life—his jugular vein had been severed, and the ligaments in his arms suffered permanent damage—but some onboard were aghast that he didn’t hit the deck when he saw the bomb coming. “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship to flop for a Japanese bomb,” Gatch later said.

The ship’s young crew continued to fire at anything in the air, including American bombers that were low on fuel and trying to land on the Enterprise. The South Dakota was quickly getting a reputation for being wild-eyed and quick to shoot, and Navy pilots were warned not to fly anywhere near it. The South Dakota was fully repaired at Pearl Harbor, and Captain Gatch returned to his ship, wearing a sling and bandages. Seaman Graham quietly became a teenager, turning 13 on November 6, just as Japanese naval forces began shelling an American airfield on Guadalcanal Island. Steaming south with the Enterprise, Task Force 64, with the South Dakota and another battleship, the USS Washington, took four American destroyers on a night search for the enemy near Savo Island. There, on November 14, Japanese ships opened fire, sinking or heavily damaging the American destroyers in a four day engagement that became known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

Later that evening the South Dakota encountered eight Japanese destroyers; with deadly accurate 16-inch guns, the South Dakota set fire to three of them. “They never knew what sank ‘em,” Gatch would recall. One Japanese ship set its searchlights on the South Dakota, and the ship took 42 enemy hits, temporarily losing power. Graham was manning his gun when shrapnel tore through his jaw and mouth; another hit knocked him down, and he fell through three stories of superstructure. Still, the 13 year-old made it to his feet, dazed and bleeding, and helped pull other crew members to safety while others were thrown by the force of the explosions, their bodies aflame, into the Pacific.

“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night,” Graham later said.  ”It was a long night. It aged me.” The shrapnel had knocked out his front teeth, and he had flash burns from the hot guns, but he was “fixed up with salve and a coupla stitches,” he recalled. “I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead.  It was a while before they worked on my mouth.” In fact, the ship had casualties of 38 men killed and 60 wounded.

Regaining power, and after afflicting heavy damage to the Japanese ships, the South Dakota rapidly disappeared in the smoke. Captain Gatch would later remark of his “green” men, “Not one of the ship’s company flinched from his post or showed the least disaffection.” With the Japanese Imperial Navy under the impression that it had sunk the South Dakota, the legend of Battleship X was born.

After the Japanese Imperial Navy falsely believed it had sunk the South Dakota in November, 1942, the American vessel became known as “Battleship X.” Photo: Wikimedia

In mid-December, the damaged ship returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for major repairs, where Gatch and his crew were profiled for their heroic deeds in the Pacific. Calvin Graham received a Bronze Star for distinguishing himself in combat, as well as a Purple Heart for his injuries. But he couldn’t bask in glory with his fellow crewmen while their ship was being repaired. Graham’s mother, reportedly having recognized her son in newsreel footage, wrote the Navy, revealing the gunner’s true age.

Graham returned to Texas and was thrown in a brig at Corpus Christi, Texas, for almost three months.

Battleship X returned to the Pacific and continued to shoot Japanese planes out of the sky. Graham, meanwhile, managed to get a message out to his sister Pearl, who complained to the newspapers that the Navy was mistreating the “Baby Vet.” The Navy eventually ordered Graham’s release, but not before stripping him of his medals for lying about his age and revoking his disability benefits. He was simply tossed from jail with a suit and a few dollars in his pocket—and no honorable discharge.

Back in Houston, though, he was treated as a celebrity. Reporters were eager to write his story, and when the war film Bombadier premiered at a local theater, the film’s star, Pat O’Brien, invited Graham to the stage to be saluted by the audience. The attention quickly faded. At age 13, Graham tried to return to school, but he couldn’t keep pace with students his age and quickly dropped out. He married at age 14, became a father the following year, and found work as a welder in a Houston shipyard. Neither his job nor his marriage lasted long. At 17 years old and divorced, and with no service record, Graham was about to be drafted when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He soon broke his back in a fall, for which he received a 20 percent service-connected disability. The only work he could find after that was selling magazine subscriptions.

When President Jimmy Carter was elected, in 1976, Graham began writing letters, hoping that Carter, “an old Navy man,” might be sympathetic. All Graham had wanted was an honorable discharge so he could get help with his medical and dental expenses. “I had already given up fighting” for the discharge, Graham said at the time. “But then they came along with this discharge program for deserters. I know they had their reasons for doing what they did, but I figure I damn sure deserved more than they did.”

In 1977, Texas Senators Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower introduced a bill to give Graham his discharge, and in 1978, Carter announced that it had been approved and that Graham’s medals would be restored, with the exception of the Purple Heart.  Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation approving disability benefits for Graham.

At the age of 12, Calvin Graham broke the law to serve his country, at a time when the U.S. military might well be accused of having had a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to underage enlistees. For fear of losing their benefits or their honorable discharges, many “Baby Vets” never came forward to claim the nation’s gratitude. It wasn’t until 1994, two years after he died, that the military relented and returned the seaman’s last medal—his Purple Heart—to his family.

Sources

Articles: “A Medal of Honor,” by Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1994. “Life Aboard ‘Battleship X’: The USS South Dakota in World War II,” by David B. Miller, South Dakota State Historical Society, 1993. “Calvin Graham, 62, Who Fought in War as a 12-Year-Old,” by Eric Pace, New York Times, November 9, 1992. “Congress Votes WWII Benefits For Boy Sailor,” Washington Post, October 23, 1988. “Underage Sailor Wins Recognition,” Hartford Courant, May 9, 1978. “U.S. Battleship’s Green Crew Bags 32 Planes, 4 Warships,” New York Times, January 4, 1943, “Civilian Seeks Navy Discharge,” Hartford Courant, April 12, 1977. “The Navy’s ‘Baby’ Hero Who Won the Bronze Star at 12 Now Wants Justice From the Nation He Served,” by Kent Demaret, People, October 24, 1977. “The USS South Dakota (BB-57) Battleship,” by J.R. Potts, MilitaryFactory.com, http://www.militaryfactory.com/ships/detail.asp?ship_id=USS-South-Dakota-BB57 “USS South Dakota BB 57,” http://www.navysite.de/bb/bb57.htm “Decades Later, Military Veterans Admit Being Underage When They Enlisted,” Associated Press, November 3, 2003. “Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Turning Point in the Pacific War,” by David H. Lippman, World War II Magazine, June 12, 2006. “I’m Twelve, Sir: The Youngest Allied Soldier in World War Two,” by Giles Milton, http://surviving-history.blogspot.com/2012/07/im-twelve-sir-youngest-allied-soldier.html “Sailor Who Enlisted at 12 Seeks Help,” Washington Post, April 20, 1978.

Film: “Battleship X: The USS South Dakota,” Produced by Rich Murphy, 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1mX_K9lFbA

The Japanese-American combat unit that earned 4,000 Bronze Stars and 21 Medals of Honor

H/T War History OnLine.

The 442nd Infantry Regiment was the most decorated unit in World War II.

The men of the 442nd define the word hero.

The United States’ most decorated WWII unit was made up of people considered ‘enemy aliens’ at the time. When America joined WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, they did what many other nations did when at war; gathering and incarcerating citizens from countries they were at war against.

These people were known as ‘enemy aliens,’ and were placed in internment camps after President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which affected over 100,000 Japanese Americans.

The United Kingdom and Germany made similar arrangements for people caught in their country as war was declared against their nations.

Japanese Americans were accepted into the military

442nd Infantry and WWII
Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson congratulates Lt. Masanan Otake of Lahaina, Hawaii, for the outstanding job done by Otake and other members of the 100th Battalion of the 442nd Infantry, which was composed of voluteers from Japanese-American internment camps. General Mark Clark stands behind Undersecretary Patterson. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

After the war was declared against Japan, many US citizens feared that Japanese Americans’ loyalties may lie with Japan, not the US. Soon after the signing of EO9066, discrimination against Japanese Americans increased dramatically.

However, few realized that most Japanese Americans were just as angry about the attacks on Pearl Harbor. In Hawaii, people with Japanese ancestry made up such a large percentage of the population that it was deemed impractical to intern them. But because of the genuine risk of a Japanese invasion of Hawaii, many were still worried about their loyalties.

Because of this, 1,300 soldiers with Japanese ancestry were removed from the Hawaiian National Guard and made into the 100th Infantry Battalion. The battalion was sent to the US for training.

Going for broke

With the success of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the US decided to establish another Japanese American unit, the 442nd Infantry Regiment, which was activated in February 1943. To begin with, most of its members were Hawaiian.

The unit trained for combat from its inception until mid-1944. As US top brass was still unsure of the soldiers’ loyalties, the 442nd would not be sent to the Pacific Theatre of war.

During training, a number of men from the 442nd would be sent as replacements to the 100th Infantry Battalion, who had been shipped off to fight in late 1943. Their training was much harsher and more intense than usual US units, as officers wanted to test their loyalty.

The 442nd settled on the motto “Go For Broke,” and shipped out to Europe in April 1944, arriving in Italy in June 1944.

Upon their arrival, they began fighting the Germans alongside the 100th Infantry Regiment and quickly proved to be an extremely capable fighting force. In August 1944 the 100th was absorbed in the 442nd, with both serving as a single fighting force.

The unit joined the invasion of Southern France in September and made its way to the Vosges Mountains. It was here that the 442nd showed many tremendous feats of courage, grit and determination in the face of the enemy.

The Lost Battalion

442nd during WWII
Americans of Japanese descent, Infantrymen of the 442nd Regiment, run for cover as a German artillery shell is about to land outside the building. Italy. April 4, 1945. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In October 1944, the 141st Infantry Regiment launched an attack against German lines in the Vosges Mountains. The attack quickly bogged down and faced stiff resistance from the Germans, who were able to cut off 275 men from the 141st’s 1st Battalion deep behind enemy lines.

Without any easy means of rescue, the 141st was told to dig in.

To keep the men supplied, Allied aircraft attempted to air-drop supplies, but terrible weather caused many of the deliveries to fall into the hands of the enemy. Multiple attempts by different units were made over the course of a week to relieve the men, but all had failed.

As a result, the 442nd was called in to make another attempt. Initially, they made little progress due to the weather (around 20 feet of visibility) and poor ground conditions that favored the Germans.

The men fought extremely hard in an uphill battle against the Germans and suffered heavy losses. All seemed to be lost until the men of the 442nd launched a spontaneous Banzai charge at the Germans who fled at the sight of them. They had finally relieved the 141st.

Highly decorated

WWII most highly decorated group
2nd August 1944: American General Mark Clark (1896 – 1984), commander of the Allied Fifth Army in Italy, fastens the citation streamers on the quidons of the 100th battalion flag as the color guard stands at attention. The group, a Japanese-American infantry battlion of the 442nd regimental combat team, received the citation streamers for outstanding performance of duties in the Mediterranean theatre. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Around 18,000 men fought in the unit throughout their involvement in the war. The men who served earned 4,000 Bronze Stars, over 4,000 Purple Hearts, 560 Silver Star Medals, 21 Medals of Honor, and seven Presidential Unit Citations. This made them the most decorated unit of WWII.

In 2010, the 442nd was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition for the extremely brave actions of its members during WWII.

Aboard World War II Airplanes, It Was Strictly Smoking Allowed

H/T Smithsonian Magazine.

Marlboro Country reached all the way up to 40,000 feet.

nose gunner of an aircraft smokes
Even in the nose section of a Martin B-26B Marauder, an airman could take a drag. The nose gunner of the B-26 Fightin’ Cock, based in the U.K. with the 9th Air Force, smokes during a mission. (Colour by RJM / USAF Historical Research Center Photo)

As a flight of Marine Corsairs cruised over the Pacific, Lieutenant Robert McClurg watched the canopy of his leader’s aircraft intently. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington had his seat cranked all the way down and he was chain-smoking as usual.

Pilots were not supposed to smoke cigarettes in their fighters. It was a clear fire hazard. After all, a warplane was a flimsy aluminum shell wrapped around a conglomeration of stuff that naturally wanted to burn or explode—fuel, hydraulic fluid, oil, oxygen, weaponry. Adding a lit cigarette to that mix was perilous.

But Boyington wasn’t exactly a “by-the-book” type of guy. On the ground, he was a heavy drinker and, as he described in his autobiography, “an incessant smoker.” While on the job, hunting Japanese aircraft, one thing Boyington did not leave behind was his cigarettes.

As McClurg related in Boyington’s 1958 book Baa Baa Black Sheep, “I always know when we’re going into combat.” Keenly observing his leader, he looked for a break in the chain. When Boyington straightened up, cracked his canopy, and flicked his half-smoked Camel into the ocean, it was a sure sign that things were about to happen.

Gregory Boyington
When stationed in New Zealand in 1943, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington took no chance of being without a smoke: He had American cigarettes shipped to him. (National Archives)

“Nearly everyone smoked in those days,” Army aviator Lieutenant James Alter wrote in his 2011 book, From Campus to Combat, “and considering the kind of work we were doing, no one would have been too worried about lung cancer even if we had known about it. What we did know was that Chesterfields satisfied; we’d walk a mile for a Camel; and just like us, Lucky Strike Green had gone to war.”

America supplied cigarettes to military men in stunning numbers during World War II. Philip Morris and other U.S. tobacco suppliers reported rolling and selling 290 billion smokes in 1943. In order to relieve boredom and improve the morale of fighting men, cigarettes came standard inside K-ration boxes along with candy and gum. If young soldiers and sailors wanted more, cigarettes were just 50 cents a carton or a nickel a pack. As a result, tobacco consumption skyrocketed during the war.

In the early 1940s, even the president smoked, as did glamorous movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. And young men who dreamed of fighting in the skies looked up to Eddie Rickenbacker. America’s top World War I ace had been puffing on cigarettes since age five.

Smoking, in fact, could even help a prospective flier get accepted into the service. “When I went in for the physical exam, my blood pressure was too low,” Calvin Sanders told an interviewer in 2003. “They would not accept me. They took my three buddies, which, of course, disappointed me terrible.” The doctor told him, “ ‘Go out and smoke a cigarette,’ which I did, and it raised my blood pressure. And he says, ‘You’re okay.’ And they let me in.” Sanders later became a B-17 navigator, flying combat missions over Germany.

We can imagine the briefing and carrier ready rooms from Bassingbourn to Tarawa were almost constantly filled with a stifling wall of blue cigarette smoke, but many of these fliers didn’t snuff out their last cigarette and then take off—they continued smoking inside their aircraft.

Camel billboard in Times Square
Installed in 1941, the iconic Times Square Camel cigarette billboard was on display for 26 years. The billboard, featuring a pilot smoking, used steam to simulate the appearance of cigarette smoke. (LOC)

Echoing the themes of mortality and fate illustrated in the first chapters of The Right Stuff, pilot Lance Teillon wrote online in 2011, “[Smoking is] obviously not beneficial, nevertheless a good number of us did smoke. I remember, during my annual physical one year, asking the doctor if he was going to lecture me on stopping smoking.” Then Teillon told the doctor he flew carrier fighters: “He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t bother stopping.’ ”

Warplanes took life violently and suddenly, while cigarettes took decades to do their work. Navy standout and Medal of Honor recipient Edward “Butch” O’Hare was a loyal Camel smoker. He died when his Hellcat disappeared near the Gilbert Islands before his 30th birthday.

Neel Kearby, another Medal of Honor aviator, was dead by 32. One novice aviator recalled mock dogfighting with the famous ace before Kearby was lost in combat. Frantically doing everything he could to shake this aerial virtuoso, the young man turned in his seat to witness a final indignity. As Kearby’s aircraft closed in on his tail, the pilot was casually lighting his smoke behind the gunsight.

Considering the odds, smoking was an insignificant risk. In his book, Fighter Pilot, U.S. Army Air Forces ace Robin Olds described wanting to smoke to calm down after avoiding a more immediate death. In a tussle with a Bf 109, Olds nearly plunged his P-38 straight into the ground. The high-speed pullout had torn out the left canopy panel. “My hands shook as I tried to light a cigarette as I flew on toward England,” he wrote. “No way, not with the wind. Damn, I was [expletive] freezing!”

Many of the giants in military aviation in the 1940s smoked. Marine ace Joe Foss flew with a cigar, though often unlit. Claire Lee Chennault was a chain-smoker, burning through two or more packs of Camels each day. And General Curtis LeMay, after 1944, was hardly ever seen without his trademark stogie.

ad for Chesterfield cigarettes featuring two servicemen smoking
Chesterfield was one of many tobacco companies to feature servicemen—during both world wars—in its advertisements. (Courtesy eBay)

Lieutenant Colonel Olin Gilbert, the leader of the 78th Fighter Group, was racing for home through the clouds at 1,000 feet after a mission. Thinking he was safe, he loosened his seat straps, reached for a smoke, and lit it. Just then, a battery of radar-guided flak found his airplane, jolting him with terrifying blasts. “I never did find that cigarette,” Gilbert said later.

Chuck Yeager was a non-smoker and, it is worth noting, lived to age 97. In a 2013 question-and-answer session on Facebook, he revealed a possible reason why he didn’t smoke: “My flight leader insisted on smoking a pipe on return [from a mission]. He’d have to fly low to light it. One time flying low…he got shot down.”

A lot of fliers were sensible enough to abstain from smoking while breathing oxygen. However, there were many exceptions. In an oral history collection published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1993, top Navy ace David McCampbell described waiting out a group of Japanese bombers while flying at high altitude. Killing time, he elevated his smoking game: “I have been questioned about smoking a cigarette at 18,000 feet,” he said. “You can do it, because both my wingman and I did! It’s quite simple. You just pull the oxygen mask away from your face, put in a cigarette, and light it. You get the cigarette lit, put your mask back on, and periodically pull the mask away, take a puff on the cigarette, and then put your mask back on. You do this until you finish your cigarette, then throw the cigarette butt out the window. You crack the cockpit hood a little so the smoke will go out too.”

An Eighth Air Force B-24 pilot named Warren Blower adds some more detail to the high-altitude technique: “You could take a breath of oxygen and then take the mask away and take a drag on the cigarette and take another drag of oxygen. But you could smoke a cigarette for half an hour and it practically didn’t burn at all, the oxygen was so thin in the air. But when you got tired of smoking and you didn’t want to smoke anymore, [you could] take a deep breath of oxygen and blow through the cigarette and make the flame this long.”

men unloading aircraft of supplies
Men of the 12th Bomb Group, based in Italy, unload candy, supplies, and cigarettes. (National Archives)

For better or worse, most fiercely independent fighter pilots agreed that bomber crewmen are simply a different breed. (And for bomber crews, the feeling was mutual.) As far as fighter jocks were concerned, multi-engine bomber men audaciously treated their aircraft like expansive flying smoking lounges.

Some aircraft manuals, in fact, assumed bomber crews would smoke and set up ground rules. Under the subsection “Smoking,” Consolidated’s B-24 Pilot Training Manual says: “A. No smoking in the airplane at an altitude of less than 1,000 feet. B. No smoking during fuel transfer. C. Never carry a lighted cigarette through bomb bays. D. Never attempt to throw a lighted cigarette from the airplane. Put it out first.”

“Lark Morgan, our tail gunner, smoked with his oxygen mask on,” recalled gunner Bud Guillot on a B-24 website. “He would move the mask to one side of his face and stick a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and then pull a little of the mask over the lip holding the cigarette. One could easily judge the ferocity of each mission by the number of cigarette butts on the floor of Morgan’s tail turret.”

At some stations in the aircraft, crewmen didn’t even have to use the floor. Manufacturers, anticipating long-duration flights, equipped many multi-crew aircraft of the era with ashtrays. Rather than spending time creating their own designs, they often acquired overstocked 1930s samples of “ash receptors” from automobile companies.

The forward section of Flak-Bait (the Martin B-26B Marauder that was on display at the National Air and Space Museum for decades, and is undergoing restoration and will be again displayed at the Museum in 2022) is equipped with 1939 Dodge pickup truck ashtrays. An observer could clearly see one installed next to the radio operator’s desk. But not every cigarette butt made it to its proper place. As Museum staffers cleaned the aircraft for display, they found numerous discarded smokes, along with gum wrappers, chaff fragments, machine gun shells, and bomb fuse tags, sifted into the belly of the bomber.

man holding magpies, one with a cigarette in its mouth
Radioman Sergeant Giovanni Longo and his cleverly named magpies “Dot” and “Dash” pretend to share a cigarette in 1944. (National Archives)

Many Vega and Consolidated aircraft flew with aftermarket surface-mounted dome “ash receptors.” Boeing somehow finagled a huge supply of 1935-1936 Ford passenger car ashtrays, which appeared in the cockpits of thousands of B-17s, B-29s, B-47s, and beyond.

In the big bombers, the smoking light wasn’t always on. Warren Blower discussed a hair-raising event when two of the three sides of the classic “fire triangle”—heat, fuel, and oxygen—were added to the belly of his B-24. An open flame would have led to disaster. “There was a fuel transfer pump right on the catwalk in bomb bays. And this thing apparently blew its seal and was spraying gasoline all over. And so we were just in the process of opening the bomb doors and getting it ventilated out when one of the oxygen lines goes. So we were full of gasoline and oxygen for a little while. We put the landing gear down so we could get some air through the nose [and] let it breathe out. When we were pretty well settled down again, I got on the intercom and I says, ‘I don’t suppose I have to tell anybody not to smoke.’ ”

From time to time, American warplanes inexplicably detonated in a ball of flame and very few lived to discuss the cause. A devastating blast sparked by a lighter or cigarette is still one of the leading theories to explain the fate of the Martin Mariner flying boat sent to search for Flight 19 over the Bermuda Triangle in 1945.

Then there is this tantalizing tidbit from the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives, relating the fate of a C-47 over Burma that same year. The “causes” write-up explains: “The captain was lighting a cigarette while holding his oxygen tube. The Zippo lighter flame caused the gasoline in the lighter to explode. The fireball set the C-47 on fire. All 3 crew members bailed out successfully over the Hukawng Valley.”

nurse smokes onboard an aircraft
Flight nurse Lieutenant Leona Ldzikowski relaxes with a smoke while flying to a forward airfield to collect her patients. (National Archives)

Some aviators fought like hell to keep smokers off their flights. In a 2013 Library of Congress oral history, cargo pilot Donald Krambeck related his pre-flight announcement in the China-Burma-India Theater. As their fuel-loaded Liberator lined up at the end of the runway, he said, “Now, we’ve got to have a minute and a half for our prayer, and nobody smokes on this airplane because the fumes just surround you and, kaboom, you’re gone.”

Cruising toward some remote base in China, Krambeck continued the story: “We had barrels that we had used and used and they all leaked. 100 octane gas was on the floor, and I told the co-pilot, ‘Hold the course. I’m going back and figure out who’s smoking.’ This guy was crouched down behind a 55-gallon barrel smoking a cigarette and I said, ‘Do you want to die? Do you want me to die? Do you want the co-pilot to die? And do you want to lose this airplane?’ He was just shaking. I said, ‘Well, don’t put that out in the gas.’ So he put it out in the palm of his hand.”

Not everyone had that degree of vigilance. In an oral history, radarman Anthony Adams related a wheels-up landing in a B-29 at Saipan. “Well, all right,” he said when they crunched to a stop, spilling out the last of their fuel over the runway. “It wasn’t that bad. We all got out of the airplane and everybody lit up cigarettes like idiots.”

Gremlins Were A Pilot’s Worst Enemy During WWII

H/T War History OnLine.

I remember my great uncle a World War II veteran talking about gremlins.

Pilots had to contend with a lot during the Second World War. Along with fighting the enemy in the skies above Europe and the Pacific, they also had to face another tricky opponent: gremlins. These pesky creatures wreaked havoc on pilots and flight crews alike, making an already difficult task that much more dangerous.

What is a gremlin?

For the majority of the population, the word “gremlin” brings to mind the 1984 cult classic film by Joe Dante. However, for those in the military – more specially, the British Royal Air Force – it conjures up another image, one of a menacing creature lurking in the shadows of an aircraft, waiting to cause trouble.

Two gremlins bent over
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Depictions of gremlins vary, as different types were described by service members. In general, they were said to have large eyes, sharp teeth and claws, and spiky backs. They looked rather cartoonish, standing at one foot tall and having brightly-colored skin in shades of blue, green and brown.

There were many variations that caused different types of trouble. The “Jockie” sat cross-legged on birds and guided them into the windshield of fighter planes, while “Optics” hid in bombsights to throw off a bomber’s vision when aiming at a target.

Woman blocking her eyes from projectiles thrown by gremlins
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Bombii” gremlins caused bombs to change direction and land away from their targets, and “Water” ones disabled carburetors by leaking water into fuel lines. When not fooling around with pilots, they messed around with flight crews, hiding compasses and disrupting radio frequencies.

Fabled origins

The origin of gremlins is disputed. Some derive it from the Old English word “Gremian,” or “to vex,” while author Carole Rose, in her book Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia, attributes it to the blending of Brothers Grimm and Fremlin Beer.

Man slipping on grease pouring from a barrel tipped over by gremlins
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The majority attribute the creatures to the RAF, however the exact date is debated. Some believe the dates back to World War I, despite there being no written evidence, while others say it was slang used by pilots stationed in Malta, the Middle East and India during the 1920s. This is where the earliest recorded print evidence is seen, in a poem written on April 10, 1929.

Another early reference is included in aviator Pauline Gower‘s 1938 novel, The ATA: Women With Wings, where she describes Scotland as “gremlin country,” known to house scissor-wielding gremlins that cut the wires of biplanes.

Pauline Gower waving from the cockpit of her plane
Pauline Gower, 1940. (Photo Credit: Mr. B J H Daventry / Wikimedia Commons)

The term was most-widely used during WWII, with the first, as shown in an article published to the Royal Air Force Journal on April 18, 1942. Pilot Hubert Griffith chronicled the creatures, noting they largely made an appearance during the Battle of Britain in 1940. He believed they weren’t always malevolent and had a rather playful sense of humor.

Spread during World War II

Gremlins are most associated with the RAF units, in particular the high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) of RAF Benson, RAF St Eval and RAF Wick. Their crews blamed the tricksters on otherwise inexplicable accidents, and they eventually became a scapegoat for issues that occurred when flying.

Gremlins pushing a man into a saw blade
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

They were once thought to be sympathetic toward the enemy, but this was later deemed false, as enemy aircraft suffered similar issues. As such, gremlins were portrayed as tricksters of opportunity, acting on self-interest.

Gremlins soon spread to the United States Air Force, whose pilots began to complain about a host of issues, including reliable engines failing and nuts coming loose. While most US troops looked upon the creatures as negative, others saw them differently. This included the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), which adopted the gremlin Fifinella as their official mascot.

Portrait of Roald Dahl + Gloster Gladiator flying in the air
Roald Dahl was flying a Gloster Gladiator when he crashed in Libya during WWII. (Photo Credit: 1. Carl Van Vechten / Wikimedia Commons 2. British Government / Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of the war, gremlins had become solidified in Western flying lore. This was helped by Roald Dahl and the Walt Disney Company. The famed children’s author, who was a RAF fighter pilot, was commissioned to write a book about them, titled The Gremlins. This led to their further spread in popular culture, and they were soon featured on such television shows as The Twilight Zone and the Looney Tunes.

Deflecting blame and boosting morale

For many, gremlins were a way to deflect blame. Much of what they were accused of could be attributed to human or machine error. Rather than place the blame any one person, it was easier to blame a fictional creature.

Gremlins surrounding a man lying in bed
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to historian Marlin Bressi, this helped keep morale up amongst RAF pilots:

“Gremlins, while imaginary, played a very important role to the airmen of the Royal Air Force. Gremlin tales helped build morale among pilots, which, in turn, helped them repel the Luftwaffe invasion during the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940. The war may have had a very different outcome if the RAF pilots had lost their morale and allowed Germany’s plans for Operation Sea Lion (the planned invasion of the UK) to develop. In a way, it could be argued that gremlins, troublesome as they were, ultimately helped the Allies win the war.

“Morale among the RAF pilots would have suffered if they pointed the finger of blame at each other,” he continued. “It was far better to make the scapegoat a fantastic and comical creature than another member of your own squadron.”

Gremlins attacking a man
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Critics believe the stress of combat and the high altitudes at which pilots flew led to hallucinations. As such the existence of gremlins became a sort of coping mechanism. Regardless of how you look at it, the existence (or not) of gremlins is a lighter topic in an otherwise devastating war.

Remains of Nazi Massacre Victims Discovered in Poland’s ‘Death Valley’

H/T Smithsonian Magazine.

More Nazi atrocities coming to light.

In January 1945, German forces murdered around 500 Polish resistance fighters in a forest near the village of Chojnice

Researchers in Poland have uncovered evidence of a Nazi massacre that took place in Poland’s “Death Valley” toward the end of World War II.

 

As Andrew Curry reports for Science magazine, a team from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ (PAS) Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology discovered the long-hidden mass grave through a combination of land surveys, interviews with local residents and archival research. The scholars published their findings in the journal Antiquity last week.

The burial, located near the Polish village of Chojnice, contained more than one ton of human bone—a figure in line with the roughly 500 prisoners killed at the site in January 1945. After shooting these victims, the Nazis burned their bodies on massive pyres in hopes of destroying evidence of the atrocity.

“We knew the victims were buried somewhere, but until our research no one knew where,” lead author Dawid Kobiałka, an archaeologist at PAS, tells Science.

Locals dubbed the forest surrounding Chojnice “Death Valley” in recognition of the mass executions that took place there at the beginning of the war. Per the study, the Nazis murdered some 30,000 to 35,000 residents of the Polish Pomeranian province between October and November 1939, carrying out mass killings at 400 sites across the region, including Death Valley.

Known as the Intelligenzaktion, this policy of mass murder targeted educated members of Polish society, such as teachers, priests, doctors, activists, office workers and former officials, writes George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. Comparatively, the victims of the January 1945 massacre were mainly members of the Polish Home Army, an underground resistance network.

 

Exhumations carried out in Death Valley in the fall of 1945 unearthed the remains of 168 people—a fraction of the hundreds murdered near Chojnice over the course of the war.

A gold wedding ring found by the team
An engraved gold wedding ring found in Poland’s “Death Valley” (Kobiałka et al. / Antiquity)

“It was commonly known that not all mass graves from 1939 were found and exhumed, and the grave of those killed in 1945 was not exhumed either,” says Kobiałka in a statement quoted by Live Science’s Laura Geggel.

According to Science, the study is the first to systematically apply archaeological methods to a World War II–era mass grave, as research on human remains buried at concentration camps is often barred by Jewish religious beliefs.

The scholars used noninvasive techniques, including remote-sensing LiDAR technology, to survey the area and identify sites of interest. Homing in on trenches dug in the woods near Chojnice, they investigated further with ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic field analysis and metal detectors. Ultimately, reports Live Science, the team excavated eight trenches and discovered more than 4,250 artifacts, including jewelry, bullet casings and charred wood. Though a small selection of objects found at the site dated to the 19th century, the majority were linked to the wartime massacres.

Moving forward, the researchers hope to use DNA testing to identify the victims. Archival research has yielded a list of individuals taken to Death Valley in 1945, offering a point of comparison for identification efforts. After examining the cremated remains, the team plans to rebury them and turn the site into an official war cemetery.

“Despite the Nazis’ efforts to hide their crimes, material evidence of the killings, preserved to the present day and discovered in 2020, bears witness to the massacre and tells the story 75 years later,” write the authors in the study.