This Week in American Military History: 

May. 2, 1863:  During day-two of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates appear out of nowhere, smashing into Union Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s right flank and literally rolling up the encamped Federal force. But the Confederate victory proves bittersweet, as Jackson will be wounded – his left arm shattered – that night in a friendly fire incident during a leaders-recon mission.

Following the amputation of Jackson’s arm, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee will lament, “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right arm.” Worse for Lee, Jackson will develop pneumonia and die within eight days.

May 4, 1946:  Alcatraz prison guards and U.S. Marines recapture Alcatraz from rioting inmates, who had previously broken into the prison armory, seized weapons and taken hostages. The Alcatraz guards quickly realized they were no match for the inmates. But the inmates stood no chance against “a few good men.” 

May. 5, 1864:  The bloody albeit inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness (Virginia) opens between Union Army forces under the command of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Fighting is grim: Casualties will be heavy on both sides. Union and Confederate generals will be killed. Wounded and trapped soldiers will be burned alive by a battle-sparked woods fire.

Within two days, Grant will disengage and advance toward Spotsylvania Courthouse.

May. 5, 1961:  U.S. Navy Commander (future rear admiral) Alan B. Shepard Jr. rockets to an altitude of more than 116 miles above the Earth’s surface (space begins at 73 miles) becoming the first American in space. Shepard’s spacecraft – a recoverable capsule launched by a Redstone rocket – is christened “Freedom 7.”

In less than a year, John Glenn – a Marine – will become the first American to orbit the Earth.

Shepard will become the fifth man to walk on the moon in 1971.

May 5, 1965: The first large-scale U.S. Army forces – the famous 173rd Airborne Brigade – arrive in South Vietnam.

May 6, 1962:  During “the 1962 atomic tests,” the submarine USS Ethan Allen launches the first and only nuclear-tipped Polaris missile fired from a submerged sub. The warhead detonates over the South Pacific.

The submarine (the second of two so-named U.S. Navy vessels) is named in honor of Ethan Allen, the famous patriot leader of the “Green Mountain Boys” during the American Revolution.

May. 7, 1942:  The Battle of the Coral Sea begins in earnest between Allied (primarily U.S.) Naval forces and the Japanese Navy.

The battle – the first fought between opposing ships beyond visual range – is largely a carrier-air fight, and will result in the loss or damage of several American ships, including the loss of USS Lexington (the fifth of six American warships named for the famous battle of April 19, 1775), scores of destroyed planes and hundreds of sailors and Marines killed.

The Japanese will also suffer serious losses.

According to the U.S. Naval Historical Center: “Though the Japanese could rightly claim a tactical victory on ‘points,’ it was an operational and strategic defeat for them, the first major check on the great offensive they had begun five months earlier at Pearl Harbor.”

May. 7, 1945:  Germany surrenders one week after Adolf Hitler and his new bride, Eva Braun, commit suicide in Hitler’s Berlin Bunker.

May. 8, 1846:  In the first major battle of the Mexican War, U.S. Army forces under the command of Gen. (and future president) Zachary Taylor decisively defeat Mexican forces under Gen. Mariano Arista in the Battle of Palo Alto (Texas). The Mexicans will retreat to a seemingly more defensible position at Resaca de la Palma the following day, but Taylor will pursue and beat them badly there too.

May. 8, 1864:  Days after the bloody affair in the Wilderness, Grant and Lee again clash in the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Like the Wilderness, the outcome at Spotsylvania Courthouse will be inconclusive and the casualties terribly heavy.  In less than two weeks, Grant will again break contact and continue his advance toward Richmond.

May. 8, 1911:  The U.S. Navy places its first order with the Curtiss aircraft company for two biplanes. Thus, May 8 becomes the official birthday of Naval Aviation.

Let’s increase awareness of American military tradition and honor America’s greatest heroes by supporting the Medal of Honor Society’s 2010 Convention to be held in Charleston, S.C., Sept. 29 – Oct. 3, 2010 (for more information, click here).

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