This Week in American Military History:
Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette
July 31, 1777: The Marquis de Lafayette, a 19-year-old French nobleman whom Gen. George Washington will soon take under his wing, is commissioned “major general” in the Continental Army.
Aug. 1, 1943: Operation Tidal Wave – also known as the Raid on Ploesti – commences: 177 U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 Liberators flying 1,000-plus miles from their bases in Libya, attack the heavily defended Ploesti oil fields in Rumania.
The raid is flown against waves of counterattacking enemy planes, heavy antiaircraft fire, and at treetop level above the target area. Many of the B-24 crews are forced to fly through thick black smoke over targets just-attacked by their comrades ahead of them, and they are caught in the bursts and shock waves of delayed-action bombs.
Damage will be heavy on the oilfields said “to be supplying 60 percent of Germany’s crude oil requirements,” according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. But USAAF casualties will also be high: “Of 177 planes and 1,726 men who took off on the mission, 54 planes and 532 men failed to return.”
Five Medals of Honor will be awarded for the daring raid. Recipients include: Col. Leon W. Johnson, Col. John R. Kane, Lt. Col. Addison E. Baker (posthumous), Maj. John L. Jerstad (posthumous), and 2nd Lt. Lloyd H. Hughes (posthumous).
Aug. 1, 1955: The famous U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft (yes, the same type of aircraft piloted by CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers when he was shot down over the Soviet Union by a surface-to-air missile in 1960) makes its first-ever flight above Groom Lake (Area 51), Nevada.
Aug. 3, 1958: USS Nautilus – the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine and the U.S. Navy’s sixth so-named vessel – becomes the first “ship” to cross the North Pole. The submarine’s simple transmission: “Nautilus 90 North.”
Aug. 4, 1790: Congress approves Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s proposal to “build ten cutters to protect the new nation’s revenue,” establishing the Revenue Cutter Service – first of the predecessor services of the modern Coast Guard. Thus today will become the officially recognized birthday of the U.S. Coast Guard.
USCG Cutter Campbell (WMEC 909)
Aug. 5, 1864: One of the great makers of Naval tradition, Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, commanding a strike force of 14 wooden warships and a handful of ironclads, attacks and decisively defeats Confederate Naval forces under Adm. Franklin Buchanan and the Confederate forts defending Mobile Bay, Alabama. It is during this action that Farragut (see Farragut’s Raiders) purportedly utters the command, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!,” or the more likely command, “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells. Captain [Percival] Drayton, go ahead! [Lt. Commander James] Jouett, full speed!”
Aug. 6, 1945: A single American B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, flying from the island of Tinian drops the first-ever atomic bomb used in war on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Little Boy, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. [Photo from Truman Library]
At 8:15 a.m., the bomb, codenamed Little Boy, detonates nearly 2,000 feet above the city center instantly killing between 80,000 and 140,000 people, and seriously wounding another 100,000. According to Hiroshima & Nagasaki Remembered, “The blast wave shattered windows for a distance of ten miles and was felt as far away as 37 miles. Hiroshima had disappeared under a thick, churning foam of flames and smoke. The co-pilot, Captain Robert Lewis, commented, ‘My God, what have we done?’”
In three days, Nagasaki will suffer the same fate.
Japan’s ability to wage war is finished.
In time, the bombings will be decried as cruel and excessive in terms of the lives lost; as if to suggest all war is not both cruel and excessive to the vanquished. Indeed, nuclear weapons are horrible. What is incalculable, however, is the number of American lives saved by decisively ending the war with the bombs before having to invade the Japanese mainland.