With new medals 30 years after ‘Black Hawk Down,’ members of Army’s secretive Delta Force say they’re the ‘same deadly fighting machine’

US troops in a Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu, Somalia
US troops in a Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu, Somalia, September 2, 1993.

  • The US Army recently upgraded dozens of awards given for valor during the October 3, 1993, special-operations mission in Mogadishu.
  • The operation, recounted in the 2001 film “Black Hawk Down,” is widely remembered for how it went awry.
  • Thirty years on, former Delta Force members remember it with frustration about the limitations they faced and pride for the odds they overcame.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Almost 30 years ago, members of the special-operations unit Task Force Ranger fought for their lives in one of the toughest battles since the Vietnam War.

The battle in Mogadishu, Somalia – popularized by the movie “Black Hawk Down” – was so fierce that it resulted in two Medal of Honors and dozens of lesser awards.

Now the US Army has upgraded 58 of those awards to the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor under fire, and two others to the Distinguished Flying Cross, which recognizes heroism in aerial combat.

Task Force Ranger

US Army Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu Somalia
A US Army Black Hawk gunner covers a Cobra gunship during a patrol over Mogadishu, October 17, 1993.

Task Force Ranger was the best the US military had to offer.

A few hundred strong, the task force comprised Delta Force’s C Squadron, Bravo Company from the 3rd Ranger Battalion, small elements of Air Commandos, a four-man reconnaissance and sniper team from SEAL Team 6, and helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers.”

Operation Gothic Serpent, their mission in Somalia, was a US-led effort to stop the civil war in the East African country by capturing warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, a key player in the conflict, and his lieutenants.

The task force had been operating in Somalia for some time before the fatal battle on October 3, 1993. On that day, Delta Force operators, Rangers, and Night Stalkers conducted a daytime raid to capture Aidid’s lieutenants, who were meeting in downtown Mogadishu.

Although the mission started smoothly, it was upended by a series of mistakes and bad luck – most notably, the shoot-down of two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

Black Hawk helicopter shot down in Mogadishu Somalia
Children walk on the rotor of a US Black Hawk helicopter downed in Mogadishu, October 14, 1993.

What was meant to be a quick in-and-out direct-action raid ended up being an hours-long personnel recovery mission conducted under fire in an urban environment.

Somali militiamen shot down the first Black Hawk, call sign Super 61, using a rocket-propelled grenade, killing the two pilots and gravely injuring the rest of the crew. As Delta Force operators and Rangers rushed to the downed Black Hawk, Somali fighters shot down Super 64, again with an RPG.

At the first crash site, US troops’ efforts to extricate the two dead pilots were frustrated by intense Somali resistance.

At the second site, two Delta Force snipers, Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart, volunteered to be inserted and hold off the Somalis until a rescue operation could be mounted. They died defending Super 64, and both received the Medal of Honor.

In the end, 19 American soldiers were killed, including six Delta Force operators, and 73 were wounded. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Durant, one of the Black Hawk pilots, was captured.

Somalis with US soldiers camouflage in Mogadishu
Somalis hold a pair of camouflage pants said to be from a US soldier killed during fighting in Mogadishu, October 3, 1993.

“I was there in Somalia the day after the battle of the Black Sea,” retired Delta Force operator George Hand told Insider, using another name for the battle.

“Coming in from Egypt, there was much to ponder about the mental state of our comrades. How would they be, what would they be like – aloof, angry, frightened?” Hand added.

“To my utter surprise, there was none of that from any of the men. The only thing I would say was that they played an inordinate rate of very rigorous volleyball. I had never seen a combat team ever fare so well through such trauma.”

“I credit the maturity of the operators and the Unit’s selection process,” Hand said. “These men went through sheer horror for many hours on end but managed to complete the day with comparatively light casualties.”

Hand, author of “Brothers of the Cloth,” a brilliant account of Delta Force missions and men, spent 10 years in Delta Force, completing deployments to Latin America, the Balkans, and Somalia, among other places.

The aftermath

US Army Rangers withdrawal from Mogadishu Somalia
US Army Rangers walk to a military transport plane during their withdrawal from Somalia, October 21, 1993.

Only hours after the battle ended, reinforcements arrived in the form of Delta Force’s A Squadron and additional Rangers. Their initial mission had three components: rescue Durant, recover the bodies Gordon and Shughart, and continue the hunt for Aidid.

In the end, political backlash at home over the operation and its casualties forced Task Force Ranger to stand down. Delta Force’s A squadron conducted a few missions, but the Somalis ultimately handed Durant over after diplomatic negotiations.

“It’s not a secret that we did a lot of things wrong in Somalia. We didn’t fully utilize the assets we had at our disposal for honestly bullshit reasons,” a retired Delta Force operator said, referring to the Clinton administration denying the use of AC-130 gunships and M-1 Abrams tanks in Mogadishu.

“But that didn’t stop us from taking it to them. People say that we lost in Somalia because we suffered too many KIAs [killed in action]. But we did degrade Aidid’s ability to operate while devastating his militiamen,” the retired operator added.

US Army soldier in Mogadishu Somalia
A US soldier walks by a Somali during a patrol near Camp Victory Base, near Mogadishu, November 14, 1993.

The few hundred US commandos fought thousands of Somali militiamen, killing hundreds – some reports claim thousands – and wounding many more.

That the US forces accomplished the objective of capturing Aidid’s lieutenants is often forgotten, the retired operator said, “so I guess it’s something that the task force’s fighting spirit is universally recognized after so many years.”

Delta operators in Somalia wanted to get back into the fight “as quickly as possible,” and volleyball was their outlet, Hand said. “When they saw that there would be no more city combat, they played constant, rigorous volleyball to ease off the kettle.”

That three soldiers from Delta Force’s Special Unit received grave injuries during and after the battle and recovered is also often overlooked, Hand added.

“They returned to the US to be fitted with prosthetic limbs and returned to the front line of battle to join their crew. That’s the American fighting man, and as long as he is held to the same rigorous standards as always, we will field the same deadly fighting machine,” Hand said.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman says Trump is ‘a vile man’ who did ‘more damage to the United States than any other leader’ in recent history

Alexander Vindman
Ret. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

  • Ret. Lt. Col. Alex Vindman called Trump a “vile man” who hurt the US more than any other leader in recent history.
  • He told the Washington Post that Trump “attempted to launch an insurrection.”
  • “In fact, he was the one that was trying to steal the election from President Biden, who was lawfully elected,” Vindman said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A former lieutenant colonel in the Army who testified in then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment inquiry said this week that Trump is a “vile man” who did more “damage to the United States than any other leader in recent US history.”

Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman made the comment in an interview with the Washington Post Live, where he said Trump still poses “an enormous threat” to the US and democracy as a whole.

Vindman previously served as the top Ukraine expert on Trump’s National Security Council. He made headlines in 2019 when he recounted in minute detail his firsthand knowledge of Trump’s efforts to strongarm the Ukrainian government into launching bogus political investigations targeting Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

During Congress’ impeachment inquiry, Vindman testified at length about a July 25, 2019 phone call between Trump and Zelensky that was the linchpin of Trump’s first impeachment. Vindman said he was “concerned” by what he heard and that it was “inappropriate” and “improper” for Trump to demand that a foreign government investigate his political opponent, and that Trump’s efforts undermined US national security.

Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, privately raised concerns about Trump’s actions through the proper NSC channels, and both men were sacked from the White House days after Trump’s Senate impeachment trial. Vindman, who served in combat in Iraq, retired after in the face of what his lawyer called a White House “campaign of bullying, intimidation and retaliation” that could have affected his Army career.

In his interview with the Post on Thursday, Vindman said that he was “a reluctant actor on the political stage” and that he was “drawn in kicking and screaming.”

He said that he didn’t want to participate in “purely partisan engagements, but at the same time, I can make cold, hard calculations about the threat” Trump poses.

“He continues to pose a key threat based on propagating this lie that the election was stolen,” when “in fact he was the one that was trying to steal the election from President Biden, who was lawfully elected,” Vindman said. “He attempted to launch an insurrection,” he “continues to drive a wedge between the American public, on the left and right, and demonizes the Democratic Party, or anybody that’s not a supporter of his.”

Vindman added: “He’s a vile man that has done more damage to the United States than any other leader in recent US history.”

Trump, for his part, continues insisting the election was “rigged” and stolen from him. In the final months of his presidency, Trump engaged in a prolonged effort to get the Justice Department to announce that the election was plagued with widespread voter fraud, even though the attorney general publicly said there was no evidence to support the claim. In fact, nonpartisan election and cybersecurity experts have said the election was the safest and most secure in US history.

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How the Army’s Delta Force and Nightstalkers teamed up to rescue hostages in Iraq, according to operators who were there

A US Marine Corps tank in Baghdad in April 2004
A US Marine Corps tank crew in Baghdad, April 2004.

  • A year after the US’s March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the country faced a growing insurgency.
  • That violent campaign challenged US special-operations forces tasked with operations to counter those militants.
  • In mid-2004, US Army special operators executed a rare daylight raid to rescue foreign contractors held hostage near Baghdad.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Almost a year after the US invasion in March 2003, Iraq was starting to spiral out of control, with a complicated Islamist and sectarian insurgency forming up.

On a normal spring day in 2004, a gang of Iraqi kidnappers abducted five contractors, four Italian and one Polish, off the streets of Baghdad.

Soon after the abductions, the Iraqi kidnappers executed one of the hostages, releasing a video of it as a warning. If the Italian and Polish governments didn’t pay a hefty sum, the rest of the hostages would be executed one by one.

US and Coalition special-operations units began looking for leads on the location of the four remaining captives. The task fell primarily to the top special-missions unit in-country: the US Army’s Delta Force.

Alongside Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), formerly known as SEAL Team 6, Delta Force is the US military’s dedicated counterterrorism and hostage-rescue special-missions unit.

With four squadrons (A, B, C, D) of about 70 operators each, the Unit, as Delta Force is known, has an exemplary hostage-rescue record, with several successful high-risk operations since its creation in the late 1970s.

Part of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Delta Force and DEVGRU are the US’s first responders for any urgent hostage rescue and counterterrorism contingencies.

Find, fix, and finish

Black Hawk helicopters take off from Baghdad's Green Zone
US Black Hawk helicopters take off from Baghdad’s Green Zone, July 13, 2007.

A lot of groundwork has to be done before such an operation. The task force had to pinpoint the location of the hostages – a tall order in the middle of a growing insurgency that included several different sectarian militias and terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iran-backed Mahdi Army.

For the majority of operations, that intelligence would come from other raids, including details from prisoner interrogations or from cellphones or other materials gathered by commandos during other missions.

Any information gleaned from interrogations or devices would give the task force additional leads for more raids in a perpetual cycle until they got to their primary target. Essentially, US and coalition special-operations units would “raid” themselves to the top.

“Time is really off the essence in HR [hostage rescue] and CT [counterterrorism] ops. Hostages or HVTs [high-value targets] can literally be moved in a matter of minutes,” a retired Delta Force operator with several deployments to Iraq told Insider.

“We’ve had occasions where when we launched a mission the target was there, but by the time we had arrived they had moved. These kinds of missions are very kinetic, and you can come up with a dry hole even if you’ve got overhead ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] monitoring the area,” the retired operator said, speaking anonymously to discuss mission planning.

Italians held hostage in Iraq in 2004
A still image of three Italians held captive in Iraq, Umberto Copertino, Salvatore Stefio, and Maurizio Agliana, on April 26, 2004.

On this occasion, intelligence about the location of the four hostages came from a coalition special-operations unit that had debriefed a prisoner.

Once the suspected location of the hostages was pinpointed, JSOC and the intelligence community began monitoring the compound for any signals intelligence that might reveal more information about the kidnappers or the hostages.

In addition, JSOC teams conducted close-target reconnaissance of the area to gather more information about the building’s layout and the pattern of life of those inside.

On June 8, JSOC managed to pinpoint the exact location of the four hostages. Within minutes, the operators had donned their gear and the helicopters spun up for a daring daylight mission.

Objective Medford was on.

Usually, special-operations units operate in the night, using their advanced night-vision and thermal optics and goggles as an advantage. Daylight operations aren’t unheard of but are rare.

In this case, however, the Delta Force operators had to get to the compound as soon as possible to avoid a last-minute relocation of the hostages or, even worse, an execution. Every minute mattered.

‘We’re Navy SEALs, we’re here to get you out!’

US special operations troops during hostage rescue in Iraq
US special-operations troops during a hostage rescue in Iraq, June 2004.

The assault force was composed of a troop of Delta Force operators from A Squadron and eight special-operations helicopters from the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, nicknamed the “Night Stalkers.”

Four MH-60 Black Hawk choppers carried most of the ground force, while four AH/MH-6 Little Bird helicopters provided armed overwatch and assault support.

The assault force flew fast and low across busy highways and farms, touching down just outside the target compound. Knowing that their loud entry would alert the hostage-takers, the Delta Force operators sprinted toward the building.

In record time – just over 17 seconds – the Delta operators swept the compound and located and recovered the four hostages alive. The kidnappers still in the building offered no resistance.

Black Hawk helicopters prepare to land in Baghdad's Green Zone
US Black Hawk helicopters prepare to land in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, February 14, 2007.

A leaked helmet-camera video provides unique insight into a real hostage-rescue operation by one of the world’s top special-operations units.

As the Delta operators stormed the compound and secured the four hostages, Delta Force operator Jamey Caldwell shouted, “We’re Navy SEALs, and we’re here to get you out,” jokingly quoting the infamous 1990 movie “Navy SEALs,” starring Charlie Sheen.

The movie is a sore point for the Naval Special Warfare community, which sees it as bad publicity.

“That’s what we’re trained to do. We specialized in hostage rescue, and to me that was the most satisfying work. You’re risking your life for someone in dire need and making split-second decisions on whether the guy in the room is a threat or needs help,” Caldwell, now retired, told Coffee or Die Magazine last year.

Delta Force and the Night Stalkers had once again pulled off an impressive operation. As the insurgency flared up in the years that followed, they would have to repeat similar and more difficult feats on an industrial scale.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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On opposite sides of Europe, US troops are practicing new ways to get to battle

US Army Stryker vehicle unloaded from cargo ship in Esbjerg Denmark
US Army logisticians and transporters offload equipment at the port in Esbjerg, Denmark, June 5, 2021.

  • During exercises in Europe this spring, US forces worked on new ways to get equipment and supplies troops in the field.
  • Those new approaches are part of a broader effort to improve NATO’s ability to reinforce and resupply units across Europe.
  • The efforts reflect NATO’s increased focus on mobility amid heightened tensions with Russia.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In recent weeks, US troops on opposite sides of Europe have used new ways to get equipment and supplies to troops in forward locations, reflecting NATO’s increased focus on mobility amid heightened tensions with Russia.

This month, US Army logisticians and transporters unloaded 300 pieces of equipment belonging to the Army National Guard’s 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team at the port of Esbjerg in Denmark.

The gear was to be transported by rail and road to the roughly 800 soldiers who recently arrived in Poland to join the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup that has operated there since late 2017.

“This is the first time the US Army has worked with the Danish armed forces at the Esbjerg port to execute an operation of this kind,” an Army press release said, adding that “expanding” the number of European seaports that can support Army deployments was “a key objective.”

US military cargo ship USNS Bob Hope
USNS Bob Hope off the coast of Durres, Albania, before the theater opening exercise for Defender-Europe 21, April 26, 2021.

That gear arrived in Esbjerg a month after US soldiers and sailors unloaded gear and fuel in Durres, Albania to kick off the Defender-Europe 21 exercises.

Rather than offloading directly in Durres’ port, US personnel conducted a joint logistics over-the-shore operation, unloading vehicles and other heavy equipment from USNS Bob Hope, a US Military Sealift Command cargo ship, onto smaller vessels for transport to shore.

JLOTS operations allow US sealift vessels to load and unload personnel and equipment in what the Army described as “severe environments, damaged ports, or over a bare beach” using smaller ships.

The JLOTS operation included a bulk fuel transfer over-the-shore, in which 20,000 gallons of petroleum was pumped from a ship in the Adriatic Sea to a supply point on “an unimproved beach” in Durres for distribution to units in the field.

US military vehicles in port at Durres Albania
US military vehicles in port at Durres, Albania, await deployment to troops for Defender-Europe 21, May 1, 2021.

The JLOTS operation at Durres was the first in Europe since World War II, the Army said, and the bulk fuel transfer was the first of its kind in 30 years.

Defender-Europe and its counterpart in the Pacific are “great exercises” for US Transportation Command, which oversees Military Sealift Command, Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, head of Transportation Command, said at a recent Hudson Institute event.

The “most important part” of Defender-Europe was to reinforce US European Command’s “imperatives of deterrence, of assurance to our allies and partners, and again … demonstrating our ability to project power at our time and place of choosing,” Lyons added.

‘Shoot, move, and communicate’

US Army armor tanks Antwerp Belgium Europe
US Army combat vehicles being unloaded in Antwerp, Belgium, May 20, 2018.

Since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, NATO has put renewed focus on its ability to move forces and supplies into and around Europe.

The alliance has sought to regain capabilities it let wane after the Cold War and to prepare to face a more capable adversary that could challenge or deny its movements in a conflict.

NATO expanded from 16 members in 1991 to 30 in 2021, incorporating countries where infrastructure, such as railways and roads, didn’t match that of Western Europe or couldn’t support the tanks and other heavy equipment used by the alliance’s militaries.

Administrative obstacles, such as customs and transportation regulations, also hindered cross-border movement.

A NATO internal report in 2017 said its ability to rapidly deploy throughout Europe had “atrophied since the end of the Cold War.”

US Army German Abrams tank flag
A German civilian greets US vehicles conducting a tactical road march in Germany, April 23, 2018.

European countries are working to ease those administrative roadblocks and to improve their infrastructure.

NATO has also established two new commands to support logistical operations – one in Norfolk, Virginia, to oversee transatlantic reinforcement and one in Ulm, Germany, to manage movement in Europe.

US Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and head of US European Command, told Insider at an event in December 2019 that the alliance was “dedicating tremendous energy to this very issue.”

To support that effort, the US military has returned to ports that it hasn’t used in decades to conduct operations like that in Esbjerg.

The US Navy has also refocused on reinforcement, simulating its first “opposed transit” of the Atlantic since the 1980s in 2020 and building on it with another exercise this spring.

Navy Vella Gulf Benavidez cargo ship convoy
US Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf leads MV Resolve, center, and USNS Benavidez during a convoy exercise in the Atlantic Ocean, February 28, 2020.

New prepositioned stocks for the Army and the Air Force’s new deployable airbase system also allow US troops arriving in Europe to “immediately hit the deck running” and “shoot, move, and communicate with success against any potential foe,” Wolters said at an Atlantic Council event this week.

“We take logistics very, very seriously. We’re improving our ability to increase our posture once we get the forces where they need to be,” Wolters added, responding to a question from Insider.

Exercises since 2016, including Defender-Europe 21, continue to improve that logistical capability, which Wolters said was essential to warfare.

“It’s just as important to be lethal in air, land, sea, space, and cyber as it is to be lethal in logistics,” Wolters said.

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The US military apologized after soldiers accidentally stormed an olive oil factory in Bulgaria

Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachute May 11, 2021, from an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during Swift Response 21 at Cheshnegirovo Air Base, Bulgaria
Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade jump from an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during Swift Response 21 at Cheshnegirovo Air Base, Bulgaria, May 11, 2021.

  • US Army soldiers accidentally stormed a private business during training in Bulgaria.
  • The service issued a statement saying that it “sincerely” apologizes for the mistake.
  • The incident triggered sharp criticism from the Bulgarian president.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Army issued an apology this week after soldiers accidentally stormed a factory in Bulgaria during a training exercise last month.

During Exercise Swift Response 21, soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade practiced seizing and securing the Cheshnegirovo airfield. Soldiers stormed and cleared bunkers and buildings across the decommissioned airfield.

“On May 11, soldiers entered and cleared a building next to the airfield that they believed was part of the training area, but that was occupied by Bulgarian civilians operating a private business,” US Army Europe and Africa said in a statement Tuesday.

The private business, according to CNN, was a factory that makes processing machinery for the production of olive oil.

The Army said in its statement that no weapons were fired during the incident, which was caught on the factory’s security cameras. As Task & Purpose noted in its report, a Bulgarian reporter posted the following video on Twitter.

“The US Army takes training seriously and prioritizes the safety of our soldiers, our allies, and civilians,” the service said. “We sincerely apologize to the business and its employees.”

The Army is investigating the incident so that it can determine the source of the mistake to make sure that training areas are clearly defined for future exercises. An Army spokesperson told Task & Purpose that no soldiers have been disciplined.

Though there do not appear to have been any injuries from the unintentional incident, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev expressed great displeasure with these developments, according to Nova TV, a local CNN affiliate.

In discussions with his defense minister and the commander of Joint Forces Command, he said that “it is inadmissible to have the lives of Bulgarian citizens disturbed and put at risk by military formations, whether Bulgarian or belonging to a foreign army.”

“The exercises with our allies on the territory of Bulgaria should contribute to building security and trust in collective defence, not breed tension.”

Exercise Swift Response 21 was a multinational exercise involving more than 7,000 paratroopers from 10 countries, according to the US military. The goal of the exercise was to practice rapidly inserting ground forces for crisis response.

The drill, which lasted from May 10 to May 14, was a part of the larger Defender Europe 21 exercise, which involves over 28,000 troops from 26 countries.

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A soldier who photographed World War II in Europe describes 6 of his photos that reveal the ‘insanity of war’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos
A dead GI in Germany’s Hurtgen Forest in 1944.

  • When Tony Vaccaro hit Omaha Beach days after D-Day, he carried a camera along with his rifle.
  • Vaccaro documented the war on his own as he fought across France and into Germany as an infantryman.
  • “I see death,” Vaccaro recalled in an interview at his studio. “Death that should not happen.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Michelantonio “Tony” Vaccaro wanted to serve his country with a camera during World War II, so he tried to join the US Army Signal Corps. But under Uncle Sam’s rules, the 20-year-old draftee was too young for that branch.

So Vaccaro, the orphaned son of Italian immigrants, became a private first class in the 83rd Infantry Division. By June 1944, days after the first wave of 156,000 Allied troops descended on the beaches of Normandy, Vaccaro landed on Omaha Beach, where he saw row after row of dead soldiers in the sand.

Vaccaro was armed with an M1 rifle. He also brought along his personal camera: A relatively compact Argus C3 he’d purchased secondhand for $47.50 and had become fond of using as a high-school student in New York.

In addition to fighting on the front lines during the Battle of Normandy and the ensuing Allied advance, Vaccaro photographed what he was seeing. At night, he’d develop rolls of film, mixing chemicals in helmets borrowed from fellow soldiers. He’d hang the wet negatives on tree branches to dry and then carry them with him.

When he had enough to fill a package, he’d generally mail them home to his sisters in the US for safekeeping and to ensure the images would survive even if he did not.

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos
Then-GI Tony Vaccaro on the wing of a B-17 Bomber in 1944.

From 1944 to 1945, he moved through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.

Along the way, he took photographs that few others – even the press and Signal Corps photographers – were in a position to take: a fellow soldier’s last step before shrapnel tore through him, a jubilant kiss between a GI and a young French girl in a newly liberated town, and many stomach-churning portraits of ransacked corpses that still haunt him.

During 272 days at war, he captured thousands of photos. After the Allied victory, he felt sickened and debilitated by the devastation he saw. He wasn’t ready to return to the US. And he never wanted to photograph armed conflict again.

He bought a Jeep and traveled with his camera, eventually photographing brighter moments, like the reconstruction of Europe and the beauty in the lives of famous artists and everyday people.

Vaccaro went on to make a name as a fashion and culture photographer. He traveled the world shooting for magazines like Look and Life and taking portraits of bigwigs including John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O’Keeffe, and many more.

A half-century would pass before Vaccaro began publishing the bulk of his surviving wartime photos. The surviving images have been shared widely, including in the 2016 HBO documentary “Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC. Tony Vaccaro,” in which Vaccaro revisits the history that he had to break Army rules to chronicle.

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos
Tony Vaccaro.

Vaccaro, now 98, survived a bout with COVID-19 last spring that put him in the hospital.

He continues roaming his neighborhood photographing everyday people and selling prints through Monroe Gallery of Photography. From his Queens, New York, studio more than seven decades after World War II, he closes his eyes and thinks of the brutality he documented as an infantryman.

“I see death,” Vaccaro told Insider. “Death that should not happen.”

Below, he describes six of his photos that he says capture “the insanity of war.”

‘White Death’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Near Ottré, Belgium, January 1945.

Vaccaro developed the roll containing this image while on leave in 1945. He remembers calling this photograph “Death In The Snow” at first, later deciding that “White Death” was a more “elegant” and fitting name to honor Pvt. Henry Tannenbaum’s service and sacrifice. Tannenbaum was killed in action on January 11, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge.

“When I first took this photo of a GI dead in the snow, I was not aware of who he was. What I did was to chip the snow away and look for his right arm, because in those days, [on] the right arm we carried our dog tags. He was Pvt. Henry Irving Tannenbaum. He was one of the soldiers who fought there, just like me. We fought in the snow. He died in the snow. He was my friend. I knew he had a son. … Many years later I got a call from his son.”

‘Gott Mit Uns’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Hürtgen Forest, Germany, 1944.

The burned body of a German tank driver, as seen through Vaccaro’s lens.

“He’s burning. This was frontline. You can smell him. We knocked out his German tank. We knocked it out, and he jumped out of there and fell dead in front of us. He was the pilot of this tank. Similar age [to me]. Here he’s gone. … But [before the photograph] I heard him scream, ‘Muter, muter.’ He was calling for his mother.”

“I took cover [by lying down next to him] and read his belt buckle: ‘Gott mit uns.’ … It means ‘God is with us.’ [Before the war] I had seen people that die and go to the church, and from church they go to the cemetery, like my father when I was four. This was a different death.”

‘Final Steps of Jack Rose’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Ottré, Belgium, January 11, 1945.

Vaccaro captured this image of a soldier he identifies as US Army Pvt. 1st Class Jack Rose of the 83rd Infantry Division, still upright, just after shrapnel from a mortar explosion severed his spine. The explosion, visible between Rose and the fence, threw Vaccaro back many feet. Rose, 23, was killed in action.

“That was Jack Rose. The last step. I was photographing him when this shell comes and explodes. He got killed there, in the village. … The shell could have come to me, too. I was lucky.”

‘Rhineland Battle’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Near Walternienburg, Germany, April 1945.

Vaccaro says the streaking on some of his war photos comes from the grueling conditions he was in – he didn’t have time to properly process and store his work in combat – and possibly from water damage due to a flood in the office where the images were stored after the war.

“We were going forward when a shell comes in, in the back, and explodes. This was Rhineland Battle. I was in a hole as the mortar exploded. I raised my arm up with the camera in my hand above the hole to catch this picture. If that shell had come 20 yards over, I was with these two [soldiers seen in the picture], and my hole was here, and if the shell came [where the two soldiers were or where Vaccaro was], I wouldn’t be here talking today.”

‘The Family Back Home’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Hürtgen Forest, Germany, January 1945.

When Vaccaro encountered this dead German soldier, it appeared that other American soldiers had already looted his valuables.

“This is a man who we killed in frontline [fighting]. … That was it. The family back home. A dead German soldier with the pictures he was carrying of his family. … Of course I had photos of my family too. … It reminds me of the tragedy of mankind. He’s not a German. He’s a human being.”

“We just must stop using ‘I’m Italian. I’m French. I’m Spanish. I’m German.’ That’s what makes us enemies of each other. We’re all humans. In Spain. In Germany. It’s a terrible mistake that man has made. We are humans. And nothing else.”

‘Defeated Soldier’

Tony Vaccaro WWII photos

Frankfurt, Germany, March 1947.

Vaccaro captured this image after the war, while photographing the reconstruction of Europe for Stars.

“This man came back [from being a prisoner of war in the US]. He’s crying. … He gave up. You see where his family had been. The war is over. He came back, and his house had been destroyed. That’s why I call this the defeated soldier. He was German. … Later I was told that he lived here.”

“The point is, you see, on this Earth there is only one species, one church. Unfortunately we take this one species and create hundreds and thousands of churches, and each one is different from the next. And that’s why man is not attaining peace yet.”

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The US Army only ever fired one nuclear artillery shell from its ‘Atomic Annie’ cannon, and this is what it looked like

Image of the May 25, 1953 test-firing of an M65 atomic cannon.
Image of the May 25, 1953 test-firing of an M65 atomic cannon.

  • The US Army fired its atomic cannon for the first and last time 68 years ago.
  • The cannon, initially named “Able Annie,” was later renamed “Atomic Annie.”
  • During the May 25, 1953 test, the cannon fired a nuclear shell that unleashed a 15-kiloton blast.
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The US Army successfully test-fired an atomic cannon exactly 68 years ago Tuesday. It was the first and only time the US military ever fired a nuclear weapon from a conventional cannon, according to the Army.

During the Cold War, the US military developed many different ways to unleash nuclear destruction on an enemy, including a towed artillery piece built in the early 1950s that could fire a nuclear round packed with as much explosive power as the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima less than a decade earlier.

The Army’s M65 280 mm Motorized Heavy Gun, the largest mobile artillery piece the US ever built, was based on Nazi Germany’s Krupp K5 heavy railway gun, a devastating indirect-fire weapon Allied service members fighting in Italy during World War II named “Anzio Annie.”

The M65 "Atomic Annie," a 280mm nuclear-capable cannon, sits on a concrete slab at Fort Lee
The M65 “Atomic Annie,” a 280mm nuclear-capable cannon, sits on a concrete slab at Fort Lee, where it currently resides.

Weighing roughly 85 tons, the M65 cannon required two transporter trucks to move. In 1953, the US military moved two of these cannons by rail from Fort Sill, Oklahoma to a test site in Nevada, where crews used one to fire a nuclear artillery round in the first and last test of the cannon’s capabilities.

On May 25, 1953, just a few months after an M65 cannon made a very public debut in the inaugural parade for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Army crews used a cannon named “Able Annie,” one of only 20 M65 guns ever made, to fire a nuclear artillery shell.

The atomic cannon test, codenamed Grable, was the tenth in the Operation Upshot-Knothole nuclear weapons test series but the only one involving nuclear artillery. The cannon, which cost $800,000, performed as expected.

About 19 seconds after the shell was fired at 8:31 am, it exploded just under 8 miles away at a low-burst height of about 520 feet.

“The shell that could wipe out an enemy division exploded on target with a roaring violence equal to 15,000 tons of TNT,” a historical marker at Fort Sill reads.

With that shot, “Able Annie” became “Atomic Annie.” Though the name applies to one gun, it has been used to refer to M65 cannons in general.

The other M65 cannon that was present for the testing in Nevada but never fired was a backup cannon named “Sad Sack,” a weapon that has had a rather uneventful history compared to Atomic Annie.

After the testing wrapped up, Sad Sack was supposed to be sent to an operational unit for overseas deployment while Atomic Annie was to return to Fort Sill, but during the transport process, the two cannons were accidentally switched.

This error was not discovered for 10 years. Soldiers preparing the big cannon for an event marking the tenth anniversary of the Grable test at Fort Sill realized that the serial numbers did not match that of Atomic Annie, the whereabouts of which were unknown to most at the time.

"Atomic Annie" at Fort Lee
“Atomic Annie” at Fort Lee

When the Army tried to find “Atomic Annie,” which was briefly renamed “AWOL Annie” during the search, it was a bit of challenge because the atomic artillery pieces had been deployed across Europe and Asia, and their specific locations were classified to the point that only a limited number of people actually knew exactly where they were.

The legendary atomic cannon was eventually found in Germany and retrieved. It returned to Fort Sill in 1964, and Sad Sack was given to the Smithsonian, according to the Army.

Due to the rapid pace of nuclear-weapons development during the Cold War, the M65 cannons like “Atomic Annie” were obsolete within a decade of their initial fielding. The M65, which was fielded to deliver a devastating nuclear strike behind enemy lines, was withdrawn from service in 1963, just 10 years after the first and only shot.

In 2017, the Atomic Annie cannon was moved to Fort Lee in Virginia, where it joined another “Annie,” one of the captured German K5 railway guns. The massive M65 cannon is part of an educational and historical display at the installation’s new Ordnance Training Support Facility.

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Biden awards first Medal of Honor as president to Korean War hero who led Army Rangers in brutal battle against hundreds of enemy troops

President Joe Biden arrives with retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett, who will be presented the Medal of Honor, in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 21, 2021, in Washington
President Joe Biden arrives with retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett, who will be presented the Medal of Honor, in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 21, 2021, in Washington

  • President Joe Biden presented the first Medal of Honor award of his presidency Friday afternoon.
  • The award went to 94-year-old retired Army Ranger Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. for his actions in 1950.
  • Puckett bravely led a Ranger company against a battalion-sized force of hundreds during the Korean War.
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President Joe Biden awarded the first Medal of Honor of his presidency on Friday to a retired US Army Ranger and Korean War hero for “conspicuous gallantry.”

Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., 94, received the military’s highest honor for valor for his outstanding actions on “Hill 205” near Unsan, an area about 60 miles from the Chinese border deep in what is now North Korea, on November 25, 1950 – heroism for which he was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett stands along side troops as they prepare to start a foot march during the 2021 David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition (BRC) on Fort Benning, Ga., April 16, 2021
Retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett stands along side troops as they prepare to start a foot march during the 2021 David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition (BRC) on Fort Benning, Ga., April 16, 2021

Then a first lieutenant, Puckett led the 8th Army Ranger Company, a new unit that only had five-and-a-half weeks of training before being sent into combat, into a fierce battle for a position overlooking the Chongchon River.

Puckett commanded his soldiers during a challenging daytime assault across 800 yards of open frozen ground as the enemy poured mortar, machine-gun, and small-arms fire on them, according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation.

During the assault, he purposefully and repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire, allowing his soldiers to find and eliminate enemy machine guns pinning down some of his troops.

Though they captured their objective, the fight for Hill 205 was far from over.

Throughout the night and into the next morning, Puckett’s Rangers faced wave after wave of counterattacks by a superior force of hundreds of Chinese troops. They were outnumbered almost ten to one.

Map showing the location of Hill 205
Map showing the location of Hill 205

Puckett was injured by a hand grenade during the first wave, but he refused evacuation and continued to lead, directing “danger close” artillery strikes against the assaulting enemy forces in the freezing cold.

Disregarding his own safety, he also moved from foxhole to foxhole, checking the perimeter and distributing ammunition so that he and his men could keep up the fight.

The White House said that “the Rangers were inspired and motivated by the extraordinary leadership and courageous example exhibited by First Lieutenant Puckett.”

1st Lt. Ralph Puckett Jr.
1st Lt. Ralph Puckett Jr.

The enemy launched a sixth and final assault on Hill 205 early on November 26. Puckett had temporarily lost access to artillery support, and it was clear that his forces could no longer hold their position.

Puckett was severely wounded by mortar rounds that landed in his foxhole and left him unable to move as their position was being overrun, with casualties mounting and the fighting breaking down into hand-to-hand combat.

He ordered his men to withdraw and to leave him behind, so as not to slow their retreat. His Rangers ignored the latter order. Two men fought to get to him and retrieved their commanding officer before retreating to the bottom of the hill, where Puckett called in tremendous and devastating artillery fire on Hill 205.

“They did not hold the hill, but they exacted a high price,” Biden said at the ceremony Friday.

Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr visits U.S. Army Rangers who are competing in the 2021 Best Ranger Competition on Fort Benning, Georgia, April 16, 2021
Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr visits U.S. Army Rangers who are competing in the 2021 Best Ranger Competition on Fort Benning, Georgia, April 16, 2021

The White House said this week that “Puckett’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service.”

Puckett was offered a medical discharge but chose to continue serving, according to the Army. Puckett later deployed to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.

During his 22 years in the Army, he earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars for valor, two Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts, among other military honors and distinctions. With the addition of the Medal of Honor, Puckett is among the most decorated soldiers in US history.

Puckett joined the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps as a private in late 1943. He was discharged in 1945 so that he could attend the US Military Academy West Point, from which he graduated in 1949. He commissioned as an infantry officer, a second lieutenant, later that same year.

He retired from the US military as a colonel in 1971, and in 1992, he was inducted in the Ranger Hall of Fame.

“He feared no man, he feared no situation and he feared no enemy,” retired Gen. Jay Hendrix, who served with Puckett, said in an Army statement. “Clearly a unique, courageous soldier in combat and even more importantly, in my opinion, Col. Puckett was an ultimate infantry leader.”

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Ted Cruz implies the US military is too ‘woke’ and ’emasculated’ to compete with Russia

Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, on the fifth day of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.

  • Texas Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted a TikTok comparing a Russian Army commercial with a US Army commercial.
  • While the Russian ad was rife with masculine tropes, the US ad was the animated story of a service member with two moms.
  • Cruz said that in comparing the two military ads, “perhaps a woke and emasculated military is not the best idea.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called the US military “woke” and “emasculated” compared to Russia’s military in a tweet on Thursday.

Cruz based his criticism on a TikTok video comparing a Russian recruitment ad with a US Army commercial spot. While Russia’s ad featured moody lighting and buff, shirtless men writing in the dirt, the US Army clip offered an animated telling of the life of US Army Corporal Emma Malonelord, who was raised by a lesbian couple in San Francisco.

Insider reached out to Cruz’s office for additional comment on the tweet.

“After graduating high school at the top of my class, and after meeting with an Army recruiter, I found it: A way to prove my inner strength,” Mannelord says in the clip.

Malonelord is one of five military members featured in the Army’s newest commercial series featuring a diverse array of recruits. The series, dubbed “The Calling,” aims at sharing “a rich tapestry of stories that represent the diverse upbringings and life experiences that make up today’s Army,” according to a US Army press release.

Read more: Trump DOJ secretly obtained CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr’s phone and email records

Cruz never served in the military. During a 2015 interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, he said that he had “considered it many times” but had never enlisted. “I will say it’s something I always regretted. I wished I had spent time in the service. It’s something I respect immensely.”

Nevertheless, he’s spoken out on his opinions on women joining the service in the past. In 2o16, while running for reelection, he said he thought women serving in combat roles in the military was “nuts” and that it was simply “political correctness run amok.”

Insider has reached out to the US Army for comment.

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The Army is getting new air-defense weapons to deal with deadlier threats from above

Army Stryker Mobile Short Range Air Defense M-Shorad
Mobile Short Range Air Defense system-equipped Strykers with the 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment.

  • The US Army delivered the first four operational Stryker vehicles equipped with the Mobile Short Range Air Defense system.
  • The new Strykers are part of an effort to rebuild the Army’s air-defense capabilities after decades of fighting enemies with little to no airpower.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In an effort to update and upgrade its air defense systems, the US Army delivered the first four operational Stryker anti-aircraft vehicles.

The 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment (5-4 ADA), under the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, is the first battalion in the Army to test, receive, and field the Mobile Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) system. The 5-4 ADA is based at Shipton Kaserne in Ansbach, Germany.

The M-SHORAD is placed on the lightly armored 8×8 Stryker vehicles. These variants are fitted with an autocannon and a missile launcher capable of firing Hellfire or Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

They will replace the 1980s-vintage Avengers, a variant of the 4×4 Humvee that can only fire Stingers. The Avenger was less mobile and much more vulnerable.

At one point, the Army had 26 battalions of Avengers. But during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy had little to no airpower, the military neglected its air-defense capabilities.

By 2017, active-duty units were down to just two battalions, with National Guard units having seven.

The skies are once again dangerous

Army Stryker Mobile Short Range Air Defense M-Shorad
A Mobile Short Range Air Defense system-equipped Stryker.

But things began to change.

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea it used drones to great effect. Furthermore, the Syrian civil war witnessed the Turkish military forces using drones. Russian and Turkish drones were also used during the war in Libya.

The threat of drone attacks on heavy troop concentrations was brought to the forefront last year during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. In that conflict, Azeri military forces used Turkish and Israeli drones to devastating effects on heavy Armenian armored formations.

Iran has also developed a large drone fleet. Crucially, it is beginning to show up with its proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen where Houthi rebels have launched drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities and airbases.

China is likewise developing its drone fleet.

The Army realizes the need for upgraded air-defence systems …

Army Stryker Mobile Short Range Air Defense M-Shorad
Mobile Short Range Air Defense system-equipped Strykers.

Thus, with near-peer competition heating up, the new threat needed to be addressed.

Therefore, the Army began fielding offers to test upgraded air defense systems in 2017. A year later, it awarded a contract to Leonardo DRS Land Systems.

The Leonardo DRS system was placed on the available Stryker A1 platform. It provides maneuver Brigade Combat Teams with a full “detect-identify-track-defeat” capability. This is a requirement to defeat Unmanned Aerial System (UASs), rotary-wing, and fixed-wing threats.

Additionally, the Stryker armored vehicles are better equipped to keep up with armored vehicles when moving cross-country. Thus, they will provide better protection at increased ranges for maneuvering forces.

Last year, the 5-4 ADA selected 18 Air and Missile Defense crewmembers to conduct a six-month initial operational assessment with the prototype M-SHORAD systems. The assessment took place at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

… and it’s loving it!

Army Stryker Mobile Short Range Air Defense M-Shorad
Air and Missile Defense crew members with 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, work on the M-SHORAD system.

“I developed a passion for this system,” said Spc. Andy Mendoza, a crewmember from the 5-4 ADA in an interview with the Army’s Defense Visual Information Delivery Systems (DVIDS). “We learned how to operate in every position on these, but also how to take care of them. Being one of the gunners selected to be part of that, it was really a huge honor. I’m really proud to be able to bring what I learned back home to the rest of the crew.”

“There’s really no comparison to anything I’ve operated in my career,” said Sgt. Andrew Veres to DVIDS. “Everything in these systems is an improvement – the survivability, mobility, dependability, off-road ability – it gives us the ability to stay in the fight longer.”

The Army plans to add the M-SHORAD system to four additional Air Defense battalions beginning this year.

“The Army’s air and missile defense force structure is growing and modernizing significantly to meet the threats of peer competitors and our obligation and commitment to providing air and missile defense forces to the joint fight,” General John Murray, the commander of the Army’s Futures Command said.

Given General Murray’s comments, it is no surprise that the first upgraded anti-aircraft vehicles were delivered to a unit in Europe.

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