Primetta Giacopini, a 105-year-old woman who’s survived the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people globally, has died of COVID-19.
“I think my mother would have been around quite a bit longer” if she didn’t get infected with the coronavirus, Giacopini’s daughter Dorene Giacopini told the Associated Press. “She was a fighter. She had a hard life and her attitude always was … basically, all Americans who were not around for World War II were basically spoiled brats.”
The 1918 flu had killed Giacopini’s mother in Connecticut. Giacopini at the time was 2 years old.
Records from the National Archive say the 1918 flu killed about 50 million people – about one-fifth of the world’s population at the time. And in the United States, about 25% of the population contracted the virus. That year, average life expectancy in the US dropped suddenly by 12 years.
Giacopini also survived World War II, the AP reported. She fled Italy in 1941, while fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was in power. When Italy entered the war in 1940, Giacopini received warnings from the police to leave the country, saying she might end up in a concentration camp.
She escaped with a group of strangers on a train to Portugal, according to the AP. Later, she traveled to the US and gave birth to Dorene in 1960.
And while making a visit on September 9, Dorene found her mother coughing. Her mother was fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. So was her caretaker and the caretaker’s husband.
“I made sure we said ‘I love you,” Dorene told the AP. “She did the ‘See you later, alligator.’ I think we both said, ‘After a while, crocodile.'”
“That was the last time I saw her,” she said.
Giacopini was hospitalized two days later and her oxygen levels dropped considerably.
Dorene chose to take her mother off the ventilator because “they said nobody over 80 makes it off,” she said.
On September 16, Giacopini died.
“She had such a strong heart that she remained alive for more than 24 hours after they removed the oxygen,” Dorene said.
“I’m reminding myself that she was 105. We always talk about … my grandmother and mother, the only thing that could kill them was a worldwide pandemic,” she said.
In the early hours of September 9, 1943, 14 ships of the Italian Navy sailed south from their bases in western Italy.
The force, made up of the battleships Italia (formerly Littorio), Vittorio Veneto, and Roma, as well as three cruisers and eight destroyers, had originally planned to attack the Allies’ Salerno invasion force. They were instead ordered to Sardinia to comply with the terms of Italy’s armistice with the Allies, which had been announced the day before.
Enraged at Italy’s surrender and worried the warships could be used against them, the Germans attempted to sink them.
By the afternoon, six Dornier Do 217 medium bombers found the flotilla. They climbed to over 18,000 feet and dropped their payloads.
To the complete shock of the Italians, the bombs actually turned and began gliding toward the battleships as they attempted to evade.
They were Fritz X radio-guided bombs – one of the world’s first precision-guided munitions.
Allied intelligence knew about the weapons, but it wasn’t until the September 9 attack that their destructive power became fully apparent. By the end of the day, warfare had changed forever.
Germany had two types of precision-guided munitions by 1943: the Henschel Hs 293 and the Fritz X. Both had the Kehl-Straßburg manual command to line-of-sight radio control link, which allowed a bombardier to steer the munition into its target.
The Hs 293 was 12 feet long and 10 feet wide and looked like a small winged aircraft. It carried a 650-pound warhead and was powered by a single rocket engine with 10 to 12 seconds’ worth of fuel. The bomb could reach speeds around 700 feet per second and travel about 5 miles to its target.
The Fritz X was less sophisticated, as it relied on gravity to reach its target from a range of 3 miles. But it was far more powerful. The 11-foot long and 4-foot-wide bomb had a 710-pound warhead and a reinforced nose that, combined with its speed of 1,100 feet per second, could punch through a battleship’s armored hull.
The Fritz X had four centrally mounted fins and a radio antenna in its tail, allowing a bombardier to move the radio-controlled spoilers to change pitch and direction. It also had a gyroscope for roll stabilization and a flare at the tail so the bombardier could track it while in flight.
Both bombs were dropped from Dornier Do 217 medium bombers at high altitudes, sometimes as high as 20,000 feet – well out of the range of most anti-aircraft guns. Designed as anti-ship weapons, the Hs 293 was meant to destroy cargo ships, while the Fritz X was for use against warships.
The Hs 293 made its combat debut on August 27 in the Bay of Biscay, where it was used to sink HMS Egret and damage HMCS Athabaskan, both destroyers.
On September 9, The Italians were unable to shoot down the Dornier Do 217s, which were out of the range of their anti-aircraft guns. The bombers continued flying straight after releasing their Fritz Xs – odd behavior even if they were out of range.
Seconds after the first Fritz X was released, it exploded underwater near Italia, significantly damaging its rudder.
Roma was not so lucky. It was hit by a Fritz X just aft of amidships. The bomb ripped clean through the hull and detonated under the keel, flooding the boiler rooms, an engine room, and knocking out two of its four propeller shafts.
Roma was on fire and losing speed when it was hit by another Fritz X seven minutes later. That bomb detonated in the forward engine room and ignited the forward magazine. The ensuing explosion blew a gun turret clean off the ship and caused it to capsize.
Roma broke in half as it sank, killing 1,393 sailors, including its captain, Adone Del Cima, and Vice Adm. Carlo Bergamini, the fleet commander. Italia and the other ships limped to Malta.
Roma was not the only victim of the Fritz X. In the weeks that followed, the bombs seriously damaged the light cruisers USS Savannah, killing 197 crewmen, and HMS Uganda, killing 16 crewmen, at Salerno, putting the ships out of commission for months.
USS Philadelphia was also damaged, as was the legendary battleship HMS Warspite.
Hs 293s also took a terrible toll, sinking dozens of ships. On November 26, an Hs 293 sank the troop ship HMT Rohna, killing 1,149 men, including 1,050 US troops. It was the US’s single largest loss of life at sea due to enemy action.
A lasting legacy
Ultimately, neither the Fritz X or the Hs 293 saved Germany from the Allied navies.
Allied pilots learned that the Dornier Do 217s dropping the bombs had to continue flying steady and level to maintain a radio connection with the bomb, so they attacked the German bombers whenever they could to break the bombardier’s line of sight and concentration.
The Allies also eventually developed jamming countermeasures, but the Fritz X and the Hs 293 revolutionized warfare.
Since their first appearance in 1943, precision-guided weapons have advanced considerably. They now no longer need to be guided by an operator and can travel long distances with massive payloads. They have become the weapon of choice for the US in recent decades, especially in counterinsurgency operations.
So many bombs and missiles were used during the first 15 months of the campaign against ISIS that the US Air Force was “expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” the Air Force chief of staff said at the time.
Over the past five years, the Defense Department has spent between $3 billion and $5 billion annually on precision-guided munitions, and Russia’s and China’s use of anti-access/area denial systems has led the Pentagon to argue it needs longer-range precision munitions to overcome the threat they pose, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The island of Persin is a bird-watcher’s paradise. Set on the Danube River, which divides Bulgaria and Romania, it’s a nature park covered in wetlands and home to hundreds of rare bird species: the spoonbill, the pygmy cormorant, the corncrake, as well as herons, eagles, storks, and pelicans.
Amid the natural beauty, it’s jarring to consider that this was the location of a concentration camp where thousands of Bulgarian political prisoners were brutalized and killed from 1949 to 1953 – and in some cases for years after that. Though it’s officially known as Belene after the quiet Bulgarian village that sits 750 feet away on the mainland, old-timers here call it by another name: the Island of Death.
My stepgrandfather, Georgi Tutunjiev, was sent here at age 24 and spent four years and three months interred at Belene after someone (he suspected his ex-wife) told the authorities of his plan to escape the country. In his notebooks – he had planned to write a memoir about Belene but never did before he died in 2011 at 87 – he remembered the place as “brutal facilities for re-education,” where he’d endured “indescribable physical and psychological abuse.” He finally managed to escape Bulgaria in 1966 and settle with my grandma in California.
In 1989, my parents and I left Bulgaria and joined my grandparents in California, thanks to the family-reunification policy. While many survivors of trauma shut down, my grandfather never stopped talking about the gulag. He seemed to have an unending loop of stories about Belene. For my immediate family, it could be exhausting, and we were alarmed to discover his extensive gun collection, which my grandmother gamely dismissed as a coping mechanism. But guests who came to the house were often riveted by his dark tales, which he mixed with his sense of humor. “Jeko! The Communistie shot you!” he’d shout at his terrier mix, and the dog would sprawl on his back, playing dead.
I’ve come to the town of Belene on a brutally hot day in August for a tour of the Island of Death. I meet Nedyalka Toncheva, who works for the Belene Island Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes tours of the island, close to the bank of the Danube.
We cross a rickety water bridge on foot and then jump aboard a Jeep driven by a 24-year-old Belene native named Peter. Toncheva, who is 35, is passionate and knowledgeable about the island’s flora and fauna. Every few minutes, she tells Peter to stop the car to point out a roosting stork or a water eagle. She talks about her plans to make Persin a tourist destination comparable to Borovets, a ski resort with luxury hotels in the Rila mountains; or Koprivchitsa, a living museum honoring the Bulgarian rebels who mounted an uprising in 1876 against the Ottoman Empire.
In the three decades since the fall of communism, Bulgaria has effectively buried the history of its many gulags, which operated mostly in the 1950s during the early, and most violent, days of Communist rule in the country. In Belene itself, many lower-level guards came from the village and a former mayor was also the gulag’s first superintendent. It’s not surprising that the village doesn’t advertise its history.
After 1989, survivors who had been forced to sign documents promising to never talk about the camps started speaking out. For a brief time, they became the subjects of documentaries and newspaper profiles. But soon, the consensus was that it was better to move on. An interior minister tasked with investigating the camps instead secretly ordered a purge of thousands of pages of documents – 40% of the government record.
While Bulgaria’s defeat of the Ottomans is central to the national identity, and much is made of the fact that Bulgaria saved its Jews during the Holocaust, the memory of the Communist era is more fraught.
Peculiar for a tour, most of our stops lead us to what’s not left of the camp. The shacks where prisoners slept have been razed – there’s no trace of them.
At the entrance, in what is now an open field, an inscription says, “To be human is to have dignity.” From inside the camp – what would have been visible to the internees – the engraving says, “If the enemy doesn’t surrender, he is destroyed.” But no one I’ve talked to knows whether it’s the original or has been recreated.
There are a few abandoned, falling-apart buildings, but those were built in 1959, six years after the camp’s official (but not real) closing, when it was converted into a prison, in part to kill rumors that it had operated as a secret gulag. Todor Zhivkov, the Communist premier who took power in 1954 and stayed on until 1989, reopened it in the 1980s to detain Muslims who refused to take on Slavic names in place of their own – a disastrous bid to assimilate them.
I ask Toncheva whether there’s a list of everyone who was held in the camp. I’m thinking of my grandfather and wondering whether there’s any documentation. She tells me everyone who comes here for the camp asks the same question.
“There’s no way to know, no list,” Toncheva says, apologetic. “There’s almost no proof the camp even existed.”
‘Perfectly calculated by Satan himself’
The first contingent of 300 men arrived at the Belene camp in the summer of 1949, five years after the 1944 Communist coup. My grandfather, then 24, arrived that first winter. A camp for women was founded on an adjacent island soon after.
It was modeled after Josef Stalin’s gulags in Siberia. Most of the prisoners had been dragged from their homes by the military police and sent here without trial. (Estimates vary, but 20,000 to 40,000 people were thought to be murdered by the Bulgarian Communist Party.) Even Stalin eventually warned them to scale down the killing of prominent oppositional figures or risk creating martyrs.
The first wave of prisoners had to hack through the unpopulated island and build small shacks that were so crowded the prisoners didn’t have room to lie down. In his history of the camp, Borislav Skotchev wrote that the island was dotted with towers manned by guards with machine guns.
The men held here included the former leader of the Social Democrats, Orthodox priests (many in their 70s), and the mayor of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. Tsveti Ivanov, the editor of the newspaper Svoboden Narod, or Free People, was sent to Belene after serving 10 months in prison. He was beaten so brutally that he got tetanus from his wounds and died in the compound.
Much of what we know about the place comes from survivors’ memoirs. They were fed a thin soup, sometimes with a handful of beans thrown in. Their bread ration – moldy or stale when it made its way to them – was small, and could be withheld by the guards as punishment. Sometimes they got tea. My grandfather told me that, in the winter, both the soup and the tea were given to them already frozen.
When Toncheva takes us on a brief walk to go look at storks, the ground gives off wet heat, and brambles and thorns claw at us, as if the island is alive and doesn’t want us there. I think of the people who had to work days and nights, in sweltering summers, devoured by mosquitoes. It’s unbelievable that anyone survived.
An internal CIA document described the grim situation of starving prisoners. “A frequent sight is that of a prisoner eating raw green leaves and roots,” it said. “To be caught doing this, however, would result in 10 days in detention in a dungeon for such an offense.” The lucky ones got packages from family, though those were often taken by guards. Many had little choice but to choke down the rotting carcasses of wild cats, killed and skinned for their fur by the villagers, or pick through horse dung for undigested barley. According to a CIA information report from March 13, 1952, during one brutal winter 30 prisoners died of cold or starvation.
“It was an Inferno circle, perfectly calculated by Satan himself,” Liliana Pirinchiva, one of the female survivors of Belene, wrote in her memoir. “We were reduced to skeletons.”
Then there were the guards, who brought an especially sadistic approach to their work. Some would chase packs of prisoners on horseback, letting their rifles off “as if we were a flock of sheep,” wrote Stefan Botchev, a survivor. When he got a severe case of scabies, the mites burrowing into his skin, he was locked up in a shed alone because the guards didn’t want him to infect the cows. He recalled seeing a beating so severe that a prisoner’s spine was broken, turning him into a “reptile crawling on the ground.”
Kouni Genchev Kounev, the chairman of the Bulgarian Youth Agrarian Union who also survived Belene, recalled one especially brutal punishment, in which the guards would pull back a prisoner’s head and strike him in the trachea. They called it the “sword stroke.”
Years later, Krum Horozov, a survivor, would draw water colors of the camp from memory – it’s virtually the only visual documentation that exists. In 2011, six years before his death, Horozov wrote: “And when we die, which will be soon, who will remember what happened on that island in the 1950s, and will they know that people were sent there without a trial and sentence?”
Lilia Topouzova, a historian in Toronto who writes about the history and the memory of the camps, recalls meeting Horozov at an academic conference; he was trying to give away copies of his drawings of Belene to university students, but they avoided him as if he were a pesky street vendor.
At 93, Tsvetana Dzhermanova is the last known survivor of the women’s camp, which was known as Shturets, or Cricket. We’re sitting outside her home in the mountain village of Leskovets, and she’s talking so fast I wonder how she manages to breathe.
She smiles and laughs a lot, and she reminds me of my grandfather, who also spoke with the speed of a motorboat, frantic to tell his story.
“I promised to outlive the Communistie, and here I am!” she boasts. (My grandfather also took an understandable delight at outliving the Communistie. “I survived the Communistie, but I won’t survive old age,” he once told me, when I was 25 and had no idea about either.)
Dzhermanova was an anarchist in the 1950s, and still is today. “That’s my personal ideology,” she says. “I’m not sure humans are evolved enough to make either anarchism or socialism work the way they should, but for me, anarchism is it. Because I value freedom, family, friendship, and love.”
When she first heard about anarchism as a teenager, she asked her mother what it meant. “Anarchists are the people all regimes persecute,” her mother had replied. That sold her. Dzhermanova joined a village group. She had no designs on power (detesting it) and mostly spent her time reading anarchist literature and working on a community vegetable garden. She estimates that 800 anarchists from the town were swept up in a night and sent to the gulags.
“We sang songs while we worked,” Dzhermanova tells me. “That helped.”
Last spring the sprightly nonagenarian made the three-hour trip to Belene to speak with a group of students about the camps. “They had no idea about this. They were really surprised,” she says. “No one had ever talked to them about it, and they don’t learn about it in school.”
‘Out of Fashion’
Toncheva and our driver, Peter, walk through a falling-down building that was constructed in 1959, in part to hide evidence of the camp. It’s covered in bird shit. Plant life is taking over its rotted remnants, and old decayed furniture has been abandoned here and there. We talk about how nobody talks about the camp.
Peter tells us that despite having spent almost his entire life roughly 750 feet from Persin, in Belene village, he learned about the camp only two weeks earlier, when Toncheva hired him as a driver for her tours.
“To think they only gave them bread and water, and made them work so hard,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief.
As far as Toncheva knows, no one from her family was held here, but she remembers asking her grandmother about the island when she was a teenager and again after reading the memoirs of survivors. “Shhh. Don’t talk so much about this,” her grandmother would say. “You don’t want to bring trouble.”
There are rumors of a mass grave near Persin. Mikhail Mikailev, the head of the Belene Island Foundation, wants to find it. But money for the equipment required to find and dig up the remains eludes this two-person staff.
Unlike Peter and Toncheva, my parents, who were born in the mid-1950s and grew up in Bulgaria, tell me that in the 1970s and 1980s, all their friends in Sofia knew about Belene. “We all heard the stories,” my mother says.
But for the authorities, maintaining official denial was worth murder.
In 1969, the celebrated Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov defected to the West, where he wrote about the regime’s abuses. In one essay, Markov described traveling on a boat down the Danube and approaching Belene. “I remembered how, feet dangling over the edge of the boat, a youth with a guitar once sang a strange song: Danube, white river, how quiet you flow / Danube, black river, what anguish you know.”
On a rainy afternoon in London, a man jabbed the tip of his umbrella into Markov’s leg. Later, Markov noticed what looked like a small bug bite but didn’t think much of it. A few days later he was dead, most likely poisoned by the Bulgarian secret service.
Before my visit to Belene, I met Topouzova, the historian, over Zoom to talk about the erasure of the camps in Bulgaria’s consciousness. While former generals wrote best-sellers, the owner of a prominent bookstore dismissed any interest in survivors’ memoirs – they were “out of fashion,” he had told her.
It was gaslighting in its purest form. And it showed how we’re all so prone to the “just world” fallacy, a phenomenon where if something is too horribly unjust, the human brain just kind of moves on. It’s not all that hard to bury inconvenient truths.
“It turned out that aging men and women with fragmented memories of bygone violence did not make for the faces of change,” Topouzova wrote in a recent paper titled “On Silence and History” for the American Historical Association. “The interned were rendered nonexistent – their experiences and memories fated to vanish along with the files.”
A pile of stones
Nations define themselves by their monuments. The memorial in downtown Manhattan demands that we never forget the victims of 9/11. In the past few years, American activists have torn Confederate statues from their perches, signaling a break with the passive acceptance of the history of slavery.
Yet grappling with unpleasant history isn’t easy. It was only in 2018 when a museum honoring the Black victims of lynching opened in Alabama. The 1619 Project, which posits that the history of the United States is rooted in slavery, has spurred a massive backlash. School districts have banned children’s books about Rosa Parks. Vaunted democracies are as likely to try to bury inconvenient truths as former communist states.
In Bulgaria, there are monuments everywhere. From the smallest village to Sofia, the heroes of Bulgaria’s uprising against the Ottoman Empire are eternalized in stone. In Plovdiv, a giant sculpture overlooks Bulgaria’s second-largest city that honors “Alyosha,” an everyman Soviet soldier who helped “liberate” Bulgaria in the 1940s – even though many Bulgarians see that period as Soviet imperialism, much like the Ottoman Empire’s 500 years of occupation.
The victims of Belene and the other camps have no such honor. The Belene foundation does the best it can. They helped organize an art exhibit, where Korozov’s pencil drawings were tacked onto the walls of the decaying structures that had been erected to mask evidence of the gulag.
There is one modest monument on the island. It’s an abstract stone structure, and you’d have no idea what it was if you didn’t already know the history. The original idea was to build a monument that listed the names of all the known internees, something like the Vietnam wall on the Mall in Washington. But the survivors and their families who pooled their resources to build it ran out of money, and no one, including the Bulgarian government, stepped in to help. (The survivors also hoped to open a museum and to recreate the shacks where they were held, but that hasn’t happened either.)
My grandfather’s escape
Dzhermanova, the 93-year-old anarchist – and eternal optimist, apparently – has hope that younger people will dig up the buried history.
As for my grandfather, his ex-wife (or whoever it was who betrayed him to the authorities) was right that he wanted to escape Bulgaria.
After his release from Belene in 1953, that resolve was so much stronger. “After 4 years and three months in the Island of Death, I became determined to go to my real home: America,” he explained in his notebooks.
As he detailed it, it would take four harrowing attempts. Soon after his release from Belene, he managed to make it into Yugoslavia during a “sabor” – a temporary loosening of borders so family and friends in the two countries could see each other. But he got caught and was thrown into a Yugoslavian jail.
From there, he organized an inmate breakout after bribing the guard dog, Jeko, with his dinner. But he and the other prisoners were caught in the woods, and the Yugoslavian authorities gave them up to the Bulgarian authorities in exchange for 10 cows. “They weren’t even very good cows – scrawny,” he wrote.
Several years later, he tried to cross Bulgaria’s mountainous border into Greece, but he was caught once again.
Finally, he made it into Austria and then Germany by clinging to the underside of a freight train. And then on to California, where he gave his new dog a familiar name: Jeko.
Tana Ganeva writes about policing, prisons and criminal justice. She’s currently working on a book about escapees from the Soviet bloc.
An 84-year-old man from Germany has been convicted of illegal weapons possession and has been fined €250,000 ($293,972) along with a suspended prison sentence of 14 months.
An investigation into the man’s home in Heikendorf, Northern Germany, in 2015 unveiled a World War II-era Panther tank, as well as a plethora of ammunition.
The court ruling, ordered on 2 August, stated that the man must sell or donate the tank and anti-aircraft cannon to a museum or collector within the next two years, the BBC report.
The armaments were discovered in the retiree’s basement in 2015 after local authorities were informed of its war-time contents after the property was searched for Nazi-era art, according to the BBC.
It took 20 soldiers nine hours to remove the trove of military hardware from the unnamed man’s home.
There was also a horde of Nazi memorabilia, including a bust of Hitler, mannequins in Nazi uniforms, swastika pendants, SS rune-shaped lamps, and a statue of a naked warrior holding a sword in his extended hand that once stood outside Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin, by the dictator’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, reported War History Online.
At the time of the raid, the mayor of Heikendorf, Alexander Orth, told Suddeutsche Zeitung that the man once drove the tank as a snow plow in 1978.
When asked his thoughts on the ownership of the tank, the mayor replied, “One loves steam trains, the other old tanks.”
While smaller and slower than the “fleet” aircraft carriers employed by the United States Navy during World War II, the escort carrier – also known as “jeep carrier” or “baby flattop” – still proved highly vital to the war effort.
At just half the length and a third the displacement of the larger fleet carriers, the escort carriers were built on commercial ship hulls, making them cheaper and easier to build.
However, the carriers were too slow to keep up with the main force that consisted of fleet carriers, cruisers, or even battleships. And yet, the small escorts served well in protecting convoys while they could provide air support during an amphibious landing.
The escort carriers also served as transports and were able to ferry aircraft to all of the military services.
More carriers needed
The origins of this new class of warship date back just prior to America’s entry into World War II.
In a December 1940 letter to the Chief of Naval Operations, Rear Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, Jr., the US Fleet’s commander of the Aircraft, Battle Force, expressed concern the US Navy’s six carriers would be inadequate against both Germany and Japan.
Halsey warned that more ships would be needed, and the result was the small CVE, the Navy’s eventual designation for the Escort Aircraft Carrier.
It was a compromise in design, built using a modified merchant ship hull that was lightly armed and armored, was slow, and had limited carrying capacity – only 24 to 36 planes could be carried compared to the nearly 90 of a fleet carrier.
A lot of small carriers
While overshadowed by the larger warships, of the 151 aircraft carriers built during the Second World War, 122 were actually escort carriers.
Fifty of those were of the Casablanca-class, and it ended up being the most numerous class of aircraft carriers ever built. They were also built quickly, and all 50 were laid down, launched and commissioned within the space of less than two years by the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company’s Vancouver Yard on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington.
The 156-meter long Casablanca escorts displaced only 7,800-tons – or nearly 11,000 tons fully loaded with 910 crew, 28 aircraft, ammunition and nearly 120,000 gallons of aviation fuel.
Five Casablanca-class escort carriers were assigned to Atlantic patrols, where escort carriers proved one of several innovations that ultimately defeated the Kriegsmarine’s U-Boats. Initially deployed to protect convoys and ferry land-based aircraft, they eventually led five out of 11 roving “Hunter-Killer groups” that helped chased down U-Boats, sinking 53 by the end of the war.
Of the 13 US aircraft carriers of all types lost during World War II, seven were escort carriers, six of which were of the Kaiser-built Casablanca-class.
An additional 45 Bogue-class CVEs were built for service with the US Navy as well as the British Royal Navy through the Lend-Lease program.
All of the ships that served with the US Navy and half of the ships for the Royal Navy were built by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation, while a few of the early Royal Navy ships were produced by Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Western Pipe and Steel Company of San Francisco, California.
Following the war, 10 of the baby flattops were kept in service for helicopter and air transport operations.
The final class of CVEs to be built was the Commencement Bay-class, which was based on the T3 Tanker Hull but actually constructed as small carriers from the keel up. Thirty-five were ordered, and just 19 were produced while most of those saw little to no operational service.
However, after the war the potential for use a helicopter and auxiliary transports was seen and a few of the Commencement Bay-class escort carriers were called back into service during the Korean War.
A few CVEs from the various classes were also pressed back into service during the first years of Vietnam War, where these warships were redesignated AKV (air transport auxiliary).
One of the final – but not the last – Casablanca-class escort carriers to be built was the USS Thetis Bay, which began as CVE-90.
She was converted in the mid-1950s to become the Navy’s first assault helicopter carrier, and her designation was changed to CVHA-1, while a few years later she underwent another refit, which extensively modified the warship including having the aft flight deck cut way.
Despite the important role that these baby flattops played in World War II, sadly not a single one of the 122 Allied CVEs survives today.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
US casualties were light in comparison: one carrier and one destroyer sunk, 144 aircraft shot down or destroyed, and about 362 sailors and aviators killed.
It was one of the most decisive battles in history and one of the most important of World War II. The Japanese would never recover from the loss of so many of their best carriers and pilots. The US Navy had effectively turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.
The US Navy learned many lessons from the battle that helped win the war. Even now, 79 years later, the battle is still studied extensively – including by China.
Luring out American carriers
The Battle of Midway was an attempt by the Japanese Navy to lure out and destroy the remaining American carriers, effectively ensuring Japanese control of the Pacific.
At the time, all of the US Pacific Fleet’s battleships had either been sunk or put out of action by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the British Royal Navy had been dealt a devastating blow when the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were sunk a few days later.
About a month later, two American carriers at the Battle of the Coral Sea fended off an invasion of Port Moresby, though at the cost of one carrier sunk and one damaged.
The Japanese sent a massive invasion force to Midway, including six carriers, seven battleships, 10 submarines, 15 cruisers, and 42 destroyers. At its heart were the four fleet carriers and their escorts, which were supposed to destroy the US carriers and clear the way for the invasion.
But the battle proved to be a disaster for the Japanese, and Midway remained in American hands.
Though China wasn’t involved in the battle, Chinese military analysts today have taken a keen interest in it and have written about a number of lessons from the battle.
The warning allowed the US to prepare the island with more aircraft and send its three carriers. The Americans were thus able to confront the Japanese on equal footing.
The Japanese also incorrectly assumed that the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, which was damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, would be unable to fight. The US Navy, however, had made Yorktown’s repair a top priority.
During the battle, surveillance and reconnaissance failures led Japanese aircraft to attack the Yorktown a second time after it had already been heavily damaged. After the second attack, the Japanese believed they had knocked two American carriers out of action when they had only attacked one.
The Chinese believed that an overemphasis on battleships helped lead to Japan’s defeat. Though the Japanese had seven battleships, only two saw action during the battle, with the other five remaining with the invasion fleet.
The battleships could have played a decisive role as escorts for Japan’s carriers and possibly could have shot down more American aircraft. US battleships almost always sailed with fleet carriers when they were available in the theater, and they proved to be efficient aircraft killers.
The Chinese also believe that the Japanese failed to use their submarines effectively, noting that only one was actually in position near Midway. That Japanese submarine, I-168, managed to sink the wounded Yorktown and one of its escorts, the destroyer USS Hammann.
Chinese analysts also view Japan’s decision to order its carriers to both destroy the American carriers and support the ground invasion with airstrikes as a mistake, as it gave the carriers two separate missions at the same time.
Finally, the Chinese conclude that an attack on Midway was an excessive risk. Without land-based air cover, the Japanese were actually fighting on equal footing with the Americans, who had land-based airpower in addition to three fleet carriers.
Lessons from the war
Chinese analysts note other failures of the Japanese during the war itself. Infighting and rivalries between the Japanese military branches were a significant problem, for instance.
Additionally, the failure to destroy Pearl Harbor’s oil tanks and ship-repair facilities on December 7 was disastrous for Japan’s overall war effort. Of the eight battleships sunk or damaged, only three – Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah, which was actually a target ship – were permanently lost.
The remaining five battleships were repaired and eventually saw combat. The Navy was also able to salvage valuable weapons and material from ships damaged at Pearl Harbor.
Today, however, a similar fight between the US and Chinese navies would likely play out much differently.
Longer-range weapons would increase the distance over which both sides’ could operate. Anti-ship missiles in particular have raised the stakes for surface ships and added to the importance of airpower and submarines. Satellites have also made it harder for navies to hide.
Moreover, China would be in a much different position than Japan.
While Japan never recovered from losing four of its best fleet carriers, China has in recent years proved itself a highly capable shipbuilder, albeit in peacetime. (By the end of World War II, the US had built another 28 fleet carriers and 71 smaller escort carriers.)
With China’s navy now the largest in the world and its relationship with the US tense, it makes sense for the Chinese to study one of history’s greatest naval battles, even if times have changed.
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.
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.
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.”
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’
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’
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.”
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’
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.”
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.”
Early on May 20, 1941, thousands of German paratroopers, known as Fallschirmjägers, in hundreds of transport planes and gliders were preparing to assault the Greek island of Crete.
It was the first time a large-scale invasion was spearheaded almost entirely by paratroopers. The battle was the final part of the Axis invasion of Greece, and on paper, the numbers favored the Allies.
Germany’s 22,000-man invasion force was up against a combined British Commonwealth/Greek force of about 42,000, the Royal Navy was much stronger than its Axis counterparts in the Mediterranean at the time, and the only way Germany could win was by capturing Crete’s three airfields with Fallschirmjägers.
British intelligence knew this before the battle and told the commander on the island, Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg. When the Fallschirmjägers landed, they encountered intense resistance, but after a brutal 13-day slog, the Germans took the island.
The victory came at a huge price for the Fallschirmjägers – so much so that Hitler soured on large-scale airborne operations, remarking that “the days of the parachute troops are over.”
The Allies, meanwhile, learned the complete opposite lesson.
A costly victory
By the time Crete was invaded, the Fallschirmjägers had earned a reputation as elite soldiers, having assaulted air fields and strategic positions in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
At Crete, they would seize the island’s three main airfields, whereupon the rest of the invasion force would be airlifted in. Small amphibious landings were also planned, but the airfields were the prime objective, making the Fallschirmjägers the key to victory.
But the German victory at Crete was due as much to Allied communication and leadership failures as it was to the skill of the German paratroopers.
Freyberg was convinced that the real German invasion would come from the sea and positioned most of his forces along the coasts, neglecting to properly defend or sabotage the airfields. Even when the airfields were under attack, Freyberg refused to commit his reserves to their defense.
Capturing the airfields was still difficult and costly for the Fallschirmjägers- only one of the three was taken, and only after high German casualties.
When the battle was over, Germany and Britain had both suffered over 3,000 killed.
About half of the British losses came from the Royal Navy, which lost eight ships to Luftwaffe air attacks. The Germans also lost 146 aircraft (mostly transports) destroyed and had another 165 damaged.
Inferior airborne equipment
A major reason Fallschirmjäger losses were so high was their equipment. German parachutes were based on an old Italian design and didn’t have risers, which meant Fallschirmjägers could not steer or change course in the air and had no control over where they landed.
The design of German parachutes also tended to force Fallschirmjägers into hard landings at dangerous angles, increasing the chances of fracturing or breaking bones far higher than those of Allied paratroopers.
German parachutes also did not have a quick-release system, which meant they could drag German soldiers along the ground if caught in high winds before they were fully detached, or leave them stuck for longer periods of time if they landed in trees.
Finally, because they jumped at lower altitudes than Allied paratroopers and had poor parachute setups, almost all Fallschirmjägers jumped without their primary weapons, carrying only pistols or knives. Instead, their armaments were dropped in canisters that the paratroopers had to retrieve once on the ground.
These defects had disastrous consequences for the Fallschirmjägers at Crete. Many were killed before they even had a chance to fight.
On a number of occasions, Cretan civilians swarmed and killed Fallschirmjägers who were stuck in trees or didn’t have guns. Such widespread civilian resistance was a first for the Germans, and led to many reprisal killings after the battle.
Fallschirmjägers continued fighting after Crete. They conducted a number of smaller jumps around Europe, including as part of the Battle of the Bulge. For the most part, however, they were used as elite ground-based infantry.
Although they had lost the battle and inflicted heavy losses on the Fallschirmjägers, the Allies recognized the importance of paratroopers and invested heavily in perfecting the deployment of airborne infantry.
Allied airborne assaults were conducted on a much larger scale, usually in conjunction with a larger ground or amphibious assaults that paratroopers could link up with. American and British paratroopers also had much better parachutes and jumped fully equipped for battle.
The superiority of Allied paratroopers was demonstrated on D-Day in June 1944, when over 18,000 paratroopers jumped behind enemy lines in Normandy. Despite being scattered and confused after the jump, and without much of their equipment, groups of paratroopers were able to regroup and accomplish many of their objectives.
On the night of May 18, 1941, the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen steamed out of its base at Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland), followed five hours later by the Kriegsmarine’s crown jewel, the battleship Bismarck.
Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were on a mission to wreak havoc on British merchant shipping. German U-boats were already very effective at this, but Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, head of the Kriegsmarine, hoped to demonstrate to Hitler the value of Germany’s surface fleet in order to avoid future budget cuts.
What followed was one of the most intense naval searches in military history, the result of which convinced Hitler that U-boats, not capital ships, were the Kriegsmarine’s best weapons.
Capital ships for commerce raiding
Britain was in a very desperate situation in May 1941. It had fended off the Luftwaffe’s relentless aerial onslaughts in the Battle of Britain but was still isolated and heavily reliant on supplies coming across the Atlantic.
German surface ships also drew Royal Navy warships away from other duties, such as escorting convoys, and supported U-boats, which were then few in number.
Happy with earlier success in Operation Berlin, Raeder planned another commerce raid.
To maximize damage, the raid was to include Germany’s four best capital ships: battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were sister ships, and Bismarck and its sister ship, Tirpitz.
But Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by constant RAF attacks while being repaired in port in France, keeping them out of action for months. Tirpitz’s crew was also still being trained.
Prinz Eugen, not as well armed or armored as a battleship, was the only available ship capable of accompanying Bismarck. Not wanting to delay the operation any longer, German commanders ordered the ships into the Atlantic.
Battle of the Denmark Strait
The mission, codenamed Operation Rheinübung, was led by Adm. Günther Lütjens, the commander of Operation Berlin.
Lütjens was ordered to focus primarily on merchant raiding and to avoid fighting British capital ships if possible. But Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were discovered by the Royal Navy, which attempted to intercept the ships as they sailed through Denmark Strait and into the Atlantic on May 24.
The British force consisted of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood, which was widely considered the pride of the Royal Navy.
The British ships were no match for Bismarck, which was newer and better armored. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were able to fire full broadsides at the two British ships.
“When the big guns fired, the entire ship staggered,” Heinrich Kuhnt, a sailor on the Bismarck, recalled after the war. “It felt like it was bending. It was pushed sideways in the water. It was amazing.”
Minutes into the battle, one of Bismarck’s 15-inch shells hit one of Hood’s magazines. An enormous column of fire erupted from the battlecruiser, followed by a massive explosion that tore it in two.
“The ship broke into pieces,” Otto Schlenzka, a sailor on Prinz Eugen, recalled. “We were sure an explosion of that kind must have killed everybody.”
Hood went down with 1,415 sailors, all but three of its crew. Prince of Wales was also heavily damaged and had to withdraw. The Germans suffered no losses.
Shocked by the violent destruction of the Hood, the Royal Navy committed nearly all of its available capital ships in the area to finding and destroying Bismarck.
Though it suffered no casualties in the battle, Bismarck received a number of hits that ruptured a fuel tank and caused flooding.
Lütjens, aware of the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority and of the danger of sailing a damaged warship, terminated the operation.
Prinz Eugen was ordered to continue commerce raiding on its own while the Bismarck headed for Nazi-occupied France.
Bismarck briefly evaded its pursuers, but a British reconnaissance aircraft, flown by a US Navy pilot, found it on May 26.
With the Royal Navy closing in, Lütjens sent a final message to Berlin: “Ship unmaneuverable. We shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”
On May 27, two British battleships and two heavy cruisers attacked Bismarck. They fired over 2,800 shells in a little less than two hours, hitting the German battleship some 400 times. Bismarck was left dead in the water.
The Germans detonated scuttling charges to sink the ship, while British heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedoes to finish it off. Only 115 of Bismarck’s 2,221-man crew survived.
Operation Rheinübung was a complete failure. Not only had the pride of the Kriegsmarine been sunk with nearly all hands, Prinz Eugen was unable to sink any merchant ships, meaning the primary objective was never achieved.
In the following weeks, the Royal Navy set about destroying the network German ships that refueled, resupplied, and rearmed German capital ships in the Atlantic. The result was the Kriegsmarine’s almost complete reliance on U-boats during the rest of the Battle of the Atlantic.
In the end, the U-boats were the Kriegsmarine’s most effective weapons. From September to December 1939, they sank 110 Allied vessels, while German capital ships only sank about a dozen.
Between July and October 1940, a period known as the “first happy time,” by German submariners, U-boats sank nearly 300 ships carrying over a million tons of cargo.
Between January and August 1942, the “second happy time,” U-boats sank another 600 ships carrying 3 million tons of cargo.
Hitler never ordered his capital ships into the Atlantic again, sending them to Norway or the Baltic instead. The Germans ramped up production of U-boats, which were easier to build than capital ships, and thousands of Allied ships were sunk before the war’s end in 1945.
Only two of the original five made it to the Bordeaux-Bassens docks. The four men who crewed the canoes placed mines on a few ships, which damaged some commercial vessels. While the material damage was limited, it boosted British morale and forced the Germans to devote more resources to defense in a way similar to the US Army Air Force’s Doolittle Raid.
2. The failed attempt to kill Erwin Rommel
Operation Flipper had the lofty goal of crippling an Italian headquarters and intelligence office as well as killing Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.
The mission was beset by bad weather and the assault force that hit the German officer’s headquarters was smaller than planned.
Still, the British commandos broke into the headquarters building only to learn that Rommel had been delayed in Rome by his own weather problems.
Months later, a new stockpile of German heavy water was being transported on a ferry when the Norwegian Resistance attacked once again, sinking the ferry and ending Germany’s last best chance at a nuclear reactor or bomb. One man, Knut Haukelid, participated in both raids.
4. German paratroopers take the world’s strongest fort
In 1940, the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael was arguably the world’s strongest fort.
The British sent a small flotilla of vessels led by the converted HMS Campbeltown. Sixteen were small motorboats, 12 of which were destroyed without reaching shore. But the Campbeltown managed to ram the gates of the dry dock.
The Germans captured 215 of the 600 attackers and killed 169 more, but explosives hidden in the Campbeltown exploded the next morning, crippling the facilities.