The liberation of Sfax, Tunisia on April 10, 1943 was a joyous occasion for nearly everyone involved.
The Allies gained an important Mediterranean port, the Tunisians in the city were liberated, and British Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery won a B-17 bomber from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
That last one may need some explanation.
Rommel retreats to the Mareth line
Montgomery had been fighting German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel for months in North Africa. Though the campaign was slowly succeeding, Rommel and his Italian allies were inflicting heavy casualties on the British.
Britain wanted to increase forces in North Africa to keep Rommel off-balance. Meanwhile, the other Allied nations wanted to capture North Africa so they could begin invading Italy from the south.
So in late October 1942, Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot. British tanks and other forces moved under cover of massive artillery barrages through minefields against dug-in German positions. By November 2, Rommel was in a rapid withdrawal east, sacrificing troops by the hundreds to try and keep his lines of retreat open.
This put the German units in disarray when Operation Torch was launched on Nov. 8. More than 73,000 troops landed along the north coast of Africa in a deliberate attempt to squeeze the Axis east.
The battles in North Africa raged back and forth as German reinforcements tried to hold the line.
The Allied forces were slowly gaining ground, with Maj. Gen. George S. Patton and Montgomery both attempting to be the first to capture key cities, but Eisenhower wanted them to move faster.
Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Bedell Smith, was visiting Montgomery at his headquarters in the spring of 1943.
Exact accounts of the conversation vary, but Montgomery asked about getting a B-17 for his personal use. Smith told Montgomery that if Montgomery captured Sfax by April 15, Eisenhower would give him whatever he wanted.
Smith reportedly meant it as a joke wager, but the notorious gambler Montgomery was serious.
Sfax falls and Montgomery gets his B-17
On April 10 – five days ahead of the deadline – Montgomery captured Sfax and immediately asked for payment.
Eisenhower honored the bet and sent Montgomery a B-17 bomber and crew even though the bombers were needed for the war effort.
Patton was incensed that a British general had a personal B-17 while he was struggling for rides or moving in convoys. Eisenhower was angry that Montgomery would actually accept a B-17 when they were needed to actually bomb targets.
Eisenhower mentioned it to Montgomery’s boss, Sir Alan Brooke, who berated Montgomery for crass stupidity. The plane was written off after a crash-landing a month later and never replaced.
In 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed its top secret mission of delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian Island in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The heavy cruiser was sunk on its way to join a task force near Okinawa.
Of the ship’s 1195 crew members, only 316 survived the sinking and the subsequent time adrift at sea in the middle of nowhere. Among the survivors was the captain of the Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay III.
McVay would be charged with negligence in the loss of the ship. Even though he was restored to active duty after his court-martial and retired a rear admiral, the guilt of the loss haunted him for the rest of his life. He committed suicide with his Navy revolver on his own front lawn with a toy sailor in his hand.
McVay did everything he could in the wake of the torpedoing of the Indianapolis. He sounded the alarm, giving the order to abandon ship and was one of the last men off. Many of the survivors of the sinking publicly stated he was not to blame for its loss. But this wasn’t enough for the family members of the ship’s crew, who hounded McVay year after year, blaming him for the loss of their sons.
The Navy was partly to blame. They didn’t warn Indianapolis that the submarine I-58 was operating along the area of the ship’s course to Okinawa. They also didn’t warn the ship to zigzag in its pattern to evade enemy submarines. When the Indianapolis radioed a distress signal, it was picked up by three Navy stations, who ignored the call because one was drunk, the other had a commander who didn’t want to be disturbed, and the last thought it was a trap.
Three and a half days later, the survivors were rescued from the open water, suffering from salt water poisoning, exposure, hypothermia, and the largest case of shark attacks ever recorded. It was truly a horrifying scene. The horror is what led to McVay’s court martial, one of very few commanders to face such a trial concerning the loss of a ship.
Even though the Japanese commander of I-58, the man who actually destroyed the Indianapolis, told the US Navy that standard Navy evasion techniques would not have worked – Indianapolis was doomed from the get-go. Even that didn’t satisfy McVay’s critics.
It wasn’t until sixth-grader Hunter Scott began a history project in school about the sinking of the Indianapolis.
He poured through official Navy documents until he found the evidence he needed to conclusively prove that McVay wasn’t responsible for the loss of his ship. His project caught the attention of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who helped pass a Congressional resolution exonerating McVay. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Hunter Scott, the onetime sixth-grader and eternal friend to the crew of the Indianapolis, is now a naval aviator. He attended the University of North Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship and joined active duty in 2007. He even spoke at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.
At 8:00 p.m. on February 27, 1943, nine Norwegian commandos trained by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) left their hideout in the Norwegian wilderness and skied several miles to Norsk Hydro’s Vemork hydroelectric power plant.
All the men knew about their mission was the objective: Destroy Vemork’s “heavy water” production capabilities.
Each man carried a cyanide capsule to take if they were captured and wore a British Army uniform so if they were killed and their bodies found, the Germans might spare the local civilians from reprisal killings.
Their mission would be one of the most successful in special-operations history, and it contributed to one of the Allies’ most important goals in World War II: Preventing Nazi Germany from developing nuclear weapons.
The race for an atomic bomb
Within months of the discovery of nuclear fission on December 17, 1938, the military potential of nuclear power became clear, and the race for an atomic weapon was on.
In April 1939, Germany started its nuclear-bomb effort, known informally as the Uranverein, or “uranium club.” It included some of the best scientists in the field, including the men who discovered nuclear fission and Nobel Prize-winner Werner Heisenberg.
During their research for a nuclear reactor, the scientists discovered that deuterium oxide, known commonly as “heavy water” because it has a heavier molecular weight than regular water, performed well as a moderator, enabling control over the fission process.
There was only one place in the world capable of producing heavy water on an industrial scale: Norsk Hydro’s Vemork hydroelectric power plant in southern Norway. The plant’s main purpose was to produce ammonia for nitrogen fertilizer; heavy water was actually a byproduct.
In January 1940, German officials asked to buy all of Norsk Hydro’s heavy water stock and if it was possible to increase the plant’s monthly output 10-fold to meet German demand.
This caught the attention of the French, who were experimenting with nuclear physics themselves and pursuing heavy water. Worried about German intentions, agents from the Deuxième Bureau, France’s military-intelligence agency, secured all of Norsk Hydro’s heavy water for France on March 9.
It was only a temporary setback for the Nazis. Exactly a month later, Germany invaded Norway and occupied it by early June. Vemork, now under German control, was forced to increase heavy-water production.
Operations Grouse and Freshman
The Allies, unaware of the German nuclear program’s progress, were increasingly worried that Germany may be ahead in the race. Vemork’s heavy-water production was known to be important to the program, and that alone was a good enough reason to take action against it.
Working with the Norwegian Resistance, the SOE created a plan for two teams to be dropped into Norway.
The first, codenamed Operation Grouse, was made up of four SOE-trained Norwegian commandos who would parachute into Norway, conduct reconnaissance, and secure a landing zone for a 34-man team of British commandos, codenamed Operation Freshman, who would land in two gliders and then assault the plant and destroy the 18 electrolysis cells that made heavy water.
On October 18, 1942, Grouse was launched. The team spent the next few weeks trekking to Freshman’s designated landing site, reaching it on November 9. On November 19, Operation Freshman was launched.
But Freshman was a colossal failure. Mechanical difficulties and bad weather caused one of the bombers and the glider it was towing to crash, killing the flight crew and a number of commandos. The second glider’s cable snapped when the bomber towing it aborted the mission, causing it to crash as well.
Survivors from both gliders were found by the Germans and executed as per Hitler’s Commando Order. Forty-one men were lost, security at Vemork was increased, and the Grouse team was stranded and had to fend for itself.
Vemork was still a priority target for the Allies, and a new plan, with a stealthier approach, was developed.
A team of six Norwegian commandos would be dropped into Norway to link up with members of the Grouse team. They would infiltrate the plant, destroy the heavy-water production room with explosives, and escape into the night.
Codenamed Operation Gunnerside, the team parachuted into Norway on February 16, 1943, and linked up with the Grouse team on February 22. On the night of February 27, nine members from both teams set out for Vemork, with one member remaining behind to communicate with the British.
Upon arrival on the outskirts of the plant, they saw that the bridge, the only direct way into the complex, was heavily guarded.
The team had to descend a 328-foot cliff, cross a frozen river, then climb an almost 500-foot cliff before arriving at a fenced railway gate that led into the rear of the complex. They got there at 11:45 p.m. but had to wait for the guards to change shift, eventually cutting their way through the fence after midnight.
Once inside, the team split into two groups. Five commandos took covering positions outside the barracks, bridge, and main gate, while the other four entered the plant. Inside, they encountered only a Norwegian employee, who didn’t resist or raise the alarm.
Explosives were set in the target room, which was in the basement. The team evacuated and waited for the explosion. Because the room was so far underground and the walls were so thick, there was hardly any noise when the bombs went off, allowing the whole team to escape before the Germans found out what had happened.
The operation was a resounding success. The commandos destroyed the electrolysis cells and over 500 kg of heavy water. They managed to escape without firing a single shot or taking any casualties.
The Germans repaired the damage by May, but subsequent Allied air raids prevented full-scale production. Eventually, the Germans ceased all production of heavy water and tried to move the remaining supply to Germany.
In a last act of sabotage, a Norwegian team led by one of the Gunnerside commandos sank the ferry transporting the remaining heavy water on February 20, 1944, although at the cost of 14 Norwegian civilians.
The operations helped foil Germany’s nuclear ambitions, and the Nazis never built an atomic bomb or a nuclear reactor. Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies in early May 1945, two months before the US’s bigger and better-resourced Manhattan Project tested the first nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945.
No historical account of World War II would be complete without covering the Battle of Iwo Jima.
At first glance, it seems similar to many other battles that happened late in the Pacific War: American troops fiercely fought their way through booby traps, Banzai charges and surprise attacks while stalwart dug-in Japanese defenders struggled against overwhelming US power in the air, on land and by sea.
For the United States Marine Corps, however, the Battle of Iwo Jima was more than one more island in a string of battles in an island-hopping campaign. The Pacific War was one of the most brutal in the history of mankind, and nowhere was that more apparent than on Iwo Jima in February 1945.
After three years of fighting, US troops didn’t know the end was near for the Japanese Empire. For them, every island was part of the preparation they needed to invade mainland Japan.
The 36-day fight for Iwo Jima led Adm. Chester Nimitz to give the now-immortal praise, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Here are six reasons why the battle is so important to Marines:
1. It was the first invasion of the Japanese Home Islands
The Japanese Empire controlled many islands in the Pacific area. Saipan, Peleliu and other islands were either sold to Japan after World War I or it was given control of them by the League of Nations. Then, it started invading others.
Iwo Jima was different. Though technically far from the Japanese Home Islands, it is considered to be part of Tokyo and is administered as part of its subprefecture.
After three years of taking control of islands previously captured by the Japanese, the Marines were finally taking part of the Japanese capital.
2. Iwo Jima was strategically necessary for the United States’ war effort
Taking the island meant more than a symbolic capture of the Japanese homeland.
It meant the US could launch bombing runs from Iwo Jima’s strategic airfields, as the tiny island was directly under the flight path of B-29 Superfortresses from Guam, Saipan and the Mariana Islands.
Now, the Army Air Forces would be able to make bombing runs without a Japanese garrison at Iwo Jima warning the mainland about the danger to come. It also meant American bombers could fly over Japan with fighter escorts.
3. It was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the Marine Corps.
Iwo Jima is a small island, covering roughly 8 square kilometers. It was defended by 20,000 Japanese soldiers who spent a year digging in, creating miles of tunnels beneath the volcanic rock, and who were ready to fight to the last man.
When the battle was over, 6,800 Americans were dead and a further 26,000 wounded or missing. This means 850 Americans died for every square mile of the island fortress. Only 216 Japanese troops were taken prisoner.
4. More gallantry was on display at Iwo Jima than any other battle before or since
Iwo Jima saw more Medals of Honor awarded for actions there than any other single battle in American history.
A total of 27 were awarded, 22 to Marines and five to Navy Corpsmen. In all of World War II, only 81 Marines and 57 sailors were awarded the medal.
To put it in a statistical perspective, 20% of all WWII Navy and Marine Corps Medals of Honor were earned at Iwo Jima.
5. US Marines were Marines and nothing else on Iwo Jima
The US has seen significant problems with race relations in its history. And though the armed forces weren’t fully integrated until 1948, the US military has always been on the forefront of racial and gender integration. The Marines at Iwo Jima came from every background.
While African Americans were still not allowed on frontline duty because of segregation, they piloted amphibious trucks full of White and Latino Marines to the beaches at Iwo Jima, moved ammunition and supplies to the front, buried the dead and fought off surprise attacks from Japanese defenders. Navajo Code Talkers were instrumental in taking the island. They were all Marines.
6. The iconic flag-raising became the symbol for all Marines who died in service
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s photo of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi is perhaps one of the best-known war photos ever taken.
Raising the American flag at the island’s highest point sent a clear message to both the Marines below and the Japanese defenders. In the years that followed, the image took on a more important role.
It soon became the symbol of the Marine Corps itself. When the Marine Corps Memorial was dedicated in 1954, it was that image that became the symbol of the Corps’ spirit, dedicated to every Marine who gave their life in service to the United States.
The coronavirus pandemic had killed more Americans than the Vietnam War by late April.
And by about mid-May, the US COVID-19 death toll had already surpassed the combined number of Americans killed in battle in every major US war since 1945 – nearly 87,000. The number of Americans killed by COVID-19 is now equivalent to almost half of the total death toll in the Civil War – approximately 620,000 – which was the bloodiest war in American history.
The US has consistently recorded the most COVID-19 cases and fatalities in the world. Johns Hopkins’ tally of cases surpassed 24.3 million as of Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in December noted that the US COVID-19 death toll was set to surpass the total number of US combat deaths during World War II.
Pelosi at the time said that the war brought the country together but that former President Donald Trump was not a “unifying” president.
“We do not have a unifying president of the United States,” she said. “In fact, we have a president in denial, delaying, and distorting, calling it a hoax. Many more thousands of people have died because of that.”
Trump was widely criticized over his response to the US COVID-19 outbreak, and polling consistently found a majority of Americans disapproved of his handling of the pandemic.
The former president repeatedly downplayed the threat of COVID-19, which he was hospitalized for in early October, and gone against the recommendations of top public-health experts.
President Joe Biden was inaugurated on Wednesday. During his inaugural address, Biden uged the country to unite in order to defeat the virus.
“We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus. We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation,” Biden said.
The president issued a mask mandate on federal property, and rejoined the World Health Organization. He also signed an order establishing a COVID-19 response coordinator who reports directly to the commander-in-chief, which also reestablished the National Security Council’s directorate for global health security and biodefense. Trump had scrapped the directorate, a move that was criticized by Dr. Anthony Fauci – America’s top infectious disease official.
The coronavirus pandemic had killed more Americans than the Vietnam War by late April.
And by around mid-May, the US COVID-19 death toll had already surpassed the combined number of Americans killed in battle in every major US war since 1945 – nearly 87,000. The number of Americans killed by COVID-19 is now equivalent to almost half of the total death toll in the Civil War – approximately 620,000 – which was the bloodiest war in American history.
The US has consistently had the highest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and fatalities in the world. The national caseload has surpassed 15.5 million as of Thursday, per Johns Hopkins.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday morning noted that the US COVID-19 death toll would soon surpass to the total number of American soldiers killed in battle during WWII.
Pelosi said that the war brought the country together but that President Donald Trump is not a “unifying” president.
“We do not have a unifying President of the United States. In fact, we have a president in denial, delaying, and distorting, calling it a hoax. Many more thousands of people have died because of that,” Pelosi said.
Trump has been widely criticized over his response to the US COVID-19 outbreak and polling has consistently shown a majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of the pandemic.
The president has repeatedly downplayed the threat of COVID-19, which he contracted in early October, and gone against the recommendations of top public health experts.