Military Milestones from America's Lord Nelson to an Earth-Orbiting Marine

This Week in American Military History:

Feb. 15, 1898: A terrific explosion rips through the bow of USS Maine anchored in Havana Harbor, Cuba. Almost everyone in the forward third of the vessel is instantly killed. Black smoke and seawater begin pouring into the remaining spaces. The dying ship, its bulkheads groaning under the stress of collapse, is then rocked by a series of jarring secondary explosions. Capt. Charles Sigsbee, the Maine’s skipper, orders “Abandon ship!” Within minutes, 260 U.S. sailors and Marines are dead.

Convinced that the explosion (the cause of which is still being debated) is the result of a mine or the work of Spanish saboteurs, American newspapers will demand vengeance. America will soon be at war with Spain.

Maine is the first of three so-named American battleships and one submarine.

Feb 16, 1804: U.S. Navy Lt. (future commodore) Stephen Decatur sails a captured Tripolitan ketch he renames USS Intrepid into the harbor at Tripoli. There, Decatur and a volunteer force of sailors and Marines board the frigate USS Philadelphia (the second of six so-named American warships), which had been previously captured by Tripolitan pirates. After a brief but violent close-quarters struggle — in which several pirates but no Americans are killed — Decatur orders the Philadelphia burned.

In time, Decatur will be referred to as “America’s Lord Nelson,” an affectionate comparison to Britain’s legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson. In fact, when Nelson himself learns of Decatur’s action at Tripoli, he says it is “the most bold and daring act of the age.” And contemporary British historian John Keegan will describe Decatur as “the most dashing of the frigate captains whom the Corsair and 1812 Wars produced.”

Destined to be killed in a duel with fellow Naval officer Commodore James Barron in 1820, Decatur is author of the famous aphorism, “Our country, right or wrong.”

Decatur has had five American warships and numerous American towns and counties named in his honor.

Feb 16, 1945: American paratroopers — members of the U.S. Army’s famed 503rd Regimental Combat Team — jump over the Philippines’ “fortress Corregidor” (also known as “the Rock”) in one of the most difficult airborne operations of the war. Jumping in relatively high winds, the paratroopers hit the ground hard, fighting Japanese soldiers who had been ordered to fight to the death. For the next 11 days, the Americans will root out the enemy (deeply burrowed in a labyrinth of caves and tunnels) and beat back multiple banzai attacks before wiping out almost all of the 6,500-man enemy garrison.

Feb. 17, 1864: The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley — a pioneering vessel designed to help break the Union Navy’s blockade of Southern ports — sinks the Federal sloop-of-war USS Housatonic in Charleston (S.C.) harbor, becoming the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship in action. It is a pyrrhic victory, however: the submarine also sank — either with its victim or soon after the attack — with the loss of all hands.

The submarine is named for its designer and builder, Tennessee-born engineer Horace Lawson Hunley, who incidentally was killed during one of the submarine’s test dives.

Feb. 17, 1865: Exactly one year to the day after Hunley’s famous attack in South Carolina waters, Columbia, South Carolina’s capital and site of the first secession convention, falls to Union Army forces under the command of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Columbia is subsequently burned. Both sides blame the other for the destruction of the city, fueling a controversy that continues into the 21st century. Sherman will withdraw from Columbia within three days and continue his march up through the Palmetto state. He will write in his memoirs, “Having utterly ruined Columbia, the right wing [of the army] began its march northward toward Winnsboro.”

Feb. 18, 1944: U.S. Marines land and quickly capture Engebi island, the first obstacle to seizing Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshalls. The following day, U.S. Army forces strike Eniwetok — a tougher fight — and soldiers and Marines seize the island in three days.

Feb. 19, 1945: One year after the Eniwetok landings, the first two of three dispatched U.S. Marine divisions begin hitting the beach on day one of the epic battle for Iwo Jima (one of the great U.S. Marine Corps victories which we will expound on over the coming weeks). Described as “throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete,” the battle is best remembered by the dramatic photograph of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi and the 27 Medals of Honor awarded. But it will not be without great cost: Of the 21,000 Japanese diehards defending Iwo, some 20,800 will be killed. Almost 7,000 Marines will lose their lives. Another 26,000 will be wounded. Aside from Marine losses, a handful of casualties will be suffered among the ranks of U.S. Army, Navy, and Coast Guard personnel who also were there.

Feb. 20, 1944: U.S. Army Air Forces and Britain’s Royal Air Force begin Operation Argument — also known as “Big Week” — a massive thousand-plus bomber offensive (with all of the bombers’ supporting fighter aircraft) aimed at destroying the German Air Force in the air and the Luftwaffe manufacturing facilities on the ground in order to achieve irreversible air superiority before the Normandy landings. Allied losses will be high. German losses will be staggering.

Feb. 20, 1962: U.S. Marine Lt. Col. (future colonel) and two-war fighter pilot John H. Glenn Jr. becomes the first American to orbit Earth. Glenn orbits Earth three times in less than five hours in his spacecraft, Friendship 7.

Glenn will become a U.S. senator in 1974. In 1998, at the age of 77, he will return to space (becoming the oldest human in space) aboard Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-95) commanded and piloted respectively by U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonels Curtis L. Brown and Steven W. Lindsey.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: “This Week in American Military History” appears every Wednesday as a feature of HUMAN EVENTS.

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