Military Milestones from a Midnight Ride to a Pre-Dawn Airstrike

This Week in American Military History:  

Apr. 12, 1861:  Confederate Brig. Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard’s artillery forces — strategically positioned around Charleston harbor, S.C. — open fire on Union-held Fort Sumter (constructed atop shoals at the harbor entrance).

Unable to effectively return fire and with his position indefensible, Union Army Maj. Robert Anderson will surrender the fort: The garrison will be evacuated on the 14th.

The firing on Fort Sumter is considered to be the opening engagement of the Civil War. Technically it is; though shots were fired in January by militia batteries — including a battery manned by cadets of the Citadel (the Military College of South Carolina) — on the U.S. commercial paddlesteamer “Star of the West” in Charleston harbor.

Apr. 12, 1862:  Andrews’ Raiders — an ad hoc Union Army commando force (22 Ohio Infantrymen led by civilian spy James J. Andrews) — commandeer a Confederate train at Big Shanty, Georgia during an operation aimed at disrupting the rail-line between Atlanta and Chattanooga.

Following a dramatic pursuit known today as “the Great Locomotive Chase,” the raiders will be caught. Many will escape. Eight of them, including Andrews, will be convicted of espionage and executed.  

Nineteen of the raiders will be awarded the Medal of Honor (many of them posthumously). Six will become the first-ever recipients of the Medal of Honor.

Apr. 16, 1916
:  The Escadrille Americaine — a group of volunteer American pilots flying for the French military air service — is established. The Escadrille Americaine will become known as the Escadrille Lafayette (also Lafayette Escadrille), and, in 1918, it will be absorbed into the 103rd Pursuit Squadron of the new U.S. Army Air Service.

Apr. 16, 1986:  Several hours before dawn — on the 70th birthday of the Escadrille Americaine — U.S. Air Force and Navy warplanes roar into Libyan airspace and begin a series of blistering airstrikes against military and terrorist targets.  

Code-named El Dorado Canyon, the attacks are in retaliation for Libyan-leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s direct involvement in terrorist attacks against Americans worldwide.

The U.S. operation is built around two primary strike groups: U.S. Air Force F-111 fighter-bombers based in the United Kingdom, and carrier-based A-6 Intruders, A-7 Corsairs, and F/A-18 Hornets from USS America and USS Coral Sea operating in the Mediterranean with F-14 Tomcats flying combat air patrol over the carriers.

In his post-attack address to the nation, Pres. Ronald Reagan says, “Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.”

Apr. 17, 1847:  U.S. Army forces under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott outmaneuver, drive from a superior position, inflict heavy losses, and decisively defeat a numerically superior Mexican Army under Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo.

Apr. 17, 1961:  More than 1,500 CIA-trained and financed Cuban freedom fighters — members of Brigade 2506 or “Brigada Asalto” — hit the beach at several points along the Cuban coastline including the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos), while nearly 180 “Free Cuba” paratroopers begin landing north of the beachhead. The goal is to overthrow the communist regime of Fidel Castro

But myriad problems — including inadequate reconnaissance, a failure of the locals to rise up in support of the landings, and too much tactical interference from Washington — quickly doom the effort. Sealing the fate of the landing forces is Pres. John F. Kennedy’s refusal to authorize promised American air and naval gunfire support. Though a stain on American politics, the courage exhibited by the participating Americans and free Cubans will prove to be exemplary. The operation exists today as a textbook example of how not to win.   

Apr. 18, 1775:  Paul Revere and William Dawes begin their famous “midnight ride” from Boston to Lexington, Mass., where they link-up with Samuel Prescott, who rides on to Concord. All three are sounding the alarm — warning town leaders and alerting the militia — that nearly 1,000 British infantrymen, grenadiers, and Royal Marines are advancing from Boston. One of America’s most-famous battles (which we will discuss next week) is about to take place.

Apr. 18, 1942:  Sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers launch from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the first raid against the Japanese mainland during World War II.

Led by U.S. Army Air Forces Lt. Col. (future four-star Air Force general) James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, the raid is beyond daring: B-25’s are not designed to take-off from carriers, so the bomber pilots have to be specially trained to fly the heavy, ground-launched airplanes (designed for long runways) off short carrier decks. It is also a one-way mission: The crews will not have enough fuel to return to the carrier, so they have been instructed to strike Tokyo and other targets on Honshu, then fly to China and pray they’ll find suitable landing sites or bail out.

The raid will be successful, but all aircraft will be lost. Eleven men will be killed or captured.

Forced with his crew to make a nighttime parachute jump in stormy weather over China, Doolittle will ultimately receive the Medal of Honor. A portion of his citation reads: “With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: “This Week in American Military History,” appears every week 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).