This Week in American Military History:
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.
Feb. 22, 1909: Pres. Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” –a four-squadron armada of white-painted warships manned by some 14,000 sailors and Marines – returns to Hampton Roads, Virginia after sailing around the world in a grand show of American Naval power. According to the Naval Historical Center, an anonymous sailor may have said it best: “We just wanted to let the world know we were prepared for anything they wanted to kick up. We wanted to show the world what we could do.”
Feb. 22, 1967: The U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade conducts the first and only mass parachute jump of the Vietnam War. The jump is but one element of the much broader airborne (primarily heliborne assault) and infantry “search and destroy” operation, Junction City. The operation will continue through May.
Feb. 22, 1974: Lt. J.G. Barbara Ann Allen Rainey becomes the first female Naval aviator. In 1982, she will be killed in a crash while training a student pilot.
Feb. 23, 1778: Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian Army officer – arguably the father of American drill instructors – arrives at Valley Forge with the task of whipping the Continental Army into shape.
Feb. 23, 1836: The advance elements of a 4,000-plus-man Mexican army under the command of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna begin the siege of the isolated Texas Army garrison at the Alamo mission near (now part of present-day) San Antonio, Texas, during the Texas War of Independence.
The following day, South Carolina-born Lt. Col. William Barret Travis, the garrison commander, dispatches a letter “to the People of Texas and all the Americans in the World” a portion of which reads:
“… The enemy has demanded the surrender; at discretion, otherwise the garrison is to be put to the sword if the fort is taken. I have answered the summons with cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. … I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible, and die like a soldier who never forfeits what is due to his own honor and that of his country. Victory or death!”
The Alamo’s approximately 200-man garrison – including Travis, Kentucky knife-fighter Col. Jim Bowie, and Tennessee’s legendary frontiersman and legislator Davy Crockett – will be wiped out nearly to a man when the Mexicans storm the mission on March 6. But the drama which plays out over the two-week period as well as the courage and against-all-hope tenacity of the Alamo’s little force, will make heroes of the defenders. And the battle will become as much a part of American military history and tradition as it is Texas lore.
Feb. 23, 1847: Eleven years after the Alamo – during the Mexican-American War – a Mexican army under Santa Anna launches a series of attacks against a numerically inferior U.S. Army force under the command of Gen. (and future president) Zachary Taylor near Buena Vista. Though Taylor is surprised and outnumbered (Santa Anna fielding at least 15,000 men to Taylor’s 4,800), the Americans – fighting on good defensible ground – are well-disciplined, and that combined with superbly employed artillery beat back the Mexicans who are forced to withdraw with heavy losses.
Feb. 23, 1945: After several days of savage fighting, U.S. Marines capture the summit of Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima.
Just after 10:30 a.m., a small flag is raised on Suribachi. But an officer orders a larger flag be hoisted so that it might be seen from the far end of the island. A large flag is found and brought back to the top.
Then, in what will become one of the most dramatic scenes of the war, five Marines and one Navy hospital corpsman raise the American flag over Iwo Jima. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captures the moment on film. Rosenthal will win the Pulitzer Prize for the picture, and the famous Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia will be based on the same.
Only two of the five Marines will survive the battle. The sailor will be wounded.
Interestingly, the sailor – Petty Officer John “Doc” Bradley – is the man in the center of the picture, illustrating the extremely close bond between sailors and Marines in combat.
Feb. 24, 1813: The sloop-of-war USS Hornet (the third of eight so-named American warships) under the command of Capt. James Lawrence sinks the Royal Navy brig HMS Peacock in a swift action in which Peacock’s skipper, Capt. William Peake, is killed.
The following June, Lawrence also will be killed in action: His dying words becoming the famous American battle cry: “Don’t give up the ship!”
Feb 24, 1991: U.S. Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf gives his subordinate Army and Marine commanders the green light during Operation Desert Storm, and at 4:00 a.m. the lead elements of the enormous coalition ground force begin surging forward into Iraq and Kuwait aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait.
Coalition forces having defeated the Iraqi Army in Kuwait and destroyed much of Hussein’s air and ground forces in Iraq, President George H.W. Bush will order a ceasefire on the 28th. The 42-day “mother of all battles” (38 days for the initial air campaign and four days for the ground campaign) will end.
Feb. 25, 1779: Following an arduous campaign through freezing floodwaters, a joint American-French force under Virginia militia Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark captures British-held Fort Sackville at Vincennes in the Illinois backcountry.
Feb. 26, 1949: Lucky Lady II, a U.S. Air Force B-50 bomber flown by Capt. James Gallagher and his 13-man crew, begins the first leg of the first-ever nonstop flight around the world. The flight, requiring nearly four days and four in-flight refuelings, will be successful, and it will prove to the world that U.S. aircraft are capable of flying from their North American bases and striking any city on earth. But the flight will not be without loss. One of the refueling tankers will crash upon returning to the Philippines, killing the entire crew.