Harsh Waters, Hard Sailors: The Story of the Shetland Bus

The North Sea is a tumultuous landscape. Filled with rolling waves, violent storms, and high winds that only the most experienced seamen can withstand. Those who work on the sea can recount the harsh conditions. Life in the North Sea was immeasurably worse during World War II as it became a no-man’s land of German U-boats and patrol planes. They waited patiently for enemy ships to enter their vector and launch their attack. For the duration of the war, the North Sea became a precious corridor, a lifeline to the people of Norway and Great Britain. A small cadre of Norwegians and British sailors ran a covert shipping operation delivering weapons, supplies, and saboteurs to aid the beleaguered Norwegians as they resisted German occupation. Refugees were spirited across the sea as well to protect them from Nazi atrocities. Throughout the operation, ships had to travel at night to avoid detection from spotter planes and U-boats, but the sea is harshest at night and some never made it to their destination. This is the story of the ‘Shetland Bus’.

Shetland bus sailors endured harsh conditions and risked their lives ferrying agents and materials to Norway and returning with high risk refugees (Image courtesy of Scalloway Museum)

Fans of the BBC crime drama Shetland would know a trivia night amount of the Shetland Bus. Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez researches its operational history searching for a link between a murder victim and a Norwegian sailor. He hears of the dangers they endured; fierce storms, aerial attacks, torpedoed by U-boats, and if discovered in Norway by the Germans, arrested and executed. This isn’t artistic license. The operators lived like this for over four years. To fully understand the bus’s criticality, we look back to Europe in 1941.

Heinrich Himmler visiting Norway in 1941. Seated (from left to right) are Vidkun Quisling, Himmler, Josef Terboven (Reichskommisar of occupied Norway) and General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the commander of the German forces in Norway (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

Norway capitulated to Nazi Germany in June 1940 and a pro-German puppet government under Vidkun Quisling was established with the Reich Commissariat of Norway. The country remained under German control until the end of war. This presented a precarious, but unique situation to the British Navy. The North Sea would be an intense battle ground for supplying Allied forces and blockading Axis ports. Additionally, British and Norwegian agents could be ferried and supplied across the sea and help subvert the Nazis in Norway. In early 1940, the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6; yes, the James Bond MI6) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) met with Norwegian special agents to formulate an espionage and supply operations between the two nations. A brief series of runs demonstrated the effectiveness and necessities of supplying agents in Norway and rescuing at-risk civilians. In late 1941, the SOE created the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit becoming informally known as the ‘Shetland Bus’ by its officers and sailors.

Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Lieutenant David Howarth spotted a perfect location in Shetland at Lunna Ness. The small harbor and nearby houses would provide a fitting cover for clandestine operations. Many would not look twice at some fishing boats, thinking that they were ferrying saboteurs between nations. While central command was located at the Lunna House in 1941, boats would be brought in at any available harbor that had proper facilities for upkeep. Scalloway was used as the main port with its engineering capabilities and additional space for boats. The Shetland Bus operated from Lunna and Scalloway for the next four years. During its first winter, six boats and thirty sailors were lost at sea, either from harsh storms or enemy fire. In 1943, three sub-chasers from the U.S. Navy were transferred to the Norwegian navy who used it for the Shetland Bus. These were a godsend for the sailors and officers as it afforded them increased protection and faster speeds to outrun U-boats.

Sub-chaser VIGRA patrolling the North Sea corridor just outside of Scalloway. This ship, plus the HITRA and HESSA, were gifted from the U.S. Navy to help augment the Shetland Bus (Image courtesy of the Scalloway Museum)

Two critical exchanges on the Shetland bus were vital to Norway’s survival. The country had several resistance groups, but were disorganized and scattered throughout. Specially trained SOE agents were ordered to slip into Norway and lead sabotage operations to undermine the German war effort and the Quisling puppet government. They took radios, explosives, and other needed supplies with them to contact British handlers and Norse resistors. SOE operatives also required a reliable transport network to ferry them back to Shetland at any point. The SOe proved incredibly effective in helping the Norse resistance. One famous act of SOE clandestine work during WWII were the raids on heavy water production facilities supporting the German nuclear weapons program.

A SOE radio used by the Norwegian resistance. These were designed to be so compact and rudimentary that they could be disassembled and shipped without being intercepted by the enemy

The second exchange were spiriting away high risk Norse citizens considered enemies of the state. Nearly three thousands Jews lived in Norway in 1940 and approximately two-thirds escaped by fleeing to Sweden or taking passage on the Shetland Bus. Sailors routinely arranged with local Jewish and SOE leaders to make exchanges when making deliveries to transport Jewish families to Shetland. A handful of such exchanges were sometimes discovered by the local Gestapo, but they were never fully able to halt the Shetland Bus. The sheer length of the Norwegian coastline and number of fjords and harbors made it impossible for the Germans to police every incoming ship.

By late 1944 as the war turned against Germany and U-boat patrols in the North Sea diminished, the Shetland Bus lost less men, materials, and ships to the enemy. The addition of the three sub-chasers cut down on the loss of life and afforded them the ability to run shipments during the day rather than only at night. By the war’s end, the Bus completed 210 missions, carried over 400 tonnes of equipment, rescued over 300 refugees, and assisted with some clandestine operations that arguably held down thousands of German troops stationed in Norway that might otherwise have been deployed elsewhere. The last mission was completed on May 9, 1945, the day after V-E Day when the VIGRA entered free Norse waters.

Today a memorial cairn honors the memory and sacrifice of Norse and British sailors who worked tirelessly, risking their lives to keep hope alive during WWII. What many thought was a motley crew of hard scrabble seamen in fishing boats was in reality a life-line to the oppressed Norwegians resisting the German occupation. Had it not been for the brave men running the Shetland Bus, who knows what might have happened to Norway and possibly Western Europe during the early dark days of the Second World War.

Directing War from the Executive Branch: A Review of ‘White House Warriors’ by John Gans

Let’s be blunt: warfare changes constantly. Weapons alone don’t change, but so do the intangible aspects; political pressure, foreign policy, and public opinion. The head of state or government has a body of advisors debating the merits of military intervention and national security. Over time, these advisors have evolved to reflect the social mores and political climate both nationally and internationally. The world became increasingly complex following the Second World War with the rise of Communism as a world power, European colonies achieving independence, and the dawn of nuclear power. Previous conventions on isolationism were no longer applicable. Under the Truman Administration, a council made up of foreign policy and military experts congregated to form the first version of what would become the U.S. National Security Council. The 1947 National Security Act formalized its existence and for the past 70 years, the NSC has guided the White House on making monumental decisions on handling foreign threats and maintaining U.S. hegemony during the Cold War and beyond.

John Gans’ book, White House Warriors, analyzes the history and political impact of the NSC, plus the central characters who have dominated the council. In tandem with this work, Gans draws comparisons between the nature of the NSC and global affairs that have necessitated military intervention. The progression of the Cold War and accompanying proxy wars within have shaped the NSC’s people and policies. White House Warriors delivers a stark picture of how the Executive Branch extends its power on foreign affairs through the State Department and military position with the backing of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of Defense. The reader could interpret Gans’ work in multiple ways as a result. Has the NSC exponentially increased the President’s power to use military force without Congress? Does the National Security Advisor have too much power? Should the NSC be dismantled? These questions and more can be asked by you and have been by policy experts, Congress, Chief-of-Staffs, and the President themselves.

President Truman meeting with his National Security Council (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library)

The American-Soviet alliance collapsed in the aftermath of WWII and executive policy on Communism couldn’t be controlled by the State Department. The late President Franklin Roosevelt exhibited a hands-on, yet discombobulated approach for directing the war effort which predictably was a source of consternation for the War Department. In an effort to consolidate national security matters in line with foreign policy, the NSC was formed under the National Security Act of 1947, along with the Department of Defense. Gans writes that in the beginning, personality clashes and vague jurisdiction lines between the military and state were a bane of daily function. Advisors and detailed military staff officers came and went so quickly, some didn’t even bother to learn names unless they sat in meetings with the President. Both Truman and Eisenhower only partially consulted the NSC during the Korean War, but they were largely treated as a secondary appendage because final decisions were made by the President or the Joint Chiefs.

To say that the Cold War molded NSC practice is a massive understatement. Political and diplomatic landscapes were in severe flux. What that meant was flexible responses by the Executive branch needed to be considered. John F. Kennedy’s NSC instigated the leap from haphazard consulting to critical infrastructure. The ‘bright young men’ were indicative of Kennedy’s plan to combat Communism by all necessary means, including military action. Without going to Congress for funding or having debates with his Cabinet, Kennedy molded the NSC to reflect the best minds who could give the best argument supporting the President’s views. Early U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a crucial test for the NSC since it challenged conventional military thinking and required a combined approach of diplomatic, political, and military action. Its during the Vietnam period, Gans notes the rising influence of the singular National Security Adviser. The head of the NSC was an executive secretary, but that role morphed into the advisor we see today. As the war effort and increasing government bureaucracy strained organization and communication efforts, the Advisor’s duty was to be the principal aide to the President on national security matters and direct the NSC on policy meetings. Under Henry Kissinger’s six year tenure, the role of advisor was augmented into a fixed position that sought to bring bureaucracy under control and handle principle matters solely by one person. The council had transformed from a collaborative body to an advisor with an army of staffers.

President Nixon’s first meeting with his National Security Council, Principle advisor, Henry Kissinger, is seated at the foot of the table on the left (National Archives and Records Administration, Nixon White House Photographs, 1/20/1969 – 8/9/1974)

Between the Ford and Reagan Administrations, the NSC underwent more organizational shuffling and reprioritized focus from the Soviet Union to the Middle East. Terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and attacks on US embassies were prevalent. However, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, the NSC and the Department of Defense dealt with what was coined ‘Vietnam syndrome’. There was great reluctance from many in the military, State Department, and the Joint Chiefs to commit ground troops in another international incident following the debacle of the Vietnam War. Instead, emphasis was placed on shuttle diplomacy and finding ways to subvert enemy activity, but not directly engage them in conventional combat. This was an eye-opening section in Gans’ book as it illustrates how many of the policies we implemented in the Middle East today stem from many of the NSC’s decisions in the 1980s. The Iran-Contra scandal tarnished the NSC and forced them into another organizational restructuring. Gans’ final section focuses on the ongoing War on Terror and how the NSC still faces many of the same challenges that existed since the Vietnam War. In many ways both conflicts were categorized as insurgencies, but U.S. military establishments wanted to reject that label in Iraq and Afghanistan, for fear of conjuring up old Vietnam wounds. Gans examines the deployment and transition of US forces in the Middle East and the implications for national security when the insurgency escalated.

President Ronald Reagan Holds a National Security Council Meeting on The Twa Hijacking in The White House Situation Room, 6/16/1985 (National Archives and Records Administration, Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989

In the end, White House Warriors is provocative and enlightening by showing how the council fluctuates nearly as much as the presidency itself. High stakes decisions on national security are made nearly every day, but decisions are not made by the President alone. The body of advisors to the President is massive and they take time to deliberate on the best possible course of action. The NSC has the power to change the course of conflicts, but they navigate through public opinion as much as the President does. Not every military intervention is cut and dry like the Gulf War or Bosnian War and NSC staffers incorporate countless facets of a scenario that can seem unending. Despite these obstacles, the NSC still serves a vital function to the U.S. and the world in assessing threats to peace and global stability.

Oklahoma Bat: The Military History of Fred Laverne Richardson

For as long as I can remember, hearing stories about my grandpa’s World War II service was part of my childhood. They were my first history lessons outside of school. I spent many weekends and holidays with my grandparents and often heard older relatives bring up his time in the Philippines, Japan, or just talk casually about the war. Hidden at the top of one of grandma’s bookshelves was a thickly bound brown book with large white lettering; ‘WARPATH’, showing a Native American wearing a war chief’s headdress. It was a chronicle of the 345th Bombardment Group and its achievements in the South Pacific. On many occasions, I grabbed it off the shelf and thumbed through the pages looking for grandpa’s face. I knew which unit was his and when I found the respective section, no headshot or group photo. Family lore did say that in one photo taken from behind showing two men rushing out to check on a damaged plane, he was one of them (recognized by his flipped up hat bill, before Gomer Pyle made it fashionable). He very rarely shared some personal war stories and for a long time, all I told others at school or work was he served in the Pacific as a tail gunner in a B-25 bomber over the Philippines.

He passed away in 2006 and that was when I began to learning more. He received medals he never mentioned before and soon there was a cache of old photos and documents filling in the gaps. Since working for the National Archives stirred my history passions and learning about military records, I spent last year and all two months of this year putting together a narrative of his military service. An unexpected miracle happened yesterday when in a vain attempt to find his discharge documents (see the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire) finally paid off. I randomly placed a call to the Garfield County records office in Oklahoma asking if they had any copies. To my surprise they did! Returning WWII veterans normally filed a copy of their discharge documents with the county they returned to in order to receive VA or other government benefits. Thankfully his was still intact and that completed the narrative. My grandpa’s war record here is the best that I have researched with all the available materials. While some information will be lost forever because of the 1973 fire, this is an obstacle facing all military history and genealogy researchers.

Technical Sergeant Fred Laverne Richardson (Service Number 38563209) served in the U.S. Army Air Force from July 20, 1943 to January 14, 1946. Throughout his World War II service, Fred served with the 499th Bombardment Squadron under the 345th Bombardment Group in the V Bomber Command with the 5th Air Force. While overseas, Fred was stationed in Biak, the Philippines, and Ie Shima, participating in aerial combat operations throughout the South Pacific and Sea of Japan. At the end, Fred took part in a handful of major battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II and in the American occupation of Japan. He was twice decorated with the Air Medal for heroic achievements in aerial flight and was later awarded multiple medals for his part in the liberation of the Philippine islands. 

Researching World War II-era service records presents a unique challenge because a significant number of records were destroyed in a massive fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center. Approximately 80% of Army records from 1912 to 1960 were affected with varying degrees of damage. Fred’s record was substantially affected by the fire and only a handful of documents survive attesting to his military service. The information given here is extracted from surviving records in Ancestry, Fold3, FamilySearch, Army unit records, local county records, and WWII reference materials. 

Fred Laverne Richardson was born on April 26, 1925 in Enid Oklahoma to Fred Richardson and Millie Pearl LeGrand. They lived at 508 N. 9th Street and Fred was a senior at Enid High School when he registered for the draft. Local Board #1 in Garfield County recorded his entry the day after his eighteenth birthday on April 26, 1943. Sometime in June 1943, he received a draft notice and was ordered to report to Oklahoma City, where he was formally inducted into the U.S. Army on July 20, 1943. During World War II, inductees were required to serve for the duration of the conflict, plus six months after. This meant that for as long as the war went on, Fred remained in the Army unless he was dishonorably discharged, critically wounded, or killed. Following induction he was transferred to the Enlisted Reserve Corps and was placed on active duty on August 3, 1943. According to family history, he completed basic training at Amarillo Army Airfield in Amarillo, Texas. Aerial defense, air artillery, and forward observing courses were taught at Amarillo AAF and if Fred was later assigned to an Army Air Force unit, he would have received physical and aerial warfare training there. The airfield trained recruits on B-17 Flying Fortresses; four engine long range bombers capable of flying hundreds of miles and dropping thousands of pounds of bombs individually. 

Aerial combat training was tremendously harsh and a small percentage completed the physical battery. Those who passed went onto flight education and armament training. Fred’s recently discovered Notice of Separation (discharge summary) shows he attended two service schools: Aircraft Armament Training School at Lowry Field, Colorado, and Aerial Gunnery Training School at Fort Meyer, Florida. One family story is that his aerial gunner training consisted of shooting skeets with shotguns out the back of a moving truck. Service schools offered specialized training for enlisted personnel. Enlisted men did not serve as pilots, navigators, or bombardiers. Commissioned officers served these roles. 

Fred completed all training by approximately July 1944. From family photographs taken before shipping out, he received his assignment to the U.S Army Air Force and was promoted to the rank of Corporal. This is shown by the chevrons on the sleeve and shoulder patch. The separation document lists his military occupational speciality as Airplane Armorer Gunner. The job duties included inspecting, repairing, and maintaining all aircraft armament, including bomb release mechanisms, airplane cannons, machine guns, and auxiliary equipment. He made daily inspections and repaired equipment such as bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, aerial gun sights, flare racks, and chemical carrying release mechanisms. He also installed armament equipment on airplanes, and placed bombs in bomb racks. The last portion was to man a machine gun position if combat occurs during flight. 

Family history states that Fred was originally ordered to report to the European theater and while in New York, his orders changed and was transferred to the 345th Bomb Group. Fred traveled to Camp Stoneman near San Francisco, California. This was a staging area for servicemen joining their units in the Pacific. On October 17, 1944, Cpl. Fred Richardson departed the United States.  By the autumn of 1944, the U.S. had pushed the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy out of the southern Pacific and began prepping for the liberation of the Philippines. The country had been under Japanese occupation since May 1942 after the Battle of Bataan. Invasion plans had been in the works since 1943, but the outlying territories needed to be retaken first. 

(Fred while on furlough. He left shortly thereafter to join the 345th BG)

History of the 345th Bombardment Group

Air warfare changed drastically since the First World War. Technological innovations created larger and faster planes with increased carrying capacity. Long and medium range bombers were capable of dealing out tremendous damage. The new B-25 Mitchell debuted in 1941 and the Army Air Force was eager to use it in combat. It was a medium range bomber equipped with twelve .50 caliber machine guns, a 75mm cannon, and could carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries. Each plane carries five crew members; pilot, navigator / bombardier, gunner / engineer, radio operator / waist gunner, and tail gunner. On November 11, 1942 the 345th Bombardment Group was activated under the 3rd Air Force and trained until April 1943 when they moved to Camp Stoneman and entered combat in New Guinea in June 1943 where it became part of the 5th Air Force. The group comprised of four squadrons:

From Left to Right: 498th Bomb Squadron ‘Falcons’, 499th Bomb Squadron ‘Bats Outta Hell’, 500th Bomb Squadron ‘Rough Raiders’, 501st Bomb Squadron ‘Black Panthers’

The unit was intended for service in the European Theater of Operations, but U.S. Army General George Kenney specifically requested them to redeploy to the south Pacific following successful bombing campaigns near Australia. New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water similar to skipping a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines. 

(Fred and his squad mates; he is on the far right with the cigarette in hand)

They took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. Biak was the next step in the unit’s path and after taking the island, could run missions over the Celebes Sea. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepared for invasion. 

(American pilots and aircrews were issued chits like these wearing them on their jackets. If they bailed out or were shot down, this would message any friendly persons that they were an American pilot and needed to return to their outfit. Fred had this one and was pinned in his WWII photo album.)

By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. On August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.

Throughout the Pacific campaign, the 499th squadron carried out its own specific missions. Fred left the U.S. on October 17, 1944 and arrived in the Pacific theater on November 23, 1944. The 499th conducted operations between Biak and the Philippines attacking Japanese shipping convoys and battleships. Between December 1944 and July 1945, Fred and his squadron flew from San Marcelino and Clark Air Fields hitting targets all over the Philippines. The longest range mission that they ever carried out was an attack on Saigon in southern Vietnam in April 1945. It was by far the most dangerous mission they ever undertook, but it earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation. 

(Billboard of the 499th Squadron. These were common at the airfields to show each unit’s war record and list of battles)

While in Ie Shima, Fred became part of the occupation force following Japan’s surrender. An old family photo album containing pictures from WWII includes some unique ones; photos of the Japanese surrender delegation. The images are quite small, but when seen through a magnifying glass, one can see the Japanese wearing traditional garments and presenting instruments of surrender. Unfortunately there are no captions on the reverse side of the pictures making it hard to determine when or where the photo was taken, but from judging the content, many pictures were taken in the Philippines and Ie Shima. Cultural landmarks and buildings place some early pictures in Manila. Fred took a lot of pictures of local people and he even collected a large amount of foreign currency and Army scrip. 

Between Fred Richardson’s personal achievements and assignment with the 499th Bombardment Squadron and 345th Bomb Group, he received a substantial number of awards, both U.S. and foreign awards. The following are the most complete listing of awards he is entitled to from World War II.

Aerial Gunner Badge: this military aeronautical badge was given to those who qualified and endured hazardous conditions as an aerial gunner. A winged bullet fixed on the standard observers badge, Fred received this badge for his military occupational specialty as an Airplane Armorer Gunner a B-25 bomber. 

Air Medal: Established in Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal recognizes acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Flight conditions, combat missions, and the number of sorties were taken into account when determining who received the Air Medal. Between October 1944 and December 1945, Fred received the Air Medal twice, giving him an Oak Leaf Cluster. Both awards were issued by a General Order from 5th Air Force HQ for meritorious service with the 345th Bomb Group. 

Good Conduct Medal: The Good Conduct Medal recognizes servicemen who served honorably for a specific amount of time. Criteria for the Army Good Conduct Medal has changed via executive orders in subsequent presidencies. The medal was also established during World War II and each service branch has its own version. The medal can also be awarded to any servicemen who completes at least one year of honorable service while the United States is at war. Fred met this criteria and received the Good Conduct Medal. 

American Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265, the American Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who were stationed in the American Theater of Operations (ATO). This includes the continental American territory and the surrounding waters of both North and South America. Servicemembers must have served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S., 30 days outside the continental U.S. within the ATO, or 60 days onboard a vessel in American waters. Having served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S. while stationed at Fort Sill, Fred received the American Campaign Medal. 

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265 along with the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who performed military duties in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater (APT). This includes air, naval, and ground operations. Service stars denote participation in a campaign. Because air operations were ongoing from the beginning to the end of the war (with the exception of some isolated campaigns) Fred received service stars for the following campaigns:

Air Offensive, Japan (5 June 1943 – 2 September 1945)

China Defensive (5 June 1943 – 4 May 1945)

New Guinea (5 June 1943 – 31 December 1944)

Bismarck Archipelago (15 December 1943 – 27 November 1944)

Leyte (17 October 1944 – 1 July 1945)

Luzon (15 December 1944 – 4 July 1945)

Western Pacific (17 April 1945 – 2 September 1945)

China Offensive (5 May 1945 – 2 September 1945) 

World War II Victory Medal: Created by an Act of Congress on July 6 1945, this service medal recognizes all personnel who served in the U.S. Armed Forces from December 7 1941 to December 31 1946. No minimum time in service is needed to award the World War II Victory Medal. Over 12 million service members are eligible for the award, making it the second-most awarded medal in the U.S.; the most being the National Defense Service Medal created in 1953. Having served in World War II, Fred automatically received the subsequent victory medal. 

Army of Occupation Medal: Established by the War Department in 1946, the AOM recognizes personnel who participated in any duties in occupied countries following the cessation of hostilities in both Germany and Japan. At first the medal was only for ground forces, but it was later amended in 1948 to include any Army Air Force units. The medal has an accompanying clasp for where the service member was stationed. The 345th Bomb Group served for six months on the island of Ie Shima, technically considered occupied enemy territory. This entitles Fred the Army of Occupation Medal with the ‘Japan’ clasp. 

Philippine Liberation Medal: The liberation of the Philippines was a major moment during the war in the Pacific. They were the first major U.S. possession to fall to the Japanese and thousands suffered as POWs. In commemoration of those who took part in the campaign, the Philippine government created the Philippine Liberation Medal. Initially only a ribbon, a medal was created later in July 1945. The PLM also included service stars similar to the APCM. Stars were awarded for the following criteria:

  1. Participation in the initial landing operation of Leyte and adjoining islands from 17 October to 20 October 1944. 
  2. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on Leyte and adjoining islands during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  3. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on islands other than those mentioned above during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  4. Served in the Philippine Islands or on ships in Philippine waters for not less than 30 days during the period.

The 345th did not participate in the initial landing operation on Leyte on October 17-20 (Fred was also en route to Biak from Camp Stoneman). Fred does meet the other three criteria so he received three service stars on the PLM. 

Philippine Independence Medal: After the Japanese surrender, the Philippine government wanted to recognize all those who served in both the initial defense of the nation and the subsequent liberation. The Philippine Independence Medal was created to recognize those who took part in either one of the conflict stages. Because Fred took part in the liberation campaign, he received the PIM. 

Presidential Unit Citation: President Franklin Roosevelt created this unit citation, (originally entitled the Distinguished Unit Citation) via Executive Order 9075. A unit citation was a new type of award for the U.S. military; it was meant to recognize the gallantry and heroism of a unit that endured dangerous conditions. The 499th received three PUCs for its entire wartime service; Fred served with the squadron when it received its third citation and his only one for actions over Indochina. 

Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: Similar to the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation, the PPUC was awarded by the Philippine government to recognize the meritorious service and heroic achievements to those who participated in any Philippine operations. Because Fred served with the 499th which operated in the Philippines, he received the PPUC. 

All U.S. Army, Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel who were honorably discharged also receive the Honorable Service Lapel Button, nicknamed the ‘Ruptured Duck’. This was given to all those that were honorably discharged during World War II. The award had a twofold purpose: to show proof of military service while wearing civilian clothing [the lapel button was not worn with military uniform] and to receive recognition from agencies and private companies that the wearer was a veteran and could receive benefits such as reduced fares or free services. Since Fred completed his service honorably, he received the Ruptured Duck. A diamond shaped cloth patch was also issued for a veteran that could be worn on their Class A uniform for a subsequent 30 days.

Fred’s separation document (discovered February 18, 2021) shows that he also received a weapons marksmanship badge. Recruits are tested on their weapons proficiency during basic training and are scored on accuracy, technical skills, and speed. There are three categories of badges; Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert. Individual weapons bars are attached on each badge denoting the level of proficiency with that weapon. Fred was awarded the Sharpshooter badge with the Carbine bar on October 7, 1943. 

Fred returned to the U.S on January 3, 1946 and was sent to Fort Leavenworth for separation. The Army was demobilizing thousands of troops a week, sending them to various locations across the country to expedite the process. On January 14, 1946, Fred was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Air Force. His wartime service was over. He served for two years, five months, and twenty-five days; a year and two months of which was overseas. 

According to family oral history, he completed forty-two missions with the 499th and made it out physically unscathed. The path he traveled took him across the United States, the entire width of the Pacific Ocean, and to foreign countries that a regular kid from Oklahoma might never have seen in his lifetime. Seven months after his discharge, he married Roberta Davis on August 18, 1946 and began a career with the Frisco Railroad. On 25 June 2006, Fred Laverne Richardson died from natural causes at the age of eighty-one. Four years later, Roberta joined him; together they both completed ‘well-finished lives.’

Jim Crow Followed us to England: The Battle of Bamber Bridge

Nearly every World War II history buff knows the story of the racial segregation faced by black soldiers and sailors. The U.S. Armed Forces were not racially integrated, resulting in many all black units and regiments. Integration wouldn’t happen until Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948. Their work responsibilities were also limited to support roles in logistics, janitorial, and food services. Many did not see combat action with the exception of a few armored units such as ‘Patton’s Panthers’. As Black History Month continues, many historians have re-investigated covered-up stories of racial violence and intolerance in the WWII era. Even as the nation fought to preserve democratic nations, the denial of civil and equal rights in the black community became a sticking point in the ‘Double V Campaign.’ Volunteer service by blacks skyrocketed during WWII; they had served in nearly every U.S. conflict since the American Revolution and did so to prove their worthiness of citizenship and freedom. Resistance from some senior white officers and institutional racism within service branches led to unequal access to facilities in military posts, bases, and airfields in the United States. The story was different in Europe. The British and French welcomed them with open arms and couldn’t reconcile with the segregationist policies placed on black servicemen. They were all there to defeat the Axis powers; that alone should make them all equals.

In the 1980s, maintenance workers in Bamber Bridge, England carrying out remodeling work found what appeared to be bullet holes. They weren’t recent and stories emerged from some of the locals who lived in the area during the war. It was the Battle of Bamber Bridge. The Axis never invaded the main British Isles, but what transpired in the small village over forty years ago?

“Negro soldiers draw rations at the camp cook house at their station in Northern Ireland. Detachments of Negro troops were among the latest arrivals with the American forces in Northern Ireland.”, ca. 8/1942 (Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951, NAID 535544)

In 1943, the tide of war was beginning to change for the Allies. German forces were expelled from North Africa and Italy was the next target. U.S. troops arrived in England and began establishing bases of operation and prepared for the coming invasion of France. During this preparatory phase, soldiers, sailors, and airmen conducted training drills, firearms proficiency, and classroom instruction. Not all took part in this endeavor though. Black servicemen were primarily assigned to logistical roles in quartermaster companies, food service, and mechanical work. Coinciding with these was the unequal treatment and denial of access to specific facilities in base and when servicemen were on leave. Local villagers and townspeople in England welcomed black servicemen and were befuddled by the ‘Jim Crow’ atmosphere practiced by their white comrades. Black servicemen, who were routinely discriminated against in the U.S. enjoyed a new degree of freedom in Europe where no racial codes or institutional racism against blacks were practiced by locals. Despite that, their white counterparts and superior officers brought many of the Jim Crow attitudes with them. Military police designated certain businesses and services for blacks only and did not allow them to integrate with white servicemen in town. Differing opinions on race between soldiers and civilians though produced deadly results.

On the evening of June 24, 1943, black servicemen from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Company arrived at Ye Olde Hob Inn, a pub near the edge of town. The 1511th was assigned to the 8th Air Force that operated multiple airfields in England and their primary duties consisted of making deliveries between posts. That evening, a small group of truck drivers on leave went to the pub for drinks and socializing. As the evening progressed, two white military policemen from the 234th Military Policy Company passed by the pub and spotted the group. They immediately barged in and pointed at Private Eugene Nunn. They noted he was wearing the M1941 field jacket and not his Class A uniform. Army regulation at the time stated that a soldier has to wear their Class A’s while on leave in a public place. They also charged him with going AWOL (absent without leave), but they all had their passes with them. Many of the pub tenants defended the them saying they weren’t causing any trouble and were in fact behaving civilly towards everyone. A black staff sergeant diffused the situation, but while the MPs departed, beer bottles were thrown at them (they did not see the suspect who threw the bottles). They called back to their superior officers who ordered them to bring in those who were ‘resisting arrest’. Shots were fired between the 1511th and the MPs which turned the incident deadly; Private William Crossland was shot in the back and died shortly thereafter.

“Pvt. Jonathan Hoag of a chemical battalion, is awarded the Croix de Guerre by General Alphonse Juin, Commanding General of the F.E.C., for courage shown in treating wounded, even though he, himself, was wounded. Pozzuoli area, Italy.” 3/21/1944 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985, NAID 531182)

Local villagers were left in shock. A racially charged incident like this leaving one person dead was frightening to them and they did not know what to expect next. Some black servicemen safely returned to the nearby airfield and when news spread of what happened at Ye Old Hob Inn, others began arming themselves with pistols and rifles. Their commanding officer, Major George Heris and Lieutenant Edwin Jones (the regiment’s only black officer) persuaded the men that they would seek justice from the white MPs for Crossland’s death. Around midnight, a small group of MPs arrived in jeeps and an armored vehicle with the intent to ‘put down a mutiny’ as described by a British police constable. A four hour firefight broke out between the 1511th and the MPs, leaving seven injured, but no additional fatalities.

A court-martial convicted thirty-two black servicemen guilty of mutiny and were dishonorably discharged. Some white officers wanted to cover up the violence quickly to prevent any drop in morale before the invasion of Europe, but others were not so quick to cast off this racist event. General Ira Eaker, commander of the 8th Air Force, squarely put the blame on the racist behavior of white MPs and their inexperienced, racist superiors. General Eaker conducted a thorough purge of 8th Air Force units, expelling any documented offenders of racist acts and integrated MP patrols. Despite his best efforts, news of the Bamber Bridge Riot was heavily censored both in England and the United States. Just a few days before, race riots in Detroit left dozens dead and wounded following months of socio-economic tension between whites and blacks. News of race riots in the U.S. overshadowed an incident like Bamber Bridge and memory of the fiery exchange faded with time.

Popular historical interest in the Bamber Bridge riot resurfaced when that maintenance worker found those bullet holes. Since then, scholars and historians have researched the history of racial antagonisms in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. While President Truman’s executive order integrated the military, racist behavior by whites towards blacks was and still remains a unresolved problem between all the service branches.

“Volunteer combat soldiers prepare for a day’s training in preparation for shipment to veteran units at front lines in Germany.”, 2/28/1945 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, NAID 531357)

Persons of Exceptional Prominence: Celebrities in the Military

How would you react after discovering someone you served alongside with in the armed forces became a famous celebrity? Maybe a senator, writer, astronaut, or actor? That would be quite a story to say, ‘I served with John Glenn in the Marines’ or ‘I knew Isaac Asimov when he was in the Army.’ How amazing would it be to make that claim?

World Heavyweight champ Joe Louis (Barrow) sews on the stripes of a technical sergeant—to which he has been promoted (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951) View Joe Louis’ OMPF in the NARA Catalog.

The U.S. Armed Forces attracts people from all walks of life. Many took career direction during their service. Some even put aside their professional careers to enlist in the armed forces. When a veteran achieves some type of public notoriety, their service record becomes the subject of special interest. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) retains the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for individuals labeled ‘Persons of Exceptional Prominence’ (PEP). This simply means that well-known public figures, i.e. politicians, scientists, celebrities, etc., have their records open to the public. Anyone can view these documents after following specific guidelines. You won’t see the original record due to preservation and security reasons, but the archival staff does reproduce the record.

Records for Persons of Exceptional Prominence are classified are Specially Protected Holdings (SPH). This constitutes an additional layer of security due to either the nature of work they did or the notoriety the attained in private life. Their military record becomes valuable and in order to prevent theft or vandalism, PEPs and SPHs receive distinguished protection.

Persons of Exceptional Prominence can also be exempt from some of the archival rules with the NPRC. When a service member has been separated from the military for 62 year from the date of final discharge, their record is categorized as archival. This means that now their service is public record and anyone can view it. This rule applies to all personnel records, not just PEPs. For example, you can request a complete copy of George S. Patton’s WWII service record, but not David Petraeus’ record; he was fully discharged in 2011. You could request a complete copy of Desi Arnaz’s service record (Ricky Ricardo of ‘I Love Lucy‘) but not MC Hammer’s service record since he was discharged in 1983 (Yes, the rapper and pioneer of hammer pants is a U.S. Navy veteran).

Identification photo of Bea Arthur. Before she was a ‘Golden Girl’ she was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II. View Bea Arthur’s OMPF in the NARA Catalog

Some records are more accessible than others. The National Archives manages a number of digitization projects. Scanning all types of records and documents are a priority for the agency. OMPFs for a select few personalities are fully digital and available for online viewing. A full listing is posted on the NARA website, but here is a snapshot of PEP service records that are fully digitized:

  • Charles Addams (Cartoonist, creator of ‘The Addams Family‘)
  • Spiro Agnew (U.S. Vice President and Governor of Maryland)
  • Alvin York (World War I Medal of Honor Recipient)
  • Maxwell Taylor (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ambassador to South Vietnam)
  • Ruth Streeter (U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Director)
  • John Philip Sousa (Musician and composer of American military marches)
  • Margaret Chase Smith (U.S. Representative and Senator from Maine; joined service while serving in Congress)
  • Francis Scobee (U.S. Air Force colonel and astronaut; died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster)
  • Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy, son of President Theodore Roosevelt)
  • Lafayette Ron Hubbard (Science fiction writer and founder of Scientology)
  • Jackie Robinson (Professional athlete, first black baseball player to play for Major League Baseball)
  • Ernie Pyle (Journalist and war correspondent; killed in action during the Battle of Okinawa)
  • Josephine Bowman (Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurses Corps)
  • Robert Peary (Artic explorer who reached the North Pole)
  • John Dillinger (infamous bank robber and Public Enemy No. 1 during the Great Depression)

OMPFs for PEPs contain all the same information as any other personnel records. Enlistment contracts, training documents, transfers, disciplinary actions, citations, and more are held in said files. For more information on how to view PEPs, visit the National Archives website; Persons of Exceptional Prominence.

Brigadier General James Stewart. After going to Washington as Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Force, served with distinction in Europe during World War II, and retired at the rank of brigadier general in 1968 (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Witness to the Fall: A Review of ‘Decent Interval’ by Frank Snepp

Utter chaos. Left behind. Hellish destruction. No hope. Thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers lived in perpetual agony of whether or not Americans would rescue them from the approaching North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The ensuing battle would be catastrophic if Communists and remnants of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) fought in the streets of Saigon. Meanwhile, fragile agreements, empty promises, and diplomatic false flags swirled around the globe in negotiating a compromise to save what was left of South Vietnam. To say that there were miscommunications and misunderstandings between parties is a definitively gross understatement. Between October 1972 and April 1975, a CIA analyst worked furiously on deciphering North Vietnamese plans while navigating a labyrinth of bureaucratic stonewalling and intelligence mismanagement. Despite signals of non-negotiable settlements and an almost willful denial of reality by senior leaders, Frank Snepp and others did their best to rescue at-risk Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. In 1977, Frank Snepp published ‘Decent Interval‘ chronicling the events leading up to Saigon’s collapse in 1975 and giving stark, graphic details of how competing military and political ideas created a quagmire of biblical proportions. Controversy surrounded Snepp’s book from the beginning as the CIA sued him over breach of contract, ultimately leading to a Supreme Court decision (United States vs. Frank W. Snepp, III). Despite losing his case, Snepp’s testimony sheds light on the tarnished integrity of CIA and U.S. political actions in South Vietnam. ‘Decent Interval‘ is, therefore, essential reading for anyone desiring to know what transpired in the last days of the Vietnam War.

Before delving into specific features of the book, the title phrase ‘decent interval’ references a theory that the Nixon Administration orchestrated plans to allow for a peaceful withdrawal from South Vietnam and avoid a military defeat. The Republic of Vietnam could not survive according to sources in the administration, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, stating:

‘Our terms would eventually destroy him.’ [‘Him’ referring to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu]

“Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 6 October 1972”. Presidential Recordings Digital Edition. University of Virginia.

Presidential, political, military, and Vietnamese scholars debate this practice and while Kissinger denied the ‘decent interval’ concept, the fact remains that while the United States remained committed to South Vietnam in public, a mirage of hope prevailed privately that many Vietnamese clung to but never came to fruition. President Nixon privately pledged to Thieu that if his country was ever threatened again by North Vietnam, U.S. air power would retaliate with full force. Following Nixon’s resignation from the Watergate scandal, Communists reasoning on U.S. re-intervention changed overnight. Without Nixon or the hope of an aerial defense, the NVA could launch a final assault on the south and finally reunify the country. The south’s fate was essentially sealed. Snepp’s accounting chronicles the events and people who took part.

The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 signed for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, a repatriation of POWs, and a general ceasefire. POWs returned home, the last regular army troops left in March 1973, but a handful of security and contractors remained behind to guard American consular offices. The ceasefire, however, was never honored and fighting resumed within days of the accords’ ratification (Image courtesy of the New York Times)

Frank Snepp (featured in Ken Burns’ documentary series The Vietnam War and the film Last Days in Vietnam) separates the book into sections; the bloody cease-fire of 1973, the piecemeal conquering of South Vietnam, and the final two days of Saigon’s life. The book reads as a play-by-play recalling actions with startling detail of various CIA, State Department, military, and civilian agency operations. In many ways, Snepp wrote the most complex after-action report one could ask for about the Fall of Saigon. The reader can expect to see familiar names reappear consistently and recognize the increasing anxiety as the enemy inched closer to victory. From the outset, ‘Decent Interval‘ sets a bleak tone on what the CIA did during the Vietnam War. This extends to the challenges faced by the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), the State Department, and the United States Information Agency (USIA). Intelligence gathered by CIA sources and surveillance of the South Vietnamese government painted a bleak picture of the ARVN’s capability to combat a serious invasion from the north. A principle actor who exerted disastrous influence was U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. Martin entered South Vietnam in June 1973 with the goal of retaining South Vietnamese independence by any means necessary. He was a resolute old guard Cold Warrior determined to keep U.S. aid flowing. As Snepp repeats throughout the book, Martin was more concerned with conforming information and news to his worldview rather than taking facts to heart from trusted sources. His relationship with the media was not stellar either. These facets proved fatal for the South Vietnamese and remaining Americans who became increasingly frustrated with the Ambassadors’ actions. Snepp doesn’t kid gloves in his critique of Martin’s intransigence. Martin refused to even cut down a tamarind tree in the Embassy courtyard to allow for helicopter liftoffs; stating that it would hurt morale and incite panic. By that point, frenzied crowds of frightened Vietnamese should have signaled the oncoming doom. Saving the tamarind tree was akin to throwing furniture off the sinking Titanic.

Critiques about President Thieu’s regime were also harsh and the South Vietnamese army struggled to hold onto to key points in the country. Snepp describes his task to escort Thieu out of the country following his resignation. The unceremonious departure (and potential smuggling of valuables in his luggage) illustrates how reading the writing on the wall came too late. Leaders tried desperately to mount defenses on their own, but over-reliance on the U.S was an Achille’s heel after 1973. The ARVN was plagued with corruption, low morale, and with the evaporation of U.S. financial and military aid, they ran out of money and bullets. That same corruption extended to the government where competing factions constantly jockeyed for power. Disagreements became part of the everyday narrative in South Vietnam, but now with Communists only days away from unifying the country, they assumed larger importance with political settlements. Thieu’s military leadership emphasized a ‘light at the top, heavy at the bottom’ strategy where northern provinces bordering North Vietnam were abandoned in order to reinforce more populous centers in the south. The result was mass panic and confusion as Americans still in those provinces struggled to coordinate evacuations and destroy classified information. Disheartening reports about the collapse of ARVN divisions and hit-and-run tactics by the Viet Cong flooded into Saigon, forcing more Embassy staff to prepare for the worst. Snepp cites the DAO’s Colonel Bill Legro as a principle architect for the Saigon evacuation. Pre-arranged rendezvous points around the city would pick up Americans with proper credentials. South Vietnamese, through a mash-up of bribery and American largess, thrusted themselves into the evacuation even if official policy did not include them. Ambassador Martin and for some time, Thomas Polgar, CIA Station Chief, held out hope for a negotiated settlement arbitrated by the Soviet Union and China. As Snepp describes it, the CIA and U.S. Embassy botched a great deal of the evacuation prep work due to misconceptions on intelligence validity.

A U.S. Marine Security Guard watching as South Vietnamese attempt to enter the U.S. Embassy grounds. By the time the evacuation of Saigon began, many U.S. personnel believed that it was too late to rescue everyone who wanted to flee (Image courtesy of UPI)

Snepp evaluates the actions of many people in the last days of South Vietnam. Throughout the book, his criticisms Thomas Polgar increase exponentially over his handling and interpretations of intelligence sources. For a brief time, Polgar shared similar views as Martin concerning a negotiated settlement with the Communists (a tip from Hungarian associates in the ICCS [International Commission of Control and Supervision]). As time progressed and NVA forces captured Xuan Loc and cut communications out of Saigon, hopes of negotiation evaporated into nothingness. Hovering over the Embassy was the political front centered on the U.S. Congress who had the final say on authorizing military and aid funds to South Vietnam. Martin, Kissinger, and others desperately needed Congress to act. If South Vietnam were to fall, Congress, not the White House, State Department, or CIA, should take the blame. Snepp interprets Congressional machinations and their impacts in the broader context of how the U.S. handled foreign relations with South Vietnam. If the U.S. government was unwilling to move proactively in warding off a disaster, people on the ground needed to act swiftly.

April 1975. The month and year where all hell broke lose in Saigon. ‘Decent Interval‘ is only half of the book’s title, but the latter aptly describes the landscape: ‘An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam‘. No one who wasn’t there couldn’t have described it as vividly as Snepp did. Between April 6 and April 29, the NVA hit major points around Saigon, including Tan Son Nhut Air Base and Vung Tau. Evacuation plans were still in disarray as senior leaders argued over how many personnel should be lifted out and when. Americans needed to be rescued, but determining at-risk Vietnamese was problematic and time consuming. Peace was still a far-flung hope, but Snepp cites this the principle obstacle in coordinating a withdrawal:

My imbroglio with Polgar left me bitter and frightened. As long as he and Martin refused to accept the inevitability of a Communist assault, it seemed likely they would continued to subordinate the evacuation effort to their peace gambit. In my anxiety I resolved to try to signal to Washington once again (as I had earlier through Moose and Miessner) how far off-trach I though they were.”

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Worst Case’, pg. 369
President Ford discusses the worsening situation in South Vietnam with from right to left, Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (partially pictured); Graham Martin, United States Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam; Army Chief of Staff General Frederick Weyand; and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. In the weeks leading up to the Fall of Saigon, the White House, Congress, Departments of Defense and State debated the best course of action, all while Snepp and his colleagues clandestinely move vulnerable Vietnamese out of the country (Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, White House Photographic Office Collection (Ford Administration), 12/6/1973 – 1/20/1977)

Snepp intimately recalls how he and his colleagues worked outside the system and broke convention to get desperate Vietnamese out of the country. Some whom they knew personally. These chapters and sections make ‘Decent Interval‘ a heart-wrenching read. One is immediately placed in the hot, humid, and bullet ridden Saigon city blocks. Snepp intricately weaves descriptions of civilians facing harsh decisions and finding creative ways to escape the country. Americans with proper credentials were collected at pre-arranged rendezvous points, but many Vietnamese were left behind upon realizing that they would be left behind. On April 29 1975, the North Vietnamese initiated the assault on Saigon. Intelligence reports drafted by Snepp revealed how the Communists were determined to drive onto the city and claim it by Ho Chi Minh’s birthday on May 19th. Cargo ships, commercial airplanes, and military airlifts were swamped with frightened civilians carrying their life possessions. The Ford Administration emphasized evacuating all Americans and their Vietnamese dependents, which resulted in an explosion of Americans claiming ‘dependents’. Since no official evacuation order was implemented due to hopes of a settlement, the best way to describe the scenario was haphazard. The worst description was a shit-show. Operation Frequent Wind, the official military directed evacuation, was initiated the day before, but without guidance from Ambassador Martin or the DAO, the military airlift had to improvise flying in helicopters and ferrying them out to Task Force 76 fleet in the South China Sea. CIA pilots and civilian contractors flying their own helicopters rescued Americans and at-risk Vietnamese as well. The famous image of a CIA officer helping civilians up a narrow ladder on top of 22 Gia Long Street into an Air America chopper was a defining image of the Fall of Saigon. Polgar by this point radically changed his view on the military situation. He scrambled to save personal Vietnamese friends and destroyed classified information. Incinerators ran around the clock destroying burn bags filled with shredded documents. His final cable to Washington D.C. resonated with historic implications:

“It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost…This experience unique in the history of the United States does not signal necessarily the demise of the United States as a world power. The severity of the defeat and the circumstances of it, however, would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies of niggardly half measures which have characterized much of our participation here despite the commitment of manpower and resources which were certainly generous. Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Les us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson.”

Saigon. Signing off.

Final Message of CIA Station Chief Thomas Polgar, April 29th 1975.

Late into the evening of April 29th, Snepp and the last of the CIA personnel made their way to the embassy roof helicopter pad, boarded a CH-47, and swiftly flew out to sea, landing on the USS Denver. Below them were throngs of civilians clamoring for salvation. Time and again they were reassured that helicopters would pick them up, but they were empty promises as only Americans were evacuated. Within 24 hours of landing on the USS Denver, Snepp finally heard the news he knew was coming; Saigon capitulated and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Personally, this massive tome was startling. Snepp’s inside accounts and direct knowledge of Communist operations made me re-think a few things. First, what I was taught in my U.S. and the Vietnam War class in undergraduate was severely watered down and glossed over the finer points of Kissinger’s double-dealing, the sheer stupidity of Graham Martin, and the South Vietnamese government’s practically non-existent democratic institutions. The enormously perplexing situation inside the U.S. Embassy makes no wonder of why evacuation plans were constantly outdated or rendered useless. Above all, Snepp laments for the thousands of left behind Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. and faced prison, re-education, and execution by the Communists. In testimonies before Congress, Martin claimed that the evacuation was an astounding achievement of American planning and execution. Snepp disagreed:

‘Some legislators, however, were not so sure. Although none disputed the difficulties the Ambassador had faced, there lingered widespread suspicion that he had brought a great many of them on himself. Far from expediting the evacuation during the first weeks of April, he had, it seemed, helped to stall if off-partly by fostering the notion (with Kissinger and Weyand’s help) that one more aid appropriation might avert disaster…Even then it was less Martin’s ingenuity than the imagination and initiative of subordinate staffers that kept the operation rolling along. Without General Smith’s “inspirations” there probably would have been no evacuations at all…the improvisatory and haphazard nature of the evacuation of course had its cost.’

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Internal Hemorrhaging’, pg. 564, 565

Every bit of intelligence pointed to a non-negotiable Communist victory. Hanoi would not suffer compromise under any circumstances. Why couldn’t Kissinger, Martin, or Polgar understand this notion? Why wait until the last minute to make a crucial decision on saving lives? Snepp points to far flung hopes for negotiated settlements through Soviet channels and constant pressure for Congressional appropriations to foreign aid. Following Watergate and the passage of the War Powers Act, senators and representatives were unwilling to approve any more aid. Reluctance after years of anti-war protests pushed Congress and the White House to focus on domestic issues such as inflation, unemployment, and foreign relations in the Middle East. No one cared for Vietnam any longer.

Decent Interval‘ was an exploration of the mind for any concerned person living in Saigon on April 30th 1975. In later testimonies, Snepp laments the loss of so many Vietnamese who weren’t evacuated. In a way this book memorializes the Vietnamese left behind in the U.S. Embassy. Rescued families were the lucky ones and would always remember the time as ‘Black April’ in their life. ‘Decent Interval‘ set a new bar for my own understanding of the Vietnam War. At great personal sacrifice, Snepp brought to light what many Americans tried to forget and still try to today; so much went wrong with the evacuation of Saigon. Had it not been for a brave, enterprising people, so many more would have lost their lives.

‘Operation Frequent Wind’ – Marine pilots and members of the flight deck crew aboard the USS Hancock, assist Vietnamese refugees from CH-53 helicopters during the evacuation of Saigon (Image courtesy of the National Archives, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps)

Humanity in the Ocean: The SEALAB Program and Capt. George Bond, MD

Dr. George Foote Bond envisioned people living in the ocean. Not just in submarines or diving bells, but in fully furnished environments where a person can eat, sleep, and work for weeks at a time. Much of what the ocean offered in terms of scientific research was immense in the mid-20th century. Underwater explorers only glimpsed what was beneath the waves. Pioneers like Jacques Cousteau who led conservation efforts and developed novel aquatic technology like the ‘aqualung’ were a new generation of scientists exploring the ocean. The barrier to expanding these horizons was overcoming the physical and psychological limitations of the human body. Dr. Bond would spend his entire Naval career researching the answer.

George Bond was a well-loved doctor in North Carolina. He was profiled by the American Medical Association for his services in rural counties and was proclaimed ‘Doctor of the Year’ by the community of Bat Cave, NC where he lived. In 1953, Bond joined the U.S. Navy’s medical corps and was certified as a diving and submarine medical officer. It was during these early years that Bond became enamored with diving and undersea exploration. At the Naval Medical Research Lab (NMRL) in Connecticut, Captain Bond collected data on the effects of underwater pressure on the human body and novel diving techniques. One practice called the ‘blow-and-go’ was a method for endangered submarine crews to safely exit the craft if it sustained damage. Bond was obsessed with his theory of ‘saturation diving’. Bond argued that as divers descended deeper underwater and their bodies absorbed the maximum amount of gas molecules, their decompression time would remain static. An underwater habitat pressurized to the appropriate depth was needed in order to allow divers to live in that environment. Under direction from the Secretary of the Navy and the NMRL, Bond and his colleague Walter Mazzone began the Genesis Project.

Capt. George Bond (far right) instructing Navy divers on the various parameters of the Genesis Project. They needed to be extremely accurate in their data findings in order to ensure their theory of saturation diving could be proven in real-world practice (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

Genesis’ goals were developing a safe breathing mixture in a pressurized environment for divers and determine the amount of time needed for decompression. These two puzzles were crucial to Bond’s saturation theory. Mazzone developed a gas mixture comprised primarily of helium with small levels of oxygen and nitrogen. After various trials with test animals (the first batch dying from oxygen toxicity), the project moved onto human testing. Volunteers were observed inside the pressure chamber conducting experiments for specific lengths at time. Between 1957 and 1963, the Genesis Project gathered a mountain of data on atmospheric and environmental conditions. Test subjects and Navy divers Robert Barth, Sanders Manning, Raymond Lavois, and John Bull endured a battery of varying breathing mixtures, but after their longest endurance of 12 days at 198 fsw (feet of seawater, or 7 atmospheres of pressure), saturation diving became a proven concept. A person could live underwater in a controlled environment indefinitely. In an article in ‘Environmental Health’ Bond presented his findings:

As a result of some six years of animal and human studies involving closed ecological systems, elevated pressures, and synthetic atmospheres, the stage has been set for operational application of the work. It would now appear that we can safely station men at any point on the submerged continental shelf, with a reasonable expectancy of useful performance for prolonged periods of time.

New Developments in High Pressure Living‘, 1964

With atmospheric testing completed, constructing a suitable habitat was the next step. Bond and his team searched through shipyards and found two old depth charge sweepers. These cylindrical structures were the perfect size. Welders and engineers improvised in joining the shells and produced a long, cigar shaped habitat. They outfitted it with bunk beds, kitchen appliances, a bathroom, and a workspace for recording scientific data. While the setup seemed crude, it was all the divers needed.

SEALAB I. This relatively simple design was the first step in the man-in-the-sea program showing that a person could live on the ocean floor, circa 1964 (Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

In July 1964, SEALAB I and its crew were sent to the coast of Bermuda to test the new habitat. During this preparation, they received an unexpected boost in public profile; Malcolm Scott Carpenter. The decorated Navy commander and Mercury astronaut who recently completed an orbit around Earth, became interested in Bond’s research. His interest in oceanic research was sparked by Jacques Cousteau while attending a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Carpenter looked forward to participating in the first SEALAB expedition, but an motorcycle accident days before sidelined him. On July 20, the habitat was lowered almost two hundred feet into the ocean. The four divers (Robert Thompson, Lester Anderson, Robert A. Barth, and Sanders Manning) spent their days swimming in the surrounding waters, recording data, and documenting the issues with the SEALAB capsule. Problems arose concerning the internal temperature, humidity, and communications, and the divers sometimes improvised repair work on the seafloor. Ominous tropical storms approached Bermuda eleven days into the project, cutting their schedule short. In that time however, Bond and the diving team proved that a person could work and live in an underwater pressurized environment. Bond finally proved his theory of saturation diving.

Shifting the focus from SEALAB to the broader historical context, Bond’s research was crucial in the United States’ competition with the Soviet Union. The Cold War influenced scientific research with the U.S. Armed Forces and researchers embarked on a flurry of defense work to gain advantages. Confrontations were most likely to occur at sea and with modern navies transitioning to nuclear-powered ships and submarines, the race for oceanic dominance progressed. Deep-sea diving was given high priority as the potential for underwater rescue crews increased. Geopolitical factors now played a role in the success of research like Bond’s and SEALAB needed to perform flawlessly.

With the success of SEALAB I, the Navy immediately authorized Bond to begin work on SEALAB II. Bond received an enormous increase to his budget from the Navy (along with the Legion of Merit medal) following the success of SEALAB I. The design and construction of the second habitat comprised a full year and made improvements on the previous schematics.

Commemoration of the SEALAB II facility and crew. Scott Carpenter is standing in middle of front row in a dark suit (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Heating coils and air-conditioning were added to regulate temperature and humidity, refrigeration to store perishable foods, and a larger laboratory. Fully recovered from his accident a year before, Scott Carpenter joined the SEALAB team in La Jolla, California ready to become an aquanaut. The first team of divers moved into the habitat on August 28, 1965 along with Carpenter. Two separate teams worked fifteen days each in the habitat, but Carpenter remained for the entire thirty day duty. This world was totally different from the warm waters of Bermuda. Freezing temperatures and pitch black darkness obscured the diver’s work. Marine life posed dangers too; jellyfish, pufferfish, and others could penetrate wetsuits and leave painful welts. Despite these challenges, the SEALAB II team made headlines for their achievements, including a celebratory phone call from President Lyndon Johnson. In addition to collecting more data on saturation diving and pressurization, SEALAB II tested electrically heated wetsuits and conducted salvage operations off the California coast. The team also welcomed a new addition, but it wasn’t a diver or new equipment; a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy. The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program (MMP) trained animals to assist Navy personnel in rudimentary tasks and in the case of SEALAB, Tuffy was trained to ferry supplies between divers and the habitat. The results were mixed, but well enough to retain Tuffy for the next project. SEALAB II completed its mission on October 10, 1965 and the future looked bright for George Bond and his crew. Underwater exploration and deep-sea diving operations began to assume even greater importance in Cold War context. Humans were going further than had ever though possible.

CDR Carpenter performing inspections inside SEALAB II. His experience with SEALAB sparked a lifelong dedication to oceanography and marine conservation (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

These accomplishments, however, did not cement SEALAB’s permanence and shelter it from outside forces. As the Vietnam War consumed an ever-climbing cost of men and resources, funding for programs like SEALAB were given low priority. Experienced sailors, divers, and engineers were transferred to the South China Sea and left Bond’s program in disarray. It wouldn’t be for another four years before enough funding and materials became available for SEALAB III. Always wanting to improve upon the past, Bond upgraded the SEALAB II habitat in order for divers to conduct salvage operations and fishery studies. From these optimistic goals though, problems constantly set the SEALAB team back. Construction delays caused the majority of problems. New types of seals, gaskets, pressurized containers, and electrical lines were changing specifications on a constant basis. The result was ill-fitting parts causing air leaks in the main cabin which if left unresolved would have resulted in divers asphyxiating. The project exceeded budget and costs, further irritating Bond and his superiors. A date for submersion was finally set for February 15, 1969; five teams of divers would serve twelve day rotations off the coast of San Clemente Island, California. Another sudden change caught the SEALAB team off-guard; the depth of the habitat was increased to an unprecedented 600 feet (18 atmospheres of pressure). Bond became concerned since all previous tests had not occurred at that depth so the likelihood of failure was elevated. The divers were lowered into the water, but their insulated suits were not adequate enough to keep them warm. The crippling cold waters sapped their strength and when they arrived at the habitat, more problems arose. An interior neoprene seal failed causing helium to leak from the chamber. Unable to raise the habitat back to the surface, the diver needed to repair the seal themselves. It was during this repair that SEALAB experience its first human fatality. Berry L. Cannon, an electronics engineer, began convulsing and struggling to breathe. Other divers like Robert Barth tried forcing their breathers into his mouth, but muscle contractions prevented Cannon from opening his mouth. They moved back into the diving bell trying to resuscitate Cannon, but it was too late. His body was transferred to the San Diego Naval Hospital where the final autopsy report indicated the cause of death as carbon dioxide poisoning. An inquiry board was established to evaluate the events leading up to the tragedy. They learned that Cannon’s diving rig was not functioning properly; the carbon dioxide baralyme scrubber was empty meaning that carbon dioxide couldn’t be expelled from the system. This caused a backlog in the breathing mixture, thereby resulting in CO2 poisoning. Hypothermia was viewed as a contributing factor also given the extremely cold water.

The SEALAB III habitat being transported through San Francisco Bay in 1969. After four years of research and development and millions of dollars over budget, the structure was ready for testing. It still came plagued with problems from the beginning (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Berry Cannon’s death foreshadowed the death of SEALAB. As family and fellow teammates mourned this loss, potential culprits were never prosecuted. Officially the U.S. Navy ruled his death as an accident, but outside geopolitical forces arguably prevented them from arresting anyone at fault. A year prior, on January 23 1968, the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces, marking a major incident in the Cold War. John Craven, head of the Navy’s Deep Submergence Systems Project, claimed that any other negative press about the U.S. Navy wouldn’t be tolerated. With Cannon’s death and coupled with the escalating war in Vietnam, the SEALAB program ended and scrapped the SEALAB III habitat.

Bond’s dream of underwater living did not die with SEALAB though. In following years, other governments and the private sector took the lessons gained from Bond’s work and applied it to their own. Saturation diving meant that people could function underwater for extended periods of time and opened novel ways of working in the ocean. Today, the Office of Naval Research and its Undersea Medicine Program relies heavily on Bond’s work with their experiments in testing human endurance in underwater environments. Marine conservation groups rely on saturation diving to document natural and man-made disasters in the ocean and promote oceanic health. When it comes to exploring the ocean, scientists and divers can thank George Bond and the SEALAB team for blazing a trail to the bottom of the sea and opened up new ways of looking at our world.

Aquanauts for SEALAB II. Scott Carpenter is positioned in the front row, second from the left (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

‘Some People Have To Get Killed’: CIA Operations during the Korean War

You’re a Korean refugee on an island in the Pacific Ocean. A shadowy American tells you that you’re going to be trained to infiltrate Communist-controlled Korea. Technicians teach you basic survival skills–albeit through an interpreter since he can’t speak Korean–and assign you to codenamed teams [White Tiger, Yellow Dragon]. A short time later, you’re parachuting in the darkness over enemy territory and if the briefing intelligence holds true, you can expect to lead guerrillas and resistance groups against the Communists. Underlying this operation though is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Falsified intelligence, poor preparation, and administrative failures lead to your capture, interrogation, and likely death. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted numerous paramilitary operations on the Korean peninsula during the Korean War (1950-1953) and the majority ended in failure. Contemporary analysts and modern historians agree that the CIA’s first ‘hot war’ was not its finest hour.

The CIA was only three years old by the outbreak of the Korean War. The National Security Act of 1947 established the agency and the National Security Council, all with the goal of enhancing the United States’ international security. With eyes on the U.S. leading the post-war world, the CIA needed to act. Sources inside North Korea and China were severely limited however. Much of the agency’s personnel and financial resources were centered on Europe, believing that was the more imminent Communist threat. Any high level information from the Far East was procured by South Korean President Syngman Rhee or the Chiang Kai-shek regime and was at best, marginally truthful. Old State Department files provided additional, albeit outdated, information. The lack of intelligence officers and sources in Korea left the U.S. perilously unprepared for the North Korean invasion. Gen. Douglas MacArthur stonewalled the agency from conducting paramilitary operations, but the Director of Central Intelligence, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith (a decorated WWII general who served as Gen. Eisenhower’s chief-of-staff) directed agents to provide tactical intelligence to UN forces. A special group within the Office of Reports and Estimates focused solely on Korea as a way to increase the agency’s analysis. What followed however were a series of intelligence failures that embarrassed the agency.

Hundred of CIA agents and trained guerrillas were parachuted into North Korea, but many were captured within days of landing. Hundreds of operatives were tortured and executed by the Communists (photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, ca. 1951)

The first was the agency’s assessment of Chinese intervention. In an dispatch to President Truman and General MacArthur’s Wake Island conference, the CIA argued that the Chinese would not attack the Korean peninsula. Two sources inside the Tokyo station disagreed however, claiming that hundreds of thousands of enemy troops were poised to cross the Yalu River. These reports were ignored and when the Chinese launched their assaults in November 1950, Bedell Smith was stunned. Having misread the enemy, the CIA needed to re-prioritize its operations and intelligence analysis. Deputy Director of Plans, Allen Dulles (future Director of Central Intelligence) and Smith quarreled over the effectiveness of covert missions. In declassified documents from 2002, Smith received vague and circular answers from his deputies on the status of overseas operations. This opaqueness resulted in unending frustration that plagued the CIA’s role in the Korean War. Most paramilitary operations were described as, “not only ineffective but probably morally reprehensible in the number of lives lost.” Peter Sichel, the Hong Kong station chief described these efforts as “… suicidal and irresponsible. They were sent to supply nonexistent or fictitious resistance groups.” As events on the battlefield transpired, the agency explored options in gathering solid intelligence and inserting moles into the Communist bloc.

Frank Wisner, chief of covert operations, was a giant in the early days of the CIA. Having conducted numerous operations in Europe, he embarked on a similar approach to Korea. Pitching millions of dollars to creating an agent training center in Saipan, many of the same lessons taught by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII were applied in Korea. A problem however was the lack of geographical, historical, and economic information available to the deployed officers. The Eurocentric focus left many ill-suited on Far Eastern scenarios. Tim Weiner, a CIA historian, writes that this deficiency had bloody consequences for the agency:

These men [CIA agents] were thrown into battle with little preparation or training. One among them was Donald Gregg, fresh out of Williams College. His first thought when the war broke out was ‘where the hell is Korea?’…. Gregg took tough Korean farm boys plucked from refugee camps, brave but undisciplined men who spoke no English, and tried to turn them into instant American intelligence agents. The CIA sent them on crudely conceived missions that produced little save a lengthening roster of lost lives.

Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, p. 55

The world of covert intelligence gathering and operations requires a high level of scrutiny to determine the accuracy of information. Checking the validity of sources and having reliable contacts are pillars in making judgements for operations. In Korea though, fabricated reports and outright lies were commonplace. Enterprising men who approached agency officers with ‘insider information’ were later revealed to have been con men trying to insert themselves into the Rhee regime or CIA payroll.

DCI Smith (left) and President Truman (right) discussing over a large globe. DCI Smith was seen as an innovator who modernized the CIA, but operational and intelligence failures in Korea plagued him constantly during his tenure (Image courtesy of the CIA, circa 1950-1953)

One notable example involving the fabricated intelligence deception occurred with the activities of three brigades under OSS veteran Hans Tofte. Between April 1951 and September 1952, thousands of Korean exiles were dropped into North Korea with missions to serve as intelligence gathering teams, carry out guerrilla warfare tactics, and rescue captured American pilots. Hundreds of these exiles were captured and executed, but those who survived were sending back a flood of radio traffic detailing Communist operations. To the Seoul CIA station chief, Albert Haney, these operative were making progress by leaps and bounds. Providing valuable intelligence that could change the course of the war. Many of these reports became too fantastic to believe and Haney’s successor, John Hart, thoroughly reviewed these reports. It was odd that despite having two hundred officers in Seoul, no one spoke Korean. What Hart discovered was that nearly all Korean operatives were actually feeding manufactured intelligence supplied by the North Koreans and Chinese. Another large portion were outright lies by operatives themselves. This intelligence had already been passed up the chain of command and used as a foundation for covert and military operations, but it was faulty from the start. The damage was done and irreparable. But how to emerge from this debacle without publicly tarnishing the CIA?

Deputy Director of Intelligence, Loftus Becker, was sent to assess the Seoul station’s ability to conduct uncompromising intelligence gathering, but quickly concluded that enemy penetration was too easy. No reliable reports could be generated and it was evident that the CIA would have to start over in the Far East. No one was able to infiltrate the North Korean regime and the agency was being deceived at every turn. In a meeting with senior agency leaders, Frank Wisner stated:

We are all aware that our operations in the Far East are far from what we would like… We simply have not had the time to develop the quantity and kind of people we must have it we are to successfully carry out the heavy burdens which have been placed on us.”

Legacy of Ashes, p. 58

What directed many of the CIA’s policies was its emphasis on Europe. Asia was normally considered a secondary theater that did not pose a significant danger. Allen Dulles reinforced this ideology following his promotion to DCI and subsequent intelligence failures in China and Indochina. The legacy of the Korean War for the CIA was one of recurring disappointment. The best that could be said was that Bedell Smith’s restructuring of agency offices and command chain is still used today, but nothing can salvage the cost of human lives that were lost trying to combat the Communists in Korea.

The First Landing: The Navy / Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal

Picture this: gigantic waves crash against a ship’s hull causing it to pitch back and forth. Far off in the distance is an enormous, sandy beach. Lowered into the water are smaller transports and rope ladders stretching down from the deck. Dozens of men clamor their way down and the transport ferries them to shore. It pulls into shallow water at low tide, the causeways open, and soldiers quickly file out. They’re prepared for anything the moment they hit the beaches. They’re the vanguard of an expeditionary force for the U.S. Marine Corps brought there by the U.S. Navy.

(L) Navy Expeditionary Medal, (R) Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal

Continuing with the ongoing series of U.S. Armed Forces awards and decorations, the Navy and Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal (NEM, MCEM) are two of the oldest actively awarded medals. They also hold the distinction of being the only two whose retroactive criteria extends back into the 19th century. Established by an Act of Congress in 1919 (MCEM) and 1936 (NEM), both can be awarded to any Marine or Navy personnel who participated in an expeditionary operation on foreign soil dating back to 1874. Qualifications for the NEM and MCEM include the following:

  • Participated in a landing on foreign territory
  • Engaged in operations against a hostile enemy force
  • Operated under circumstances that warrant special or meritorious recognition

In a prior post on Navy and Marine Corps medals, the two branches share the same awards. The NEM and MCEM are exceptions though. Only veterans in either branch are eligible to receive that respective award, i.e. only Navy veterans can receive the NEM. Additionally, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (AFEM) can be awarded to Navy and Marine Corp personnel in lieu of the NEM or MCEM, provided they meet specific criteria. The AFEM has been authorized for over forty military campaigns since 1958 and a minority include operations that doubly qualify for a NEM or MCEM. More recent operations such as Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Inherent Resolve are campaigns qualifying only the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (GWOTEM). Unfortunately, with each foreign nation where U.S. operations are ongoing having their own campaign medal and newer awards like the GWOTEM, issuance of the NEM and MCEM have declined.

The veteran’s Official Military Personnel Folder (OMPF) typically lists the name of the operation that qualified them for the award. In some cases however where the nature of said operation is classified, that information is omitted and what remains is only the order authorizing the award. This is especially important for Navy review boards overseeing changes to OMPFs or providing duplicate copies of awards and decorations.

For a complete list of authorized Navy and Marine Corps expeditions that can receive the NEM and MCEM, visit the Naval History and Heritage Command webpage: Navy/MC Service and Campaign Awards.

Eternal Remembrance: National Cemeteries for the U.S. Armed Forces

A calm breeze carries through wide, green, rolling hills. Blades of grass slightly bend as the fallen leaves rustle about on the ground. A handful swirl about, settling against a granite headstone and obscuring the epitaph. The words read: ‘Unknown – U.S. Soldier’ stamped in the shield relief. Stepping back from the marker, what comes into view is an entire field of unknown soldiers. They are not alone however. They are in the company of others who served honorably in the armed forces.

Unknown Soldier – this epitaph is used to denote service members who could not be properly identified after their death. The most notable use of the title is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

The United States has an elaborate burial system for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery System, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and various cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service all comprise the different methods for interring deceased service members. During the American Civil War as private cemeteries were unable to accommodate the increasing number of Union dead, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who lost his son Lt. John Meigs, was pivotal in choosing locations. What resulted was arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, was occupied by the Union within weeks of the war’s opening. Generals used the mansion as a headquarters for three years and in June 1864, Meigs ordered the burial of soldiers in the Arlington grounds. Meigs heavily resented Lee joining the Confederacy and historians argue there were political motivations for establishing a cemetery on his property. Union soldiers were buried and monuments were erected in later years, rendering the mansion unlivable. The government originally purchased the land in an estate sale due to delinquent property taxes, but the Lee family argued that the tax sale was improper. In the 1882 Supreme Court case, United States vs. Lee, the court ruled in favor of the Lees and returned the grounds. The victory was short-lived however since the family never occupied the house again and sold the property back to the government for a large sum. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is maintained solely by the U.S. Army, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Cemetery.

Veterans and their spouses are entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. Depending on the current regulations, spouses can choose to have a separate headstone or have their epitaph etched on the rear of the veteran’s marker.

Following both world wars, the VA worked diligently to implement an administrative system that oversaw the maintenance of military cemeteries. In 1973, administration of military cemeteries passed from the Department of Defense to the VA and they established the National Cemetery System. The NCS comprises of 147 military cemeteries, with 131 under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Administration. Another 14 of these are controlled by the National Park Service (the majority of which are battlefields). While the most famous is Arlington; Jefferson Barracks, Fayetteville, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific all protect the remains of our deceased veterans. Veterans can interred at any active location (active defined as functioning and eligible for burials meeting environmental standards). Sites under the jurisdiction of the NPS are typically connected to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian War battlefields and are preserved for historical purposes. These include ones like Gettysburg, Andersonville, Little Bighorn, and Yorktown. Modern veterans are not buried at these sites dues to environmental damage that affected any historical preservation efforts.

The above marker is the current style for military interments. Older headstones that have fallen into disrepair or destroyed by vandalism are replaced with this design.

U.S. service members are buried not only in the continental U.S., but overseas as well. The American Battle Monuments Commission administers and operates military cemeteries in countries like France, Belgium, Philippines, Italy, Luxembourg, and Panama. This independent government agency is responsible for maintaining overseas cemeteries and their activities such as wreath, remembrance, and memorial ceremonies. A handful were established as temporary cemeteries during wartime (i.e. Normandy), but many were converted into permanent locations through partnerships with the host country. The AMBC administers these sites, but the physical territory remains under the jurisdiction of the host country.

A military marker is simplistic and straightforward in design and function. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms the name, date of birth, date of death, final rank at discharge, service branch, wartime service period, and personal awards. A religious designation symbol is placed at the top (if space allows, a personal description is allowed at the family’s request)

So how does a veteran become eligible for burial in a military cemetery? The basic criteria stipulates that a veteran must not have received a bad character of service discharge and provide the required paperwork (DD Form 214, Notice of Separation). A veteran who is killed while on active duty, especially in combat, are guaranteed a burial. National Guard and Reserve members must meet time-specific requirements or been mobilized at any point. What disqualifies a veteran from a military burial would be any of the following:

  1. Other than honorable discharge and lower; i.e. bad conduct or dishonorable.
  2. Convicted of capital crimes (murder, rape, child pornography, terrorism, etc.)
  3. Convicted of sex crimes
  4. Engaged in subversive activities against the United States
  5. Enlisted but never served (referred to as an Uncharacterized Entry Level Separation)

For more information on military burials, visit the VA Burials and Memorials Page.

These cemeteries are solemn, sacred places. Their symbolic value lies in with the soldiers who died serving the nation and are remembered for their deeds. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

These cemeteries and the memorials built to honor the past and living memory of the deceased and the conflicts are in many ways immortal. People can come and go, but the names are etched, stamped, and emblazoned for eternity in hallowed grounds around the world.