Unbreakable Navajo Marines: WWII Code-Talkers

Do you ever have those moments where you suddenly realize what you have? You’re holding something in your hand or are looking out the window when a House-like epiphany reveals itself and you run to tell someone about the discovery. That exuberant rush of excitement at the realization you’ve got something that others would certainly be impressed with. In the history field, that moment occurs more than one would think especially since it’s in our nature as historians to find what’s been overlooked or connect the missing dots. Suddenly we find it right there; history in our hands. That’s what happened to me again recently (See Entombed But Never Truly Gone)

While responding to the normal queue of requests, a peculiar name appeared on a WWII-era Marine Corps record; ‘Adolph Nagurski’. Interesting name, yeah? German-Japanese? Sino-Polish? Being born in Arizona at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the possibilities are endless. I begin my standard operating procedure of assessing the record, extracting information, and all the rest. That is until I noticed something on the discharge paperwork. The primary occupation specialty was ‘code-talker’. That only meant one thing to me (and to all other WWII history buffs): a Navajo code-talker. Confirmation was swiftly needed to satiate my intellectual curiosity. The service record book was intact and after reviewing the enlistment contract, training courses, overseas deployment, battles, campaign participation, and that crowning moment: ‘Special Skills: Navajo language’. Right there in my hand was the service record of a U.S. Marine Navajo code-talker.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Peter Nahaidinae Joseph P Gatewood and Corporal Lloyd Oliver, June 1, 1943 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Now there are two versions of the Navajo code-talkers story. You could watch the 2002 film ‘Windtalkers’ and receive a heavily fictionalized accounting where the Navajo Marines are sidelined as secondary characters beneath the shadow of superstar Nicolas Cage. The second version is how Philip Johnston, a civil engineer who once lived on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, pitched the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps that the Navajo language could be used to encrypt and transmit valuable intelligence throughout the Pacific Theater. Precedence existence for such a project; during WWI, the U.S. enlisted the aid of several Choctaw recruits who spoke their native language to relay radio messages on the Western Front in France (See Little Gun Shoot Fast). The complexity of Navajo grammar combined with its non-written feature made it ideal for transmitting encoded messages. The only drawback however was because of cultural suppression and Anglicization that there were relatively few native speakers of the Navajo language remaining.

First 29 Navajo US Marine Corps CodeTalker Recruits being Sworn in at Fort Wingate NM (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

By the spring of 1942 as the United States mobilized for war in the Pacific Theater, Marine Corps General Clayton Vogel recommended that Navajo Indians attend signals combat training. The military made a concerted effort to divert as many Native Americans with special language skills into these courses. The first batch of twenty-nine recruits arrived at Camp Pendleton in May 1942. This group paved the way for future code talkers as they developed the system for encoding messages. For weeks they learned how to operate radio equipment, memorize coded messages, survey terrain for enemy positions, and learn how to transmit and receive messages under fire. Each recruit was tested on how many messages they could translate during a firefight. If a recruit could successfully decode a three line message in under twenty seconds, they were ready for the front.

Navajo Indian Code Talkers Henry Bake and George Kirk, January 21, 1943 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

As any cryptologist will tell you, having a key to unlock encoded messages is the vital component of any secure communication. The uniqueness of the Navajo language (or any Native American language) was its oral tradition. Nothing in Native American languages are written. There also exists a vast array of dialects and accents within each language tree, creating overlapping layers of complexity. The code talkers utilized the spelling alphabet system designating certain words with letters and improvising when they didn’t exist in the Navajo language. Words like ‘airplane’ ‘torpedo’ and ‘submarine’ had no Navajo counterpart and so the code talkers improvised. A ‘shark’ was a destroyer vessel, ‘silver oak’ was a lieutenant colonel, ‘buzzard’ was a bomber plane, and ‘iron fish’ was a submarine. These are just some examples of the Navajo code that the talkers had to memorize. Codebooks were written to train each group of recruits, but the books wouldn’t be taken into the theater. Enemy codebreakers could potentially decipher the code, but fortunately for the code talkers, small nuances and changes in the dialect and tonal inflection could result in a entirely different translated message. Nearly four hundred Navajo Marines served as code talkers throughout the Pacific. Despite being an indispensable part of American forces, they faced racial prejudices from their fellow Marines. A handful of recorded instances depict them being mistaken for enemy Japanese soldiers; by 1943, code talkers were assigned personal bodyguards. After they reported to their units, code talkers were assigned in pairs. During battle, one operated the radio while the second relayed and received messages in Navajo and then translate them. Many code talkers also performed duties as runners. Their work was especially dangerous in the Pacific as Japanese soldiers deliberately targeted officers, medics, radiomen, and code talkers. Their survival rate was considerably lower when compared to a Marine Corps rifleman, machine gunner, or mortarman.

PFC Carl Gorman of Chinle Arizona an Indian Marine who Manned an Observation Post on a Hill Overlooking the City of Garapan while the Marines were Consolidating their Positions on the Island of Saipan, Marianas, June 27, 1944 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

The Navajo code talkers were highly commended for their meritorious service, communications skills, and bravery under fire. They served with distinction in Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor of the 5th Marine Division credits the Navajo code talkers for being the reason behind the successful invasion of the island. Had they not been able to transmit and receive nearly 1,000 messages from the landings, the outcome could have been far more deadly.

Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would have never taken Iwo Jima.”

Major Howard Connor

As with any military practice involving a degree of secrecy, the Navajo code talkers were prevented from sharing details about their military service from their families or the public. The code talker program was classified from its beginning and remained so until 1968. Its declassification came at the height of the Vietnam War and with anti-war sentiment and public protests demanding more civil rights for Native American tribes, recognition for the code talkers was unfortunately sidelined. Many code talker veterans kept silent about their service. By the 1980s, stories about the code talkers began entering mainstream media as books and documentary interviews with surviving code talkers started to tell their stories. In 2001, the 106th Congress passed H.R. 4527 ‘Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act’ which bestowed its highest honor on each of the surviving twenty-nine first recruits; the Congressional Gold Medal. On July 26, 2001, President George W. Bush presented medals to the survivors, honoring them for their achievements and contributions to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific.

PFC Samuel Sandoval of Full Blooded Navajo Indian Extraction Relaxes under the Tori Gate in a Former Jap Park and Surveys the Scenic Beauties of Okinawa Shima, April 14, 1945 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration,)
President George W Bush Presents Medals to 21 Navajo Code Talkers at the US Capitol (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

So where does Adolph Nagurski fit into this story? As previously mentioned, the first twenty-nine code talkers weren’t the only ones in the entire war. As more Navajos entered the Marine Corps, their language skills were tested to see if they could perform as a code talker. Adolph Nagurski qualified following his induction in December 1943 in Flagstaff Arizona. He completed basic training in the following spring and in May 1944, he attended the Field Signal School at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. The class lasted four weeks where he and fourteen others learned every skill needed for a radio operator and memorizing the Navajo code. In December 1944, Nagurski left California for Guam, then Saipan, and Guadalcanal. On April 1, 1945, he took part in the landings on Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division. He fought on Okinawa for the full duration of the battle; over two months of some of the worst fighting in the entire Pacific war. Thousands of Marines, Army, and enemy troops were killed every week while many more Okinawan civilians were caught in crossfires. When the Japanese finally surrendered in September 1945, Nagurski sailed for China where he witnessed Japanese forces formally surrender at Tsingtao that following October. There he fulfilled occupation duties with the 6th Marine Division for six months until he finally returned to the U.S. in May 1946. He passed away in 2013, but he never received the full honors for his code talker service. A stipulation in the legislation granting the Congressional Gold Medal to the first group of code talkers was that the Congressional Silver Medal was granted to every Navajo code talker who served after the initial recruits. Nagurski was unable to participate in a subsequent ceremony for the silver medal recipients and passed away in 2011 before ever receiving it. The situation came to the attention of Senator Martin Henrich in 2018 when the Nagurski family petitioned to have this oversight resolved. In April 2018, Pvt. Adolph Nagurski was posthumously honored with the Congressional Silver Medal accepted on behalf of his surviving son, Benjamin. In the award speech by Senator Martin, he describes the harsh conditions and battlefield horrors endured by Nagurski and the other code talkers. With their indispensable role as transmitters of important messages and intelligence, the Navajo code talkers made their mark in history. The Navajo code remains unbroken and its secrecy lives now in the memories of those who ran the Pacific gauntlet into victory.

USMC Corporal Adolph Nagurski, Code Talker
(USMC awards for Adolph Nagurski, from left to right, top to bottom: Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, China Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/ bronze service star, World War II Victory Medal)

Opinion: What I Learned in 8th Grade Social Studies

Social studies was not eagerly looked forward to amongst my classmates at Cherokee Middle School. Not because the teacher was boring or the right clique of students were assembled in the same place. The reason was because they found history to not be a stimulating topic of discussion. Every week our teacher (whose name escapes me now, making me feel terrible) would host a ‘whiteboard quiz’; we grouped together with a handheld whiteboard and dry-erase markers. From there it was test of speed to who could correctly answer with the fastest response. I wasn’t socially adept in 8th grade, but strangely, everyone wanted to be in my group at whiteboard quiz time. Although I was the only student who ever wrote down answers because not surprisingly, I actually read the textbook and remembered the material. While walking the hallways, I picked up some chatter by the lockers and heard students say that they don’t understand why they should learn history, or that it’s boring, or how does it help them get into better schools. Fast forward nearly seventeen years and those same frustrations still exists, only now they’re being used to guide decisions larger than responses on a whiteboard quiz.

I’ve talked about the importance of studying history on here before, but it extends beyond the notion of learning about the past to make better decisions on future policy. Every time I check Twitter, hundreds of tweets from accounts with questionable or cringeworthy statements are flying around.

  • THE SOUTH WAS FIGHTING FOR STATES RIGHTS
  • YOU’RE CLEARLY JUST A STUDENT SO YOU DON’T KNOW THE REAL HISTORY
  • YOU’RE VERSION OF HISTORY IS WOKE, READ FROM BOTH SIDES
  • HOLOCAUSTS AGAINST JEWS DIDN’T HAPPEN IN THE 12TH CENTURY. THE CHURCH HAD COMPLETE CONTROL.
  • Y’all realize the Black Death spread all over Europe because the rich people wanted their imported goods. Trade must go on! (Saw this gem just now)

(Side note: don’t respond with all caps, that just makes you look like a jerk)

I don’t know where to begin when I see these statements. How can someone ignore the role of slavery in the American Civil War? How does someone gloss over the Holocaust as a footnote? To briefly play devil’s advocate, there really is just a lot of content to read and internalize, especially if the subject occurs in the more modern time period. This can be daunting for many people who encounter the amount of reference material and are turned off at the prospect of spending a great deal of time getting through the content. I had those feelings myself. My history teacher from my freshman year of high school assigned a 400-page essay on the origins of the American Revolution and I thought ‘how the hell am I supposed to read and write a commentary about this in two weeks??’ I think historians, archivists, history communicators, curators, and teachers need to be patient people by nature because it’s crucial to invest time to really read and analyze sources. Some simply don’t have that patience. They would rather spend time doing something else. This is especially true with society today as we place a different value on our times and schedules are crammed full of appointments, meetings, activities, and more. This leaves them open to something worse; historical narratives warped to fit their worldview. History is interpretative by nature; it’s the basis for debates, dissertations, research papers, articles, and books. What shocks me today is how easy people can be swayed by fallacious historical arguments and flawed narratives.

I learned something valuable in the 8th grade; we mustn’t take for granted that what we hear is always a factual truth. We need to have the critical thinking skills to determine what makes a sound argument. Yes, history is an important academic subject, but how we gain an understanding of the source material is just as crucial. I could have easily told my classmates completely false answers on the whiteboard quizzes and they would have written them without a second thought. They always saw me with the history textbook and raising my hand in class so the natural assumption was that my answers were always correct. The same happens today with historical information on social media. People post what they think is their version of history and people take it at face value. This is dangerous. What can we do but be horrified at whatever people post online as grossly inaccurate, even harmful seditious content, but masked as historical information? This masquerade causes severe harm and division.

I have one simple request for the public: please check the sources for yourself. Don’t take whatever is told to you at face value. You can quickly become the unwilling participant in a misinformation mass-production machine. If I believed everything that people told me about the American Civil War, I would have shifted from learning in school that it had roots in the institution of slavery to believing far right figures that immaculate, white, God-fearing angels of salvation like Robert E. Lee were fighting for his nation’s independence. Civil War Twitter is a harsh landscape for anyone who attempts to validate their post-truth arguments about the Confederacy. There are historians just waiting to tear them down like a statue (yeah, I went there).

I don’t profess to be a perfect expert on every historical subject. In fact, I don’t think anyone is because that would require having perfect recall and an almost infinite memory. The network of historians and historical educators is immense and therefore we rely on one another for trustworthy information. I do know that whenever it comes to having a sound historical debate, it needs to be done in an informed way; not with a Twitter-bot who’s sole target is degrading historical narratives. Even at this very moment (8:39 PM CST) I check my Twitter feed and misinformation arguments about the Black Death are flying around. I’m not sure how social media picks its targets to argue, but it’s not surprising at how frustrated historians, librarians, teachers, archivists, and history communicators are these days. No wonder so many of us drink after we log out of Twitter for the evening.

Westward They Go to God: The Handcart Pioneers

If you’ve ever had computer classes while attending elementary schools in the mid-1990s, then you’ve more than likely played the original survival game, The Oregon Trail, on your Apple II computer. You start in Independence, Missouri with your team of oxen, wagon supplies, ammunition, and pray that at least one member of the company makes it to the Willamette Valley. The dangers faced in the game were no less real than in true life; venomous snakes, disease, harsh weather, accidents, and drowning were all endured by those who braved the Oregon Trail. Simultaneously, another group of pioneers moving west encountered the same struggles, but they were more motivated by a religious calling to build a new Zion in the American West. The same group also traveled overland by handcarts rather than the larger, more expensive Conestoga wagon. They were the Mormon Pioneers and they prevailed through hardships more unforgiving than anyone could imagine.

Church pioneers making their way west. The Willie and Martin handcart companies were two of ten companies that would eventually make it to Salt Lake City via handcart (Image courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)

In 1847, Brigham Young and a vanguard company of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley and decreed that a new home for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was to be built in the valley. Discussions amongst the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and local church leaders declared that Saints should make their way to the Salt Lake Valley by whatever means necessary. Between 1848 and 1890, large companies of pioneers were established and made their way across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. Before railroads ventured into the Utah territory, the Church made a distinctive choice with their method of travel; handcarts. Only ten percent of pioneers made the long trek by handcarts, they have become an iconic symbol of the pioneer resilience, determination, and sheer strength in their journey to the newly established Zion.

The year 1856 saw the trek of arguably the two most famous handcart companies in church history, the Willie and Martin companies. Three prior companies departed Iowa City in June 1856 (Ellsworth, McArthur, and Bunker), but due to the long trans-Atlantic communication lines, word did not reach Iowa City that the Willie and Martin companies were still planning to travel that summer. They had not even left England yet. By the time they arrived in Iowa City, church members frantically assembled handcarts from whatever leftover materials were available and gathered as many provisions as possible. Many urged that the two companies settle down in Winter Quarters, Nebraska that winter because they were ill-equipped and too far behind schedule to safely make it through the mountains. Church members were limited by the amount of weight they could carry on each cart; food, blankets, and protective gear were all they could carry. Despite the shortcomings, the two companies agreed to strike out for the Salt Lake Valley in July 1856, one month later than planned. What ensued were harsh trials challenging their fortitude, faith, and future in the West.

The Handcart (Mormon) Trail from Iowa City to Salt Lake City (Image courtesy of the National Park Service)

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an important commandment is keeping a faithful record of the church and its people. Since the early days of Joseph Smith’s ministering work, he wrote about received revelations, religious experience, doctrine, contemporary events, and correspondence with a large number of people. Keeping a journal is a common practice in the church and during the course of the westward migration, the pioneers also kept a record. These journal entries recount everyday activities, births, deaths, landmarks, and other events that occurred in the handcart companies. They provide a glimpse into what the pioneers felt about their excursion and how they overcame their obstacles with the help of other company members and their religious conviction. Of course, what one can expect when reading these entries as the company enters the mountains and the bitter cold winter, the optimism declines and the desperation shows.

The companies made their way across the long stretches of Nebraska, battling the harsh summer heat and attacks by wildlife. People rejoiced at the sights of significant trail landmarks used by other pioneers such as Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Fort Laramie. William Southwell of the Martin Company writes this account when they arrived in sight of Chimney Rock:

“…This was an ideal place. Plenty of grass, plenty of wood, and all the requisites of a good camp. We were now on the side where the formed Chimney Rock stands. It was a great sight. A sight that once seen is never forgotten. It stands on the Laramie Plains and is visible one hundred miles.”

John William Southwell, Martin Company, 1856

However, the prejudices faced by the Saints back east followed them west. Other pioneers harassed them for food, livestock, weapons, and military outposts meant to have stockpiles of supplies were either sold out or refused to sell the the impoverished companies of Saints. The first wave of snowstorms hit the Saints when they ventured into Wyoming crossing the Platte River for the final time:

“…We have scarcely crossed the river when we were visited with a tremendous storm of snow, hail, sand, and fierce winds. It was a terrible storms from which both the people and teams suffered. After crossing the river, my husband was put on a handcart and hauled into camp; and indeed after that time he was unable to walk, and consequently provision had to be made for him to ride in a wagon…From this time my worst experience commenced.”

Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson, Martin Company, October 19, 1856

Church historians will tell you that the lowest point in the Saints westward migration was when they came to Martin’s Cove in the winter of 1856. By this stage many members of the company were starving and racked with illness. Their daily rations were reduced to only a handful of flour and many substituted by chewing on leather or tree bark. Winter had come with a vengeance in the mountains and claimed many lives of the Saints. John Kirkman of the Martin Company aptly summarizes the Martin’s Cove experience:

“Death had taken a heavy tool; the ravine was like an overcrowded tomb; no mortal pen could described the suffering.”

John Kirkman, Martin Company, 1856
Members of the Martin Handcart Company burying the dead. The ground was frozen so hard that they could only be buried a couple feet down, enough to keep wild animals from digging up the graves (Image courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)

Despite the hardships, the companies were not completely without hope. Church President Brigham Young dispatched a network of scouts carrying supplies to reach pioneers within a few days reach of Salt Lake City. Wagon trains filled with rations, blankets, and other items were sent out for the struggling companies and they were godsends for sure. Not only did they bring material relief, but they shepherded spiritual relief also and a sign that their journey was coming to an end.

“As we were resting for a short time at noon, a light wagon was driven into our camp from the west. Its occupants were Joseph A. Young and Stephen Taylor. They informed us that a train of supplies was on the way, and we might expect to meet it in a day or two. More welcome messengers never came from the courts of glory than these two young men were to us. They lost no time after encouraging us all they could to press forward, but sped on further east to convey their glad news to Edward Martin and the fifth handcart company who left Florence about two weeks after us, and who it was feared were even worse off than we were. As they went from our view, many a hearty ‘God bless you’ followed them.”

John Chislett, Willie Company, 1856

I reached the ill-fated train just as the immigrants were camping for the night. The sight that met my gaze as I entered their camp can ever be erased from my memory. The starved forms and haggard countenances of the poor sufferers, as they moved about slowly, shivering with cold, to prepare their scanty evening meal, was enough to touch the stoutest heart…When I saw the terrible condition of the immigrants on first entering their camp, my heart almost melted within me. I rose up in my saddle and tried to speak cheering and comforting words to them. I told them also that they should all have the privilege to ride into Salt Lake City, as more teams were coming.

Ephraim K. Hanks, Rescuer, 1856

On November 30, 1856, the last of the Willie and Martin handcart companies made it into Salt Lake City. Over two hundred people died en-route to the valley and many more arrived half-starved with nothing more than their handcarts and the clothes they were wearing. They were warmly welcomed by the Saints and had their stories recorded for posterity for the church. Five more companies would traverse the plains by 1860 before the outbreak of the Civil War when guerrilla warfare ravaged the West. With the completion of the first Trans-continental railroad in 1869, the era of wagons and handcarts ended. Historians and church leaders still debate on the fundamental planning and policies of the handcart companies; whether or not they were truly prepared and if more deaths could have been avoided. What remains strong though is the resilient spirit and fortitude of the pioneers who pushed their way to a new homeland beyond the mountains and made a new Zion on Earth. American West historian Wallace Stegner memorializes their convictions by stating:

“Perhaps their suffering seems less dramatic because the handcart pioneers bore it meekly, praising God, instead of fighting for life with the ferocity of animals and eating their dead to keep their own life beating, as both the Fremont and Donner parties did. … But if courage and endurance make a story, if humankindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America.”

Contact and Brawls: The Combat Action Ribbon

When the general public looks at a veteran, how can they tell that they’ve served in combat, short of asking them directly? The U.S. Army has the Combat Infantry and Combat Action Badge, the U.S. Air Force has the Combat Action Medal, but the focus of this article is on the award given to members of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps: the Combat Action Ribbon. Every marine and sailor knows the significance of having that ribbon on their rack. This coveted ribbon is awarded on the most stringent criteria and simultaneously is one of the most retroactively issued awards in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Navy and Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon

The Combat Action Ribbon (CAR) was established on February 17, 1969 by the Secretary of the Navy. The criteria set by the Department of the Navy requires bona fide evidence that the member was engaged in direct combat with an enemy. Not only does a person need to be in combat, but they must have acted satisfactorily, i.e. not surrender or disobey orders from commanding officers. The CAR is awarded normally to ground troops or sailors stationed on board ships, but not aircrews. The Navy and Marine Corps provides Strike and Flight Numbers on the Air Medal to denote combat operations, but some can still receive the CAR at the discretion of the Secretary of the Navy. [See Aerial Heroism article for more information about the Air Medal]

For an award like this, it was to be expected that many Navy and Marine Corps veterans would want to verify their eligibility. Initially the award was made retroactive to 1961 to accommodate those serving in Southeast Asia and other special operations around the globe. In October 1999, Public Law 105-65 shifted the retroactive date to 7 December 1941. This allowed for World War II and Korean War veteran to apply for and wear the CAR. But how does the Navy and Marine Corps determine entitlement during those conflicts. Fortunately for the veteran and the NPRC reference technician who researches the service record, massive ledgers and rubrics contain the movements and engagements of every ship and ground unit since World War II. Those are broken down further to specific locations and cross-referenced with a veteran’s service record. If they were attached to a unit or ship that saw combat in their time frame, they are eligible for the CAR. Since over four million sailors and Marines served in World War II and Korea, applications for the CAR are some of the most common requests among Navy and Marine Corps awards.

Where is the Coast Guard in all of this? Historically the Coast Guard followed the same pattern as the Navy, especially when it pertains to awards. Coast Guard members attached to units that saw combat were eligible to receive the CAR. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Department of Homeland Security created the Coast Guard CAR. The majority of CGCARs were issued during the Vietnam War when servicemembers served in the ‘brown water navy’ patrolling the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam.

The Coast Guard Combat Action Ribbon

As per an agreement between the NPRC and the service branches, the Department of the Navy verifies the service record information provided by the NPRC and determines whether or not an individual receives the CAR. If all the specific criteria are met, they receive it. However, as with many other awards, there can be some grey areas. Simply being in a theater of operations doesn’t ensure entitlement. Many Navy veterans from World War II who served in the Pacific qualify only if they participated in certain operations, such as the Battle of Leyte Gulf or the long island hopping campaign to the Japanese home islands. Details matter when it comes to the CAR. Veterans of combat deserve to be recognized for their actions and the CAR does just that.

Marine Corporal Eugene Sledge participated in some of the deadliest combat in the Pacific Theater of WWII, including Peleliu and Okinawa. The ribbons shown in above picture are before the creation of the CAR.
Marine Corporal Eugene Sledge’s ribbons with all retroactive awards showing, including the CAR first in the order of precedence.

Opinion Piece: Why Study History?

Rather than write about a specific historical topic today in my succession of articles (I have the time now since I’m taking time off from work this week vacationing in Colorado and Idaho), I thought I’d write about why I believe studying history is a critical part of education and daily life. There are many historians out there who will tell you the importance of a well-rounded historical education–better engagement with other cultures, understanding government policy, socio-economic reasons, etc. The tired trope of ‘history repeats itself’ carries an element of truth, but it takes a careful eye to discern the subtleties when similar historical patterns make the rounds.

I often think of Hari Seldon, the central protagonist in Isaac Asimov’s cornerstone science-fiction book series ‘Foundation‘. As he debates the merits of his psycho-history theory, whereby one can determine a future event based on the difference between stated intention and actual behavior, his listeners filter through the complex mathematics and only hear the word ‘prediction’. Seldon rejects that his theory is proof that a person can predict the future, claiming that one can only determine large scale social changes and not individual action. Despite his reservations, Seldon is given resources from the Galactic Empire to refine the mathematics and develop a working formula for developing multiple probabilities. Fast-forwarding through the narrative though, predictions about the fall of the empire are fulfilled and the following chaos are manipulated by the Seldon’s successors in the Foundation society. His prophetic ability bestows him the moniker of ‘Raven’ Seldon.

Now why did I give that example? Because just as Seldon’s psycho-history is premised on the fact that we cannot predict individual human behavior, we can develop firm understandings of societal behavior and the trajectory of certain actions. The academic study of history incorporates elements of anthropology, sociology, and psychology because history analyzes human behavior, interaction, and customs on multiple levels of organization. We don’t only study the American Civil War by regurgitating battlefield statistics and tracking the movement of armies. We also look at the economic factors of the Union and Confederacy, the political machinations of certain parties, racial issues concerning slavery and emancipation, the emotional challenges faced by families on the home front, and other innumerable things. History compiles everything together, but it also takes time to uncover the primary sources and conduct our own research. Go to any history conference and you’ll see firsthand how specific a presenter makes their topic. They uncover new evidence challenging a traditional argument, or venture into new territory that can open up a new niche market of historical research. The duty for historians is not only to recount past events, but make them relatable today. This can be difficult for many because the historical education they receive in school routinely teaches only essential, memorizable segments. Wider comprehension on more complex and interconnected historical narratives are more prevalent in higher and post-graduate education, but most mainstream historical education ceases after the 12th grade. After which, most historical learning is self-taught or consumed through mainstream or entertainment media. The latter of which, as we know, is consistently inaccurate.

History teachers go to great lengths to educate their students, but not every student receives the same level of instruction. I was fortunate enough to have a well-rounded set of teachers who gave me multiple interpretations of a historical event and encourage my critical thinking. One teacher, Mrs. Dickey, instructed us on Central and South American history; a subject that I might not have had any exposure to in high school had it not been for her own curriculum and not followed only what the state of Missouri allowed. I came away with not only stronger knowledge of Central and South America, but a heightened awareness that what we take away from history should be made to improve lives, not glorify the problems that still exist. If there’s a problem, should you do something to fix it?

I study history to improve my life and the lives of others. Everyday I work with veterans and when they have issues of not getting the financial or medical benefits, I use my historical research skills to discern what they need and how they can get receive correct answers if it’s beyond my jurisdiction. I also study history to improve people’s knowledge of the world. If one’s historical education is reduced to sound bites or a conspiracy vlogger on YouTube, or even worse, watching Oak Island and Swamp People on the “History” Channel, that can adversely impact their decision making process on real-life decisions. How can one be an informed voter if they don’t research what government policies have worked or failed in the past? How can diplomats engage with other countries if they remain insensitive to another’s cultural heritage and history, especially if they were colonial subjects?

The concept of ‘history repeating itself’ is more abstract than we think, honestly. We may not wholly prevent a specific event from ever happening again, but they can happen in new forms, which can take time to recognize. This month I closely followed the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Afghanistan after twenty years of operations combating the Taliban. There were billions spent on supporting a democratically elected Afghan government, equipping and training the Afghan National Army, and a peace agreement with the Taliban. Now getting into the weeds of our role in Afghanistan since 2001 and Middle Eastern policy is NOT for this article. Despite the accomplishments made by coalition forces against the Taliban, it echoed in many respects from another conflict; Vietnam. I couldn’t help but discern similar patterns; the U.S. entering a foreign nation to defeat an insurgency, partnering with the domestic government, equipping and training a national army, prolonged fights with said insurgency, and the eventual withdrawal following a peace settlement and leaving the regime behind to fight the insurgency on its own terms. A gross simplification for sure and its hard to judge both conflicts with the same mold, but the broad spectrum of activity in both Vietnam and Afghanistan do share many of the same characteristics. Whether or not the Afghan government will endure and defeat the Taliban, my personal thought is no, and to go one step further, a total collapse of the government in Kabul is highly probable in the coming years.

I’m not Hari Seldon (especially since I suck at math) but one doesn’t need to be a Hari Seldon in order to educate oneself on the patterns of history. Without studying history, human civilization would be far worse off and far less intelligent by not taking lessons from our ancestors. The human experience is very much trial and error and it’s the errors that allow us to adapt and progress. History chronicles those errors, but people are far more reluctant to adopt those lessons since they don’t often happen in their lifetime. That’s why we have educators who teach us everything they can about history. It boils down to us, the individual, to make decisions that positively impact the wider world. Only then can we all be more like Hari Seldon.

(Header Image: Reading to Children, Germany, 8/1950, Image Courtesy of the National Archives, NAID 23932386)

Efficiency, Honor, Fidelity: The Good Conduct Medal

The U.S. Armed Forces expects the best from every servicemember from basic training to an honorable discharge. They represent the highest ideals of their service branch, striving for the highest. As a result, everyone’s performance record is tracked for posterity. Evaluations track a member’s aptitude and accomplishments which helps determine promotions and awards. One award, whose origins stretch back to right after the American Civil War, recognizes exemplary behavior, commitment, and dedication to military service: the Good Conduct Medal.

Good Conduct Medal from each service branch. Left to right; Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard

In 1869, the Navy created the first Good Conduct Medal (GCM). The purpose was to recognize a period of honorable service following a sailor’s discharge. If they completed at least three years of honorable service, they received the GCM (which was actually a badge) along with the discharge paperwork or re-enlistment contract. The award wasn’t even allowed to be worn on the uniform until 1885 when the second version of the medal was released. Between 1869 and 1996, the Navy GCM underwent four revisions, each one having a different design and criteria. Designers switched between a Maltese cross or a simple circle design with varying types of ships, anchors, or a globe (some officers rejected the globe version because it signaled ‘imperialist qualities’).

Navy Good Conduct Medal, circa 1886 (Image courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

In 1896, the Marine Corps followed suit with the Navy and created their own GCM with the added feature of having the recipient’s name stamped onto the reverse side of the medal. The Coast Guard GCM came later in 1921, the Army GCM in 1941 following Executive Order 8809, and the Air Force was last in 1963. Until 1963. Air Force personnel were given the Army GCM because they shared the same regulations and award standards until the early 1960s.

The GCM is one of the more commonly issued awards in the military; outpaced by the National Defense Service Medal and the Army Service Ribbon. Unlike some awards, the GCM has specific time requirements. Service members were to demonstrate three or four years of honorable service to qualify for the award, depending on the time period. How did an enlisted person’s superior determine honorable service? High standards of job performance and not committing any infractions or UMCJ violations are absolutely necessary for anyone hoping to receive the GCM. The Navy maintains a grade system where every 90 days, a sailor receives marks for their performance and if at any point it dips too low, they immediately become ineligible to receive the award. The same criteria extends to the Marine Corps as well. A Marine must have three years of ‘honorable and faithful service’. Prior to December 1945, it was four years, but later reduced to three. The Coast Guard GCM was established in 1921 by the Coast Guard Commandant and they used many of the same criteria used by the Navy and Marine Corps; a grading system combined with three years of honorable service (reduced from the original requirement of four years).

The Army GCM has the unique distinction of being created by the President of the United States. Under Executive Order 8809 signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, the Army GCM was established with a three year requirement. By 1943, FDR signed a follow-up order, EO 9323, amending the time requirement to one year if the United States was at war. Since the order was signed in the midst of World War II, many Army veterans unknowingly qualified for the medal since they enlisted for the duration of the conflict. Thousands of veterans applied for the medal retroactively following the war. Qualifications changed again during the Korean War when President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 10444 in 1953. It allowed service members to receive their first GCM after June 27, 1950 for a period of less than three years, but more than one year. It also included a clause allowing soldiers who were discharged from combat injuries or died in the line of duty if they served for less than a year.

Elvis Presley returning to the US after serving three years in the Army. He received the Good Conduct Medal (wearing the appropriate ribbon in the above picture) along with a handful of weapon qualification badges, circa 1960 (Image Courtesy of the Graceland Archives)

The Air Force was the last to adopt a GCM. It also holds a special distinction by being the only GCM to have been authorized by an Act of Congress in 1960. In the interim years of the branch’s creation in 1947 and the first GCM awarded in 1963, Air Force servicemembers were judged by Army standards until the Air Force developed its own. Additionally, airmen serving before and after 1963 can wear both the Army and Air Force versions of the GCM. By 2006, debates within the Department of the Air Force occurred on whether or not the branch should even have a GCM. The rationale being that Air Force personnel should be held by a higher standard of conduct than any other branch. Therefore, something like a medal for good conduct was out of place since exemplary performance and behavior was the expectation, not an aberration. In 2006, the Air Force GCM was discontinued. This policy didn’t last long however. Within two years, officials began reconsidering the decision and reversed themselves in 2008. All servicemembers who would have qualified for the award in those years were retroactively issued the medal.

Now the uniqueness doesn’t end here for the GCM. Appurtenances go with almost every award in the U.S. Armed Forces; oak leaves, stars, arrowheads, etc. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard use bronze stars to denote multiple GCM awards; oak leaves for the Air Force. For the Army however, they use an appurtenance wholly unique to their version; a loop. The loop harkens back to when the Navy used enlistment bars on their GCM badges denoting years of service. Bronze, silver, and gold loops mark the number of subsequent awards:

  • Bronze loops are used for the second through the fifth awards.
  • Silver loops are used for the sixth through the tenth awards.
  • Gold loops are used for the eleventh through the fifteenth awards.

By this process, a servicemember can theoretically receive the GCM a grand total of fifteen times; meaning they could have served more than forty-five years in the military, without any infraction or judicial punishments and receive stellar ratings in every performance report. Is such a scenario possible? Yes, but only a handful of people have served in the U.S. Armed Forces for such a duration. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, John William Vessey Jr., Chesty Puller, and Omar Bradley are such record holders (Bradley with the highest record at 69 years, 8 months, 7 days).

Fidelity, exemplary behavior, and honor emulating the high standards of conduct expected of a sailor, soldier, or airman are encapsulated with the GCM. When they receive that award, they have shown that they can act and lead by example the golden standard of honor, hard work, and loyalty everyone expects of each other in the U.S. military.

American Pallas Athene: The Women’s Army Corps Service Medal

General Douglas MacArthur said they were ‘my best soldiers.’ Without them, many believed that the U.S. war effort would have been vastly shorthanded. They were a vital force in North America and by the end of World War II, there were over 150,000 active duty personnel in every theater of operations.

The Women’s Army Corps was established as an auxiliary unit and activated to full duty status on July 1st, 1943, serving in communication and mechanical duties both in the United States and overseas. During World War II, the service women endured rigorous training and a great deal of slandering from WAC opponents. Some believed that women could not rise to the challenge and many others disbelieved that women should perform any wartime duties. Despite some public backlash, the Women’s Army Corps boasted over 150,000 active duty members and inspired the creation of other women’s auxiliaries; the Navy WAVES, Coast Guard SPARS, and the USMC Women’s Reserve. Like the rest of the armed forces, segregation was practiced between black and white women in the WAC, but senior leaders made it a priority to ensure that everyone received the same training and opportunities to work in different specialties.

The Women’s Army Corps Service Medal

For their service, all enlisted members of the WAC received the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal. Created by Executive Order 9365 by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 29, 1943, the medal is given to anyone who served with the WAC or it preceding organization, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Unlike other service medals, the WACSM has no appurtenances and is only awarded once. Following the corps’ disbandment, the medal was no longer awarded, but those who still served during the necessary time frame can apply to receive the award. The observe side of the medal features a profile of the deity Athena; Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. For many women, World War II proved that they were capable of doing many of the demanding wartime jobs and accomplishing them with great valor and gallantry.

American Baronetcy: A Review of ‘The House of Morgan’ by Ron Chernow

The Gilded Age is a staple of middle and high school social studies classes in the United States. Students learn about the great robber barons who commanded American industry. The rapid transformation of the economy from a rural agrarian landscape to factories, foundries, and railroads signaled the shift in American life. The captains of industry who instigated this transformation amassed financial and political fortunes that could give Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and other billionaires a run for their equity. We hear of men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt when thinking of that Gilded Age, but one personality evolved with the economy and was a critical component of the U.S. economic engine. From humble roots in England, the House of Morgan grew into a global financial institution that bankrolled industries and foreign governments. One name was synonymous with banking in the Gilded Age; he was John Pierpont Morgan.

Ron Chernow’s book ‘The House of Morgan‘ explores far beyond the biography of J.P. Morgan and his legacy. Rather, in true Chernow fashion, the book runs a fine comb over the rise, dominance, splintering, and restructuring of the most influential corporate financial company in the 19th and 20th centuries. Examining the role of the House of Morgan in American finance is akin to researching the role of Jonas Salk and the development of the polio vaccine; it’s impossible to discuss it without them. What Chernow illustrates is how pivotal the House of Morgan became in the banking world and how that power transferred between generation. Coupled with the family history, Chernow examines the company, J.P Morgan & Co., and how throughout various times in history was at the center of economic growth, government crisis intervention, controversy and scandal, and the diversification of high finance.

The office of J.P Morgan & Co. at 23 Wall Street. This corner was both powerful and mysterious in the world of high finance with J.P. Morgan and the numerous partners consolidating industries and giving banking security to the most influential companies and men in the U.S. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Chernow’s narrative follows a round-robin pattern focusing on the multiple offices and personalities connected to the House of Morgan over period of 120 years. Imbedded in this structure is the rise and fall of what he called the ‘Gentleman Banker’s Code’. Throughout the 19th century, banks were private institutions and we do mean PRIVATE. The House of Morgan never advertised its services, publicly listed client names, or dealt with the rabble of early Wall Street. A bank like that wouldn’t likely survive in today’s fast finance world powered by vast digital databases. But the House of Morgan was a product of its time; the bank served institutions and business and not the public at large. Chernow’s in-depth research reveals how the Morgan enterprise amassed its fortune through acquisition, controlling interest, and issuing bonds and loans to corporations and governments. Each branch in North America, England, and France conducted business in slightly different fashions, but the all followed the Banker’s Code.

Obviously J.P. Morgan dominates the early narrative–his face is on the book cover. The Morgan name began with his father Junius Spencer Morgan who started J.S Morgan & Co. with George Peabody, his business partner. Through intensive training, J.P. rises as a powerful figure who takes the company beyond what his father could have dreamt. Renamed J.P. Morgan & Co. in 1895, the bank quickly became the focal point for corporate finance. Captains of industry came to respect Morgan’s financial acumen because it produced results. His method of consolidating fractured businesses and controlling interest was trademarked as ‘Morganization’. It became a synonym for the House of Morgan’s novel future practice of mergers and acquisitions.

The story of Morgan isn’t only limited to Wall Street. Morgan branches in England such as Morgan Grenfell illustrate the dichotomy between the American and European methods of banking. While the Bank of England and Morgan Grenfell formed an integral component of the state economy, J.P. Morgan & Co. maintained an independent streak, occasionally interceding on behalf of the U.S. federal government. The relationship is not always a happy one as Chernow recites. The Progressive period aimed to reduce poverty and controlled the unrestrained capitalism of the robber barons. Morgan was a prominent target which became a trend that followed the company for years. They appeared in court cases, Congressional hearings, and were the subject of numerous federal investigations ranging from illegal price fixing to underwriting loans to belligerent foreign nations. The Glass-Steagall Act forced the bank to re-evaluate its business model now that they were prevented from intermingling commercial and investment banking. The result was the spin-off of multiple Morgan entities that later evolved into the modern offices we know today: Morgan Guaranty, JP Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley.

The House of Morgan didn’t survive by the Morgans alone. An army of junior and senior partners came and went through the 23 Wall Street office bringing with them their education and prejudices. Figures like Tom Lamont, Russell Leffingwell, and George Whitney, were instrumental in expanding Morgan’s reach into new territory according to Chernow. The stresses of such a job however were evident in Chernow’s writing: they all died young from heart attacks, strokes, overexertion, and alcoholism. Racial and ethnic prejudices were not absent either as an unspoken code prevented Jewish, black, Hispanic, and other non-white hires, unless they served lunch in the private dining halls. Chernow wastes no paper in examining the darker side of the dominant banking business.

The immensity of Chernow’s work speaks as a testament to the changes that impacted the House of Morgan. Chernow’s analysis illustrates the remarkable shift in policy and public connection that discarded the old Gentleman Banker’s Code and was replaced with younger proteges working harder and faster. Gone was the smoked filled, leather armchair partners room where deals were finished over brandy and cigars. In the 1970s and 1980s when information technology altered Wall Street, the various Morgan entities adapted to the times, but its historical provenance never faded. ‘The House of Morgan‘ is a bold history that highlights the best and worst of American finance, but doesn’t deny or revise its legacy. Chernow’s trademark intensive research doesn’t ignore scandal or the trivial and is truly an enthralling read for those who know the name of Morgan.

Nubian Neighbors: The Long Overshadowed African Kingdom

To preface this article, I knew practically nothing about ancient Nubian civilization. Vague childhood memories from my Egypt-o-mania phase recalls a passing reference to Nubia as a subservient client kingdom. My bookshelf had plenty of Ancient Egypt books for kids and most neighboring kingdoms were glossed over. The Egyptians exerted authority over the Nubians through military and economic oppressions, rendering them impoverished vassals. A recent trip to the St. Louis Art Museum fundamentally changed those notions. Nubian Treasures, a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts-Boston, displayed an astonishing array of artwork and artifacts from various Nubian kingdoms that existed over two-thousand years. The exhibit left such an impression it compelled me to write this post. As time passes we discover more details and nuances about ancient civilizations that we didn’t know existed. We either don’t have the knowledge or it is explained by another source (No, ancient aliens do not count. Kill that thought right now). Who were the Nubians and why don’t we know more about them?

Faience lion that adorned a Nubian temple. Many of the raw materials and artistic design patterns were heavily influenced by Egypt, which presented difficulties for early archaeologists to separate Nubian from Egyptian (St. Louis Art Museum)

Like many who study ancient civilizations, there is a tendency to attribute cultural traits from an established societies to newly discovered adjacent ones. What does this mean? Essentially, when there’s a powerful kingdom that has large cultural exports such as art, language, religion, and government, bordering kingdoms can heavily rely on their neighbors leading to appropriation. Famed Egyptologist George Reisner believed this theory when excavating Nubia in the early 20th century. Archaeological evidence collected at the time led Reisner to believe that the many of the Egyptian-like artwork and artifacts were remnants of a Egyptian occupied land of a subservient people. Hieroglyphs and artwork reinforced this notion as Westerners interpreted the darker depiction of Nubian characters as servants or slaves. This theory took hold in the academic world and remained unchanged for decades.

The Nubians were definitely not pushovers who allowed the Egyptians to dictate their civilization. The first recorded cultural group, Kerma, lived in Nubia from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE until it was conquered by Thutmose I during the Egyptian New Kingdom Period. During that one thousand years, Nubians peacefully co-existed with Egypt and other African kingdoms. Trade flourished between them and subgroups of kingdoms developed throughout the region. Nubia is first mentioned in Egyptian accounts in the 24th century BCE during the Old Kingdom. This didn’t mean that the Nubians weren’t of any importance; in fact, they were Egypt’s largest trading partner. Substantial amounts of imported wealth such as gold, ebony, incense, ivory, and copper made the Nubian kingdoms incredibly valuable to Egypt. The Nubians also had great notoriety with their archery skills. They boasted some of the best archers in Northern Africa and on several occasions participated in Egyptian military campaigns. Nubian and Egyptian intermarriages were commonplace and many archaeologists speculate that a handful of Egyptians pharaohs might have had Nubian ancestry. There is no doubting the mutual and reciprocal influence that the two civilizations had on each other for nearly a thousand years.

Nubian ushabtis were small figurines that were placed in the burial chamber of a tomb. They served a spiritual purpose by serving their master in the afterlife. This is one of the many cultural and religious practices that Nubians and Egyptians shared over generations (St. Louis Art Museum)

The dynamic changed drastically around 1500 BCE when the pharaoh Thutmose I expanded Egypt’s borders into the Levant and Nubia. The occupation lasted nearly 400 years, but during that time, competing Nubian factions challenged Egyptian authority creating a near constant state of civil conflict in the region. By 1000 BCE, the Kushites began emerging as the dominant power in Nubia and Egyptian control was relinquished. By the 8th century BCE, the tables were turned as a massive Kushite army led by Piye began a systemic conquest of Egypt. He founded the 25th Dynasty and its pharaohs ruled the two lands for a little over 100 years. In 525 BC, an invading Assyrian army removed the Kushites and forcibly keeping them in the south for the next thousand years. Its at this time that the ancient city of Meroe came to prominence as the cultural and power center for Nubia following the collapse of the 25th Dynasty. The Kushite Kingdom preserved many Egyptian traditions, customs, and religious practices and developed their own language, Meroitic. Today it remains as one of the few undeciphered ancient languages.

The bottom script is Meroitic; one of the last ancient languages never to be translated (St. Louis Art Museum)

The extent of my knowledge on African civilizations is slim, but the point of this blog is to broaden my own history knowledge boundaries. If the Nubian Treasures exhibit taught me anything, it was that civilizations constantly borrow from one another. Whether its religious beliefs, economic practices, cultural customs, or government bureaucracy, the Nubian peoples and Egyptians certainly had a strong and complex relationship. Nubian archaeology has received increased attention in the past two decades and as that interest continues, it’s likely we’ll uncover more about this long overshadowed civilization and its people.

For more information about the St. Louis Art Museum and its exhibits, visit their website: SLAM.org

The Flight Stuff: The Wright Brothers Ingenuity

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina is positively dead in the winter. Tourists have departed, taking the warm weather and sunshine with them. What remains are local residents and cold Atlantic air racing across the beaches. Business owners look forward to spring and summer returning with visitors who enjoy the sea air, fishing, and sailing. The remoteness and wind patterns were ideal for a different pair of tourists though. They scoured weather patterns finding the right conditions for their scientific experiments. After a lengthy search, the Wright Brothers selected Kill Devil Hills. Since the area was unincorporated, the brothers relied on the nearby town of Kitty Hawk for transportation and commercial needs. History would soon make its mark on this remote stretch of North Carolina coastline.

Beaches at Kill Devil Hills. The North Carolina coast features numerous small island chains, lagoons, and reefs creating the ‘Outer Banks’, a popular tourist spot. The wind patterns from the Atlantic Ocean provided excellent conditions for the Wright Brothers flight experiments.

Rather than delve into the brothers’ history and their aerial achievement, it’s important to understand the ingenuity they showed throughout their venture. Scientists and engineers before them were classically trained students with years of mechanical experience. Neither Wilbur or Orville graduated from high school; they dropped out to pursue business interests and support their family. They taught themselves in advanced mathematics and engineering concepts, a majority of which came from their work with bicycles. They relied heavily on the work of predecessors and applying their innovations. Orville and Wilbur were well known in Dayton, Ohio with their bicycle business and made a comfortable living. This wasn’t enough for either of them though. They were obsessed with powered flight since childhood after receiving a crude model helicopter (a bamboo shaft with a cork top, paper wings, and a twisted rubber band) inspiring an aeronautical career.

Research was needed to see what contemporary aeronautical engineers were accomplishing. The brothers followed men like Otto Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, Octave Chanute, and Sir George Cayley. Gliders was the preferred method in calculating heavier-than-air flight and the brothers debated ideas on control and resistance. Fixed wing aircraft would provide the necessary lift power, but the brothers puzzled over how to maintain control and account for airborne stability. While working in their bike shop one day, Wilbur was twisting an inner tube and they had a sudden realization; wings required warping and therefore a flexible frame design was needed. They studied the flights of birds, closely observing wing contours, banking different directions, and using airflow for lift. Testing this theory proved difficult as the brothers consistently tried to find the correct combination of control and lift, all while accounting for the addition of weight. The Wright brothers are prime example of trial and error and consistent testing when it comes to scientific research. Aeronautics was a novel scientific endeavor in the late 19th century as engineers tested new gliders, airships, and dirigibles. Humanity’s quest to fly presented infinite engineering possibilities, but created a slew of failed attempts, poor data results, and accidental deaths. The Wright brothers were no exception in this respect; they faced their own string of failures.

Rear view of Wilbur Wright making a right turn with the Wright Glider (“in glide from No. 2 Hill, right wing tipped close to the ground”) (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Wilbur and Orville refined their glider designs throughout most of the 1890s and by 1900 they were ready for field tests. U.S. Weather Bureau data and recommendations by other aviators pointed the brothers to Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills with the soft sandy beaches and ample gale winds providing ideal environmental conditions. The brothers worked first on gliders because they would be critical in proving the brother’s theory of airflow lift and three dimensional axis. Between 1900 and 1902, the Wrights redesigned, rebuilt, and retested their glider in dozens of trials, but they never achieved the necessary lift. What was wrong with their glider?

Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning to see where things are going wrong. Wilbur and Orville thought what if the Lilienthal data they relied on so heavily was incorrect? The lift co-efficient, which relates the lift generated by a lifting body to the fluid density around the body, needed to be double checked. How did the Wrights test this concept? They built their own wind tunnel. The apparatus was attached to a bike and as air passed by the airfoil, the lift it generated, if unopposed, would cause the wheel to rotate. The flat plate was oriented so its drag would push the wheel in the opposite direction of the airfoil. The brothers used different sizes of airfoils made of various materials based on existing data. This experiment confirmed their suspicions; Lilienthal’s data and lift co-efficient were all erroneous. Not to be deterred from their work, the brothers now had their own testing method for achieving lift with their glider. In a conversation with a colleague George Spratt, Orville said:

“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.”

Reconstruction of the Wright Brothers’ air lift apparatus, i.e. wind tunnel at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

The wind tunnel tests were a pivotal moment in the pursuit for powered flight. Contemporaries described them as ‘the most crucial and fruitful aeronautical experiments ever conducted.’ What the brothers may have realized is that gliders and powered aircraft required different degrees of lift and incorporating a control system would maintain said lift. The structural design of the brothers’ glider changed as a result of their wind tunnel tests and they began to see major improvements in their test flights. They installed a rudder and recorded observations on lift, pitch, and yaw. From this, the brothers made a final critical breakthrough on their flight experiments: three-axis control. The three axes: 1) Wing-warping for roll 2) Forward elevator for pitch 3) Rear rudder for yaw.

Aviation historians claim that this development was far more significant than adding engine power to the glider. Simultaneously, how astounding is it that these two who never completed high school calculated an equation that became the basis for achieving flight? Their innovative mathematics did not end there. Before building an engine, they devised another equation that produced the necessary power to weight ratio and propeller efficiency. In 1903, the brothers were ready to test their new flyer, the Wright Flyer. They built a small-purpose engine in their bike shop, hand carved the propellers, and tested the rudders in their wind tunnel. Throughout these experiment years, the brothers also delivered lectures to the Western Society of Engineers detailing their process. Newspapers did not initially cover the brothers heavily, waiting until they produced something genuine.

Four flights changed the world on December 17, 1903. The brothers alternated turns flying the machine, with the last flight recorded as the longest and furthest launch. Years of research, experimentation, glider construction, and test flights boiled down to 59 seconds. From that moment on, the brothers refined their flyers and took the world by storm with their paradigm shifting accomplishments. Their persistence and ingenuity paid off immensely. The Wrights brothers spent their remaining years involved in patent battles with other manufacturers and other business disputes. While they were not as successful in their business pursuits, they demonstrated how a person could make strides in scientific experimentation through repeated processes, observation, and accurately recording data. They were an ingenious duo, without a doubt.

The original Wright Flyer now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. where a plaque perfectly summarizes the Wright brothers achievements and ingenuity.

“The world’s first power-driven heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled, and sustained flight, Invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, Flown by them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina December 17, 1903, By original scientific research the Wright brothers discovered the principles of human flight, As inventors, builders, and flyers they further developed the aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation”