By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
May 22, 1968: The fast-attack submarine USS Scorpion (the sixth of six so-named American Navy vessels) is mysteriously lost at sea several hundred miles off the Azores. All hands – 99 sailors – perish: A stark reminder of the risks associated with “the silent service” in peace and war.
May 22, 1912: The aviation arm of the U.S. Marine Corps is born with the arrival of 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham at the Naval Aviation Camp, Annapolis, Maryland. There, Cunningham will begin his flight training, and with less than three hours of instruction, he will solo in a Wright Model B-1 biplane.
In a World War I diary entry (Dec. 18, 1917), Cunningham – then an observer attached to the French – will write:
“Persuaded a French pilot of a biplane fighting Spad to take me over the lines. We went up like an elevator and talk about speed! We were over the lines in no time and I was all eyes. The archies [World War I term for antiaircraft fire] bursting near us worried me some and made it hard to look all the time for Boches [slang for German]. I saw something to one side that looked like a fountain of red ink. Found it was the machinegun tracer bullets from the ground. After a few minutes we sighted a Boche two-seater just below us. We made for him. It was the finest excitement I ever had. I got my machinegun ready. Before we got to him, he dived and headed for home. On one of our rolls, I let loose a couple of strings of six at him, but it was too far for good shooting.”
May 23, 1862: Confederate forces under the command of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson strike, outmaneuver, and – with textbook coordination of infantry, cavalry, and artillery – decisively defeat Union Army forces under Col. John R. Kenly at Front Royal, Virginia.
May. 24, 1818: Gen. (future U.S. Pres.) Andrew Jackson and his expeditionary army march into Spanish-controlled Florida, easily capturing the Gulf-coastal town of Pensacola.
Col. José Masot, the Spanish governor, retreats to nearby Fort San Carlos de Barrancas (originally built by the British as “the Royal Navy Redoubt”) where he briefly puts up a token resistance – to save face – before hoisting the white flag there, too.
May. 26, 1917: U.S. Army Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing is named commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), which is destined for European combat the following year.
May. 27, 1967: USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) – the last conventionally powered American aircraft carrier – is launched.
May 28, 1918: Almost one year to the day after Pershing is named commander-in-chief of the AEF, elements of the soon-to-be-famous 1st Infantry Division, (“the Big Red One”) under the command of Lt. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard launch the first major attack by U.S. forces in World War I near the French town of Cantigny. In doing so, the Americans strike and the defeat a far-more experienced German army under the command of General Oskar von Hutier.
The attack opens in the wee hours with a two-hour artillery bombardment. Then at 6:45 a.m., whistles are blown along the American trench lines, and soldiers from the division’s 28th Infantry Regiment – destined to become known as the “Lions of Cantigny” – clamber over the top and into the open. Supported by French aircraft, tanks, and mortar and flame-thrower teams – the Americans advance over a distance of 1,600 yards in three waves at marked intervals behind a creeping artillery barrage. By 7:20 a.m., the German lines are reached.
Fighting is grim; one American sergeant will write: “About twenty Dutchmen [Germans] came out of the holes, threw down their rifles and stood with their hands up. The doughboys didn’t pay any attention to this but started in to butcher and shoot them. One of the doughboys on the run stabbed a Dutchman and his bayonet went clear through him.” In the town, the Germans are flushed from hiding places in shops and houses. French soldiers with flamethrowers are called up to assist in clearing the cellars of buildings.
Lt. Clarence Huebner (destined to command the 1st Infantry Division in the next great war, and rise to the rank of Lt. Gen.) watches in horror as one of his badly burned enemies rushes from a flamed-out cellar. It was “just as I had seen rabbits in Kansas come out of burning straw stacks,” he will recall.
The Germans – who, like so many others throughout history, had dismissed the Americans as not having the stomach for real fighting – develop a quick respect for their new foe.
Bullard’s headquarters will issue a statement, a portion of which reads: “The moral effects to flow from this proof of reliability in battle of the American soldiers, far outweighs the direct military importance of the actions themselves.”
May. 28, 1980: The first female midshipmen graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor who writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He directs the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. Smith’s website is uswriter.com.