Tuesday, December 12, 2017
For General Washington and his Continental Army the situation had become desperate. The ink had hardly dried on the Declaration of Independence when 30 British warships and 400 transports under Admiral Lord Richard Howe sailed unchallenged past the Sandy Hook lighthouse to the Tory stronghold of Staten Island. “I thought all London was afloat,” exclaimed an astonished Maryland private at this forest of masts and rigging carrying 32,000 troops, the “largest and best-equipped [British] expeditionary force” ever assembled. Richard Howe’s landlubber brother General William Howe commanded the English regulars and German mercenaries poised to capture this mercantile and maritime hub that John Adams called a “key to the whole continent.”
To defend New York City, Washington led the largest American army of the war: 23,000 troops from eight states ranging from the well-armed and disciplined Maryland and Delaware regiments to inexperienced, ill-equipped, and untrained militia. Elite or green, every man was needed to counter the English threat; with New York in enemy hands, the broad Hudson River would become their nautical highway northward to join with British mobilization in Canada. Once the two pincers severed the colonies they could finish off rebellious New Englanders and the fractious Middle Atlantic colonies like dinner courses. Now, however, all that campaigning might prove unnecessary; a brilliant British move on the night of August 27, 1776 worked to snare Washington’s army in a classic roll-up-the-flank maneuver and threatened the entire Revolution with annihilation.
Normally only market-bound farmers and sots stumbling from rural taverns traveled at night along colonial Brooklyn’s rough dirt roads. On this evening, though, 10,000 British dragoons, Highlanders, grenadiers, light infantry, and artillery left their campfires flickering deceptively at the beaches of Gravesend, Long Island, for a swift and silent nocturnal march through the ruts and mud of King’s Highway. General Howe wanted no repeat of the bloodshed that won his controversial victory on Boston’s Bunker Hill. Instead of brutal frontal assaults, this brainstorm of subordinate General Henry Clinton planned to surprise defenders at Jamaica Pass, then fight its way through and around American positions along the Prospect Heights. Still, one shout from a startled farmer or picket would betray their movement to the nearby Continentals who, if attacked, could easily shatter this thin red line stretched two miles.
When five mounted American scouts challenged the English vanguard at Jamaica Pass their capture and interrogation revealed to an astonished General Howe that the way was open. Although expecting an ambush at any moment, the Redcoats arrived unscathed in Bedford Village at 9 in the morning to find its redoubt undefended. Their cannon fire signaled to the English center and left already engaging the American line that their advance westward down Jamaica Road had begun.
As historian Thomas Flint wrote, “17,000 of the best troops of Europe met 5,500 undisciplined men,” and in three hours it was over. In the debacle, almost 2,000 Americans were killed or captured. Washington, watching from the corner of modern Court Street and Atlantic Avenue, exclaimed, “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose.” But as the stampeding Americans streamed across the marshy Gowanus River, a haughty Scottish officer scorned: “Multitudes … of [American] infantrymen … drowned and suffocated in morasses—a proper punishment for all Rebels…. Our losses were nothing [and] the Hessians and our brave highlanders gave no quarters … and put all to death that fell into their hands.”
The bulk of the American troops escaped to Brooklyn Heights, which Washington had reinforced by ferrying troops from New York. Then General Howe, haunted by the ghosts of Bunker Hill, restrained the assault and ordered siege equipment brought up until favorable winds carried his ships up the East River to tighten the noose around Washington’s neck.
The British advance on New York surprised no one. Biding their time, the city’s Loyalists waited for the King’s forces to return, as all knew they would attempt to do. New York was too valuable a prize to ignore; this superb harbor not only offered refuge for British naval and merchant vessels but also formed the mouth of the mighty Hudson River. Powerful ships-of-the-line could easily sail north with flood tides and favorable winds to Albany, and Native American, French, and English traders in canoes or sturdy bateaux knew that short portages to Lake Champlain gave access to the St. Lawrence River. America’s invasion of its northern neighbor had stalled at the walls of Quebec City.
The counter-thrust by its defender, General Sir Guy Carleton, had driven the Continental Army from Canada, and now he prepared an offensive southward as he built a fleet on this inland sea of Lake Champlain, Lake George, and the Hudson River.
During the summer of 1776, while the Continental Congress penned, debated, and passed the Declaration of Independence, American troops, cocky and confident after victories at Boston and Newport, marched to New York. That February, General Charles Lee arrived to prepare its defenses, but after a month’s activity, forces under British General Henry Clinton threatened Charleston, SC, and allowed pause in the work of Washington’s most experienced commander.
Lee’s correspondence revealed, however, that he hardly missed the burden of defending the untenable: “I am like a dog in a dancing school—I know not where to turn myself…. The circumstances of [New York], intersected by navigable rivers, the uncertainty of the enemy’s designs and motions, who can fly in an instant to any spot where they choose with their canvass wings…. I can only act from surmise and have a very good chance of surmising wrong.” New York delegate John Jay even proposed to the Continental Congress that the army burn the city and retreat upriver to West Point.
Still, the English massing that summer off Staten Island could afford neither failure like that of the March retreat from Boston nor the political consequences of a Pyrrhic victory. The Colonials still retained their own parliamentarian partisans who considered this entire conflict pointless. George III had also given the Howe brothers the dual role of military commanders and “peace commissioners,” empowered with both carrot and stick to entice or drive the errant colonies back into the English fold.
As Whigs, they disagreed with the harsh retribution inflicted after rebellions in Ireland and Scotland. Their older brother George had died fighting the French in the American wilderness, so William and Richard Howe sincerely hoped for reconciliation with their New World brethren. So far, offers of “a free and general pardon” and attempts to parlay with Washington had come to naught. Now, they felt, a superior English Army would force a “decisive Action, than which nothing is more to be desired … [than] the most effectual Means to terminate this expensive War.”
Achieving that victory was Howe’s dilemma; the long approach of a direct amphibious assault on New York would betray the maneuver to American defenders, but New Jersey’s rivers, cliffs, and swamps hampered a decisive flanking maneuver. The remaining prospect was landing on the sandy beaches of Long Island and attacking New York from the east. British artillery, if positioned on Brooklyn Heights, could intimidate or pulverize the city that clung to the lower three miles of Manhattan Island. But a steep glacial moraine called the Prospect Range blocked the way. Its precipitous, thickly wooded slopes confined the passage of wagons bound for the village of Brooklyn or enemy forces on the offensive to four narrow passes named Gowanus (running along the shoreline), Flatbush, Bedford, and, another five miles eastward, Jamaica.
Lee had trenches dug, planted batteries along the Manhattan waterfront, and posted sentries at Kings Bridge over the Harlem River, the city’s sole land link with Westchester County and Connecticut. His departure south on March 9 left a heavy-drinking, hard-working Scot in charge. General William Alexander, a veteran of the French and Indian War, insisted on being addressed as the very unrevolutionary “Lord Stirling” in deference to his lapsed royal title.
By April when General Israel Putnam arrived to assume command, Manhattan’s defenses were far advanced, with “each street leading from the water blocked by barricades,” and the earthworks and fortresses extending to New Jersey and Governors Island at the foot of Manhattan. Engineers sank wrecks in the Narrows, stretched log booms across the Hudson, and planned to extend another 2,100 feet of chain to bar the enemy fleet. Near the end of April, Putnam sent energetic General Nathanael Greene across the East River to fortify Long Island and the bucolic burg of Brooklyn with its thousand inhabitants, mainly of Dutch ancestry, and their black slaves.
Greene studied and inspected the roads, trails, landmarks, and knolls from Hellgate to Gravesend. On the highest point of the Heights he built a redoubt with seven guns to command the East River entrance. In the valley stretching between the Gowanus and Wallabout Bays, soldiers, slaves, and civilians constructed a series of forts dubbed Putnam, Ring, Greene, and Box, linked by breastworks along the meandering tidal river named Gowanus.
General Putnam, with his credo, “Cover Americans to their chins and they will fight until doomsday,” expected another static, defensive Bunker Hill-style engagement with British frontal assaults on their fortified and formidable positions. Washington, who arrived on April 13, had prudently established a “flying camp” of 10,000 men who were ready to respond to any threat, but with the obstacles and expanse of the local geography, his manpower was still too meager to match the immense battlefield dimensions.
General Lee best expressed the American predicament: “What to do with this city, I own it puzzles me. It is so encircled with deep navigable water, that whoever commands the sea must command the town.” The Continentals had no fleet, and the formidable rivers that flowed around these islands gave the British ships mobility while severely hampering American maneuverability. Still, Lee felt storming the defensive works surrounding New York “might cost the enemy many thousands of men.” But any fortress is as strong as its defenders, and frankly they did not impress their commander.
American history glorifies Minutemen as brave artisans and yeomen who at a moment’s notice left hearth and plow to defend liberty. In reality, militia fought dismally except when defense of their homes strengthened their resolve. The Continental Congress could not comprehend that declaring independence also meant organizing a force capable of winning it. Washington pleaded that the cause was lost “if the defense is left to any but a permanent standing army,” but Congress remained haunted by its own specter of Oliver Cromwell.
As ardent students of history, our Founding Fathers knew all previous republics had fallen to dictators, including England’s own experiment. General Cromwell, after defeating the Royalist forces of Charles I in Britain’s Civil War, dismissed the wrangling Parliament in 1653 to rule himself. A standing army, many believed, would only be the muscle for an American generalissimo to seize dictatorial authority. They preferred military power dispersed among individual states and cities, so Washington’s army in New York fell under 13 jurisdictions whose regional rivalries and short enlistments hamstrung him from fielding an effective and cohesive force.
At Boston, the exasperated commander found state regimental strengths varied from 600 to 1,000. Soldiers accustomed to electing their own officers refused to accept unfamiliar appointees or simply returned home. Washington railed that “Connecticut wants no Massachusetts man in their corps; Massachusetts thinks there is no necessity for a Rhode Islander to be introduced.”
Ever the aristocrat, Washington found his troops “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people” who showed “such a dearth of public spirit, and such want of virtue, such stock-jobbing, and fertility in all the low arts to obtain advantages of one kind or another … I never saw before, and pray God’s mercy I may never be witness to again…. Could I have foreseen what I have, and am like to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command.” But, the problems of commanding such motley, undisciplined rabble surrounding Boston paled before besieged New York.
If the streets of this city with 25,000 inhabitants were lined with “buildings lofty and elegant,” Yankee Colonel Loammi Baldwin wrote, “the manner of the people differ … having Jewish, Dutch and Irish customs.” Those same inhabitants continued trading with the enemy; entire militia units defected while Continental soldiers neglected camp sanitation; and drunkenness was all too common. When news of the Declaration of Independence arrived, mobs that ripped George III’s statue from its pedestal roamed the streets to settle personal differences with prominent Tories. Loyalist plots both alleged and genuine led to the arrest of Mayor David Matthews and the hanging of one of Washington’s bodyguards, Thomas Hickey, whose execution drew thousands of spectators, among them the city’s prostitutes.
Country lads and village yokels here to fight felt unbridled from hometown Calvinist and Puritan strictures when sirens beckoned from the Gomorrah called “the holy ground.” Baldwin wrote his wife that “these bitch-foxly jades, jills, haggs, sturms, [and] … whores continue their employ which is become very lucrative.” As duty officer, he “broke up the knots of men and women fighting, pulling caps, swearing, [and] hurried them off to the Provost Dungeon by half dozens.” Venereal disease joined the other camp ailments of fever and dysentery.
Logistical shortages also led to the plundering of houses, trees, and gardens while even firewood ran short. Work on fortifications progressed, but a significant portion of the American force did not have muskets and instead armed themselves with 12-foot spears. When English vessels challenged the gauntlet of forts and batteries on July 11, half of the Continental gunners were either intoxicated or off whoring. What Rebel shots were fired fell well short of the ships Phoenix and Rose, which would disrupt American supply lines upriver on the Hudson, and six Continentals were killed when drunken artillerymen set off an explosion. Washington lamented, “Such a dirty mercenary spirit pervades the whole that I should not be at all surprised at any disaster that may happen.” Happen it did.
Too late, Washington realized the August 22 British landing at Gravesend Bay and Denyse Ferry (modern Fort Hamilton) was no feint. The rich Long Island landscape offered not only supplies for an army unleashed to fight after shipboard confinement, but this pattern of fields and woods was also their terrain, not the dense forests of the American wilderness. It was far closer in character to European battlefields where the British could wage well-honed tactics. Commanders Washington, Putnam, Greene, Heath, Lord Stirling, Sullivan, Parsons, and Spencer formed a fraternity of frontier fighters who could field or foil savage guerrilla skirmishes, but now they faced 17,000 of the world’s most formidable army in the open field.
As American riflemen burned wheat fields and buildings, dispersed livestock, and harassed and skirmished with the enemy bridgehead on Long Island, barges all the while landed British artillery and reinforcements from Staten Island. Hessian soldiers, following the withdrawing Continentals, found small packages of tobacco wrapped in paper messages that urged them in German to desert to the American side, but their officers warned them to expect no quarter from the Rebels.
Typhus untimely confined Nathanael Greene to a sickbed, so on August 23 Washington gave Greene’s command to John Sullivan, a man he found capable, but his “over-desire of being popular, … leads him into some embarrassments.” Although totally unfamiliar with Long Island’s terrain, Putnam received overall command. Perhaps overconfident with a string of forts along the Gowanus Valley, he neglected Washington’s orders to construct abatis, traps, and ambuscades to strengthen the line along the Prospect Heights.
Even today, these steep slopes in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park become veritable jungles in summer. Topography and laurel thickets had to funnel the major assaults through the passes. Still, both Lord Stirling on the American right and Sullivan commanding the center felt concern about the neglect of Jamaica Pass. Pickets from a Pennsylvania regiment under Colonel Samuel Miles stood watch only by day and withdrew at night.
Washington, citing lack of fodder, dismissed 400 mounted Connecticut volunteer cavalrymen who, though offering to pay for their own pasturage, refused to dismount and fight as foot soldiers. Stirling and Sullivan personally paid a squad of horsemen who had patrolled the pass for five uneventful nights. The British, however, lacked neither mounted mobility nor intelligence of the American line. General Henry Clinton, eager to revenge his defeat at Charleston, discovered with the aid of Loyalist scouts that complacency had descended on Jamaica Pass, the American Achilles’ heel.
As 10,000 British troops made their nocturnal march along King’s Highway, the first shots resounded about 11 pm at Redcoats raiding watermelons near the Red Lion Tavern. Their blundering played perfectly into the British ruse of the main thrust coming down the Shore Road. By 1 in the morning, the English under General Grant advanced noisily, and the alarm reached General Putnam. As tensions rose with the sun on that August 27, Americans fought for the first time as an independent nation against professional soldiers with cavalry, concentrations of cannon, and formations of colorful Redcoats bearing gleaming and lethal bayonets. With the morning’s “Red and angry Glare” these merchants, tailors, shoemakers, barbers, and farmers were about to feel the full fury of the British Army.
Lord Stirling welcomed two regiments from Delaware and Maryland as well as the 400-man reinforcements from Sullivan—half of his strength—to bolster the American right wing to 2,300. Survivors said Stirling “gave battle in the true English taste” and his ranks did not waver through musket volleys, even as “balls and shells [of British artillery] … now and then [took] off a head.” Although firing constantly, British General Grant made no concentrated effort to attack Stirling. Colonel Samuel Atlee’s Pennsylvanian infantry drove a party of Redcoats from a nearby hill, but the English ranks did not advance; neither did the Hessians and the 42nd Highlanders under General Leopold de Heister who shelled the makeshift breastworks of felled trees that Sullivan’s troops had erected on the American center.
Washington, crossing the East River, felt relieved that the adversarial winds prevented English ships from supporting the attack, and for inspiration he gave this rousing speech: “The time has come when Americans must be freemen or slaves. Quit yourselves like men, like soldiers, for all that is worth living for is at stake.” He also threatened: “If I see any man turn his back today, I will shoot him through.”
Hearing the fighting at Flatbush Pass, Colonel Samuel Miles and his Pennsylvanians had left Bedford Village and marched westward until Colonel Samuel Wyllys and his 22nd Connecticut Regiment, who were guarding Bedford Pass, recommended they go back to their post. Returning, Miles discovered to his “great mortification” the British baggage train of Clinton’s 17th Light Dragoons, Cornwallis with the First Brigade of Grenadiers, two regiments of infantry, the 71st Highlanders, and Howe with the Guards and three brigades of infantry. This massive advance guard had passed unnoticed by Miles, and he tried to send word to alert Sullivan of the impending encirclement that had trapped his own men. Dispersing into small bands, his soldiers cowered or crawled through the underbrush in hopes of reaching the safety of the American line.
Once Wyllys heard the firing to the east he and his men retreated from Bedford Pass without firing or receiving a shot. With Howe’s cannon signal, de Heister’s Hessians and Highlanders fired one last volley before charging up Flatbush Road. Green-coated Jaegers, with their short-barreled carbines, usurped American guerrilla tactics and flanked through the forests where Hessian officer Colonel von Herringen saw American “riflemen … pierced with the bayonet to the trees.”
Sullivan sorely missed the reinforcements sent earlier to Lord Stirling, and his cannon and rifles were deprived of their full effect by the thick foliage and the road’s winding character. Four hundred hard-pressed Continentals were forced back to discover English cavalry and light infantrymen blocking their retreat. One British officer conceded, “The Americans fought bravely and could not be broken till greatly outnumbered and taken flank, front and rear.” Sullivan and 60 men flushed from a cornfield surrendered with their flag bearing the word “Liberty,” but many stragglers and wounded caught in the woods and clearings were shot or bayoneted while attempting to submit.
Washington could only watch from the Ponkiesberg Hill as his outer defenses crumbled, but Stirling stubbornly held open the window of escape. Meanwhile, the British fleet anchored nearby restocked Grant’s depleted ammunition and reinforced him with another 2,000 Royal Marines. Grant, who had boasted to Parliament that he could march through America with only 5,000 Regulars, now had 9,000 men against “the only formation of American organized resistance.”
The Pennsylvania Militia under Hand and Atlee had taken cover under trees nearest the shoreline while on Stirling’s left a Maryland detachment covered his main force on Blockje’s Hill to form an inverted “V.” With a small stream flowing below the high ground they held, their position was excellent and his men refused to be goaded into wasting their volleys until the British came within close range. The Maryland uniforms proved so polished and impeccable that 20 unwary Royal Marines mistook them for Hessians and approached close enough to be captured. It was not their dress, however, but the valor of this regiment that made the greatest impression on both friend and foe.
As the flanks of British, Hessian, and Highlanders converged, they soon would outnumber Stirling by almost 20 to 1. Lord Cornwallis’s seizure of the Vechte-Cortelyou house, a fieldstone structure in Stirling’s rear, completed the envelopment that threatened annihilation of the entire American right wing. Leaving General Parsons in command of the withdrawal, Stirling, with Scottish bravado and 400 men from Maryland, attacked 2,000 British backed with artillery before they could effectively fortify the sturdy 17th-century dwelling. Six times they charged, twice driving the enemy from the stone house, but with each wave the attackers diminished in numbers. These suicidal assaults had no hope of success other than to buy time for the rest of the Americans to escape, and costs were dear: The regiment lost 350 of 400 men, killed or captured, including Lord Stirling himself. He chose to surrender to the German de Heister rather than the Englishman Cornwallis, who nevertheless exclaimed, “General Lord Stirling fought like a wolf.”
By noon, the last mopping-up operation on Battle Hill, in modern Greenwood Cemetery, was almost complete, and Hessian Colonel von Herringen exclaimed, “It looked horrible in the wood, as at least two thousand killed and wounded lay there.” As the Continentals streamed across the Gowanus River into Brooklyn, a 15-year-old Connecticut private in Brooklyn remembered, “When they came out of the water and mud to us, looking like water rats, it was a truly pitiful sight.”
British casualties were 349, including 61 dead, a fraction of what the heroic Maryland men suffered, but all sides received an unexpected respite when General Howe did not press the attack against Brooklyn’s fortified line.
General Clinton, who had spotted the weak American defenses along Jamaica Road, expressed understated fury. “His excellency, who … saw [the American] confusion might be tempted to order us to march directly forward down the road to the ferry, by which if we succeeded, everything on the island must have been ours.” Seizing the landing would have trapped the Americans, so the astounded if relieved General Putnam likewise remarked, “Howe is either our friend or no general.”
The Americans, however, were once again “covered to their chins.” Reinforcements had strengthened Brooklyn Heights, and British troops were running solely on adrenaline—Grant’s troops had fought for over 10 hours, and the main column under Howe, Clinton, and Cornwallis had endured an exhausting forced march as well as heavy combat. A British officer wrote, “We had not fascines [bundles of branches] to fill ditches, no axes to cut abatis, and no scaling ladders to assault so respectable a work,” which British engineers later found solidly and well built.
History judges William Howe as a lax and lethargic general, more ardent in romance than battle. More graciously, as a gentleman of the old school, he sought humanity amid the brutality of warfare and felt genuine concern for his soldiers, who after the battle were scattered, hungry, and exhausted. No reserves remained, and the wounded and over 800 prisoners required attention. Although rabid German Jaegers clawed at the American abatis, Howe restrained them.
He felt that certainly this example of British invincibility and magnanimity would bring the Rebels to their senses, and with the inevitable shift of wind, the fleet would move into position up the East River, bagging the lot. Meanwhile, work progressed on siege works that via trenches and mortars would soften American fortifications before storms of infantry ran up to seize them. More ardent subalterns, however, such as Captain George Collier on the frigate Rainbow, felt the urgent need for action: “If we become masters of this body of rebels the war is at an end.”
Washington felt none of Howe’s graciousness but rather the burden of an ominous choice between his army and the city that duty and strategy required he hold. The loss of Brooklyn Heights would make New York practically untenable, so he strengthened its defense to over 9,000 men. Time, however, was the English ally, and already on the 28th they completed a redoubt east of Fort Putnam and continued digging trenches and bringing up artillery. Infantry probed and tested the strength of the American lines.
Then two days of torrential rains and thunderstorms would turn the trenches into a muddy gruel and soak clothing, cooking fires, powder, and spirits. Troops unsheltered from the elements found sleep impossible and their sustenance consisted solely of hard biscuits and cold pickled pork. Even the strong northeast winds that barred the East River approach to the British fleet chilled the waterlogged soldiers to the bone.
After closely inspecting the state of defenses and the exhausted defenders, Pennsylvania General Thomas Mifflin told Washington that the line could not possibly hold against a concentrated assault. Besides the encroaching siege works, British anchored nine miles away in Pelham Bay threatened King’s Bridge, the sole escape route off Manhattan. Six of seven generals in the Council of War held on August 29 urged immediate withdrawal, and Washington was finally convinced that only with the army intact did New York have any hope.
Meanwhile, the world’s best navy eagerly awaited orders to test the Continental batteries along the East River. This mile-wide estuary channels the powerful ebbs and flows between Long Island Sound and New York harbor. Strong and treacherous tidal currents churn through the rocks and shoals of Hellgate, and until Robert Fulton’s development of the steamboat, only the callused hands and Herculean strength of local ferrymen plied this water that changes hourly from still to surging. The only men to match these ferrymen’s skill and stamina were Marblehead fishermen and Salem seamen plucked from the trenches “with sailor-like cheer and despatch[sic]” to man the thwarts and muffle their creaking rowlocks with cloth.
Washington cloaked the retreat as making “room for … newcomers” so “a proportionate number of regiments” were to be relieved or shifted. At 7 o’clock in the evening of August 29, his troops were ordered to assemble at their camps with rifles and gear and to wait for orders. That morning, every craft “from Hellgate on the Sound to Spuyten Duyvil Creek that could be kept afloat and that had either sails or oars” had been commandeered and brought to Brooklyn. General Mifflin volunteered to command the rear guard, and the withdrawal began at 8 that night under Brig. Gen. McDougall, who expressed extreme pessimism about the entire operation. Well might he have been discouraged early on: While the best troops had the dubious honor of holding the trenches, McDougall dealt with the incoming columns of discouraged and undisciplined dregs.
On the East River banks, baggage, ammunition, and artillery disembarked first for New York. The ranks, although ordered not to speak or even cough, began reacting to the threat of British ships looming out of the darkness between them and safety. Colonel Israel Hand saw “frightful disorder” growing at the ferry, with “the mob of soldiers, maddened by fear … crowding the declivity from Sands Street to the water.” Colonel Fish, one of Washington’s aides, lifted a stone above his head and threatened to sink an overloaded boat and its unruly, panicking soldiers unless order was restored. Some groups tried climbing over the shoulders and heads of those in front, but other regiments were not infected with contagious panic and disembarked in disciplined order.
Observing the withdrawal, a Tory matron Mrs. Rapalie, dispatched her black slave to warn the British of the retreats. Luckily for the Americans, the German troops he located found his colonial Brooklyn accent incomprehensible and held him instead as a spy.
Sheets of rain falling with the freshening northeast wind may have muffled the noise of the evacuation, but it also prevented use of the sloops and sailboats needed to complete the monumental task. Rowboats, flatboats, whaleboats, and pettiaugers propelled by oars made hard progress, but then the fortune that had favored the British shifted with the southeast wind to the American side. From this direction, Brooklyn Heights gave a snug lee, the water flattened, and the entire flotilla could get to work, often loading men and equipment to only inches of freeboard. Back and forth these vessels traveled, with some Marblehead men, 10 and more trips back and forth.
By 10 o’clock that night more and more relieved troops stumbled onto Manhattan shores, and the rear guard of Pennsylvanians, Connecticut, Delaware, and remnants of the Marylanders and New Yorkers, including 150 grenadiers armed with grenades, felt their ranks thinning. When a regiment pulled out, soldiers right and left moved to fill the gaps. But when the line became too lean, troops were forced to concentrate in the forts and leave dangerous vacancies.
At 2 in the morning, aide-de-camp Alexander Scammell mistakenly told General Mifflin and his rear guard to withdraw, and Washington was aghast to see him at the ferry landing. “It’s a dreadful mistake,” he said. “There’s such confusion at the ferry that we’ll be cut to pieces if you don’t get your men in the lines before the enemy occupies them.” Without hesitation, they returned to the front. Later, Colonel Chester and his men were likewise ordered by mistake to retreat, but before reaching the ferry they were sent back to the trenches again. With dawn’s illumination growing brighter, these steadfast soldiers felt their chances of escape dimming, until forces apparently meteorological, but seemingly divine, intervened.
Connecticut Major Tallmadge wrote that “a very dense fog began to rise and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well, and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards’ distance.” Colonel Smallwood thanked the haze, for “otherwise the fear, disorder and confusion of some of the … troops” would have left them cut off. Finally, the rear guard, hidden in heavy mists from the observation of enemy pickets, left the trenches for the boats.
British suspicions were not aroused until 7 in the morning, and not confirmed until 8:30 when General Robertson led a party into the empty fortifications. Washington, who had hardly been off his horse or slept for the past 48 hours, was among the last to leave. The English found only some heavy artillery sunk to the axles in riverbank mud and a mere three stragglers who lingered to pillage the baggage.
Major Tallmadge, also among the last to leave, tied his horse to a post at the ferry landing. When he and his men reached New York, the fog was still so thick that he asked permission of Washington to retrieve his favorite steed. The general, also an avid equestrian, gave permission. Tallmadge commandeered a boat, found some daring volunteers to return to Brooklyn, and coaxed his horse aboard. The party had just rowed back out of reach as the first British troops appeared. “We were saluted merrily from their musketry, and finally by their field-pieces,” Major Tallmadge recorded. Once safe with his mount on the New York side he also reflected, “In the History of warfare, I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat.”
Washington, however, was not through retreating yet. After three weeks of fruitless negotiations on Staten Island with Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge, Howe routed the American militia at Kips Bay along New York’s East River banks. The defeat at White Plains followed, then on November 16, 1776, came the bitter loss of Fort Washington on the Hudson shore with 3,000 men, supplies, and artillery. After desertions and expired enlistments, Washington’s Grand Armée dissipated on the December retreat across New Jersey to the Delaware River. Only 4,000 men of the original 23,000 he began with in the defense of New York City remained to achieve his stunning and desperate victories at Trenton and Princeton.
“The Declaration of Independence that was signed in ink in Philadelphia was signed in blood in … Brooklyn,” wrote John Gallagher in his 1995 Battle of Brooklyn 1776. With estimations of American losses running between 1,200 and 3,000 out of a total of 50,000 participants, its casualties are not surpassed by any other battle of the war, but the Revolution’s largest conflict remains among its most overlooked. Its few inconspicuous monuments are ignored amid modern Brooklyn’s bustle, even though numbers of soldiers at heralded Yorktown totaled only 19,000 participants for both sides.
Albeit a defeat, the Battle of Brooklyn is arguably the Revolution’s most significant for the Americans because “the Father of Our Nation” learned his lessons well. Washington realized the British had become too canny to offer another Bunker Hill-style engagement, so mobility, not stationary fortifications, remained the advantage that the dimensions of North America offered.
The only campaign to wage against what historian John Gallagher called the world’s “best fighting machine” was one of flexibility and constant maneuvering. “We should on all occasions avoid a general action or put anything to the risk unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never be drawn,” Washington wrote. An American attack came only when the British were weak or divided. With the English supply lines stretching across an ocean, the war became one of attrition and endurance, one where retreat on this vast landscape was not dishonorable. Another vital lesson was learned by Congress: A confederation of militia was not going to get the job done—the effort for independence was going to need a standing professional army, the Continental Army.
If wars, as Winston Churchill claimed after Dunkirk, “are not won by evacuations,” nevertheless they do not necessarily lose them. For the Americans, years of retreats, fierce fighting, and hardship lay ahead, but at the news of the Brooklyn disaster Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband John expressing the spirit that ultimately gave America victory: “If we should be defeated … we shall not be conquered. A people fired, like the Romans, with love of their country and of liberty, a zeal for the public good, and a noble emulation of glory, will not be disheartened or dispirited by a succession of unfortunate events…. May we learn by defeat the power of becoming invincible.”
Battle Of Brooklyn 1776 By John Gallagher
Military Beginnings: Early Development of American and Maryland Forces By Richard Martiny
The Battle For New York By Barnet Schecter
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
On a serene Sunday morning the residents of Oahu enjoyed the dawning of another gorgeous day in paradise. Unknown to them, three converging formations of military aircraft navigated toward their lush island, homing in on the soothing Hawaiian music playing on Honolulu radio stations KGMB and KGU.
The night before, Lt. Col. Clay Hoppaugh, signal officer for the Hawaiian Air Force, had contacted Welby Edwards, manager of KGMB, and asked that the station remain on all night so a flight of Army Air Corps Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers flying from California could home in on the station’s signal. Actually, it was a less than well-kept secret that whenever the station played music all night, aircraft flew in from the mainland the next morning.
Being non-directional, however, that same music also drifted into the radio receivers in the operations rooms of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s six Japanese aircraft carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku, located roughly 300 miles north of Oahu. Nagumo’s task force monitored the station throughout the night for any hint of a military alert on Oahu, and at approximately 7 am on Sunday Lt. Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, leading his formation toward Oahu, also tuned in KGMB to guide his 183 aircraft to their destination.
While Fuchida homed in on KGMB’s signal, 18 U.S. Navy Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers took off from the aircraft carrier Enterprise 200 miles west of Oahu and tuned in radio station KGU to get some homing practice of their own. Shortly after 8 am, the three converging formations, each tracking inbound on the same innocent radio beams, collided in brutal and deadly aerial combat that would plunge the United States into World War II. The date was December 7, 1941.
The story of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is, of course, much broader and more nuanced than just the events surrounding the devastating strike against the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet. In the over 70 years since the attack, there has been no shortage of books and articles detailing events on the “Day of Infamy,” yet most accounts focus almost exclusively on what happened to the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor.
In as much so, scant attention has been paid to the drama of swirling air-to-air combat over Oahu on December 7. For the most part, the aerial battles and dogfights are relegated to footnotes or to a few obscure paragraphs scattered among dozens of sources. Yet the clashes in the air are as compelling, electrifying, and powerful as any actions at Pearl Harbor. Although new sources, American and Japanese, have clarified and in some cases altered the facts about a few iconic episodes, the handful of airmen who fought, and in some cases died, that Sunday morning were truly American heroes who willingly flew to the sound of battle and carried the fight to a determined enemy. Their fight adds a vital missing dimension to the long-established Pearl Harbor story.
The aerial saga began at approximately 6:15 am on December 7, as Commander Minoru Genda, principal planner of the Pearl Harbor attack, watched anxiously aboard the carrier Akagi as his close friend and Eta Jima Naval Academy classmate Mitsuo Fuchida led the first wave of aircraft into the gray dawn. Both men were seasoned carrier pilots and combat veterans from China. Genda had also served a tour in London in 1940 as assistant naval attaché. He had been extremely impressed by the British carrier-based torpedo plane attack that sank or damaged several ships of the Italian Navy’s Mediterranean fleet at the harbor of Taranto, so he felt confident that Fuchida would accomplish a similar feat at Pearl Harbor.
Confidence also permeated the thoughts of the strike commander. As he flew south in his Nakajima B5N2 Kate bomber, a flamboyant Fuchida wore red underwear and a red shirt, reasoning that blood would not show if he were wounded and therefore would not demoralize the other fliers. So it was in that frame of mind as he approached Oahu’s North Shore that Fuchida observed a tranquil, peaceful panorama before him; his first wave had achieved complete surprise. He gave the attack order at 7:40 am, unleashing 43 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters, 49 high-level Kate bombers, 51 Aichi D3A1 Val dive bombers, and 40 Kate torpedo bombers into battle. Then, at 7:53 he sent his infamous message confirming total strategic and tactical surprise: “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
The first-wave fighters wasted no time. Ironically, the opening aerial combat of the Pearl Harbor attack involved a civilian aircraft. One minute after Fuchida’s “Tora!” message, several Zeros from the carrier Akagi stumbled across a Piper Cub flown by solo student Marcus F. Poston. Unable to resist the temptation, the Zeros opened fire with their two 20mm cannon and two 7.7mm machine guns, ripping the Cub’s engine from its mount. The startled but lucky student pilot leaped unhurt from his plane for his first and only parachute jump. Zero pilots Takeshi Hirano and Shinaji Iwama shared the kill.
Genda’s brilliant and bold plan, executed to perfection by Fuchida’s first wave, unfolded without a hitch. Between 7:55 and 8:10 a host of Val dive bombers escorted by Zeros laid waste to the two major military air bases on Oahu. Attacking from different quadrants, 25 Vals dropping 550-pound bombs turned Wheeler Field into a raging inferno. The Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters on the tarmac of the 14th Pursuit Wing offered a particularly inviting target. By order of U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, commander of the Hawaiian Department, all aircraft at Wheeler and Hickam Fields were parked wingtip to wingtip in precise rows, ostensibly to facilitate guarding against sabotage.
Rampaging Vals and strafing Zeros found easy pickings. They destroyed 58 fighters on the ground and damaged another 37. At Hickam only 19 of 58 bombers from the 18th Bombardment Wing survived the attack. Simultaneously, huge columns of black smoke boiled above Pearl Harbor where Type 91 Model 2 Japanese torpedoes had already smashed into the battleships Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and California.
Into this maelstrom of devastation and confusion stumbled the 12 B-17s of the 38th and 88th Reconnaissance Squadrons, led by Major Truman H. Landon. Contrary to a widespread contemporaneous view, they did not make the 13-hour trip in formation; each of the four B-17Cs and eight B-17Es flew and navigated separately, their flights beginning at Hamilton Field, California, about 25 miles north of San Francisco.
Emphasizing the importance of the mission to the Philippines by way of Honolulu, no less a personage than Chief of the Army Air Forces General Henry “Hap” Arnold was there to see them off. Interrupting a quail hunting trip to address the crews, he warned them, “War is imminent. You may run into a war during your flight.” Armed with that admonition but nothing else, the big bombers began taking off at 10:30 pm. The prevalent feeling was that a war would not erupt until after they reached the Philippines. Therefore, none of the ships carried armor or ammunition; they were stripped down and packed to the brim with every gallon of fuel they could carry for the long hop from California to Hawaii. The B-17 Flying Fortresses did in fact carry their potent arsenal of .50-caliber machine guns, but they were boxed, stowed away, and packed in Cosmoline.
As Major Landon’s B-17E approached Oahu from the north at approximately 8 am, he observed a group of planes flying toward him. His first thought was, “Here comes the Air Force out to greet us.” Seconds later the unidentified aircraft dived on Landon, cannon and machine guns blazing. Over the intercom the crew heard someone say, “Damn it, those are Japs!”
To evade the attackers, Landon skillfully flew into a nearby cloud bank, then took up a heading for land. As Landon maneuvered his bomber on the short final run to the Hickham runway, the tower operator advised, “You have three Japs on your tail!” In spite of the hail of fire coming his way, somehow Major Landon managed to get his bird down in one piece. Following right behind Landon, another B-17E appeared through the heavy smoke and touched down. Not believing his eyes, the pilot, Lieutenant Karl T. Barthelmess, thought it was the most realistic drill he had ever seen.
Captain Raymond T. Swenson and crew were not so lucky. After one aborted approach, the pilot positioned his B-17C for a second attempt at Hickam’s runway. At that point a Zero piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Shigeru Itaya riddled the aircraft at point-blank range, sending several bullets into the radio compartment and igniting a bundle of magnesium flares. The Flying Fortress was engulfed in flames when it touched down, and halfway through the landing roll the incinerated fuselage broke in half just behind the wing root. The crew jumped from the burning wreck and ran across the field for cover. All made it except one. The squadron flight surgeon, Lieutenant William R. Schick, was gunned down by a strafing Zero. He died the following day at Tripler Army Hospital.
After repeated Japanese fighter attacks, 1st Lt. Robert H. Richards gave up trying to land in the shambles at Hickam and headed east. Dangerously low on fuel with three wounded crewmen aboard and heavy damage to the ailerons of his B-17C, Richards guided his aircraft in for a downwind landing on the short runway at Bellows Field, a fighter strip on Oahu’s southeast coast. Richards flared out and touched down at approximately midfield on the short strip. Realizing he would not be able to stop, he retracted the wheels and slid off the runway over a ditch and into a sugarcane field bordering Bellows. Maintenance crews counted 73 bullet holes in the plane.
First Lieutenant Frank P. Bostrom also discovered that Hickam, under heavy dive bombing and strafing attacks, was a less than inviting choice for landing. After his B-17E was harassed by nine Zeros, he headed west for Barbers Point, only to be driven off by more Japanese fighters. Desperate to land anywhere and sincerely believing that necessity really was the mother of invention, Bostrom finally set his damaged B-17 down on a fairway at the North Shore’s Kahuku Golf Course. In addition to one Flying Fortress on the golf course and one at Bellows Field, two other B-17s slipped into Haleiwa’s small fighter strip. The remaining eight staggered into Hickam, although one Flying Fortress apparently landed at Wheeler before relocating to Hickam. All were on the ground by 8:20 am. To a man, each crew-member vividly recalled General Arnold’s prophetic warning: they had indeed run into a war.
While Major Landon and his B-17s were mixing it up with Japanese aircraft over Hickam Field, 18 U.S. Navy Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers in nine flights of two aircraft each approached Oahu’s west coast. The aircraft from Scouting and Bombing Squadrons Six had launched from the carrier Enterprise at 6:18 that morning en route to Ewa and Ford Island. Their mission was to scout ahead of the Enterprise on a 90-degree sector search from 045 degrees to 135 degrees for 150 miles, then practice navigation by homing in on radio station KGU’s signal. Between 8:15 and 8:30 am, they flew directly into the gunsights of marauding Zeros from the carrier Soryu. An ominous radio transmission from one of the SBDs set the tone. Over their radios most of the squadron members of Scouting Six and Bombing Six heard the voice of Ensign Manuel Gonzales shout, “Do not attack me. This is Six Baker Three, an American plane!” Gonzales and his radioman/gunner, Leonard J. Kozelek, were never seen again.
Although the SBD Dauntless was no dogfighter, it did have some teeth. It sported two .50-caliber machine guns in its nose cowling and a .30-caliber machine gun manned by the radioman/gunner in the rear cockpit. Ensign John H.L. Vogt armed his guns and unhesitatingly flew his SBD-2 into a group of first-wave aircraft forming up for the return flight to their carrier. Marines on the ground at Ewa watched in amazement as Vogt tangled with a Zero in a twisting, turning fight from 4,000 feet down to just 25 feet above the ground. Marine Lt. Col. Claude Larkin, commander at Ewa, witnessed the battle.
According to Larkin, during one of the abrupt turns the Dauntless and the Zero collided. Vogt and his radioman/gunner, Sidney Pierce, managed to bail out, but they were too low. Both perished when their parachutes failed to fully deploy. Subsequent investigations of Japanese combat records revealed that there was a near miss but no collision; only three first-wave Zeros were lost and none in the vicinity of Ewa. Vogt’s SBD-2 apparently went down under the guns of a Soryu Zero piloted by Shinichi Suzuki.
At that point another Enterprise flight of SBDs was approaching Barbers Point from the south. Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson and his wingman, Ensign John R. McCarthy, were cruising at 4,000 feet when McCarthy spotted two Zeros. He slid under Dickinson so his gunner could get a better shot at the approaching fighters, but that move placed his aircraft in the direct line of fire. McCarthy’s SBD-2 instantly began smoking and crashed, killing his radioman/gunner, Mitchell Cohn. McCarthy managed to bail out, suffering a broken leg when he landed.
Now without a wingman, Dickinson was attacked by four enemy planes. He managed to get in two short bursts from his guns when a Zero overshot, and his backseater, William C. Miller, damaged one of the Zeros while the others hammered his plane from the rear. Miller apparently died or was incapacitated in the deadly exchange. With his left fuel tank on fire and his controls shot away, Dickinson attempted a hard turn to the right away from his attackers, but the SBD-3 went into a spin.
He “hit the silk” at approximately 1,000 feet. Fortunately, he landed unhurt on a dirt embankment just east of Ewa. From there the resourceful naval aviator, dragging his parachute, walked to the main road and hitched a ride with Mr. and Mrs. Otto Hein, who happened to be driving by in their blue sedan. They had no idea that a battle was raging above them. The middle-aged couple turned around and drove Lieutenant Dickinson to Pearl Harbor.
Two more SBDs went down during the first wave. Over Barbers Point, Zeros pounced on Ensign Walter M. Willis and his gunner, Fred J. Ducolon. No trace of either man has ever been found. The final victim was Ensign Edward T. Deacon, shot down by friendly ground fire from Army troops stationed at Fort Weaver near the entrance to Pearl Harbor. Deacon ditched in shallow water several hundred yards from the beach. He and his radioman/gunner were rescued.
The Japanese attack had caught the Hawaiian Air Force, affectionately known as the Pineapple Air Force, completely by surprise. General Short had received a war warning message on November 27 from Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall advising, “Hostile action possible at any moment…” and further directing Short “to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary.” At that point all Hawaiian Army units went on full alert and languished there for a week. By the morning of December 6, General Short elected to stand down and give his men the weekend off.
Marshall’s war warning proved prophetic. When the attack materialized 10 days later and caught the chain of command napping, a handful of individual Army Air Force pilots got airborne on their own initiative and engaged the enemy, but there was no coordinated defense. The few serviceable aircraft were launched piecemeal as pilots arrived to fly them.
Just before 8 am, when the first Japanese bombs exploded among the parked aircraft at Wheeler Field and shattered the Sunday morning calm, two second lieutenants, “brown bars” only a few months out of flight school, sprang into action. Kenneth M. Taylor from Hominy, Oklahoma, and George S. Welch from Wilmington, Delaware, were still a little groggy from a round of Saturday night partying. Sporting tuxedos and white dinner jackets, the lieutenants had begun the evening at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel before moving on to a dance at the Hickam Officers’ Club. From there they adjourned to the Wheeler Officers’ Club for a late-night poker game before turning in around 3 am.
At the sound of the first bombs, Taylor staggered out of bed and hastily dressed in the nearest apparel, tux trousers and formal shirt. Immediately he ran into the street and met Welch, who shouted, “What the hell is going on? Those son-of-a-bitches are bombing the hell out of us!”
Both young lieutenants realized that a war had started, but they were not exactly sure with whom. Dumbfounded by the catastrophe unfolding before his eyes, Taylor eventually had the presence of mind to call Haleiwa, the auxiliary field on the North Shore where his squadron’s P-40B fighters had been bedded down, and direct them to get the planes ready for immediate launch. With that, both men jumped into Taylor’s red Buick and raced to Haleiwa about 10 miles away. The field had been graciously overlooked in Genda’s attack plan.
On arrival the Army pilots hurriedly strapped into their P-40s and took off. Right behind them, 2nd Lt. John Dains arrived in another car and took off in the next available P-40. Although many historians and newspapers credit Taylor and Welch with America’s first aerial victory of World War II, there is a strong possibility that Dains may own that honor. Early in the second wave, radar operators at Ka’a’awa on the windward coast watched as Dains engaged in a vicious dogfight with a Val piloted by Satoru Kawasaki and shot his opponent down. Unfortunately, as Dains returned to Wheeler from his second sortie, this time flying a P-36 fighter, trigger-happy gunners at Schofield Barracks opened fire and killed him.
When Taylor and Welch took off from Haleiwa, for unknown reasons only the four wing-mounted .30-caliber machine guns in each plane were loaded. The plane’s two .50-caliber machine guns were not. Although estimates vary widely, the two lieutenants probably got airborne around 8:55 with instructions to patrol over Barbers Point. Finding nothing there, Welch, nicknamed “Wheaties,” spotted about a dozen aircraft circling over the Marine airfield at Ewa.
Using Taylor’s nickname, Welch shouted, “Hey Grits, I see Jap bombers down there just like sitting ducks.” With that, both pilots put their P-40s into screaming dives and closed on the circling Val dive bombers. The novice fighter pilots simply dropped into line behind the wagon wheel formation, picked individual targets, and began firing. Welch lined up a Val in his sights. With only three of his four guns firing, he sent a long burst into his opponent and watched as the smoking Val tumbled out of control and fell to earth.
In an interview shortly after the fight, Welch described the action over Ewa: “Their rear gunner was apparently shooting at the ground—because they didn’t see us coming. I got him in a five-second burst—he burned up right away.” Welch was credited with the victory, but years later further investigation indicates that in the chaotic combat Hiroyasu Kawabata’s Val recovered on the deck and was able to limp back to the Hiryu.
Taylor brought down the first plane he engaged. He noted, “It was a short burst but the guy immediately exploded into flames and rolled over. All I could see were those two fixed landing gear sticking up. He crashed very close to Ewa.”
After watching the first Val plummet toward the ground, Welch went vertical by executing a loop and lined up another D3A in his sights. Welch explained, “I left him and got the next plane in a circle which was about one hundred yards ahead of him. It took about three bursts of five seconds each to get him. He crashed on the beach.”
While Welch’s .30-caliber machine guns ripped Hajime Goto’s Val apart, the rear seat gunner returned fire, forcing Welch to break off. At that point Japanese sources claim that Taylor opened fire on the same Val, wounding the gunner and scoring more hits on the enemy plane.
In the confusion and unaware of Welch’s duel with Goto, Taylor’s account of the action stated, “With my first burst I killed his rear gunner, and then began to pour it into the Jap. Black smoke began to stream out of him and he started to lose altitude fast. I didn’t want to get too far out to sea, so I headed for Wheeler Field, and I didn’t see this fellow crash.”
Army officials saw it differently. In view of the fact that Welch’s deadly fire had raked Goto’s Val and that he observed the aircraft crash, they assigned credit for the victory to Welch.
The duo of Taylor and Welch latched onto other Vals and saw them smoke but never witnessed the crashes. Low on ammunition, Grits and Wheaties broke off the engagement and individually set course for Wheeler.
Over the years the exact time and details of the Taylor and Welch combat over Ewa have been repeatedly analyzed and in some cases questioned. Clearly the proverbial “fog of war” and lax record keeping contribute to the confusion, but the two pilots inadvertently fed the fires of controversy themselves. In testimony on December 26, 1941, before the Roberts Commission investigating the Pearl Harbor attack, Taylor related somewhat confusing details about what happened on December 7.
Taylor testified that after getting airborne from Haleiwa, “Lieutenant Welch and myself started patrolling the Island. There wasn’t any .50-caliber ammunition, so we landed at the field [Wheeler].”
Taylor never mentioned the battle over Ewa. Moreover, both pilots’ descriptions of combat to the Roberts Commission focused on their second sortie, leaving the impression that all the action had occurred after the wild launch out of Wheeler. Any inconsistencies were officially put to rest when the citations awarding Taylor and Welch the Distinguished Service Cross included the Haleiwa to Ewa combat sequences.
After landing at Wheeler, Taylor and Welch quickly climbed back into their rearmed P-40s for a second mission. They got airborne just as a Japanese second-wave formation bored in on the field, and according to eyewitnesses Taylor began firing his guns while still on takeoff roll. Once in the air, Taylor immediately began pouring machine-gun fire head-on into a Val, only to be jumped from behind by a second Val piloted by Saburo Makino. One of Makino’s bullets shattered Taylor’s canopy and went through his left arm, hit the metal trim tab, and then sent a dozen pieces of shrapnel into his legs.
Taylor broke into a high G turn in an effort to lose his foe, and then Welch came to the rescue. To keep from overshooting Makino’s Val, Welch resourcefully lowered his flaps and began pummeling his opponent with .50-caliber machine-gun fire. Mrs. Paul Young, standing in the door of her house in Wahiawa, watched as Welch blasted the Val. Makino’s D3A pitched down, shearing off the top of the eucalyptus tree in her backyard before it crashed into a nearby pineapple field. This was Welch’s third confirmed kill of the day; a few minutes later he downed a Zero off Barbers Point.
With his 6 o’clock clear, Taylor engaged a Val flown by Iwao Oka. In spite of a blistering volley from the rear-seat gunner and wounds to his arm and legs, Taylor attacked Oka’s aircraft mercilessly, sending the Val crashing into the ground near the entrance to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp.
At Haleiwa Lieutenants Harry W. Brown and Robert J. Rogers of the 47th Pursuit Squadron each took off in obsolete P-36s, an earlier version of the P-40 fitted with a radial engine. They headed for Kaena Point, the westernmost tip of Oahu, where Rogers encountered a mixed flight of Japanese aircraft. When two enemy planes singled Rogers out, Brown, from Amarillo, Texas, dived into the fight, shooting down one of the attackers. Rogers poured a long stream of tracers into the other aircraft, which smoked and fell away, but he did not see it crash. Brown then joined up with Lieutenant Malcolm A. Moore’s P-36 and engaged two departing Zeros. Neither enemy fighter was seen to crash, but neither made it back to its carrier.
On the opposite side of the island, the battle turned tragic for the P-40 pilots of the 44th Pursuit Squadron. A flight of nine Zeros led by Lieutenant Fusata Iida had just wreaked havoc on Kaneohe Naval Air Station before moving south to Bellows. Several of the Marine ground crews at Kaneohe extracted a measure of revenge when they poured multiple Browning automatic rifle magazines into Iida’s fuel tank. Realizing he could never make it back to his carrier, Iida elected to dive his Zero into the Kaneohe base armory. Instead, his plunging aircraft struck a glancing blow on a street and then skidded into an earthen embankment. Later, Iida’s mangled remains were removed from the wrecked aircraft and placed into a garbage can—not out of disrespect but because that was the only thing available. Iida’s body, along with the bodies of 16 Americans, was left outside the sickbay entrance.
Then, at 9 am, as three young pilots sprinted for any undamaged parked aircraft on the Bellows tarmac, the remaining Zeros from Iida’s group strafed the ramp, killing 2nd Lt. Hans Christenson as he climbed into his P-40B. Two other lieutenants from the 44th Pursuit Squadron, George A. Whiteman and Samuel W. Bishop, gunned their engines on a hair-raising takeoff scramble. Before Whiteman got 100 feet into the air, a Zero piloted by Tsuguo Matsuyama blasted the vulnerable fighter with a burst right into the cockpit; the P-40 crashed into the sand dunes at the end of the runway and exploded. Bishop’s P-40 attained 800 feet of altitude before a Zero literally pounded it into the ocean. Bishop crashed about a half mile off shore but got out of the wreckage and was able to swim to the beach.
Back in the shambles at Wheeler, Lieutenant Lewis M. Sanders of the 46th Pursuit Squadron found four serviceable P-36s and a ragtag collection of pilots to fly them. Second Lieutenants Phillip M. Rasmussen, John M. Thacker, and Gordon M. Sterling each jumped into the cockpit of a P-36. As he strapped in, Sterling, from West Hartford, Connecticut, handed his wristwatch to the crew chief and said, “See that my mother gets this. I won’t be coming back.”
At approximately 8:50, Lieutenant Sanders got his flight airborne between the first and second waves and headed east toward the naval air station at Kaneohe. From his altitude of 11,000 feet, Sanders spotted a formation of enemy aircraft, six Soryu Zeros about to join up with the same Hiryu Zeros that had ravaged Bellows. With no hesitation, the Americans dived into the numerically superior force.
At 9:15 Sanders opened fire on the leader and observed his tracers tear into the Zero’s fuselage. The plane nosed up then fell off to the right smoking. After executing a fast clearing turn, Sanders saw Gordon Sterling in a near vertical dive pouring deadly fire into a Zero. But a second Zero latched onto Sterling’s tail and peppered him with 20mm cannon fire. Sanders executed a diving turn with plenty of angle-off and engaged that Zero at maximum range.
In a terrifying scene, the line of four aircraft—Zero, Sterling’s burning P-36, Zero, Sanders—disappeared into an overcast. In his combat report Sanders stated, “The way they had been going, they couldn’t have pulled out, so it was obvious that all three went into the sea.” Ultimately, however, Japanese records showed that only Sterling went into Kaneohe Bay. The two Zeros, although badly damaged, made it back to the Soryu.
rguably, the title of luckiest pilot of the day belonged to Lieutenant Phil Rasmussen, a native Bostonian. As he dived into the dogfight as part of Lew Sanders’s flight, Rasmussen, flying in purple pajamas, charged his machine guns only to have them malfunction and begin firing on their own. At that precise moment a Zero passed directly into his runaway machine-gun fire and exploded. Only a minute or two later Rasmussen was jumped by two Zeros that laced his P-36 with a volley of devastating machine-gun and cannon fire. The enemy barrage tore off his tail wheel, severed his rudder cables, and shattered his canopy. Rasmussen only escaped by ducking into a convenient cloud.
A handful of other Pineapple Air Force pilots saw action on that Sunday morning before Commander Fuchida rounded up the second wave and departed around 10 am. The 19 Army Air Force pursuit pilots who got airborne during the attack downed 11 Japanese aircraft, claimed five probables, and damaged at least two others. The Japanese confirmed losing 29 aircraft over Oahu and were forced to jettison an additional 19 aircraft from their carriers because of extensive battle damage. On December 11 the Honolulu Star Bulletin published an article attributed to General Short declaring that Army fliers downed 20 Japanese aircraft during the attack.
ithout question the American pilots and airmen who squared off against the Japanese in aerial combat at Pearl Harbor faced overwhelming odds, danger, and mass confusion. In spite of the chaos and turmoil, the relatively small number of inexperienced young lieutenants gave better than they got, and ironically nobody told them not to dogfight with nimble Zeros or Vals. Instead, they tackled their opponents in classic one-on-one air battles.
Many historians accept as a matter of faith that early in the war the Mitsubishi Zero maintained a high victory ratio against mediocre American fighters like the P-40 Warhawk. The statistics in general and Pearl Harbor in particular suggest a different conclusion. Although George Whiteman and Sam Bishop both fell prey to the vaunted Zero, they were on takeoff leg and in no position to bring their guns to bear. Lieutenant Gordon Sterling was the only pursuit pilot actually brought down in air-to-air combat with a Zero, whereas the American pilots flying supposedly inferior equipment downed at least four Zeros and two probables, thereby punching the first holes in the Zero’s aura of invincibility.
Unfortunately, most Americans have no knowledge of these meager yet significant aerial victories and remember Pearl Harbor only as an unmitigated naval disaster. Perhaps a comment by Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the Pacific Fleet on December 7, best captures that gloomy sentiment. Watching the attack from his office window, Admiral Kimmel flinched when a spent bullet crashed through the glass, striking him on the chest and leaving a dark smudge on his white uniform. Picking up the bullet, he muttered, “It would have been merciful had it killed me.”
There was no such negative sentiment among the surviving American fliers of that Sunday morning. A more appropriate mind-set for the fliers who battled above Pearl Harbor is captured in Winston Churchill’s epic observation, “If you’re going through hell, keep going!” They did. The Army Air Force crews and naval aviators engaged in aerial combat over Oahu, while unable to change the course of the battle, wrote the first American chapters in the World War II handbook on war in the air. They set the bar high and defined the aggressive spirit of American warriors who kept fighting in the face of overwhelming odds.
At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor By Gordon W. Prange
Day of Infamy: The Bombing of Pearl Harbor By Walter Lord
Pearl Harbor: Final Judgement By Bruce Lee
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
He was wounded 37 times by bullets, shrapnel, a bayonet, and a rifle butt but his only thoughts were on those others who were hit on that day in May 1968. His actions saved eight other men’s lives in Vietnam on that day. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery but it wouldn’t be for 13 more years. Because nothing ever came easy for Roy Benavidez.
Benavidez was born in 1935 outside of Cuero, Texas to a Mexican sharecropper father and a Yaqui Indian mother. Both of them would be dead of tuberculosis before Roy was eight years old. He was moved to his grandparents with his younger brother and he grew up with eight other cousins in the household.
He struggled in school before dropping out in the seventh grade. He worked odd jobs to help support his family; in a tire shop, on farms in the area, even shining shoes in the bus station.
Everything began to change for him in 1952 when he joined the National Guard. Three years later he enlisted in the Regular Army. He married his wife and joined the 82nd Airborne Division in 1959. Like many other men, he moved down the street and joined Special Forces.
On his first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1965, he stepped on a landmine and was airlifted out to the states where he was told that he’d never walk again. Determined to prove the doctors wrong, he’d sneak out of his bed and began a furious nightly regimen where he’s crawl to a wall and slowly force himself up to a standing position. He recalled in a speech the agony he’d go thru to walk again.
“The doctors were initiating my medical discharge papers, but at night I would slip out of bed and crawl to a wall using my elbows and my chin. My back would just be killing me and I’d be crying, but I get to the wall and I set myself against the wall and I’d back myself up against the wall and I’d stand there — like Kaw-Liga, the Indian. I’d stand and move my toes, right and left…every single chance I got — I got. And I wanted to walk — I wanted to go back to Vietnam because of what the news media was saying about us: that our presence was not needed there; they’re burning the flag.”
A year later in July 1966, he walked out of the hospital accompanied by his wife, determined to resume his Special Forces career.
Benavidez returned to Vietnam in January 1968. He was assigned to Detachment B-56, 5th Special Forces Group at Loc Ninh, an SF base along the Cambodian border.
On May 2, 1968, Benavidez, a devout Catholic was attending a prayer service when he heard that a 12-man patrol had inserted into a hornets’ nest of NVA, numbering between 1000-1500. The patrol of three Americans and nine Nung tribesmen was shot up and calling for immediate extraction. The ensuing battle would last for over six hours.
Three attempts to extricate the team by helicopters were driven off by intense ground and anti-aircraft fire. Grabbing a medical aid bag and armed with only a knife, Benavidez leaped on a rescue chopper and off they went.
The helicopter got to within 75 yards of the trapped men and Benavidez jumped from the hovering Huey and raced to the trapped team coming under withering fire. He was hit in the leg and knocked down. But he continued to the team and blasted by a grenade blast suffering shrapnel wounds to his face, arm, and back.
Reaching the trapped team, four men were already dead and the rest were wounded. Benavidez treated the wounded, grabbed an AK from one of the dead men and passed around ammunition. Then he directed air strikes around the perimeter to keep the NVA at bay.
Calling in a Huey to evacuate part of the dead and wounded, he was shot again in the leg. Ignoring his own wounds, he dragged the dead and wounded to the chopper, he provided covering fire. The chopper moved to the second group of men for extract with Benavidez under it, firing at the enemy.
NVA fire increased and smashed into the Huey, killing the pilot and sending the Huey crashing into the ground. Benavidez had made it to the dead team leader and removed the classified documents from around the man’s neck. He was then shot in the stomach by an NVA soldier and another grenade tore into his back and shoulders.
Despite this, and now coughing up blood, he crawled to the downed helicopter. There they formed a small perimeter and passed out the remaining ammunition. He continued to direct air strikes from F-4 Phantom jets and helicopter gunships to push the NVA back. Several of the strikes were danger close.
The North Vietnamese fire increased and mortar rounds were falling everywhere. All of the wounded including Benavidez were hit again. The American helicopter pilots were ready to attempt another rescue attempt.
Grabbing a seriously wounded American SF team member, he hoisted him over his shoulder and lurched toward the waiting helicopter. An NVA soldier believed dead, leaped up and clubbed Benavidez with the butt of his Ak-47, breaking his jaw and knocking him to the ground. As the NVA soldier lunged at Benavidez with his bayonet, Roy grabbed it with his right hand and used his Bowie knife in his left. Pulling the enemy soldier forward he stabbed him but not before suffering a slash to his right hand and his left arm being run thru with the bayonet.
Again, he attempted to drag his American comrade to the helicopter and then noticed two more NVA run from the jungle in the blind spot of the American door gunners. Benavidez grabbed an AK-47 and somehow managed to drop both of the enemy soldiers.
He then made another trip into the perimeter and brought out the team’s interpreter before finally being pushed into the helicopter and lifting off. Holding his intestines in with one hand, he held his dying teammate’s hand with the other.
Having almost bled out on the helicopter, Benavidez slipped into near unconsciousness. A doctor felt for a heartbeat and not registering one, indicated that he should be placed in a body bag with the dead. Benavidez, unable to speak because of the broken jaw, spit in the doctor’s face to let him know he was still alive.
He was then taken into the hospital where the doctors began to treat his myriad of injuries. He had seven gunshot wounds, one of them went thru his back, destroying his right lung and exited just beneath his heart. He had 28 shrapnel wounds in his back, neck, head, legs, feet, and buttocks. Both arms were pierced by a bayonet as well as his hand. His jaw was broken and the back of his head smashed by the enemy’s rifle butt. None of the doctors expected Benavidez to survive. They were wrong.
His wounds were to take a year to heal and he went back to Brooke Army Medical Center. His commander wanted to put Roy in for the Medal of Honor but instead opted for the Distinguished Service Cross believing that he’d at least receive that before his wounds would kill him. Benavidez was awarded the DSC by Gen. William Westmoreland the Chief of Staff of the Army.
Years later after the war, his commander tried to get the Army to reconsider and upgrade Benavidez’s award to the Medal of Honor. But was told that no other American had survived and could confirm his deeds.
Far away in the Fiji Islands, an American, Brian O’Connor who had been the radio man who called for that first frantic call for extraction, read about the development in the newspapers. He wrote a detailed description of the fateful event on that day in May 1968 and that Benavidez was responsible for saving the lives of eight men.
The Pentagon reconsidered and in 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented Benavidez the Medal of Honor. Reagan turned to the press and said, “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it”.
President Reagan urged Benavidez to speak to the young children of the USA, something Roy took to heart and enjoyed immensely. He spoke about getting an education, learning a trade and love of country.
Benavidez died from complications of diabetes in 1998 but his legend will live on. He’s the consummate Special Operator. And on this day 49 years ago, he showed the never quit attitude that the Special Operations Forces pride themselves on. He often finished his speeches with this closing.
I’m asked hundreds of times: Would you do it over again? In my 25 years in the military, I feel like I’ve been overpaid for the service to my country. There will never be enough paper to print the money nor enough gold in Fort Knox for me to have to keep from doing what I did. I’m proud to be an American; and even prouder — and I’m even prouder that I’ve earned the privilege to wear the Green Beret. I live by the motto of “Duty, Honor, Country.”
Legend: The Incredible Story of Green Beret Sergeant Roy Benavidez's Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines By Eric Blehm
Medal of Honor: One Man's Journey From Poverty and Prejudice By Roy Benavidez
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Reveille sounded before the sun could light up the tropic sky. Blue-clad soldiers with only a few hours’ sleep shook off their stiffness, and orders circulated among them to strike their pup tents. As the gray light of dawn slowly crept across the eastern Cuban sky, tropical birds squawked to announce the beginning of the first day of July 1898.
Regiments of American troops were camped along the Santiago Road for several miles back toward Siboney. Brigadier General Samuel S. Sumner’s Cavalry Division of two brigades rested below El Pozo Hill. Because of the limited sea transport available when the Americans landed at Daiquirí on June 22–barely enough to accommodate the troops, let alone horses–the dismounted cavalry would have to fight as infantry. Only the artillery, supply trains, officers and their orderlies retained their mounts.
Colonel Henry K. Carroll commanded the brigade of the 3rd, 6th and 9th (Colored) U.S. Cavalry regiments, while Colonel Leonard Wood commanded the brigade of the 1st and 10th (Colored) U.S. cavalries, along with the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, known as the ‘Rough Riders.’ A Harvard graduate and surgeon, Wood had established his military reputation in the 1886 campaign against the Apache warrior Geronimo, during which he received the Medal of Honor. Wood had assumed command of the brigade after Sumner had relieved the division’s ailing original commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler.
Along the road behind El Pozo waited Brig. Gen. Jacob Ford Kent’s 1st Division. Brigadier General Hamilton S. Hawkins commanded the 1st Brigade, which included the 6th and 16th U.S. Infantry and 71st New York Volunteer Infantry regiments. Close behind him were Brig. Gen. Charles A. Wikoff and his 2nd Brigade, comprised of the 9th, 13th and 24th (Colored) U.S. Infantry regiments. Then came Brig. Gen. E.P. Pearson’s 3rd Brigade, made up of the 2nd, 10th and 21st U.S. Infantry regiments.
The previous morning, Maj. Gen. William R. Shafter, commander of the V Corps, had ridden up to El Pozo to survey the heights around Santiago de Cuba and El Caney. His staff accompanied him–Lt. Col. Edward J. McClernand, Lt. Col. George McClellan Derby, Lt. Col. John D. Miley and Lieutenant R.H. Noble. Derby, the chief engineer officer, went up in a hydrogen balloon to observe the proposed battlefield. At noon, Brig. Gen. Henry W. Lawton, commander of the 2nd Division, and Brig. Gen. Adna R. Chaffee, commanding that division’s 3rd Brigade, joined the staff on their ride.
When Shafter completed his reconnaissance, he summoned Kent and Sumner to outline a plan of action.The ground assault on the city of Santiago was part of a joint Army-Navy operation to capture or destroy the Spanish cruiser squadron trapped in the bay. The dominating heights around the city, defended by 750 men and two modern howitzers, was the primary Army objective. Spanish General Arsenio Linares y Pombo had placed most of Santiago’s garrison of 10,429 soldiers, sailors, marines and more artillery at other points around the city, or in reserve.
To the north, 3,000 Cuban insurgents under General Calixto García Iñiguez blocked the arrival of any Spanish reinforcements along the Cobre Road. Northeast of the city, 520 Spanish troops, commanded by Brig. Gen. Joaquín Vara de Rey y Rubio, occupied El Caney. Because reinforcements could move down the road from El Caney and threaten Shafter’s right flank, he proposed that Lawton capture the town. Lawton claimed that he could take it in two hours. Shafter detached Captain Allyn Capron’s howitzer battery to support Lawton.
Sumner and Kent would advance along the main road to Santiago, then cross the Aguadores River, with Sumner deploying his brigades to the right and Kent to the left. After he captured El Caney, Lawton would line up to the right of Sumner. Captain George Grimes’ howitzer battery would support the main effort.
In the light of early dawn on July 1, the men ate a meal. Rumors flew about the day’s events. The bugles then sounded attention, and the soldiers lined up in double columns on the dusty road. At the head of each regiment the commander stood next to the regimental and national colors, which were cased in oilcloth covers. Bugles sounded again, and the troops moved forward. As regiment after regiment marched down the road to Santiago, McClernand and Miley of Shafter’s staff rode through the troops with their orderlies to coordinate the battle from the front. Shafter was in his tent, too ill to actively participate, and McClernand set up on El Pozo Hill, where he could communicate with Shafter by wire telephone and mounted orderlies.
With blanket rolls slung over their shoulders and haversacks by their sides, the men trudged forward along the narrow road. At about 6 a.m., Grimes’ battery raced past the soldiers and up El Pozo Hill, where the artillerymen positioned the howitzers with their barrels aimed toward Santiago. Miley then rode to Shafter’s headquarters to report on the troops’ progress.
Around 7 o’clock, the sound of distant thunder to the north signaled that Capron’s battery had opened the battle for El Caney. By then, Wikoff’s brigade had joined the march. The remaining cavalry regiments pressed forward to join Sumner’s men at El Pozo. Infantry regiments crowded up against the cavalry, with as many as three regiments abreast. Journalists rode up and down the columns. Most of the correspondents, foreign military observers and senior officers enjoyed the view from El Pozo.
After he heard firing on El Caney for an hour, McClernand turned and gave Grimes permission to open his own cannonade, and clouds of white smoke billowed from the howitzers. Colonel Wood looked down on his brigade and commented to Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt that he wished the troopers were out of the line of fire. Moments later, a whistling sound split the air, followed by an explosion and then another as two quick-firing Spanish Krupp guns answered Grimes’ fire. A third round struck the little house on El Pozo, spraying shrapnel that killed two and wounded several other spectators. Before the next volley, men above and below the hill scrambled for cover, leaving Grimes’ battery alone to do its work. It continued to pour rounds into the enemy for nearly three quarters of an hour, but the smoke obscured Grimes’ view of the Spanish artillery.
Miley soon returned to El Pozo. The sound of the guns had stirred ‘Fighting Joe’ Wheeler to join the troops there. The former Confederate cavalry leader became the senior officer at the front and worked closely with McClernand. He then instructed Wood and Sumner to form their brigades and advance. Sumner asked, ‘What do I do then?’ ‘You are to await orders,’ replied McClernand.
McClernand then pointed to the blockhouse on San Juan Hill and told Kent that it was his objective. Kent was directed to follow closely behind the cavalry and deploy to the left, with his right anchored on the Santiago Road. Kent then passed on the same instructions to Hawkins. Neither had reconnoitered the area.
Miley rode to the front with his mounted orderlies to provide communications with McClernand. Passing Kent, he told him to give right of way so the cavalry could get into position first. At 9 o’clock, the cavalry column advanced down the jungle trail. Carroll’s brigade led, followed by Wood’s brigade and then Hawkins’. When the lead cavalry brigade reached the San Juan River, the men waded through the knee-deep water regiment by regiment and then peeled off to the right.
Kent and Hawkins, joined by Miley, rode to the river crossing to reconnoiter. Hawkins believed his brigade could ascend the hill, storm the blockhouse and then turn the Spanish flank. Kent had his doubts. Miley agreed with Hawkins, however, and with the authority delegated to him by Shafter, he directed Hawkins to take the hill. Riding back, Hawkins squeezed past the cavalrymen who were bottled up at the crossing, completing their slow deployment into a line. About that time, a dynamite gun and a battery of Hotchkiss guns arrived. Roosevelt claimed the dynamite gun, and Hawkins took command of the others.
With the men advancing down the road well within range of enemy guns, Shafter ordered Grimes’ battery to again open fire. At 10 o’clock, his howitzers belched fire and smoke, but to everyone’s surprise, the Spaniards did not answer. By that time, Captain Robert Lee Howze of Carroll’s staff rode up to report that his brigade had crossed the Aguadores. Meanwhile, Sumner had ordered Wood’s brigade forward. The heat rose as the tropic sun climbed high in the sky. Concealed in the trees along the road, snipers dressed in quilted canvas tunics filled with sand and covered with palm leaves formed the forward skirmish line of the Spanish defense force.
Behind Wood’s brigade, four soldiers towed a balloon. On his own initiative, Derby ascended just above the trees in the partially filled balloon along with Major Joseph Edwin Maxfield of the Signal Corps, who commanded the balloon company. If the Spaniards had any doubt as to the Americans’ location, the sight of the rising balloon removed it. Mauser rounds and artillery shells began to cut through the air, snapping leaves and branches before finding their targets–the American soldiers below. The riddled balloon returned to earth, but not before Derby obtained one bit of useful information.
As Kent’s infantrymen pushed past the deflating balloon, Derby informed their commander of another trail several hundred yards up from the Aguadores to the left of the main trail. Since the cavalrymen still blocked the main road, Kent’s infantrymen could bypass them and more directly reach their assault positions on the left. The 6th and 16th Infantry regiments of Hawkins’ brigade had already passed the turnoff, so Kent turned the next regiment in line.
The 71st New York Volunteer infantrymen did not possess the same seasoned discipline and training as the Regulars. Demoralized by the incoming fire, they advanced down the new trail only a short distance before they froze. Kent and his aides rode up and reprimanded the men, but they would not budge. The officers then ordered the volunteers to make way for others, and Kent sent back for Wikoff to push his brigade through.
First Lieutenant Wendall L. Simpson ran back, waving his hat for Wikoff to hurry his men forward. Wikoff was leading his brigade down the trail and into the opening when at 12:30 p.m. he fell wounded. As some of his men carried him back in an abandoned chair they had found, he waved to the rest and cried, ‘Get on up, boys, they need you–hurry!’ Then he died.
Simpson turned to the first commander in line, Lt. Col. William S. Worth, and instructed the new brigade commander to hurry his 13th Infantry across the ford. Five minutes after Wikoff had fallen, a Spanish round hit Worth in the chest. His sword dropped from his hand, but he remained mounted, retrieved his sword with his left hand and waved it to his men. In spite of his determination, loss of blood forced him to the rear. Five minutes after Lt. Col. Emerson H. Liscum of the 24th (Colored) assumed command of the brigade, he, too, fell wounded. At last, Simpson reported to Lt. Col. Ezra P. Ewers, commander of the 9th Infantry, who brought the remainder of the brigade forward while another staff officer rode back to bring up Pearson’s brigade.
Meanwhile, shouts and insults rang out as the Regulars squeezed by the cowering New Yorkers. Little by little, the jeers goaded the volunteers to join in the advance. After Hawkins drew his 6th and 16th into line to the left of the Siboney Road, he looked for but could not find his reserve. He did not know that Kent had diverted it. With the exception of two companies, the 71st had ceased to exist as a unit. The American plan was beginning to unravel.
In the valley of the San Juan River, north of the road to Santiago, Sumner’s cavalry division had lined up for the impending assault. Carroll’s brigade formed the first line. His 9th (Colored) held the right, the 6th was in the center and the 3rd was on the left. Behind the 9th waited Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. To his left and a little forward rested the 1st, with the 10th (Colored) behind it in reserve. To the immediate front of the cavalry division rose the hill, topped by a few buildings, that would be their objective. Capturing ‘Kettle Hill,’ named by the Americans after a large iron kettle they found on it, would provide a foothold to the San Juan Hill complex.
Hawkins’ two regiments anchored on the road awaited Ewers’ brigade. The 13th arrived in the lead, then the 24th (Colored) followed by the 9th Infantry. Pearson followed with his brigade. Kent directed Pearson to deploy his 10th and 2nd Infantry regiments to the extreme left and send the 21st down the main road to join Hawkins as his reserve. Eight rows of barbed-wire fences stretched between Kent’s infantry and the Spanish trenches.
Both the heat and Mauser fire became more intense. The men sought cover in the folds of the ground or behind brush, and officers walked among their men to bolster flagging morale. The Americans returned the Mauser fire, which did little good against the entrenched Spaniards. Casualties mounted as the senior officers waited for Lawton’s division to arrive, but that tenacious officer was still trying to take the blockhouses at El Caney. The Spanish defenders there fought with equal resolve until their ammunition ran out and their heroic commander, Vara de Rey, was killed.
No further orders came from General Shafter, who could not even see the battle. In sections along the river that they would later call ‘Hell’s Pocket’ and the ‘Bloody Ford,’ the men waited while Mauser bullets claimed more lives. The wounded who could walk made their way back to the aid station at the crossing of the Aguadores. Only storming the heights would silence the Spanish guns and finally end the killing.
The senior American officers had seen service in the Civil War. That conflict had trained them to await orders and follow them. Their company and junior field grade officers, in contrast, had begun their careers fighting Indians. The isolation of frontier garrisons and small-unit operations had accustomed them to acting on their own initiative.
Lieutenant John H. Parker raced down the main road with his four horse-drawn Gatling guns. ‘Where in the hell are the Spaniards?’ he exclaimed. ‘I’ve been fighting all day and haven’t seen a damned one!’ A captain graciously pointed to the top of the ridge. Parker thanked him and pulled his guns off to the side of the road. At 1:15, he placed them into action.
Lieutenant Jules Garesche Ord of Hawkins’ staff had remarked to a friend that he would come out of this battle either as a colonel or a corpse. Seeing the futility of remaining exposed to galling fire, he told Hawkins, ‘General, if you will order a charge, I will lead it.’
Ord’s commander remembered the costly charges against an entrenched enemy during the Civil War. He said nothing. At about that same time, they heard the pounding of Parker’s Gatlings.
Ord again spoke up: ‘If you do not wish to order a charge, General, I should like to volunteer. May I volunteer? We can’t stay here, can we?’
‘I would not ask any man to volunteer,’ replied the general.
‘If you do not forbid it, I will start it,’ returned Ord.
Hawkins pondered the situation for a moment. He observed the impact of the Gatlings kicking up clouds of yellow dust on the Spanish entrenchments. The other two brigades were not yet on line.
Undaunted by the silence, Ord again spoke up, ‘I only ask you not to refuse permission.’
Hawkins looked at this enthusiastic young officer. ‘I will not ask for volunteers, I will not give permission and I will not refuse it,’ he said. ‘God bless you and good luck!’
A smile flashed across the lieutenant’s face. With pistol in one hand, sword in the other, he ran forward at a crouch, shouting: ‘Come on–come on, you fellows! Come on–we can’t stop here.’
A spontaneous cry went up along the line. The waiting under fire was over. The men moved forward with Ord in the lead. Hawkins positioned himself between his two regiments and encouraged his men along the way.
As soon as the 13th Infantry came into the clearing, its men began to fall under the heavy enemy fire. Major William Auman, who had assumed command of the regiment after two senior officers were wounded, ordered his men to a gentle rise 100 yards to his front that offered some shelter and waited for the 24th Infantry to line up on his left. A sergeant in the 24th then sprang to his feet, shouting: ‘Come on, boys! Let’s knock the hell out of those sons of bitches!’ The 24th advanced, followed by the 9th Infantry and then the 13th.
A ragged blue line of four infantry regiments on line and one in reserve moved across the open valley in a series of short rushes with flags waving, the troops firing and advancing the 600 yards in no real order. They cut their way through the wire fences. The Spaniards increased their fire, and with each advance more men fell. The Americans were 150 yards from the foot of the hill when, without orders, the 6th Infantry’s bugler sounded the long notes of ‘Charge!’ Another yell rang out, and the men ran for the hill. All the while Parker advanced his Gatlings with the infantry and, with at least three working guns, sprayed the enemy trenches.
Across the road, Roosevelt had already lost several of his company officers while waiting for messengers to find either his brigade or division commander. Impatient with the mounting casualties, he decided that in the absence of orders he would lead the charge himself. As a politician, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt had come to Cuba to earn glory, and he lacked the disciplined obedience of the Regular Army officers.
At McClernand’s request, Wheeler rode forward and passed on instructions to Kent to advance. Wheeler then rejoined his cavalry division, and Sumner rode back among the men of the 10th Cavalry to give them the order to advance. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph H. Dorst rode up and told Roosevelt ‘to move forward and support the Regulars in the hills in the front.’ Roosevelt called his regiment out from cover and formed it into a column with each troop on line. Exhausted from the tropical heat, he feared that he could not keep up with his men, so he remained mounted, posting himself properly behind his regiment. The cavalry division advanced. No one, however, gave the order to attack.
The lead elements of the cavalry slowed their pace as men fell from the effects of the heat and bullets. Rear troops crowded into those in front until entire regiments merged into one line. The 1st and 9th cavalries overtook and intermingled with the Rough Riders. The 3rd, 6th and 10th cavalries followed and tied in with the infantry on the left.
The cavalry had the shortest distance to cover. The first line reached the road halfway up the hill, then dropped behind the cover of a depression. Roosevelt’s regiment caught up with the 9th, and he told a captain in command that they ‘could not take these hills by firing at them’ and that ‘we must rush them.’ The captain replied that he could not do so without orders and could not find his commander.
‘Then I am the ranking officer here,’ Roosevelt replied, ‘and I give the order to charge.’ The Regular Army officer still hesitated to follow the order of a volunteer officer, at which point Roosevelt said, ‘Then let my men through, sir.’ With that, the Rough Riders passed over the prone Regulars.
Along the line, other Regular officers took the initiative. Captains John F. McBlain and Charles W. Taylor on the right flank of the 9th Cavalry ordered their own charge. As one body, the entire division again picked up momentum. The men knocked down the barbed-wire fence paralleling the road, fired and then ran, yelling, the rest of the way to the top.
Forty yards from the top, Roosevelt, riding far ahead of his men, reached the last line of wire. He dismounted and turned loose his horse, his orderly having kept up with him on foot. As troopers of the 1st and 9th cavalries and the Rough Riders swarmed over Kettle Hill, the Spaniards withdrew to the next line of trenches. The Rough Riders’ three New Mexico troops, G, E and F, planted their guidons on the hill, while Captains McBlain and Taylor of the 9th planted their guidons on the right. Taylor received a wound shortly afterward and was evacuated.
Color sergeant J.E. Andrews of the 3rd Cavalry took a round in the abdomen. He called for his lieutenant to take the colors, but then he tumbled back down the hill to the road, still clutching the flag. Sergeant George Berry of the 10th Cavalry snatched it up and carried both the 3rd’s and his own regiment’s flags up the slope, shouting, ‘Dress on the colors, boys, dress on the colors!’ Colonel Charles D. Veile placed the 1st Cavalry standard on the hill.
The Spaniards in the next trench line concentrated their small-arms fire on the cavalry. Artillery air bursts added to the American casualties. Colonel John M. Hamilton, commander of the 9th Cavalry, was killed, and Carroll was wounded. The 10th lost the most officers. By that time, Sumner rode up. Upon seeing the infantrymen climbing the other hill, the cavalrymen fired volleys of bullets on the trenches and the blockhouse in support.
Hawkins’ and Ewers’ brigades ran to the hill en masse. When they reached the foot of the hill, the troops discovered that the Spaniards had dug their trenches on the topographical crest instead of the military crest (about 10 meters below the topographical crest), and an irregularity in the 120-foot steep slope prevented them from seeing the Americans below. Grabbing tufts of grass, men scrambled up the 30-degree slope, intermingling and losing all unit integrity. They halted momentarily near the crest to catch their breath. Looking back, they saw men dead and wounded on the field but, miraculously, none on the hill.
Someone waved a white handkerchief at Parker, and at 1:23, the Gatlings fell silent and the infantry charged. As the Americans came within 30 feet of the trenches, the Spanish fled. Ord, still in the lead, leaped over the trench but was killed by a Spanish round. His soldiers were enraged by the death of their beloved hero. Auman was the first commanding officer to reach the top. The infantry finally reached the crest, only minutes after the cavalry.
Captain Arthur C. Ducat and Lieutenant Henry G. Lyon, with 65 men from their own 24th Infantry and the 6th, 9th, 13th, 16th infantries, raced for the prize–the yellow stucco home converted into a blockhouse, which 35 Spaniards defended from inside its pockmarked walls. Ducat, Lyon and a number of men fell wounded before they reached the blockhouse. Unable to break through the heavy wooden doors and boarded-up windows, 19 men climbed onto the red tile roof. Four dropped through a hole made by artillery but were then killed. The remaining 15 jumped in at once. After a few minutes of hand-to-hand fighting, the Americans had cleared the building. Private Arthur Agnew of the 13th Infantry hauled down the Spanish colors atop the blockhouse. By 1:50, the Americans had secured San Juan Hill. The 13th and the 24th suffered the heaviest casualties in the infantry assault.
Men in blue swarmed over the hill and drove their company guidons and regimental colors into the ground. The hill resounded with ‘cease fire,’ echoed by bugle calls. The men of the 71st New York sought out their officers. Some men asked Major Auman if they should continue on to the second line of entrenchments. He ordered them to hold what they had and fire on the fleeing enemy.
The Spaniards retired across a valley to their next line of trenches on the left. Americans scrambled for cover as Mauser fire resumed and again had deadly effect on any exposed troops. A colonel and a number of troops were hit while standing by the door of the blockhouse.
The 10th and 2nd infantries of Pearson’s brigade had arrived at the ford a few minutes after the advance began. They then proceeded in column toward the green knoll to the left of San Juan Hill and seized the trenches. At 2 p.m., the battery of Hotchkiss light artillery arrived on the firing line, followed by the pack train. Mules hauled food and ammunition right up to the trenches.
The cavalrymen then turned their attention to the line of trenches to their right front, to which the Spaniards had fled from San Juan Hill. Roosevelt charged. After advancing 100 yards with only five men, he turned around, ran back and scolded the rest for not following. They innocently replied that they had not heard his order. Roosevelt turned to Sumner for permission to lead the other regiments in the attack. The general assured him that the men would follow.
Cavalrymen leaped over the wire fence and raced across the valley to the next line, with Captain Eugene D. Dimmick leading the men of the 9th Cavalry. The Spaniards retreated long before the cavalry reached the trenches. Cavalrymen had swept over the palm-covered ridge and started for Santiago before Roosevelt stopped them. With a small mixed force, he commanded the extreme right of the American front.
The black soldiers had fought superbly throughout the battle, but since their officers were not with them on the hill, they began to straggle back. Roosevelt drew his revolver and headed them off. He commended them for their courage but threatened to shoot the first man who went to the rear for any reason. The black troops asked Roosevelt’s men if he would make good on that threat. The Rough Riders replied in chorus to the affirmative. The black troopers readily accepted Roosevelt as their acting commander.
Sumner kept a sizable reserve on Kettle Hill under the command of Major Henry Jackson of the 3rd Cavalry. Realizing that Roosevelt was in a precariously weak position, Sumner sent a request for an infantry regiment. Kent reached the hill that Hawkins reported his brigade had captured (neglecting to mention that the regiments of Ewers’ brigade had done so as well). Kent forwarded this report to V Corps headquarters at 3 o’clock. Ten minutes later, Kent received requests from both Sumner and Wood for assistance on the right. He sent over the 13th, and Roosevelt positioned the infantry reinforcements between his command and a small contingent of the 9th Cavalry.
Spanish cavalrymen, marines and infantrymen launched a fainthearted counterattack against Roosevelt’s position. The Americans cheered as they fired, and a few seconds later the Spaniards stopped and retreated to cover. Shortly afterward, Parker wheeled his Gatlings in on the extreme right of the Rough Riders, positioning them where he could best fire across the enemy trenches. As darkness fell and the firing ceased, the Americans commanded the heights overlooking Santiago.
Shortly after Wheeler reached the trench line, he ordered breastworks to be built and sent back for the entrenching tools that had been discarded along the road. Wheeler sent word along the line that reinforcements would soon arrive. Brigadier General John C. Bates’ Independent Brigade, however, did not arrive until midnight, when he reinforced Kent’s left. Lawton, who had finally taken El Caney at 4 p.m., did not arrive until noon the next day.
At 8:20 p.m., Wheeler reassured Shafter that his thin line could hold. Nevertheless, Shafter later ordered a withdrawal. Summoning Bates and Kent, Wheeler told them that he was the best judge of the situation. From his Civil War experience, he knew that if a force was strong enough to take a position from an entrenched enemy, regardless of the losses, it could hold out against a counterattack by that same enemy. He ordered the men to hold, and the troops realigned themselves with their proper regiments.
Although the Spaniards would bitterly contest the Americans for two more weeks, on July 17 the commander of the Spanish IV Army Corps, Maj. Gen. José Toral y Vazquez, signed articles of ‘capitulation’ (avoiding the use of the more negative word 'surrender’) that handed Santiago over to the Americans. They had won their splendid little war.
Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill By Mark Lee Gardner
Call to Action: The Spanish-American War of 1898 By Clark Wilkins
The Rough Riders By Theodore Roosevelt