Handling pressure is hard. However, some manage to not only thrive in the midst of pressure but soar above it. Take the concentration camp inmate who saved his life by designing a calculator for the Nazis. Or the admiral in charge of a tiny naval force, who averted disaster with a suicidal charge against a mighty armada. Following are thirty things about those and others who came through big time under immense pressure.
30. A Mechanical Marvel Created in a Concentration Camp by an Inmate Ordered to Make a Gift Suitable for Adolf Hitler
Nowadays, just about everybody has easy access to a calculator in the form of a smartphone app. Even those old Nokia cellphones from decades ago had calculators on them, and before that, decent portable electronic calculators could be had for under $10. It wasn’t always so. Within the living memory of many, the notion of doing calculations on a gizmo small enough to fit into one’s pocket seemed like the stuff of sci-fi fantasies. Except, that is, for mechanical calculators.
Before electronic calculators rendered them obsolete, mechanical calculators were the go-to device for number crunchers. For the hip number cruncher, the hottest ones were the Curtas – small gadgets with a crank on top, that looked like pepper mills. The Curta was a marvel that performed all kinds of arithmetic functions, purely mechanically, with great precision. What few knew was that it was born in a German concentration. Its creator, Curt Herzstark, was an inmate ordered to make a machine fit for a present to Adolf Hitler. Talk about pressure.
Curt Herzstark (1902 – 1988) was born in Austria, the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. He tinkered for years with designs for mechanical calculators, until Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Life under the Nazis was precarious for a half-Jew, and in 1943, Herzstark was arrested for “indecent contacts with Aryan women” and “helping Jews and subversive elements“. He ended up in Buchenwald concentration camp where he endured harsh conditions until the authorities learned of his mechanical talents. They offered him preferential treatment, in exchange for making something good enough for a gift to Hitler.
As Herzstark put it: “While I was imprisoned inside Buchenwald I had, after a few days, told the [people] in the work production scheduling department of my ideas. The head of the department, Mr. Munich said, ‘See, Herzstark, I understand you’ve been working on a new thing, a small calculating machine. Do you know, I can give you a tip. We will allow you to make and draw everything. If it is really worth something, then we will give it to the Führer as a present after we win the war. Then, surely, you will be made an Aryan.’ For me, that was the first time I thought to myself, my God, if you do this, you can extend your life. And then and there I started to draw the CURTA, the way I had imagined it“.
28. Curt Herzstark Handled the Pressure and Saved His Life by Creating the World’s Best Portable Calculator
Curt Herzstark did not crack under the pressure of having to invent or die, and successfully developed blueprints for a manufacturable mechanical calculator. The preferential treatment he received while doing so kept him alive until the Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated in 1945. Six months later, Herzstark found machinists skilled enough to make him three working prototypes. He secured patents, and eventually set up a company in Liechtenstein, a tiny microstate between Austria and Switzerland, to manufacture his mechanical calculator, the Curta.
At some point, Herzstark’s partners tried to kick him out of the company with some shady maneuvers. They miscalculated, however: the patents were in Herzstark’s name, not the company’s, so without him the company was worthless. He negotiated a new deal and cashed in on his invention. For decades, until electronic calculators were made obsolete in the 1970s, Curtas were the world’s best portable calculators. Over 140,000 were made, before production ceased in 1972. Today, they fetch thousands of dollars as collector items.
27. The Fuhrer’s Remilitarization of the Rhineland
Unfortunately, the historic record of people successfully handling pressure is not limited to good guys. Take Adolf Hitler, one of history’s vilest people, and his success in remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the Treaty of Versailles forbade the defeated Germans from stationing armed forces in the Rhineland – a region in western Germany bordering France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The treaty expressly specified that a violation “in any manner whatsoever… shall be regarded as committing a hostile act“.
The demilitarized Rhineland was the single greatest guarantor of peace in Europe because it kept Germany from attacking her western neighbors. Simultaneously, it made it impossible to attack her eastern neighbors, as well. Doing so would leave Germany open to attack from those eastern neighbors’ ally, France, on Germany’s unprotected west. However, although a demilitarized Rhineland was a positive for European peace, it was a humiliating negative for German pride. One of Hitler’s most popular campaign promises during the Nazis’ rise to power was to remilitarize the Rhineland.
26. Withstanding Pressure to Wrest a Political Victory
In 1936, Hitler decided to send soldiers into the Rhineland. Doing so was a huge risk, considering that Germany’s military at the time was in no condition to fight. If the Western Allies responded with even minimal armed force, German commanders knew that they would be forced to beat a hasty and humiliating retreat. Hitler faced great pressure from his generals, who warned him of the risks involved. However, the Fuhrer gambled that while the Western Allies had the power to thwart him, they lacked the will to actually use that power.
So on March 7, 1936, Hitler ordered 19 German battalions to occupy the Rhineland, in direct violation of the post-WWI treaties. He won the gamble: the British and French protested, but neither took direct action. Having taken the measure of France and Britain, Hitler’s appetite was whetted for ever-riskier gambles. He calculated that he could act egregiously, secure in the knowledge that the Western Allies would strongly protest and vehemently condemn, but do nothing more. He kept escalating until he invaded Poland in 1939, and was stunned when Britain and France finally had enough and declared war.
25. The Aeronautical Engineer Who Withstood the Pressure of Imprisonment to Design One of WWII’s Most Successful Airplanes
Like Curt Herzstark, above, Soviet aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer Vladimir Petlyakov displayed extraordinary poise under pressure to get creative and industrious while imprisoned. Herzstark had turned to creativity to save his neck by inventing a mathematical aid in Hitler’s concentration camps. Petlyakov drew on his fount of creativity to design a successful airplane, the Petlyakov Pe-2, while locked up in Stalin’s gulags. Unlike Herztark, whose calculator did not help the German war effort, Petlyakov’s plane helped the Soviets win WWII.
The Pe-2 was the USSR’s most-produced twin-engine aircraft of WWII, with 11,427 built. Fast, maneuverable, and resilient, the Pe-2 proved to be one of the conflict’s outstanding tactical attack airplanes. On the Eastern Front, it performed functions similar to those carried out by the better-known British de Haviland Mosquito. Versatile, the Pe-2 proved itself in a variety of tasks: in addition to its main role as a light bomber, it was also successful in reconnaissance, plus heavy fighter and night fighter assignments.
Vladimir Mikhailovich Petlyakov was born in 1891, the son of a Tsarist official. When he was nineteen, he won admission to the Moscow State Technical University but dropped out because of financial difficulties. He resumed his studies after the 1917 Russian Revolution and worked in aircraft engineering after graduation. By 1936, he had become an expert on airplane wings under the guidance of pioneering designer Andrei Tupolev. Things were looking up for Petlyakov, but a year later, they took a nosedive when Tupolev fell victim to Stalin’s massive purges.
In October 1937, Tupolev and his entire design team, including Petlyakov, were arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage, sabotage, and aiding enemies of the USSR. That was bad, but it could have been worse for Petlyakov: unlike many of his colleagues, he was not executed, but was sent to the gulags instead. There, he was ordered to design a high-altitude fighter – or else. Unlike many, Petlyakov managed to handle the pressure of that “or else”, and successfully completed his task.
23. This Designer Handled the Pressure of a 45-Day Deadline by the NKVD to Come Up With a Great Dive Bomber, Or Else
Vladimir Petlyakov and his team were promised a pardon if they designed a successful airplane for the Red Air Force. Realizing what would happen if they failed to do so, they burned the midnight oil and let their creative juices flow. However, Soviet experience in the 1939-1940 Winter War against Finland, and more importantly the example set by Germans during their 1940 blitzkrieg through Western Europe, led to a change of plans. Impressed by the Luftwaffe’s performance, the Red Air Force decided that it had a greater need for dive bombers than it did for a high altitude fighter.
So Petlyakov was ordered to redesign his fighter, and make it a dive bomber instead. He was given 45 to do so… or else. Once again, Petlyakov demonstrated an extraordinary ability to handle pressure and delivered. The resultant redesigned Petlyakov Pe-2 bomber was highly advanced for its day. Prototypes flew in late 1939, and Petlyakov and his design team got to see their plane from the roof of their prison as it flew during the 1941 May Day parade. At peak production, Pe-2s comprised 75% of Soviet twin-engine bombers during WWII.
22. Petlyakov Regained His Freedom, Only to Die Soon Thereafter in a Plane Crash
The first Pe-2s entered service in early 1941, but most were destroyed a few months later at the start of Germany’s surprise invasion of the USSR. However, by late 1941, when the German advance was finally halted, Pe-2s began proving themselves as elusive and highly accurate light bombers. Unique among WWII belligerents, the Soviets frequently used females in combat. Many Pe-2s were flown – and many Pe-2 squadrons were commanded – by women. Pe-2s frequently devastated German supply and troop convoys. They usually first destroyed the lead vehicles to block the road, worked over the rest of the stalled column, then fled before German fighters arrived.
Another tactic was known as the “Carousel”, in which Pe-2s circled a target, making repeated diving attacks until they ran out of munitions or were forced to scatter by the arrival of German fighter protection. Over time, the Soviets wrested aerial supremacy, and Pe-2s began operating under an effective umbrella of Soviet fighters. Pe-2s played a significant role from late 1941 onwards, from the Battle of Moscow to Stalingrad, to Kursk, and helped pave the way for the Soviet juggernaut as it rolled to Berlin. Vladimir Petlyakov was freed from the gulag but did not enjoy his freedom for long. In early 1942, while flying to Moscow in a Pe-2 to protest his team’s poor treatment, he died in a plane crash.
21. An Opportunistic Betrayal That Changed History
As seen with the example of Hitler and the remilitarization of the Rhineland above, not all historic instances of people handling pressure well involve good people and good causes. Another example of the successful handling of pressure by a bad person – or at least an opportunistic one – is that of Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby (1435 – 1504), at the Battle of Bosworth. During the course of a single afternoon, he pulled off one of history’s most momentous double-crosses.
Stanley was a powerful peer who ran his extensive landholdings in northwest England as if they were an independent realm. During the Wars of the Roses, which pitted the ruling Plantagenet Dynasty’s Lancastrian and Yorkist branches, the Earl of Derby was courted by both sides. When the Yorkist King Edward IV died in 1483, he named his brother Richard guardian and regent during the minority of Edward’s twelve-year-old son and successor, and his younger sibling. It did not turn out well for the young princes.
The deceased Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, decided that he would make a better king than his recently orphaned nephews. So he had Edward’s sons declared illegitimate, and locked them up in the Tower of London. It is unclear what happened to the princes afterward, but they disappeared not long after they were taken to the tower. The most likely hypothesis is that they were murdered by their uncle, who then had himself crowned King Richard III.
Killing his nephews removed the strongest claimants to Richard’s crown. However, the princes’ disappearance and likely demise cleared the way for another challenger: Henry Tudor, the last viable male descendant of the competing Lancastrian line. After nine years in exile, Tudor returned to England in 1485, and claimed the throne. Richard gathered his forces, which included a large contingent commanded by Thomas Stanley, a major Yorkist supporter. However, as seen below, Henry Tudor’s bid for the crown put Stanley in a bind, and subjected him to pressure from both sides.
19. Subjected to Pressure from His Wife and From His King, the Earl of Derby Played Both Sides
As King Richard III marched out to meet Henry Tudor, Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, was conflicted. His family had originally been Lancastrians, the side championed by Tudor. However, Stanley had switched sides and defected to the Yorkists, now headed by Richard III. Stanley was handsomely rewarded for betraying the Lancastrians with lands and estates, and powerful government positions. As a result, he was greatly indebted to the Yorkists. However, he also happened to be married to Henry Tudor’s mother, so he was the challenger’s stepfather.
Stuck between the rock of loyalty and the hard place of peace and tranquility at home, Stanley dealt with the pressure by playing both sides. He secretly contacted his stepson, to sound out the possibility and potential rewards of defecting back to the Lancastrians. Things got awkward, however, when King Richard got wind of that correspondence. He seized Stanley’s son as a hostage to ensure against his father’s treachery. He then ordered the Earl to join the Yorkist army with his contingent, which Stanley reluctantly did.
18. When King Richard III Threatened to Execute Thomas Stanley’s Son, he Replied “Sire, I Have Other Sons“
The rivals met at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485. Thomas Stanley was still undecided, however. So he held back his forces while waiting to see which side looked like a winner. A livid Richard III sent Stanley a message, threatening to execute his son unless he immediately attacked the Lancastrians. The Earl coolly handled that pressure by responding: “Sire, I have other sons“. Richard ordered Stanley’s son executed, but the order was not immediately carried out, and soon, it was too late. As the afternoon wore on, Stanley figured that Richard was losing the battle. So he ordered an attack – against Richard and the Yorkist forces.
That decisively tipped the scales in favor of Henry Tudor. Richard launched a desperate attack to try and reach and cut down his rival but was cut down himself. Following Richard’s death, Stanley found his fallen crown in some shrubs, and personally placed it on the head of Henry Tudor, henceforth Henry VII. Stanley’s stepson and new king ended the Plantagenet Dynasty and replaced it with his own, the Tudors. Stanley’s treachery paid well, and he was generously rewarded for betraying Richard.
17. The Lowly GI Who Stood Up to Pressure from George Patton
General George S. Patton was a force of nature. A hard-driving, bumptious, overbearing, often obnoxious, but usually effective force of nature. He was not above physically assaulting his soldiers, as evinced by the time he slapped around a pair of GIs suffering from malarial fever and PTSD. That almost got him cashiered out of the Army, but his undoubted effectiveness as a battlefield commander earned him a second chance. In short, Patton was not the kind of general that a lowly enlisted man wanted to stand up to.
Yet that is precisely what GI cartoonist Bill Mauldin did, when Patton tried to pressure him into self-censorship. William Henry “Bill” Mauldin was born in 1921 in New Mexico. He studied cartooning at the Chicago Academy of Fine arts, before enlisting in the US Army in 1940. He won initial fame in WWII as a cartoonist for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. His sardonic Willie and Joe cartoons, about the travails of two disheveled combat soldiers, were highly popular with the troops.
Bill Mauldin started drawing for the 45th Infantry Division’s newspaper. His work attracted the attention of Stars and Stripes, which began publishing his cartoons in 1943, before formally adding him to its staff in 1944. Mauldin was not just a rear echelon creative type. He covered the fighting in Sicily and Italy and was in the thick of heavy combat. He was wounded near Salerno, and after D-Day, he was sent to France and accompanied the advancing GIs into Germany.
While working for Stars and Stripes, Mauldin created his most famous cartoon characters, Willie and Joe, two front-line GIs. They frequently found themselves caught between the horrors of war, and the sometimes ridiculous expectations and directives and pressure from the Army’s higher-ups. The irrepressible duo thus struggled from one cartoon to the next, in order to triumph over both the Wehrmacht and their own rear-echelon officers. Something about the bedraggled duo did not sit well with the spit-and-polish General Patton.
15. Despite Pressure and Threats of Jail from General Patton, this Enlisted Cartoonist Refused to Self-Censor
To say that General George S. Patton did not like Bill Mauldin or his cartoon creations would be an understatement. Willie and Joe’s slovenly appearance was the opposite of the ramrod straight and soldierly spit and polish image fetishized by Patton. On top of that, the duo often pointedly jabbed at the fatuousness of the military hierarchy. For example, one cartoon ridiculed a Patton directive that troops be clean-shaven at all times. That made him view Willie and Joe as detrimental to discipline and morale. So Patton ordered Mauldin to report to his headquarters and tried to intimidate him into toning it down, and among other things, depict Willie and Joe as clean-shaven to set an example.
Patton berated Mauldin, accused him of trying to incite a mutiny, described him as an “unpatriotic anarchist”, and threatened him with jail. Mauldin withstood the pressure, however, knowing that the GIs loved Willie and Joe. Patton’s boss, Dwight D. Eisenhower, correctly judged that the cartoons gave soldiers an outlet for frustrations that might otherwise get expressed in more troublesome ways. So he ordered Patton to back off and leave Mauldin alone. The War Office also supported the cartoons and helped Mauldin get them syndicated in the US. They were deemed useful because they depicted war’s dark side, and showed the civilians that victory would not come easy, but would require considerable effort and sacrifice.
14. Willie and Joe Earned Bill Mauldin a Pulitzer Prize
It was a good thing that Bill Mauldin stood up to Patton and did not cave in under pressure. Back home, the Willie and Joe cartoons became a wild success. Not only with the military, but also with civilians after they were syndicated. They earned Mauldin a Pulitzer Prize in 1945. As Band of Brothers author Stephen Ambrose described Willie and Joe: “More than anyone else, save only Ernie Pyle, [Mauldin] caught the trials and travails of the GI. For anyone who wants to know what it was like to be an infantryman in World War II, this is the place to start – and finish.”
After the war, Mauldin returned to civilian life, published collections of his wartime cartoons, and free-lanced before joining the St. Louis Post Dispatch as an editorial cartoonist. In 1959, he won another Pulitzer Prize, this one for a cartoon depicting the lack of civil liberties in the Soviet Union. In 1962, by which point his cartoons were widely syndicated, he switched to the Chicago Sun Times. His work also appeared in numerous magazines, such as Sports Illustrated and Life. Bill Mauldin died in 2003, aged 81, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
13. A President’s Desire to Boost Public Morale Led to a Daring Air Raid
Seamen aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and her escorting taskforce saw something startling on the morning of April 12, 1942. They had had just linked up with the carrier USS Hornet north of Hawaii, and to their amazement, the Hornet’s flight deck was crammed with strange airplanes, bigger than anything seen before on a carrier. They were North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, chosen to carry out a daring raid that was to be their first major combat operation.
After the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt wanted to boost public morale by bombing Japan as soon as possible. However, America had no airbases close enough to Japan. So a plan was hatched to bring an improvised airbase, an aircraft carrier, close enough for modified B-25 bombers to strike Japan. Execution was entrusted to US Army Air Forces Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, who began training select aircrews on short takeoffs. It was a lot of pressure. Taking off from aircraft carriers was a stretch for the medium bombers, and landing back on them was impossible. So after dropping their munitions, the bombers were to continue westward to land in China.
12. The Pressure of Decision-Making in Adverse Conditions
On the morning of April 18, 1942, 750 miles from Japan, the task force was sighted by a Japanese picket boat. It was quickly sunk, but not before sending a radio message. Fearing loss of the element of the surprise, it was decided to launch the bombers immediately, 10 hours earlier and 170 miles further from Japan than initially planned. Sixteen B-25s, carrying 500lb bombs and incendiaries, lumbered off the Hornet and, flying low to avoid detection, winged their way to Tokyo. They arrived around noon and bombed military and industrial targets.
15 bombers made it to China, where they crash-landed. Another made its way to Vladivostok, where it and its crew were interred by the Soviets. Of eighty B-25 crewmen, three were killed, and eight were captured by the Japanese. Three prisoners were executed, and one died in captivity. The raid inflicted little physical damage, but the psychological impact was huge on both sides of the Pacific. It boosted morale in America, and embarrassed the Japanese high command. Tokyo bigwigs sought to regain face by attempting to seize Midway Island a few weeks later, only for it to end in a catastrophic Japanese defeat.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. was a national icon who personified the American dream, and led an extraordinary and extraordinarily full life. Born in Ohio in 1921, he was raised in a bucolic setting that he likened to a Norman Rockwell painting. Adventurous from an early age, Glenn was fascinated with flying. When he got his first plane ride in an open cockpit biplane at age eight, he was hooked on flight. It spurred a lifelong passion, and a career in which he allowed no obstacle or pressure to keep him from greatness at whatever he put his hand and mind to.
Glenn was a US Marine aviator who flew piston engine fighters in WWII, and jet fighters in the Korean War. He received seventeen Air Medals, six Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. A daredevil test pilot and NASA astronaut, Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth. He then became a millionaire businessman, a United States Senator, and at age 77, became a NASA astronaut once again. Well into his eighties, Glenn continued to fly a twin-engine airplane, drove a snazzy convertible, and speed-walked for miles around his neighborhood nearly every day.
10. Glenn Excelled Under Pressure to Become a Deadly Fighter Pilot, Test Pilot, and Earn a Spot in NASA’s First Batch of Astronauts
After graduating college, John Glenn was commissioned in the United States Marine Corps in 1943. He trained as a fighter pilot, went to war, and gained a reputation for skill and fearlessness. He flew the obsolescent Grumman F4F Wildcat at first, and then the Vought F4U Corsair. In the Korean War, Glenn flew close ground support missions. He was nicknamed “Old Magnet Ass” because of the amount of antiaircraft fire he frequently took while flying low to attack enemy positions. On at least two occasions, he returned in a plane riddled with more than 250 holes.
Glenn then trained to fly the new North American F-86 Saber jet fighter. In the conflict’s waning days, he shot down three MiGs – the Korean War’s final air victories. He then spent most of the 1950s as a test pilot. He excelled in his new pressure cooker of a career, and set speed records as he risked his life and cheated death on multiple occasions. Glenn next tried out for the space program, and joined the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959. He passed the rigorous testing, and became one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts.
9. Glenn Coolly Dealt With a Malfunction in Space to Successfully Steer His Craft and Return to Earth as a National Hero
John Glenn had his heart set on becoming the first American in space, but despite his best efforts, that honor went to fellow astronaut Alan Shepherd instead. However, Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in the space capsule Friendship 7. He was watched by thousands in central Florida as his Atlas rocket took off, and by millions on black and white TV sets. However, early in the flight, the automatic control system failed, and Glenn had to fly manually.
It was a matter of life and death, but Glenn handled the pressure and coolly rose to the occasion. He took the controls and completed three orbits around the planet at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour. He then calmly steered through reentry, and came back to earth a national hero and an instant celebrity. Glenn got a New York City ticker-tape parade, addressed a joint session of Congress, and met the president. He did not get what he wanted most, however: another space mission.
8. Back on Earth, Glenn Became a Successful Businessman and Finally Became a Successful US Senator
By the time he completed the Friendship 7 mission, John Glenn was over 40-years-old and was deemed too long in the tooth for additional space missions. On top of that, President John F. Kennedy was reluctant to risk the life of a national hero who might have a future in politics. So Glenn retired from NASA and returned to Ohio where he made a failed bid for the US Senate in 1964. After that fizzled, he got a job with RC Cola, where he rose to vice president.
He also invested in hotels near the new Disney theme park in Orlando, and became a millionaire by the early 1970s. He tried again for the US Senate in 1970, but lost the primary. The pressure of repeated failures in politics did not get to or daunt Glenn, however. He tried once more in 1974, and the third time was the charm. He won the Democrat primary, went on to win the general election, and was comfortably reelected by Ohio voters in 1980, 1986, and 1992. He served in the Senate for 24 years, before retiring from politics in 1998. That same year, he got another gig as an astronaut.
36 years after his first and only orbital flight, John Glenn returned to space. The astronaut whom NASA had deemed too old for another launch when he was in his 40s, returned to the space program as a crew member of the shuttle Discovery when he was 77. That made him the oldest astronaut in history, and the oldest human being to venture into space. It was a well-earned victory lap, and a fitting reward for a man who had dutifully served his country for six decades, from the Pacific in WWII, to “MiG Alley” in the Korean War, to the blackness of space, and the halls of Congress.
As he later described his thoughts before returning to space: “It was hard to imagine that virtually the entire history of space travel had occurred between my first ride and my second. Somebody had pointed out that more time had passed between Friendship 7 and this Discovery mission than had passed between Lindbergh’s solo trans-Atlantic flight and Friendship 7. It didn’t seem that long to me, but that is the way lives pass when you look back at them: in the blink of an eye.” John Glenn died on December 8th, 2016, aged 95, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
6. Japan’s All-Or-Nothing Gamble to Reverse the Tide of Defeat
By late 1944, WWII was going terribly for Japan, and all signs indicated that worse was in store. Things had started well for Japan, after it kicked off the war by mauling the US Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor. Over the following six months, Japanese forces achieved a series of stunning victories. They overran Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Burma, sundry Pacific islands, and knocked on the doors of India. Then came a severe check at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, in which the Japanese suffered a stunning defeat that turned the tide.
US forces gathered their strength, and went on a counteroffensive that steadily picked up the pace as it rolled back Japan’s conquests and rolled over the Japanese. By October 1944, a series of defeats had severely reduced Japan’s might in the Pacific, and the gap between its strength and that of US kept growing. So the Imperial Japanese Navy decided upon an all-or-nothing gamble, to throw virtually all of its remaining strength at Americans recently landed in the Philippines. The result was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, history’s biggest naval engagement. It witnessed one of the most dramatic examples of poise under pressure, as an unheralded American admiral averted disaster by successfully leading a tiny force in turning back a massive Japanese armada.
5. The Pressure Faced by a Rear Admiral When He Discovered That a Powerful Enemy Armada Was Steaming Straight Towards His Tiny Command
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23rd – 26th, 1944, was history’s biggest naval brawl. At its core was a complex Japanese plan that featured many moving parts and attacks from various directions. The intent was to draw off the US Third Fleet commanded by Admiral William F. Halsey, tasked with guarding recent American landings at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, and send it chasing after a Japanese bait force. With Halsey out of the way, a powerful Japanese naval contingent would fall upon the unprotected US forces there and devastate them.
Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as bait for Halsey, and he steamed off with the Third Fleet to sink them. He failed to inform the chain of command what he was up to, or that he was leaving Leyte Gulf virtually defenseless. Left behind was a small fleet of escort carriers – small aircraft carriers too slow to keep up with the main fleet – and destroyer escorts. However, they were armed for ground attack and support duties, and had little in the way of anti-ship weapons. Their commander, Rear Admiral Clifton Albert Frederick “Ziggy” Sprague (1896 – 1955), was about to face all the pressure in the world when a massive Japanese fleet arrived at his doorstep.
Admiral William F. Halsey abandoned Leyte Gulf to chase after Japanese bait. While he was gone, a powerful Japanese fleet of 23 battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship ever, the 18.1-inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf. The fleet had been battered in an earlier engagement and was thought to be in retreat, but it was not. Commanded by Admiral Takeo Kurita, it turned around and steamed towards the US landing sites at Leyte, chock-full of troops and defenseless transport and supply ships. The Americans were caught by surprise.
Everybody had assumed that Halsey and his powerful Third Fleet were in the north, guarding against attack from that direction. Instead, they were hundreds of miles away, chasing Japanese decoys. The only surface warships standing between the Japanese and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte was Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague’s tiny command, Task Unit 77.4.3, call sign “Taffy 3”. It was an underwhelming collection of three destroyers and four destroyer escorts, nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection. Sprague did not crack under the pressure. His forces lacked the firepower and armor to take on the heavy warships headed their way. Sprague took on them anyhow, and in what came to be known as The Battle Off Samar, he went on the attack.
3. Sublime Courage Under Great Pressure Averted an American Catastrophe
Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague knew that his destroyers’ 5-inch guns were useless against the 23 armored Japanese battleships and cruisers steaming towards Leyte Gulf. He also knew that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached Leyte. So he ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge. The “desperate attacks of the “tin cans” were supported by planes flown from escort carriers. The American planes, lacking anti-ship bombs, repeatedly made strafing attacks and dropped high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships. When they ran out of ammunition, they made dry strafing and bombing runs to discomfit the Japanese. The gadfly attacks were so reckless and incessant that Japanese admiral Kurita, who had an overwhelming victory in his grasp, lost his nerve.
All Kurita had to do was ignore the annoying but relatively harmless attacks, and steam on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of the defenseless Americans at Leyte. Instead, he convinced himself that the opposition he faced was far stronger than it actually was, and must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence. Unlike Sprague who kept his nerves under pressure, the Japanese admiral cracked under the pressure of imagined threats. Instead of seizing a victory that had been his for the taking, Kurita turned his ships around and sailed away. Sprague’s and Taffy 3’s sublime courage had averted a catastrophe, and earned the Americans in Leyte Gulf a seemingly miraculous reprieve.
In the early hours of July 4, 1976, Israeli special forces carried out a daring raid at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The goal was to spring hostages taken from an Air France jetliner that had been commandeered on June 27th. While en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, after a stopover in Athens, the airplane was boarded by four hijackers. Two belonged to a breakaway faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and two were from a German Red Army Faction revolutionary cell. They seized the jetliner and diverted it to Uganda, whose president, Idi Amin, was sympathetic to their cause.
At Entebbe, the hijackers removed the passengers to a disused airport terminal building. There, they were joined by three more accomplices. After sifting through the passengers’ passports, the hijackers released those who were neither Israeli nor Jewish. They kept as hostages 94 who were, plus 12 members of the Air France aircrew. Then they made their demands: in exchange for freeing the hostages, the hijackers demanded the release of 40 prisoners held in Israel, plus another 13 held in other countries.
As the days passed and the prisoners were not released, the hijackers grew more strident. The pressure mounted on the Israeli authorities, as the hijackers vowed to kill the hostages if their demands were not met. Fortunately for the Israelis, an Israeli engineer who had worked with Idi Amin in the 1960s had blueprints of the Entebbe terminal building where the hostages were held. He handed them to the authorities, who used them to plan a rescue mission. On the night of July 3rd, 1976, 100 Israeli special forces boarded C-130 cargo planes and, escorted by F-4 Phantoms, took off on a 2500-mile flight to Uganda.
Within 90 minutes of touching down at Entebbe, the commandos had killed all seven hostage-takers, along with about forty-five Ugandan soldiers. They also destroyed 30 Ugandan jets at the airport. The cost was one commando killed and five wounded, plus three hostages dead and ten wounded. Commandos and hostages then boarded the C-130 transports for a short flight to Nairobi, Kenya. There, the planes refueled and the wounded were taken to an awaiting hospital plane, before all flew back to a rapturous welcome in Israel.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading