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