Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History
Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History

Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History

Khalid Elhassan - April 30, 2021

Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History
Clifton Sprague in 1945. Naval History and Heritage Command

4. Impossible Odds? Ignore Them and Attack

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.

Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History
Japanese battleship Yamato in 1941. Wikimedia

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.

Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History
Taffy 3 destroyers and destroyer escorts laying smoke while under fire. Wikimedia

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.

Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History
The escort carrier USS Gambier Bay on fire, while Taffy 3 destroyers and destroyer escorts lay smoke screen in the Battle Off Samar. Wikimedia

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.

Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History
Terminal building of Entebbe airport, where the hostages were held. Wikimedia

2. A Daring Hostage Rescue Raid

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.

Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History
Rescued hostages arriving in Israel. Wikimedia

1. A Pressure Cooker Hostage Situation

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.

Shocking Successes that Came from Stressful Situations in History
Israeli special forces returning from the Entebbe Raid. IDF

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

Chun, Clayton K.S. – The Doolittle Raid 1942: America’s First Strike Back at Japan (2006)

Drabkin, Artem – The Red Air Force at War: Barbarossa and the Retreat to Moscow (2007)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Entebbe Raid

Encyclopedia Britannica – John Glenn

Glenn, John – John Glenn: A Memoir (1999)

Gordon, Yefim, and Khazanov, Dmitri – Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War, Volume 2: Twin-Engined Fighters, Attack Aircraft and Bombers (2006)

History Collection – Last Words: 10 Memorable Dying Statements From Famous Figures

History of War – Thomas, Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby c. 1433 – 1504

Hornfischer, James D. – The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the US Navy’s Finest Hour (2005)

Library of Congress – Bill Mauldin Beyond Willie and Joe

Mauldin, Bill – Up Front (1945)

Naval History and Heritage Command – Doolittle Raid

New Atlas – Curta Calculator: The Mechanical Marvel Born in a Nazi Death Camp

Smith, Peter C. – The Petlyakov Pe-2: Stalin’s Successful Red Air Force Light Bomber (2020)

United States Marine Corps History Division – Colonel John Glenn, Jr.

Wikipedia – Curt Herzstark

Wikipedia – Remilitarization of the Rhineland

Wikipedia – Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby

Wolfe, Tom – The Right Stuff (1979)