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Yang Kyoungjong: The Reluctant Soldier by WILL DABBS

This may or may not be Yang Kyoungjong. Yang’s was one of the more bizarre stories to come out of World War 2.

Some people are just born cursed. While there are those whose lives seem inexplicably blessed with prosperity, comfort, and peace, others can be destined for squalor, chaos, and pain. Call it karma, luck, providence, or fate, it is tough to comprehend from our limited perspective why life is the way it is.

Sometimes the thugs can seem indestructible. Mind that trigger finger, stud.

Why do some reprehensible people die in their late 80’s after a long life of debauchery and self-abuse while some saint succumbs in their teens to cancer? In medicine, you sometimes get fatalistic about it. The sweet little grandmother strikes her head and strokes out, while the unkillable thug catches half a dozen rounds in a drug deal gone bad and leaves the hospital under his own steam the next day. Someday God will explain such stuff to me face-to-face in a way I will understand. Until then, I haven’t a clue.

A Most Unusual Tale

The German military was quite the heterogeneous mob by the end of the war.

In the peculiarly tragic life of Yang Kyoungjong, we see the curious power of fate at work. According to an interview by the esteemed historian Stephen Ambrose, there were at least four ethnic Asians captured by American forces in the opening days of the D-Day invasion. These troops purportedly did not speak German and were wearing Wehrmacht uniforms. One of these men has been identified as a Korean named Yang Kyoungjong.

Yang Kyoungjong’s story has been immortalized in film.

Before we proceed, appreciate that there is controversy surrounding this story. It was related as fact for years and was even used in an online advertisement for a real estate company in St. John’s, Newfoundland. In 2011 Yang’s story formed the basis for a South Korean movie titled My Way. However, documentary filmmakers in Korea have researched the story and subsequently cast some doubt on its veracity. Regardless, the narrative is nonetheless both compelling and plausible. Try to just enjoy the ride.

Yang Kyoungjong was first forced to serve in the Japanese Kwantung Army.

Born in Korea on March 3, 1920, Yang was a conscript in the Kwantung Army in Manchuria. Operating between 1919 and 1945, the Kwantung Army was the most prestigious command in the IJA (Imperial Japanese Army). While the Kwantung Army saw a great many battlefield successes, they were also responsible for some of the war’s most egregious atrocities. Among these was the infamous Unit 731 which performed biological warfare experiments on both captured civilians and prisoners of war.

World War 2 was a brute force battle of meat. For the Axis in particular there was always a shortage of manpower.

Manpower was always a critical component of any WW2 military campaign. The United States enjoyed vast resources of both men and raw materials for military production. The British drew from across the Commonwealth. The Germans, Japanese, and Russians harvested meat wherever it could be found and threw a uniform on it. This resulted in some peculiar loyalties.

Life in a Russian gulag was ghastly.

Yang Kyoungjong was first press-ganged into service in 1938 at age 18. The following year he was captured by Red Army troops during the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol and remanded to a forced labor camp. By 1942 the Soviet Union was in dire straits and faced the very real probability of national extinction at the hands of the Nazis. This drove Russian commanders to some desperate places.

For Yang Kyoungjong, combat seemed preferable to life in a Russian POW camp.

When you’re packed into a prison camp alongside several thousand of your mates subsisting on sawdust bread and whatever rats you can catch, most anything seems like an improvement. When the desperate Russians came looking for cannon fodder, Yang either volunteered or didn’t resist unduly. Either way, he soon found himself in a Soviet greatcoat fighting under the red banner for Mother Russia and Marxism.

Yang was captured by the Germans during the Third Battle of Kharkov.

In 1943, Yang found himself in Ukraine at the Battle of Kharkov. The Battle of Kharkov was actually four distinct battles spanning nearly two years. The first began in October of 1941 when the Germans captured the city. The last took place in late summer 1943 when the Soviets finally won it back for good. It was the Third Battle of Kharkov in February of 1943 that saw Yang captured by the Germans.

By the end of the war, the Germans were using troops from all over their conquered territories.

By now the tide was turning against the Nazis, and they were beginning to sense the mess they had gotten themselves into. With war raging on three fronts, the German High Command began harvesting the dregs for manpower. Where previously service in the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS might have been a prestigious thing that was both selective and competitive, by this point in the war if you could stand and hold a rifle you met the entrance standards. As a result, Yang Kyoungjong found himself wearing field gray in an Ost-Bataillone.

Most Osttruppen were not intended to be used in front-line applications.

These scratch units went by several titles. Osttruppen, Osteinheiten, and Ostlegionen all meant similar things. With piles of bored and starving Soviet conscripts languishing in prison camps, the Germans enlisted those they felt might be ideologically malleable into these ad hoc support units. Results were predictably mixed.

Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

Josef Stalin was one of history’s most prominent psychopaths.

Josef Stalin was a turd. He was a relatively small man at 5 foot 5 inches tall. He was also ugly. A severe bout with smallpox as a child left him badly scarred. Stalin was directly responsible for the deaths of between 20 and 40 million people. This makes Josef Stalin one of the most prolific mass murderers in human history.

Stalin looked like an amiable grandfather. He wasn’t.

Stalin ruthlessly enforced a weird sense of justice. To be captured by the enemy in battle was frequently viewed as being tantamount to cowardice or even treason. A great many captured Soviet soldiers faced harsh imprisonment or execution upon repatriation. As a result, while most soldiers like Yang had little use for Naziism, they did find service in an Ost-bataillone preferable to the alternative.

The Germans used the Osttruppen to flesh out their ranks so reliable soldiers were available for combat roles.

Ost-Bataillones were battalion-sized units comprised of a mixture of volunteers and conscripts who were most typically posted in support roles away from the front-line fighting. This allowed the Germans to use their own troops for more serious work. The Ostlegionen were larger formations that were usually ethnically similar and comprised of multiple battalions. One of the roles for which the Germans used these foreign units was as defensive troops in fixed fortifications in fairly quiet places. In early June 1944, that is what brought Yang Kyoungjong to the placid beaches of Normandy, France.

Capture

It’s tough to get your head around just how massive the D-Day invasion was.

Operation Overlord was the most extensive amphibious invasion in human history. Given advances in intelligence, logistics, and military technology it is highly unlikely that this performance will ever be repeated on such a grandiose scale. One of the more revolutionary aspects of the invasion was the widespread use of airborne forces.

German Fallschirmjägers introduced the world to the capabilities of airborne forces in battle.

The Germans really pioneered the widespread use of paratroops. The airborne assault on Crete in 1941 was ultimately successful but only at a fearsome cost. Hitler refused to authorize any further large-scale use of parachute forces in their intended role as a result. German fallschirmjagers were subsequently used as elite light infantry for the rest of the war. The Allies, however, aggressively developed the concept of airborne vertical envelopment.

These hard young studs made life miserable for the Germans in Normandy.

Most of the 13,000 Allied paratroopers dropped on D-Day did not accomplish their specific assigned tactical objectives. Intense ground fire and chaos among the lift aircraft ensured that units were spread randomly and piecemeal across the Norman countryside. However, once these aggressive, highly-trained airborne warriors touched down they proceeded to sow chaos among German combat and support units wherever they found them.

American paratroopers captured large numbers of prisoners in the days immediately following the invasion.

One of these American paratroopers was LT Robert Brewer of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. According to the Stephen Ambrose interview, Yang was one of four Asians in Wehrmacht uniforms LT Brewer and his men captured in the immediate aftermath of the D-Day invasion. At the time it was presumed that the four were Japanese. It was later determined that Yang’s three companions were from Turkestan. Yang was processed and sent across the channel to a POW camp in Britain. From there he was further removed to a camp in the US.

The American Dream

My kids and I used to play on the site of this old WW2 POW camp outside Clinton, Mississippi.

The American South was dotted with such camps during and immediately after the war. My family and I lived in Clinton, Mississippi, while I was in medical school. The POW camp outside Clinton had long since been transformed into a sweeping grassy park, but it still retained fields of daffodils planted and cultivated by the 3,000 German and Italian POWs who were held there during the war. Most of the Clinton prisoners were members of the Afrika Korps captured in North Africa early in the war. There is a small contingent of graves in the Jackson, Mississippi, cemetery occupied by German troops who perished in captivity.

Shockingly large numbers of Axis prisoners were held in American POW camps.

Yang Kyoungjong was finally released from captivity in 1947. After such a violent and circuitous trek across all those Asian and European battlefields, Yang was purportedly none too keen to return to the nation of his birth. By the time of his release, he had already been away from home for nearly a decade.

Yang Kyoungjong was inclined to remain in the US after having such a horrible experience fighting in WW2.

Yang purportedly opted to remain in the United States after his release. He is said to have settled in Evanston, Illinois. He died there in April of 1992 at the age of 72.

Ruminations

It is in the lot of the private soldier that we find the true pathos of war.

It is easy to lose the trees for the forest when it comes to the study of war. I have a rabid addiction to military history books myself. My home sags under the weight of such. This is where I find much of the inspiration for our efforts here. My perennial challenge is finding tales of the individual soldier.

It seems to me that Yang Kyoungjong did his time as a soldier. I hope that the rest of his life was peaceful.

Book shops are dirty with tomes about Generals and campaigns. Memoirs about the movement of armies have occupied many a retired General officer in his waning years. However, what fascinates me are the tales of the regular private soldier. The humble dogface is the single entity who does most of the suffering and, in so doing, wins the wars his political leaders craft for him. In the curious tale of Yang Kyoungjong, we find the story of a normal guy caught up in some decidedly abnormal circumstances. I for one hope hope his life was ultimately warm and fulfilling.

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British Naval Small Arms of WW1 – with C&Rsenal

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Paint me surprised by this War

The Wolf Truce

Fact Checker: Was There a Ceasefire During WWI to Hunt Wolves?

Myths, lies and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bullsh*t, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at factchecker@themeateater.com.

Claim During World War I, German and Russian forces declared a temporary ceasefire and banded together to hunt wolves. The voracious animals were attracted to the prolific and gruesome scavenging available in the warzone, attacking soldiers and civilians alike.

Origin Multiple newspapers in 1917 reported on this story, including the El Paso Herald, Oklahoma City Times, and New York Times. Since then, it’s become a favorite bit of bar room banter among amateur historians, like the powerful Joe Rogan.

Facts In February of 1917, a dispatch from Berlin noted large packs of wolves moving into populated areas of the German Empire from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia. Locals hypothesized that war efforts displaced the wolves, so the canines started seeking out new hunting grounds.

The hungry wolves infiltrated rural villages, attacking calves, sheep, goats, and in two cases, children. They also showed up on the front lines, feeding on the fallen and sometimes taking advantage of incapacitated fighters.

“Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” reported a 1917 Oklahoma City Times article. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.”

The Russian and German soldiers temporarily stopped being enemies once they found a common foe. Both sides agreed to a cease fire if the wolves interrupted another battle.

“Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance,” according to a 1917 New York Times article. “But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger.

“As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague.”

Takeaway Though seemingly far-fetched, it turns out these claims are mostly accurate. Historians estimate that soldiers killed hundreds of wolves during the war, and that the surviving wolves fled to escape a “carnage the like of which they had never encountered.”

For a brief moment, a kind of peace spread across the battlefield, even though gunshots and grenade explosions continued to ring out.

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The Greatest Hero America Never Knew The true story of Waco’s Col. Robert Howard. By David Feherty

Image
photography courtesy of the Howard family

The name was always spoken with reverence, but I had no idea who he was. Then an Army Ranger I’ll call Leroy (because that’s his name) told me he couldn’t go on my T1F Taliban Pheasant Hunt in South Dakota last year because he had a chance to meet Bob Howard, who was on his deathbed in Waco. Leroy’s decision really piqued my interest. Nobody turns down the Taliban Pheasant Hunt—and, perhaps more telling, nobody goes to Waco without a really good reason. It was then that I decided I had to find out who Howard was.

A-googling I went. And it turned out that Robert Lewis Howard was a Green Beret and a TCU grad. He had appeared in two John Wayne movies, making a parachute jump in The Longest Day and playing an airborne instructor in The Green Berets—not exactly a stretch for him. Howard was the only soldier in the history of the United States to be nominated three times for the Medal of Honor, our country’s highest military decoration, which is awarded to members of the armed forces who distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” The men who fought with Howard all agreed that he should have received a Medal of Honor for each one of his three citations—which explains why he was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses (the second-highest honor, given in the Army). No matter. He had plenty of other gongs and ribbons. He had a Silver Star, several Bronze Stars, and eight Purple Hearts (though he was wounded 14 times). Then there was all the stuff awarded to him by the armed forces of other grateful nations.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why neither I nor anyone else outside of the Army had heard of this extraordinary American. I had theories. First, many of Howard’s actions in theater were still classified. We know he was in Laos and Cambodia before we knew we were in Laos and Cambodia, but we just don’t know what he was up to, apart from getting nominated for the Medal of Honor every few months or so. This was back in the days when a clandestine operation could be run without having to broadcast it on C-SPAN first.

Then there was the rest of the Vietnam war, the part we knew about. Howard received his Medal of Honor from Nixon in 1971, with his sweet little first-grade daughter Missy looking on from the front row. None of the TV networks covered the event. Though Audie Murphy and Alvin York both received a Medal of Honor for their actions in World War II and the Great War respectively, and got the ticker-tape parades, fame, and fortune they both deserved, Howard got nothing, because he fought in the war that the Flower Power generation, led by Jane Fonda and her ilk, who exercised the very rights that the men and women who served in Vietnam fought to protect, demonstrated against by (among other things) spitting in the faces of returning soldiers. You can probably guess how I feel about this issue.

So after reading up on Howard, I decided to follow my friend Leroy’s lead and head down to Waco to meet the man myself. But before I could get down there, on Wednesday, December 23, 2009, Col. Robert Howard died at the age of 70. The next day, the Associated Press ran a 10-sentence obituary. The New York Times and Washington Post followed with slightly longer obits. I couldn’t believe the man’s passing had generated so little notice.

I went to Waco anyway.

Driving down I-35 toward Waco to visit Missy, the second daughter of Col. Robert Howard, I noticed for the first time that this stretch of the interstate is known as The Purple Heart Trail. I was still thinking about the coincidence when I sat down in Missy’s living room to watch a video that few people have ever seen. The video was given to Howard by the Medal of Honor Foundation.

It is Missy’s daddy at 64 years old, with a short, pale blue ribbon and small gold medal covering the knot in his tie, his jaw square and strong, his face still scarred, angular, and violently handsome. He is talking about the day he received his Medal of Honor from President Nixon, of whom he says, “He had nice hands. They were, you know, decent.”

Missy tells me that when her daddy came home to San Antonio, which wasn’t that often, he was a gardener, a gentle man with massive hands and a velvet voice who worked on his roses and never once spoke of what he did in the war. “He could make anything grow,” Missy says.

Now the Colonel’s ocean-blue eyes are focused on some far-away hellhole jungle clearing. Howard says the Hueys took ground fire on the way down to the landing zone, and his platoon suffered casualties even before it landed. But there was no peeling off for this group. Silver wings upon their chests, these are men, America’s best. (No longer do these words remind me of Bill Murray in a greenskeeper’s shed.)

“We finally got in on the ground, and I got with [the] lieutenant,” Howard says. “He says, ‘Bob, we need to secure this LZ [landing zone], and I want you to get a couple of men and secure the exterior of the LZ.’ And I got three men behind me, and I can remember being fired at. I fell backward and they killed three men behind me, and I’m firing and killing the North Vietnamese that’s trying to kill us. So I made my way back to the lieutenant and told him that the LZ was completely surrounded. By that time, one of the helicopters had been shot down.”

This is the only personal account on record of the events for which he received the Medal of Honor. To begin with, Howard seems uncomfortable talking about it. But this is not the most difficult thing he has done. He pauses and draws a breath, then begins to explain dispassionately what happened when the men resumed their operation and a grenade explosion knocked him unconscious.

“When I come to, I was blown up in a crump on the ground, and my weapon was blown out of my hand. I can remember seeing red and saying a prayer, hoping I wasn’t blind. I couldn’t see. And I knew I was in a lot of pain and my hands were hurting. I couldn’t get up, and I really didn’t want to get up anyway because I couldn’t see. And then I finally starting getting the vision back and it was like blood was in my eyes, and I started feeling, but my hands were all blown up.

“And then it was like there was a big flame and there was smoke and there were people screaming and hollering. It in fact was an enemy soldier that was burning the people that would have been ambushed with a flamethrower. And the guy walked up to me and was getting ready to burn me, and he looked at me and he didn’t burn the lieutenant. The lieutenant was about 5 feet away from me, and he’s laying face forward, and he was hollering and he was screaming. I knew he was hurt. And the guy looked at me with the flamethrower, and then I looked at him. I guess I looked so bad and pitiful, he decided not to burn me up. He just turned and walked off.”

Now Howard was unarmed, and his hands had been blown apart. He was peppered with shrapnel. He couldn’t walk. So he grabbed the lieutenant’s shirt and starting dragging him—a big man, maybe 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds—toward safety as an estimated two enemy companies fired on them.
The great man’s face changes as he talks. His jaw stiffens, and his eyes, though narrowing, seem to take on an even more penetrating blueness. I am mesmerized as he relives these moments.

“So I’m pulling him back down the hill, and there was a sergeant that was laying down behind a log with a weapon that hadn’t been wounded that had seen this. But he was crying and not using his weapon. Here I am, begging him to help me because I can’t walk and drag the lieutenant back down.
“I said, ‘Well, give me your weapon,’ and he wouldn’t give me his weapon, but he did give me a .45. Just as he gave me the .45, and I’m trying to tell him to give me a couple more magazines of rounds for it, a bunch of enemy soldiers come running toward us. So here I am trying to fire the handgun, and I can remember shooting this enemy soldier that was fixing to stick me with a bayonet. He was running toward me. In fact, he fell across the lieutenant that I was dragging, and so just as he fell across there was another one behind him. They were trying to get us alive is what they were trying to do.”

The sergeant finally began to fire his weapon, and Howard got hit again. A bullet smashed into a magazine in his ammo belt for his rifle, setting off the rounds he was carrying. Howard estimates he was hit with 15 or 20 rounds of exploding ammunition.

“Here I am thinking, I’m blowing up again,” he says. “And there were other soldiers back behind him that hadn’t been hurt at all that had been watching us being almost executed by the enemy and not doing anything, not even firing their weapons.”

Howard eventually got the lieutenant to a medic. His platoon was trapped under heavy fire and had now suffered too many casualties to fight the enemy on their terms. The medic propped Howard up, and he told his brothers, “We are going to establish a perimeter right here, and you’re going to fight or die.” Then Howard did the unthinkable. He got a radio and called in an air strike on his own position. He ordered the men to make a triangle with three strobe lights around their position to keep from getting hit.

“They brought the fire into our position,” Howard says. “In fact, I remember fire landing right between my feet and, you know, ricochet hitting me in the face. You know, that’s how intense it was.”

Eventually, helicopters were able to extract the men. Out of 37 soldiers who were ambushed that day, six survived, largely due to Howard’s heroics and quick thinking. He acted in a similarly heroic manner and endured similar injuries, saving the lives of many others on two other separate occasions for which he was nominated for the Medal of Honor.

Ten lines. That’s what the Associated Press gave Col. Robert Howard.

Back among the living in Waco, I notice that Missy has inherited her father’s looks. She is slender and beautiful. Her husband Frank Gentsch is athletic and carries his badge and handgun in the comfortable, easy manner one might expect of Waco’s chief of detectives. Frank says that before his first date with Missy, the colonel showed him how he’d kill a man with his bare hands. That must have been a little unsettling, but Frank still has a bullet in his back, so you know the old man was proud of him. On Missy’s lap sits their adopted 3-year-old daughter, Isabella, with a snubby little nose and the cutest fuzzy fro held back with a pink headband. Howard adored her­—as he did his other children and grandchildren.

The life of a soldier, especially a Special Forces one, is complicated. There are top-secret stories that can’t be told and endless questions. “When is Daddy coming home?” Or worse: “Will Daddy come home?” Howard was married three times and remained close only to those who “got him.” Like so many of our fighting men and women, he felt tremendous guilt over the many times he was forced to choose between his country and his family.

After his discharge when he was 53 years old, Howard spent 13 years processing claims for the Department of Veterans Affairs and spent most of the last three years of his life in Iraq and Afghanistan, visiting troops, giving talks, and boosting morale. For a soldier, meeting Bob Howard was like a religious experience. Shaking his hand was an honor never to be forgotten. You see, they knew who he was. They got him.

We American civilians can say what we like about the morality of any war, but we should support the American soldiers and their allies whom we have sent to wage it. I’ve visited military hospitals, psych wards, and VAs in Dallas and around this country, and I’ve seen them. Mostly from Korea and Vietnam. Old, unkempt men, the military bearing and pride they once had now gone. Sometimes the only evidence it ever existed is on a battered regimental or naval ball cap. They rock back and forth, mumbling into full jungle beards, with rheumy, blast-zone-empty eyes. Or they sit in pairs, often holding hands, together and alone with horror-story memories that play over and over in their heads. Some sit with their imaginary long-dead friends, whose body parts still lie in the killing fields upon which they once so bravely fought. To America’s eternal shame, for many of them home is a sterile corner of the Cuckoo’s Nest, freezing and drunk under a highway bridge, or, if they are lucky, a spare room in the house of a worn-out son or daughter.

At least Bob Howard was spared that fate. Pancreatic cancer finally stopped him. As the disease spread to his lungs and lymph nodes, his expiry date drew closer, and he was visited by more and more soldiers, most of them old friends. But there were a few lucky youngsters, too, of whom Leroy was one of the last.

And there was always Missy, there with him every day with Isabella. Sometimes his granddaughter Holley, the starting catcher for the Texas Tech softball team, would visit. Or Tori, whom the colonel always called “Victoria.” Tori was always heartbroken when she had to leave her grandpa’s bedside and was a constant comfort to both the colonel and Missy at the end. Howard’s eldest son, Robert, is at Fort Bragg, going through Special Forces school.

As a soldier, Robert had already seen how his father acted around other military men. But for Missy and the other children, their father’s illness, and the parade of visitors it occasioned, showed them something new about their father. When Missy and the grandchildren were around, Howard was the gentle old gardener, the same man they had always known. But when a soldier entered his hospice room, he would stiffen. His voice changed to gravel, and any sign of vulnerability evaporated. He would laugh and bellow orders until the soldier was gone, and then there he’d be again: the gardener with the sparkling blue eyes, smothered in children whom he’d caress with rough, scarred hands.

By all accounts, Howard was a spectacularly bad patient. He was a nightmare for his nurses, refusing to take the painkillers, often swilling them around, then spitting them out after the nurse had left. He was going to be clearheaded until the end.

After yet another astonishing fight, during which the family was told on several occasions that Howard had only hours left, the head of the world’s most dangerous gardener finally fell sideways onto his beloved Missy’s shoulder, and America lost what was arguably her greatest warrior ever.

The name Robert Lewis Howard belongs beside George Washington, John Paul Jones, Chesty Puller, Alvin York, and Audie Murphy, to name a few of the greatest. By the time anyone reads this, Howard will have been lain to rest at Arlington the day before I became an American citizen. I would have given anything to have been with Missy, Frank, and the rest of the family on that day, but I know the colonel would have barked at me to get my worthless foreign ass to my swearing-in ceremony.

Col. Robert Howard’s funeral cortege should have started at the foot of the Jefferson Memorial. His flag-draped casket should have passed through streets lined with thousands of grateful, flag-waving Americans to Arlington, where, in preparation for his final resting place, some politician had been dug up and tossed into the Potomac. But that didn’t happen.

Ten lines. A couple of longer obits here and there. That’s all he got.

On the drive back to Dallas from Waco, I got to thinking. We should rename that stretch of I-35 after him. The Col. Robert Howard Highway. People would shorten it, of course: the Howard.

His life deserves more. But it’s a start.

David Feherty is a golf analyst for CBS Sports.

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Frag Out! High Explosive Snowballs by WILL DABBS

The scale of destruction wrought during the Second World War was unprecedented. Such carnage is literally unimaginable today.

It’s tough for the modern mind to comprehend the scope of the Second World War. During those six years, the combatant nations produced enough bullets to shoot every human being on the planet forty times. 12.2 million Americans served. 407,316 died.

The industry of death was perfected during WW2.

The final planetary death toll was somewhere between 70 and 85 million people. That’s roughly 3% of the world’s population. Nearly one-fifth of the Soviet population perished.

The world’s nation states threw all they had into the war.

WW2 touched almost everybody on earth. If you didn’t have a loved one serving you certainly knew someone who did. My friend enlisted in 1940.

My buddy fought past Monte Cassino, shown here after extensive Allied aerial bombardment.

He fought in North Africa before heading to Sicily for Operation Husky. He then landed at Salerno in September of 1943 as part of Operation Avalanche. Afterward, he fought past places like Rome and Monte Cassino. Nearly 70,000 Allied soldiers died in the Italian campaign.

For the most part, WW2 was a war of mobility. However, things still got bogged down on fairly frequently.

By the mid-1940s warfare was a very dynamic thing. The advent of the tank and, more importantly, the military truck ensured that battle lines ebbed and flowed with the vagaries of fate, strategy, and logistics. The Italian campaign, however, lasted nearly two years. This gave the combatants time to get to know each other.

Steep ridged terrain favored the defender. Foul weather made things hugely worse.

Italy was a grunt’s nightmare. Steep natural defiles impeded maneuver while minimizing the effectiveness of air power and artillery. When combined with cold, wet, miserable weather this all conspired to create a relatively static battlefield, particularly in wintertime. In 1944 with the offensive temporarily stalled my friend’s unit dug in and made itself at home.

German and American forces exchanged both profane epithets and the errant hand grenade as the opportunity allowed. This staged photo of a German Landser prepped to throw a stielhandgranate stick grenade on the Eastern Front has been widely reproduced.

Things then got a bit weird. In some areas, the German and American positions were within shouting range, sometimes for days on end. In my buddy’s unit, nobody spoke German. However, a few of the corresponding Germans did speak English. The two sides would pass the time by hurling insults at each other punctuated by the occasional hand grenade. My friend acquired a decent repertoire of German profanity.

The Germans and Americans shot at each other as the situation demanded, but neither side really wanted to be noticed unduly.

In this particular area, the Americans held the ridgeline, while the Germans occupied the valley. Each side would sporadically exchange rifle and machinegun fire as necessity dictated. However, most grunts on both sides just wanted to live long enough to go home.

German courier and supply vehicles like this Kubelwagen transited within sight of American positions.
A surprising lot of the German Wehrmacht in WW2 still relied upon horses for transportation. Hard to believe shooting like this was ever a real thing.

A modest road snaked through the valley at the base of my buddy’s ridge. Fairly frequently German troops would cruise down the road, sometimes in vehicles like trucks or Kubelwagens, occasionally on horseback, and often on foot. The road was at the limits of effective rifle range but oriented directly underneath the American positions.

These guys generally got activated in response to sniper fire. This kept an effective damper on Infantry mischief.

My friend said neither side was in any real hurry to shoot at the other. Small arms fire invariably precipitated mortars or artillery in response. Nobody likes being on the receiving end of the field artillery. One frigid evening as my buddy sat shivering in his foxhole he had an epiphany.

The Mk 2 hand grenade was the standard American grenade of WW2.

The next afternoon late he and his pals took a bunch of Mk 2 hand grenades and packed snow tightly around them before pouring water over the whole frozen mess. The water froze in short order, locking the grenade spoons in place. The US troops then gently removed the safety pins from the grenades and gave these high explosive snowballs a gentle shove down the mountainside.

The frozen Italian winter offered these particular GIs a novel way to employ their hand grenades.

By the time these frosty bombs reached the bottom of the hill, they were thoroughly encased in ice and ample accumulated snow. The geography of the situation was such that each diabolical frozen snowball came to rest in the road below. Then they just waited.

The Grenades

I guess a pomegranate does look a bit grenade-like.

The English word “grenade” dates back to the 1590s and is derived from the French word “pomegranate.” The hand grenade’s obvious similarity to this poly-seeded fruit was the overt inspiration. The concept of the hand grenade dates back much farther, however.

These are early Byzantine grenades shown alongside period caltrops. Caltrops were area denial weapons designed to damage horses’ hooves. No matter how they’re dropped there is always a pointy side facing up. Ouch.
The earliest grenades were ceramic fuse-fired affairs that were likely not terrifically effective.

Simple incendiary grenades were used by the Byzantines as far back as the 8th century. Byzantine troops found that they could fashion glass and ceramic containers filled with Greek Fire and use them to visit chaos upon a nearby enemy. Greek Fire was some fascinating stuff indeed.

Experts still disagree on the chemical composition of Greek Fire. I just know you wouldn’t want to get any of it on you.

Even today nobody is completely sure what made up Greek Fire. The stuff was most typically expelled from a device similar to a modern-day flamethrower and was used in ship-to-ship naval battles. Greek Fire was rumored to continue burning once in contact with water. Some suggested components included quicklime, naphtha, pine resin, sulfur, niter, and calcium phosphide.

This early Chinese “Thunder Crash Bomb” was excavated from a 13th-century shipwreck.

True explosive grenades as we appreciate them really arose in China about a thousand years ago. They were rather theatrically called Zhen Tian Lei or “Sky-Shaking Thunder.” These rudimentary devices consisted of gunpowder packed into metal or ceramic containers. Fuse-fired cast iron versions first saw service in Europe in the mid-1400s.

The Ketchum Grenade was relatively widely used by Union forces during the American Civil War. The fins supposedly kept the bomb flying nose forward for reliable detonation. Confederate troops were known to catch these things in Army blankets and then vigorously return them to their original owners.

The Ketchum Grenade was fin-stabilized and featured a nose-mounted impact fuse. These weapons were first used by Union forces during the American Civil War. Confederate counterparts were simpler spherical things that weighed up to six pounds and used sensitive paper fuses.

The British Mills Bomb was compact, reliable, and effective. Most of the world’s modern hand grenades followed its general pattern.

In 1902 the British War Office declared hand grenades to be obsolete. However, nobody bothered telling the Germans so they started churning out stick grenades by the zillions in 1915. In that same year, the British saw the light and began producing the Mills Bomb, the world’s first truly modern fragmentation grenade.

This WW1-era photograph shows a British officer demonstrating the proper technique for delivering a Mills Bomb.

The Mills Bomb was a product of the fertile imagination of one William Mills and was deeply serrated. In theory, this was supposed to create predictable fragmentation. In practice, these knobs made very little difference to exactly how the grenade burst. The typical British Tommy was expected to be able to throw a Mills Bomb at least thirty meters, though the danger zone was advertised as being closer to 100. By the end of WW1, the warring nations had produced about 75 million hand grenades.

The Mk 2 Pineapple Grenade

The WW1-era American Mk 1 grenade was a flawed design, but it laid a foundation for more effective things to come.

The Mk 1 grenade was one of the world’s first time-fused grenades. However, deploying the Mk 1 was a fairly convoluted chore, and many were thrown without being properly lit. The Germans were frequently all too willing to light these things up and toss them back. This led to the definitive Mk 2.

The Mk2 Pineapple grenade was an iconic weapon among American troops in WW2.

The classic Mk2 Pineapple grenade was first introduced to US forces in 1918 just as the First World War was winding down. Despite orders for some 44 million copies very few of these handy little bombs saw service before the armistice. By the onset of WW2, however, the Mk 2 was ready for prime time.

The knobby design of the Mk2 made it easier to grip but didn’t much enhance its tactical effectiveness.

The Mk 2 hand grenade featured a cast iron body with a grooved surface divided into forty prominent knobs in five rows of eight columns. Like the Mills Bomb, these knobs actually did very little for controlling fragmentation but did make the grenade easier to grip. The obvious similarity to the pineapple fruit forever associated the two terms.

Though they all looked similar on the outside, Mk 2 hand grenades came with a variety of explosive fillers.

The Mk 2 typically sported a time fuse with a 4 to 5-second delay. Fillers included TNT, Grenite, a 50/50 combination of amatol and nitrostarch, a proprietary explosive called Trojan comprised of ammonium nitrate, sodium nitrate, and nitrostarch, or smokeless EC powder.

Some Mk 2 grenades had a 3/8th-inch threaded plug in their base for loading the explosive. Those charged with EC powder were typically left solid on the bottom and filled through the fuse well.

EC powder was a 19th-century formulation of potassium nitrate, barium nitrate, and nitro-cotton gelatinized with ether alcohol. This same stuff was sometimes used as a propellant in shotgun shells. The Mk 2 weighed about 21 ounces depending upon the particular filler and was most unpleasant up close, particularly in enclosed spaces.

The Rest of the Story

The broadly fluctuating temperatures allowed my friend and his buddies to improvise a bunch of low-cost time-delay IEDs with which to harass German forces in the valley below.

By late winter, the snow was thick on the ridgeline, but the temperature fluctuated from sunny and warm in the daytime to well below freezing at night. My friend and his buddies would liberally seed the German road below with frozen snowball grenades at night and then go about their business. The following day the sun would come up and gradually melt the ice-encased bombs.

This is the original movie prop Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch from the inimitable British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was crafted from a toilet bowl float with some fake plastic pearls glued on. The original screen prop sold at auction in September of 2019 for 55,000 pounds. That’s about $67,000. Wow.

The end result was a steady stream of random detonations along the German road throughout the day. My friend said he had a clear conscience as he was effectively harassing the enemy without exposing himself or his men to any incremental danger. After the first few days of random grenade explosions, the Germans lost their enthusiasm and stopped running couriers and supply vehicles within sight of American positions.

All major combatant nations in WW2 fielded their own unique hand grenade designs.

My pal told me that, as near as he could tell, they never killed anybody with their curious explosive snowballs. However, they did effectively deny the enemy use of a handy supply and communications route while suffering no casualties in the process. Eventually, the weather improved and Allied forces resumed pushing the Germans back up the Italian peninsula.

Yesterday’s Mk 2 (left) and today’s M67 grenades are philosophically similar.

Like most heroes of his generation, my friend came home from the war ready to create and to build. He went decades without discussing his wartime experiences with anybody, preferring to focus on more pleasant stuff. I was blessed with this story sitting on a porch swing with him soon after I finished Airborne School back in the 1980s.

Though the campaign in Normandy still gets most of the press, the Germans fought like lions in Italy. This Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger 1 is shown guarding a road intersection in Rome.

Our friendship blossomed, and I got to hear many such tales. Along the way, I also married his granddaughter. He was and remains one of my heroes.

We will never fully appreciate the profound debt we owe those old guys who fought in World War 2.
These old grenades still show up from time to time unexpectedly. The dirt-covered live specimen shown here was discovered underneath an American McDonalds parking lot by workmen expanding the facility.
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