Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

Some Rare Russian Patrol Plane Footage

One of the most thankless Jobs in World War II aviation was that of the maritime patrol pilot. No glory there, just long flights over water — usually, deadly cold water. And usually in airplanes that were sitting ducks for anything else in the air.

While there has been a little written in English about the RAF Coastal Command, and about American patrol pilots flying the Consolidated PBY, there hasn’t been much information about other nations’ patrol planes and their crews. The Japanese and Germans of course suffered defeat, which scattered their veterans and archives; and the Russians took military secrecy seriously, even though they were behind their peers in this particular field. Not only are there few stories, but few artifacts surviving from this unglamorous but vital field of warfare: most nations’ fighters are represented in museums, but all patrol planes left is grainy black-and-white pictures.

Russian crews too flew patrol flying boats on the nations Arctic and eastern coastlines. Their equipment, like the MBR-2 flying boats seen in this video (silent video with music dubbed over, unfortunately), and the 7.62mm single-mount DA machine guns that the flying boats’ defensive gunners used, was more dated than Russian fighters. They seemed to make up the difference with tough guys, hanging exposed in the cold slipstream.

It was only after the war that the Soviet Union would make an amphibious flying boat as modern as wartime American, British, German or Japanese planes, the Beriev Be-6 (Nato Madge). Its successor, the Be-12 Chaika (Nato Mail), continued to operate long after the Americans, British and Germans gave up on flying boats; indeed, a handful of Chaikas may still be in Russian service. They are, if so (and were, if not) the last conventional gear (tailwheel) aircraft operated by a superpower. (Japan and China, as well as Russia, continue to develop flying boats The sheer size of the Pacific encourages use of such machines).

Someone’s Flogging His Big Johnson

Of course, you can’t have it if you’re in Libya, North Korea, New York, New Jersey or Massachusetts because it’s a big assault Johnson, but what it is, is a rare Johnson LMG kit, restored onto a semi Johnson M1941 rifle receiver, producing a legal semi-auto Johnson LMG. And you can have it — if you win the auction.

big Johnson 13

Manufactured on the original Johnson 1941 semi auto receiver , using original US GI LMG parts , semi auto only . Excellent condition , park. military finish ,mint original barrel , beautiful wood furniture. Test fired only. The gun fires , extracts and reloads 100% , very accurate. The gun comes with bipod and 3 magazines. Shipping to an FFL or C&R holder. The gun will be shipped from FFL in PA.

big Johnson 02

via 1941 Johnson LMG light machine gun semi m1941 : Semi Auto Rifles at

There are a number of these around. By “a number,” though, we’re probably talking about a single digit number. The parts kits are rare, and the rifles are valuable enough to collectors that it’s hard to make the case for sacrificing one.

Johnson guns get their collector cachet from their rarity1 and their use in training and combat by elite elements including the Paramarines, the Marine Raiders, the Canadian-American First Special Service Force (all ephemeral, hostilities-only WWII units), the OSS, and Brigada 2506, the Bay of Pigs invaders. The Marines and Cubanos only used the rifles; the FSSF, only the machine guns. Any surviving Johnson has some part of this history.

Because the Johnsons were not standard arms with standard doctrinal spare parts and maintenance support, they were withdrawn and replaced with US standard rifles and auto rifles/LMGs. Carefully packed away, all of them except for probable OSS/CIA stocks were surplused after the war.

We don’t know what it will go for. The current bid in the $8k neighborhood has not met the reserve (the rifles sell for $4k and up). Some comments, and the rest of the photos, after the jump.


  1. 30,000 Johnson M1941 rifles were made, a large percentage of which survive, but only about 3,000 were machine guns according to ATF Form 2s filed by Johnson Automatics. The Johnson M1944 machine gun appears to have been produced only in prototype quantities.

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Rifle Training, Fort Jackson, 1970s

OK, so there’s a new toy at the Unconventional Warfare Operations Research Library, and it’s a book scanner. First thing we tried to scan was a 1970s basic training “yearbook.” Like every student yearbook, it’s 95% stock content with 5% varying with each class, being the pictures of the current teachers and graduates. We did a hasty scan of the document, then edited out all the non-gun stuff.

1970s rifle training.pdf

So this is what M16A1 era basic training looked like on the only base that was, then, experimenting with integrated male/female training units. Check out the funny women’s uniforms — there was a female fatigue uniform which was made from the nylon stuff of late jungle fatigues and survived about two pressings, and female drill instructors wore a hideous knock off of an Australian bush hat. (Pretty sure women now wear the regular Smokey Bear hat).

Most of the troops attending basic at Jackson would go on to Combat Support and Combat Service Support jobs. Other bases trained Combat Arms (Infantry at Benning, Armor at Knox, Artillery at Sill). The Engineers trained at Fort Leonard Wood.

Rifle training was supposedly standardized across all training bases, and had several distinct phases or blocks of instruction:

  1. Mechanical training: operate, strip, clean, reassemble, and function-check the M16A1.
  2. Basic Rifle Marksmanship (BRM). Hold factors, sight picture, breathing, trigger, etc.
  3. Zero. Achieve a good battle-sight zero on the M16A1 with the Canadian Bull target.
  4. Field Firing. On a Trainfire (pop-up target) range, trainees practice shooting.
  5. Record Fire. On a Trainfire record fire range, engage targets from 50 to 300 meters.

After record fire, the green-fatigued troops could put a camouflage cover on their steel M1 helmets. The cover had a green side and a brown side, the brown side is seldom seen.

There were also familiarization fires such as NBC fire (5 or 10 rounds with a mask on), night fire (shot at day through light-limiting goggles — yes, really!), automatic fire from the bipod, and support weapons including the M60 (a few rounds) and the M72A1 LAW (for all but one or two lucky dogs per cycle, using the subcaliber device). Some of these are shown in the excerpt.

Yeah, the excerpt is rough. We’re still getting the hang of the scanner. Fujitsu SV600.

Official Documents: Cuban Intervention in Angola

(Note: We’ve got a huge backlog of big stuff here, but the last three days have been airplane-working days as the Blogbro has taken time off his soul-deadening software development job to try to prep parts of the aircraft for the next big round of building. For those following the project, we’ve now completed the prep, final-drilling, deburring, edge breaking, and priming of the skins for the after fuselage and tail cone of the RV-12. Today we’re working on wing parts. What this means, though, is that lot of the long-form content we are working on has been delayed. An example of this is the fortification stories which require lots of research, writing and editing. We still plan to do that stuff, and we have to get ahead of the blog to focus on the day job(s) in the coming week. -Ed).

Cubans in Angola with a captured Panhard Eland 90mm armored car. L-R: Lt. Paes (KIA); driver Simoes (WIA); Pvt. Remedios (WIA/POW); Cpt. Pedro Marangoni. From the Havana-Luanda blog.

Cubans in Angola with a captured Panhard Eland 90mm armored car. L-R: Lt. Paes (KIA); driver Simoes (WIA); Pvt. Remedios (WIA/POW); Cpt. Pedro Marangoni. From the Havana-Luanda blog.

You may not remember the Cuban intervention in Angola. After all, it took place 40 years ago. We, however, vividly remember the news stories about mercenary trials, and desperate battles in the jungle; we remember the launch of Soldier of Fortune magazine, which always seemed to feature Angola stories in those days.

We also remember the glee of the press when the Marxist MPLA won. (But they weren’t that kind of Marxist, the New York Times, which was equally giddy over the not-that-kind of Marxists who were transforming Cambodia, insisted: why, their Supreme Leader was a poet! Which was true, Agostino Neto published some rhyming doggerel in the 1960s — not that rhyming is much of a challenge in Romance languages like Portuguese. But this was not inconsistent with him being a monster).

After a long, multifactional civil war, and one-man-one-vote-one-time elections, the Angolan people were enslaved by this nominally Marxist kleptocracy that found itself the beneficiary of support from the USSR (for political reasons) and the USA (bought & paid for with an oil-extraction contract).

Anyway, here are some documents that finally saw the light of day in 2013. Previously, the only agency document was the unofficial and bitter memoir In Search of Enemies by John Stockwell, and a few references in similarly embittered Fred Frank Snepp’s famous book about the end of the Vietnam War, Decent Interval.

For over 25 years the Archive has been submitting targeted FOIA requests to federal agencies to learn more about Cuban intervention in Angola, and the collection of documents posted below have been our reward. Please take a look at the documents for yourself!

[This posting is part of an ongoing crowdsourcing initiative where we will provide documents newly-released through the Freedom of Information Act to the public, and give you the first crack at the documents so you can tell us what is significant about them. Please enjoy!]

via FOIA Sourcing: Cuban Intervention in Angola | UNREDACTED.

The Angolan Civil War that produced the Cuban intervention was a strange tripartite affair with three largely tribal-based political/military groups that had resisted Portuguese colonialism (or claimed to have done so) and were now vying for power: by their Portuguese acronyms these were the Marxist MPLA, the Western-oriented UNITA, and the marxist-turned-western FNLA. The names were empty of real meaning, for example, MPLA stood for “the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola,” but basically it was the Soviet-line communist group led by poet-turned-dictator Agostinho Neto. The other groups each had its own strongman: UNITA had Jonas Savimbi, and FNLA Holden Roberto. Of these, Savimbi was the nearest to a charismatic leader.

UNITA had South African support (including, for a time and in response to the Cubans, South African regulars), and FNLA was supported, their bad luck, by the USA. They had a clown show of mercenaries, including an arguably psychotic Briton of Cypriot stock, Costas Georgiou, who promoted himself from cashiered private in the British Army to Colonel in the Angolan; he would be captured and executed by MPLA after a show trial, but not before such demonstrations of military prowess as shooting one of his own native troops to see if his shotgun was working. (Unfortunately, it was). A handful of Callan’s mercenaries were captured with him and most of them were shot.

One of the FNLA mercenaries was a former CIA officer and Vietnam SOG recon veteran. At the time, he was supposedly no longer affiliated with the Agency but he does have a star in the lobby. Eh. Guys that knew him in SOG speak very highly of him. He was not executed but died in a vehicular ambush.

Once the Cubans intervened, their friends in the US Congress, very strong after the post-Watergate election of 1974, were able to get the plug pulled on all US clandestine support for non-Marxist parties in Angola, abandoning the rebels (and the mercenaries) and guaranteeing Cuban victory, as they had guaranteed that of their North Vietnamese allies previously.

When Portugal’s mildly fascist Salazar dictatorship collapsed in 1974, the Portuguese forces in Angola (and other colonies) were all but abandoned, and most of them joined one side or the other as mercenaries.

The Cubans fought hard and suffered greatly. In renewed fighting in the late 1980s, improved UNITA/South African antiaircraft weapons downed at least 10 MiG-23 ground-support aircraft, and as many as 40 other aircraft, and in addition there were losses to friendly fire.

The most effective Cuban ground weapon was arguably the BM-21 multiple rocket launcher. Its bombardments had a great psychological effect, beyond its considerable physical power. (This psychological effect was amplified against the poorly trained African levies employed by all sides as cannon fodder). Cuban forces also employed the ZSU 23/4 antiaircraft weapon in a ground, direct-fire mode to defend outposts and convoys.

The Cuban intervention was used, among other things, to dispose of dissidents and criminals, a number of whom, after returning to Cuba, joined the Mariel boatlift, whose purpose was inter alia to dispose of troubled Angola vets.

Today, Cuban, South African, and other Angola vets are tentatively making connections in cyberspace. The Cuban blog Havana Luanda is a good place to start (some articles are machine translated into English).

A Quick Review of US Coastal Fortifications (long!)

In the days ahead, we’re going to be looking at some historic fortifications around the East Coast of the United States, and their place in history. Before we get deep into fort design and history, we thought it would help to review the history of fortifications.

Until World War II, the greatest projectors of national power were fleets of warships. This was how nations figured their greatness; this was what earnest, quavering diplomats sought to negotiate reductions in. While the warships changed over the centuries, they still remained the same general “thing” They were vessels that could cross oceans, if need be in large groups, and then destroy enemy fleets, fortifications, and shore installations by fire from shipboard cannon, or by landing marines or soldiers embarked in the ships. Such seaborne ground forces could also, if strong enough, seize and hold ground. (Amphibious warfare didn’t begin with the Higgins boat; it had a history centuries old when a few guys met over a beer and started the US Marine Corps).

To prevent the loss of one’s harbors, cities (which tended, of course, to be at river mouths and harbors), and other goods and chattels, defenses were erected against these ships; frantically in wartime, and more lackadaisically in times of peace. (History is replete with cycles of construction, neglect, and panicked restoration, amongst all the coastal nations of the world). In time, shorelines came to be studded with fortifications that could take advantage of two native superiorities of ground-based versus shipboard armament: the ground doesn’t pitch, roll and yaw, and the ground can support an unlimited amount of weight. This meant that ceteris paribus the guns of forts had substantial range, accuracy and throw-weight advantages over ships’ armament, or could have, if the defenders spent on forts as they did on ships.

The ships had their own advantages: they could run, hide (make smoke, once steam became the motive power), and concentrate their forces to defeat the forts piecemeal, if the mutual support of the fortifications was weak. They could also land their marines or soldiers to flank the fortifications; defending against ships and ground-based infantry (let alone infantry, cavalry and artillery combined arms) was substantially more complex than defending against the land or sea attack alone. Indeed, the history of forts includes many more reduced by landward attacks than by cannonades from the sea.

Forts were not the only anti-ship defense available. Blockships, booms, chains, and other obstacles were popular, in part because they were cheaper than forts. They were effective, just like obstacles against infantry, only when covered by observation and fire. Mines (also called “torpedoes” until that term began to be applied only to self-propelled torpedoes in the 20th Century) were another vital type of sea defense. These “dumb” passive defenses sometimes get short shrift from historians, but they were very important defensive works, and you may be sure that they got careful consideration by the admirals facing them. Both contact and command-detonated mines were established as early as the 18th Century, and they and their controls were part of American minefields until after World War II.

These principles held all through the period from the discovery of the New World in the 15th Century and its settlement by squabbling colonists from Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and England over the next two centuries. They continued to hold as the Europeans withdrew from the New World and new nations grew up there, and the first sign that the balance of power between ships and forts was going in a new direction was probably the demonstration sinking of the relatively modern captured battleship SMS Ostfriesland off the East Coast of the United States by primitive biplane bombers in 1923.

Just as weapons evolved, fortifications did also. There were earthen fortifications, then stone, then brick, then concrete. Military engineering was a highly developed science by the time of the founding of the United States.

The US inherited colonial fortifications from the colonial powers, and then developed its own seacoast installations. For the United States, fortifications were an economy of force proposition: as expensive as they were to build, they were dirt cheap compared to keeping a standing army or navy (something that was anathema to early Americans).

Colonial era forts were used by the US where practical. Some of these works still stand and may be visited. Because they tended to be placed on key terrain, they were often overbuilt or replaced by subsequent generations of fortifications.

Thanks to two brilliant engineers, Vauban who worked mostly in the 17th Century and Montalembert in the 18th, the language of fortification is French. The typical star-shaped fort comes from Vauban’s work, but so do many details. Here’s a section of a Vauban fort in plan view (source). Green represents earthworks above surface level, the side towards the enemy may faced with wood, brick or stone; brown the surface; tan represents excavations below surface level. Campagne is the field, outside the fortification; Ville is the town, inside:

vauban dessus

A: the level of the ground. B: the glacis, smooth rising earth designed to absorb shot or deflect it over the low-lying fortification; C: chemin couvert, a covered (from fire) and concealed path around the perimeter where musketeers may be positioned; D: a demi-lune, literally “half-moon,” an outlying position where guns may be emplaced; E: Fossé, a ditch to delay, collect and expose would-be breachers; F: Courtine, the main wall; G: a Bastion, or defensive protuberance on the wall. G1 Orillons provided flank protection to G2 Embrasures, holes or crenellations in the wall that permitted enfilading fire:

defending a bastion

Demi-lunes and bastions were modules that could be repeated as many times as necessary to complete a wall. The floor of the Fossé also had entrenchments and works that allowed defenders to fire from covered positions at any attackers that got in.

This is a section view along Axis 1 (axe 1) of the first sketch.

Coupe_fortification_vauban_(french).svgThere are many, many, details in the design as well, a design that followed careful mathematical models. A well-manned Vauban fortification was a tough nut to crack. Vauban, in his brilliance, addressed that too and wrote about reducing forts as well as constructing them. He had many able and imaginative followers in France and abroad who, for a century after his death, extended his ideas as far as they were able to go. This was the state of the military engineering art at about the time of the Revolution.

For an overview of the US implementation of these principles, overleaf, click “more.”

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Elderly Secrets Finally Retired

Whats in the releaseThe CIA has released its Presidential briefing documents from the Kennedy (1961-63) and Johnson (1963-69), including a guidebook to the documents.

CIA released today [16 Sep 15 — Ed.] roughly 2,500 previously classified President’s Daily Briefs (PDB) from the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations at a public symposium at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, TX, entitled The President’s Daily Brief: Delivering Intelligence to the First Customer.

The declassified documents are posted at along with a 40-page color booklet describing the documents and the PDB process during this period.

While a few PDBs have been publicly released over the years, the release of roughly 2,500 PDBs is unprecedented. The PDB contains intelligence analysis on key national security issues for the President and other senior policymakers.

Only the President, the Vice President, and a select group of officials designated by the President receive the briefing, which represents the Intelligence Community’s best insights on issues the President must confront when dealing with threats as well as opportunities related to our national security.

Actually, the President doesn’t always trust the VP with this kind of information. LBJ never received a brief until they had to give it to him, when Kennedy was slain. We’re reminded of the arm’s-length relationship of FDR to his two VPs, the Communist Henry Wallace whose allegiance to the USA was never entirely certain, and Harry S. Truman, who came, unlike Wallace and FDR, from the “wrong” social class.

This public release highlights the role of the PDB in foreign and national security policy making during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

It should be a legendary chronicle of half-assery and upscrewing, then. The trouble spots are the familiar ones to students of the 1960s.

trouble spots of 50 years ago

(Note that that graphic goes to 1977. It’s likely that if it stopped with Nixon’s inauguration, some nations like Cuba, the Congo and Vietnam would be even more prominent, and some that only arose as crises in the 1970s, like Angola, Lebanon and Chile, would drop off).

This collection includes the President’s Intelligence Checklists (PICLs) — which preceded the PDB — published from June 1961 to November 1964, and the PDBs published from December 1964 through the end of President Johnson’s term in January 1969. These documents offer insight on intelligence that informed presidential decisions during critical historical events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Vietnam.

via CIA Releases Roughly 2,500 Declassified President’s Daily Briefs — Central Intelligence Agency.

The documents have been extensively redacted, despite their age. (Intelligence sources and methods, and information which may embarrass foreign powers, are evergreen).

Our attempts to download the briefs and the accompanying booklet have not borne fruit this morning — as these documents exist at the nexus of interest by historians, the press’s JFK cult, and conspiracy nut jobs, the Agency server’s getting hit on like the only woman at a Dungeons and Dragons convention.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Pierre’s Western Front Page

pierres_wwi_pagesIt’s obscure, arcane, and in places, in Dutch.

It’s also fascinating.

It is Pierre’s Western Front page,, which includes a lot of photo essays on remaining world war one battlefields. The things that remain to be seen include, of course, cemeteries; monuments; some maintained or restorde field fortifications; and a surprising number of more solid fixed fortifications.

It was one of the biggest surprises for us, that the Germans especially built many concrete blockhouses.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. What an infantry unit stocks, one of the things that every former infantry soldier knows, but that never seems to be represented well in books or movies, is that you start on your priorities of work, and the very first is establishing and then improving the position. 

Improving the position never stops. Initially, you may take a knee or a prone position, ideally with some cover and concealment. Given a few minutes, you scrape out a shallow position to cover yourself in the prone. Given more time, you deepen the hole. If time permits, you make an entire foxhole. If the unit will remain and defend the sector, the next step is to improve the foxholes with various structures up to and including overhead cover (very important in this age of airburst warheads, but it couldn’t be neglected in 1914-1918 either, even though the VT fuze was a year away).

Then you join the foxholes with covered, concealed lines of communication between them, and congratulations! You now have a trenchline. Improving the trenchline never stops either, whether it’s wiring, building bunkers (of earth and wood, and then improving them). What the Western Front was, was this process of improvement taken to the extremes it might be with a front line in a static position for four years. 

Bruce Bairnsfather, previously mentioned here on

Bruce Bairnsfather, previously mentioned here on

Pierre is not so much a student of the weapons and tactics, though, as he is of the culture of the war, and he truly brings it to life, for example, here, in pursuit of infantry officer and cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather.

Sometimes Pierre’s English translation, otherwise, perfect, is a bit entertaining — was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand really the “sparkle to war”? — but hey, he’s out there doing this.

He has a great page of English-language reviews of books in several languages (and there’s a lot of good new stuff being published right now, thanks to the centenary of the war). Of his reviews, he writes:

In November 2009 I opened my series of Pierre’s Book Reviews with these words: “The moment I decided to write English book reviews, I also decided to write only about interesting and recommendable books. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with bashing less interesting works.” Merely based on the fact that I took the effort to write this book review about Barton’s “ARRAS”, you may consider this concise article as my enthusiastic recommendation to read this book.

Like Pierre, we put something here every Wednesday because we like it and want to share it with you. In this case: Pierre’s Western Front. Enjoy, and many thanks to the commenter who suggested the site to us.

Navigation Error in a Submarine: USS Seawolf (SSN 575), 1968

We’re well conscious of the consequences of a navigation error in an airplane. Even in visual conditions, you can put yourself in a position where you have a fuel issue and no suitable landing spot, and in instrument flying conditions you can find yourself on the non-survivable edge of the airspace, where it meets mountains and things like that.

The protagonist in our tale -- USS Seawolf, SSN 575.

The protagonist in our tale — USS Seawolf, SSN 575.

Submarines are, in effect, flying on instruments all the time. While we’re probably the last generation of pilots to ever see “Elevation data unreliable but believed to be no more than 17,000 feet” on a grid square, the charting of subsea terrain is much less complete than that of terrain that juts out into the air. So even if a sub skipper never errs, he may thwack an uncharted wreck or seamount. And if he errs, well, submarines don’t do well at the edges of the water — they like to stay in the middle. Anything near the edges, whether it’s seabed, coastline, wrecks, fishnets and other bottom debris, not to mention the surface of the sea itself, is inimical to your boat’s stealth, if not your survival.

And while an airplane crew has many resources that can help them stay in the middle of the air, the sub crew is alone. They have no calm voice of traffic control, watching them on radar. (Sure, someone might be watching them on sonar, but they have no way to call). And when they’re operational, they can’t even use all the resources they have — when you’re engaging in an ASW exercise, you can’t really map the bottom with your sonar. The navigation tools used on submarine include an inertial navigation system, in which an error on any one waypoint ruins every subsequent waypoint.

Patch of Seawolf's 1957 commissioning crew, or "plankholders."

Patch of Seawolf’s 1957 commissioning crew, or “plankholders.”

It was a navigational error during a tactical exercise that nearly destroyed USS Seawolf (SSN-575) on 30 January, 1968. This Seawolf was the second sub to bear the name; the first was a fleet sub whose fate is unknown, but did not return from a 1944 war patrol. By 1968, Seawolf was old as nuke subs of the day went — laid down in the early fifties, launched in 1955 and commissioned in 1957, she was only the second nuclear-powered vessel in the world, and originally the only American sub powered by a liquid metal reactor.(pdf). Due to a shipyard cock-up,  the reactor never made full power and was replaced later by the spare pressurized water reactor from USS Nautilus (SSN-571)1; the Soviets would later use liquid metal reactors, although different ones (lead-bismuth rather than Seawolfs sodium).

Seawolf lacked the Albacore-tested hull streamlining and the noise reduction of later submarines, and she was, by 1968 standards, one of the noisiest nuke boats the US Navy had — which made her a good stand-in for the noisy Soviet boats of the day.

USS Sturgeon (SSN-637) crewman Gannon McHale remembered the mishap, which occurred when Seawolf was giving Sturgeon and other subs a sonar and fire-control system workout:

The idea was for the Seawolf to make high speed runs through the deep narrow canyon, which would pose a real test for our sonar men. A serious echo existed in Georges Basin, but our sonar guys were up to the task. Finding Seawolf was not a problem – she was noisy, and we were not.

… Seawolf made her high speed runs through the basin, and we tracked her. [XO Bruce] DeMars recalled, “I believe it was the third run. We had a very nice tracking solution, and I was about to recommend we shoot when the solution rapidly fell apart. I thought he [the captain of the Seawolf] could not have turned south, as that was shallow water, so he must have turned north.”

This spawned a dispute in the control room of Sturgeon, as the experienced ship-handlers, including the XO and the commander(Curtis B. Shellman) simply couldn’t believe that the skipper of Seawolf would have done anything that stupid, and Sturgeon’s sonarmen insisting that, stupid or not, that’s exactly what Seawolf did.

The dispute was resolved by what DeMars remembered as “the most horrendous sound on the sonar,” followed by the unmistakeable sound of an emergency ballast tank blow.

Seawolf had grounded at approximately 20 knots. Dealing with the emergency, the crew never sounded an alarm, but sailors and officers throughout the boat felt the impact — as a bounce, when the bow hit sloping ground, and then a shake, as the stern struck and slid. This was followed by the sound of the emergency blow and watertight doors slamming. For the crewmen dealing with the emergency, there was no time for terror; for the men in other stations, there was.

Seawolf took a huge nose-up bow angle and zoomed to the surface, bursting out of the water to 1/3 of its length, then plunged back down underwater before oscillating back to the surface again. It was grievously damaged; the sonar dome was gone, as was the sub-surface phone; the screws were ruined. Hydraulics were out. MM1 Chauncey Leach remembered:

All the main and the vital hydraulic oil was on the floor in the stern, and you could see the after bulkhead moving back-and-forth with the wave action top side. The rudder and the planes were hanging on by a thread. The whole turtleback section back there was just swinging.

Hasty repairs were made — Leach would be one of the sailors decorated for his actions doing that — and watches set, as the sub wallowed in the Atlantic for a day until a rescue ship arrived and took Seawolf under tow. Fortunately the mishap location was only 65 NM from the nearest point of the US Atlantic coast, which explains why the tug (USS Skylark ASR-20) was able to ge there so quickly.

Despite the severe damage to the sub, the blow was glancing enough that none of the crew received a serious injury. The Navy apparently reported the incident but numerous sites report erroneously that Seawolf made it back to her home base at New London or Electric Boat at Groton under her own power. That was, as we have seen, out of the question. Repairs took over a year and Seawolf now went to the Pacific Fleet.

Within a couple of years, the Navy decided to add a section of the hull enabling certain special projects. Its special operations included wiretap servicing in the Sea of Ohkotsk, and participation in attempts to recover material of intelligence value from the sunken Soviet sub, K-129. For the K-129 operation its noisy nature didn’t matter, but it is surprising to see it associated with Sea of Okhotsk operations, as the sea was (and is) considered to be home territory, and aggressively patrolled, by Soviet/Russian naval forces. Seawolf continued in service until 1986, and was scrapped in 1997-98, with her reactor section being buried (as is customary for retired US subs).

There were immediate consequences to this accident. An upcoming Med deployment for Seawolf was out of the question, so a new boat was substituted. As it happened, she would never reach the Mediterranean, either: USS Scorpion, which sank 22 May with 99 souls on board. (It was a hard year in the underwater racket: early 1968 also saw the accidental loss of French, Israeli, and Soviet boats)


It’s just been announced that the Glomar Explorer, formerly the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a ship that, like Seawolf, was involved in the CIA-managed K-129 salvage efforts, is now headed to the scrapyard.  It had a post-service career in oil drilling, but falling oil prices made it uneconomical.


  1. The original reactor and its components were dumped in the ocean on 18 May 1959, at
    38-30N, 72-06W. See:
  2. McHale, pages 53-54.
  3. McHale, page 55.


Loewen, Eric P. The USS Seawolf Sodium-Cooled Reactor Submarine. Retrieved from:

McHale, Gannon. Stealth Boat: Fighting the Cold War in a Fast-Attack Submarine. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008. (Page numbers are from the 2013 Naval Institute Press paperback).

Naval History and Heritage Command: Seawolf II (SSN-575). Retrieved from:

NavSource Online: Submarine Photo Archive: USS Seawolf SSN-575. Retrieved from:


Unique Presentation Tokarev TT-33 at RIA Auction this Weekend

Bet you’ve never seen a pistol exactly like this before:

elbe meeting tt-33 right

It’s up for auction this weekend. Here’s what RIA says about it. First, about TTs in general:

Manufactured in 1944, the TT-33 was a simple and robust design firing the bottlenecked high-velocity 7.62mm Tokarev round and using a quick-change action group that allowed many otherwise crippling mechanical failures to be solved with a simple exchange of drop-in components.

To that we’d add that the TT-33 design has some Browning features, some Petter features, and some improvements that appear to be Tokarev’s own. As you can see from the images, it had among the best sights of any period pistol, and definitely the best on a period service pistol.

Now, about this particular gun:

Matching numbers are present on the slide, frame and magazine, with a matching partial number “50” on the action group and matching dates on the slide and frame. The grips are a set of clear acrylic (airplane windshield soirced) with steel frames, which each have an underlaid green paper panel; similar grips are known to have been field-improvised by Allied soldiers using lexan and similar materials salvaged from downed aircraft.

To that, we’d just quibble that Lexan was far in the future. This is simple acrylic, Plexiglas by its American trade name and Perspex in Britain. The paper pieces under the grip appear to have been done with colored pencils that any headquarters would have on hand, and if they are truly original, they’ve been kept out of the ultraviolet for these 70 years.

The right panel has a red star flanked by “CCCP” with blue and pink border accents, and the left panel shows some light vine accents around a finely written cyrillic inscription. A translation was included by a prior owner: “To Brigadier General Shugg/from Colonel Patanin/May 10 1945 Elbe River/in Memory of the War with Germany”.

elbe meeting tt-33 left

It seems like a rather touching exchange between near peers, at the end of a cataclysmic war that brought often-opposing nations together to face a much greater threat.

Research has not produced any results on Colonel Patanin, but records do show a Brigadier General Roland Paget Shugg (b 1893 d 1989) as a artillery officer with the XIII Corps. XIII Corps was among the Allied units that made it to the Elbe River, the politically mandated “stop point” for the Western Allies and famous as the meeting point for American, Commonwealth, and other Western Front units and their Soviet counterparts on the Eastern Front. Many exchanges of souvenirs are known to have happened at these meetings, including weapons and military equipment. Shugg started his military career as a West Point cadet in 1912, joining the Cavalry post-graduation for Border Patrol duty in Texas before transferring to Field Artillery and combat action in Europe in World War One. Between wars he took a number of staff postings while also studying at Fort Sill, Fort Leavenworth, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During World War Two he was the commanding General of XIII Corps’ Field Artillery, which as noted was at the Elbe at the time in question. After the war, he would serve as a member of a joint Brazilian-American defense commission, a staff officer to the American Mission to Turkey, Commander of the Port of Embarkation in New Orleans, and division artillery commander for the 3rd Infantry, a role that would take him back into combat during the Korean War. Among his decorations were the Silver Star and Legion of Merit (both earned in World War Two with oak leaves from the Korean War), Belgian and French Croix du Guerre with Palm, and others

via Historic Soviet Tokarev TT-33 Semi-Automatic Pistol with Custom Grip Inscription from a Soviet Colonel to an American Artillery General for the Meeting of the Allies at the Elbe River.

It seems probable that Soviet-era archives will have something about Colonel Patanin.

They sum up the pistol and its condition like this:

Excellent, with 98% of the original blue finish, showing some light scratches and handling marks overall. The period replacement grips are very good, with a few light scratches, and the paper panels show fine color and strong ink detail. Mechanically excellent. A historic piece of Soviet World War Two military hardware, connected to the final defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the war in Europe.

… and suggest it might sell for $2-3,000. That seems to us to be a considerable lowball for a gun with probable WWII provenance and considerable historical value. Nice original TTs have grown scarce, although crudely smithed ones to pass ATF’s idjit “sporting purposes” safety rule are common here; but this one is not just any nice original, but an original with a difference and a story. A centerpiece for the collector of Russian and Soviet arms, and a suitable display in many a museum.

The Best Traditions are Organic

CrestFrom time to time, someone imposes, or attempts to impose, a tradition on some military unit or other. Sometimes these traditions stick, especially when they connect to traditions from an earlier time, like the Stetson hat worn for ceremony by cavalry units.

Sometimes they don’t. Consider the frequent attempts by army Chiefs of Staff suffering acute USMC envy, to try to make a big stink about the, Army Birthday, which has been for most of the Army’s history just another date on the calendar. Making a big deal about the date the unit first stood up is a Marine thing; and we wish them well with it. And a few years from now, some politician of an Army general will be a guest a one of the Marines’ celebrated birthday balls, and the Good Idea Fairy will whisper, “We should be doing this,” in his too-receptive ear.

SF poster it says more about youNope, real traditions come from the bottom up, organically. The Green Beret of US Army Special Forces started not with a brainstorm in a corner office, but with the WWII veterans who first stood up the unit. To say the beret was merely opposed by Army officialdom is parallel to saying the United States was upset with the Empire of Japan after Pearl Harbor. They fought a bitter counterinsurgency for a decade, until an SF officer actually bearded, of all people, the President about it. And the President thought it was a great idea; as a result, the Green Beret is the one article of military clothing whose use stands not on Army traditions and regulations, but upon an Executive Order.

Many other units were inspired by the Green Beret (and the branch or regimental berets worn by most of our NATO allies) to seek their own headgear. Some of these traditions — red berets for the airborne, and original black berets for the Rangers — had an organic basis, and stood; others were the sort of imposed tradition that extinguishes itself when the open flame of command influence is removed.

Here’s a Green Beret tradition that one team holds, and that no one, as far as we know, has ever tried to emulate. A single ODA, ODA-111, from the defunct 11th Special Forces Group and its former members, including members of the predecessor teams (such as A-1, 1/11th SF) and successor teams (ODA-2034, C/1/20th SF), gets together one weekend every summer in the same place, Fort Pickering on Winter Island in Salem, Massachusetts.

SF poster join a minority groupOriginally it was a “team dive” for a scuba team, which involved recreationally (for a change) diving for the lobsters that inhabit the bay. In recent years, it’s become more a weekend camp-out with a lot of drinking and tale-telling.

The site is interesting, as it had military significance from the Revolution through the post-World War II era, hosting at different times cannon that commanded the bay, PBY patrol planes that scoured the Atlantic for German submarines, and Navy and later Coast Guard rescue seaplanes and helicopters. The fortifications were rebuilt for the War of 1812 and again in the time of the Civil War, but were never threatened. In the 20th Century, it was a base of Navy seaplanes that hunted subs and conducted Search and Rescue missions, and then it was handed off to the Coast Guard for the SAR mission. When the Coast Guard pulled out in the early 1970s, the site was abandoned to vandalism and decay, and was only restored as a park after nearly twenty years of neglect.

When the Team Dive began the area was in decay. Over the last quarter century, the site has become an important recreational area. Part of that is because team members have pitched in to beautify the area. They bush-hogged scrub and mowed grass; they placed a flagpole and two bronze plaques in memory of our SF dead, with the agreement of the town authorities that managed the park then. 

The tradition may end. The local non-profit that manages the park now, and takes a typically Massachusetts dim view of the military and veterans, has secured a “free money” Federal grant, and has a dream of restoring the fort to historic condition — whatever that is. (1780? 1814? 1942?). Their first idea is to tear down the flagpole the team erected. After all, it’s Massachusetts.

Maybe the team could run up the Rainbow Flag, but that’s not really the tradition we’ve celebrated for all these years.