Today In U.S. Military History August 13th 1948

Today In U.S. Military History August 13th 1948

Responding to increasing Soviet pressure on western Berlin, U.S. and British planes airlift a record amount of supplies into sections of the city under American and British control.
The massive resupply effort, carried out in weather so bad that some pilots referred to it as “Black Friday,” signaled that the British and Americans would not give in to the Soviet blockade of western Berlin.

Berlin, like all of Germany, was divided into zones of occupation following World War II. The Russians, Americans, and British all received a zone, with the thought being that the occupation would be only temporary and that Germany would eventually be reunited. By 1948, however, Cold War animosities between the Soviets and the Americans and British had increased to such a degree that it became obvious that German reunification was unlikely.

In an effort to push the British and Americans out of their zones of occupation in western Berlin, the Soviets began to interfere with road and rail traffic into those parts of the city in April 1948. (Though divided into zones of occupation, the city of Berlin was geographically located entirely within the Russian occupation area in Germany.)

In June 1948, the Russians halted all ground and water travel into western Berlin. The Americans and British responded with a massive airlift to supply the people in their Berlin zones of occupation with food, medicine, and other necessities. It was a daunting logistical effort, and meant nearly round-the-clock flights in and out of western Berlin. August 13, 1948, was a particularly nasty day, with terrible weather compounding the crowded airspace and exhaustion of the pilots and crews.

Nevertheless, over 700 British and American planes landed in western Berlin, bringing in nearly 5,000 tons of supplies. The joint British-American effort on what came to known as “Black Friday” was an important victory for two reasons. First and foremost, it reassured the people of western Berlin that the two nations were not backing down from their promise to defend the city from the Soviets. Second, it was another signal that the Soviet blockade was not only unsuccessful but was also backfiring into a propaganda nightmare.

While the Soviets looked like bullies and heartless despots for their efforts to starve western Berlin into submission, the British and Americans–flaunting their technological superiority–were portrayed as heroes by the worldwide audience.

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Today In U.S. Military History August 12th 1898

Today In U.S. Military History August 12th 1898

The brief and one-sided Spanish-American War comes to an end when Spain formally agrees to a peace protocol on U.S. terms: the cession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Manila in the Philippines to the United States pending a final peace treaty.
The Spanish-American War had its origins in the rebellion against Spanish rule that began in Cuba in 1895.
The repressive measures that Spain took to suppress the guerrilla war, such as herding Cuba’s rural population into disease-ridden garrison towns, were graphically portrayed in U.S. newspapers and enflamed public opinion.

In January 1898, violence in Havana led U.S. authorities to order the battleship USS Maine to the city’s port to protect American citizens. On February 15, a massive explosion of unknown origin sank the Maine in the Havana harbor, killing 260 of the 400 American crew members aboard. An official U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry ruled in March, without much evidence, that the ship was blown up by a mine but did not directly place the blame on Spain. Much of Congress and a majority of the American public expressed little doubt that Spain was responsible, and called for a declaration of war.

In April, the U.S. Congress prepared for war, adopting joint congressional resolutions demanding a Spanish withdrawal from Cuba and authorizing President William McKinley to use force. On April 23, President McKinley asked for 125,000 volunteers to fight against Spain. The next day, Spain issued a declaration of war. The United States declared war on April 25. On May 1, the U.S. Asiatic Squadron under Commodore George Dewey destroyed the Spanish Pacific fleet at Manila Bay in the first battle of the Spanish-American War. Dewey’s decisive victory cleared the way for the U.S. occupation of Manila in August and the eventual transfer of the Philippines from Spanish to American control.

On the other side of the world, a Spanish fleet docked in Cuba’s Santiago harbor in May after racing across the Atlantic from Spain. A superior U.S. naval force arrived soon after and blockaded the harbor entrance. In June, the U.S. Army Fifth Corps landed in Cuba with the aim of marching to Santiago and launching a coordinated land and sea assault on the Spanish stronghold. Included among the U.S. ground troops were the Theodore Roosevelt-led “Rough Riders,” a collection of Western cowboys and Eastern blue bloods officially known as the First U.S. Voluntary Cavalry.

On July 1, the Americans won the Battle of San Juan Hill, and the next day they began a siege of Santiago. On July 3, the Spanish fleet was destroyed off Santiago by U.S. warships under Admiral William Sampson, and on July 17 the Spanish surrendered the city–and thus Cuba–to the Americans. In Puerto Rico, Spanish forces likewise crumbled in the face of superior U.S. forces, and on August 12 an armistice was signed between Spain and the United States. On December 10, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the Spanish-American War.

The once-proud Spanish empire was virtually dissolved, and the United States gained its first overseas empire. Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States, the Philippines were bought for $20 million, and Cuba became a U.S. protectorate.

Philippine insurgents who fought against Spanish rule during the war immediately turned their guns against the new occupiers, and 10 times more U.S. troops died suppressing the Philippines than in defeating Spain.

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Today In U.S. Military History August 11th 1864

Today In U.S. Military History August 11th 1864

Confederate General Jubal Early pulls out of Winchester, Virginia, as Union General Philip Sheridan approaches the city. Wary of his new foe, Early moved away to avoid an immediate conflict. Since June, Early and his 14,000 troops had been campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley and the surrounding area. He had been sent there by General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was pinned near Richmond by the army of Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

Early’s expedition was intended to distract Grant, and he carried out his mission well. In July, Early moved down the Shenandoah Valley to the Potomac River, brushing aside two Federal forces before arriving on the outskirts of Washington. Grant dispatched troops from his army to drive Early away, but Early simply returned to the Shenandoah and continued to operate with impunity.

Now Grant sent General Philip Sheridan to deal with Early. Sheridan had been appointed on August 1 to command the Army of the Shenandoah, and he was quick to take action when he arrived on the scene. On August 10, he marched his force toward Winchester. Early was alarmed, and pulled out of the city on August 11 to a more defensible position 20 miles south of Winchester.

Sheridan followed with his force, settling his troops along Cedar Creek—just north of Strasburg, Virginia. As ordered by Grant, Sheridan stopped to await reinforcements. His army, consisting of both infantry and cavalry, would eventually total about 37,000 troops. Sheridan waited for a few days, but Confederate raider John Mosby and his Rangers burned a large store of Sheridan’s supplies.

Alarmed and nearly out of food, Sheridan pulled back on August 16. This retreat was reminiscent of many Union operations in Virginia during the war. Early and others thought Sheridan was as timid and uncertain as other Federal commanders. That opinion changed little in the next month as Sheridan continued to wait and gather his force.

However, Sheridan would later prove he was very different from previous Yankee leaders.
In September, he began a campaign that drove the Confederates from the valley and then rendered the area useless to the Southern cause by destroying all the crops and supplies.

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The 21 Gun Salute

The 21 gun salute honoring the President of the United States, like many American military traditions, appears to be another custom inherited from Great Britain. In early times, it was customary for a ship entering a friendly port to discharge its broadsides to demonstrate that they were unloaded; eventually it became a British practice to fire a seven-gun salute. The forts ashore would fire three shots for each shot fired afloat. The three guns fired on shore to one gun fired on ship had a practical explanation. In earlier days, gunpowder was made of sodium nitrate and was easier to keep on shore than at sea. When gunpowder was improved by the use of potassium nitrate, the sea salute was made equal to the shore salute. The use of numbers “seven” and “three” in early gun salutes probably was connected to the mystical or religious significance surrounding these numbers in many cultures.

Gun salutes continue to be fired in odd numbers, of course, and this is likely because of ancient superstitions that uneven numbers are lucky. As early as 1685, the firing of an even number of guns in salute was taken as indicating that a ship’s captain, master, or master gunner had died on a voyage. Indeed, the firing of an even number of salute guns at the coronation of George VI in 1937 was regarded by at least one observer as an “ominous” portent. Incidentally, the normal interval of five seconds in the firing of gun salutes likely is in order for the salute to have full auditory effect, and also to give the salute a more solemn character.

The United States presidential salute has not always been 21 guns. In 1812 and 1821 it was the same as the number of states, i.e. 18 and 24, respectively, which was also our international salute. After 1841 the President received a salute of 21 guns and the Vice President 17; currently the Vice President receives a salute of 19 guns.

There has evolved over the last 175 years or so a prescribed number of guns, set forth in various Army regulations, to be fired for various dignitaries in accordance with the perceived importance of their positions. On 18 August 1875, the United States and Great Britain announced an agreement to return salutes “gun for gun,” with the 21-gun salute as the highest national honor.

Today, a 21-gun salute on arrival and departure, with 4 ruffles and flourishes, is rendered to the President of the United States, to an ex-President, and to a President elect. The national anthem or “Hail to the Chief,” as appropriate, is played for the President, and the national anthem for the others. A 21-gun salute on arrival and departure with 4 ruffles and flourishes also is rendered to the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign country, or a member of a reigning royal family. In these ceremonies, the national anthem of his or her country also is played.

Incidentally, U.S. Naval Regulations require that a 21-gun salute be fired at noon on Presidents Day, Independence Day, and Memorial Day.

(At most military funerals what many mistake for a 21-gun salute is actually an honor guard team firing three volleys from rifles. This tradition comes from traditional battle ceasefires where each side would clear the dead. The firing of three volleys indicated the dead were cleared and properly cared for.)

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