Dick Winters "When he said 'Let's go,' he was right in the front. He was never in the back. A leader personified."- Sgt. William "Wild Bill" Guarnere
I haven't really been super subtle about the fact that stumbling across the Band of Brothers miniseries on TV arouses an emotion on me that is probably not too dissimilar from the feeling an eight year-old girl might get while riding a pink fluffy unicorn under a double rainbow and eating a Rocky Road ice cream cone with sprinkles made from magical dolphin tears. The epic tale of hardass American paratroopers doing stuff in Europe goes right up there with Starship Troopers and Dirty Harry on the list of towering cinematic masterpieces of awesomeness that I could watch on an endless loop every waking moment for the rest of my life and still die a happy man and totally not bored at all, and it's one of those things that I compulsively watch any time I see it on television. (The book is incredibly powerful as well, of course, but since they don't run back-to-back book marathons on the History channel at three in the morning I don't usually delve into it as often as I do the miniseries.)
However, despite my intense love of all things Easy (heh heh), I've yet to do a write-up on the hero of the story, Major Richard "Dick" Winters – a man so unequivocally, ass-crushingly hard-as-phuk that mentioning him on a website about badasses seemed more like an inevitable formality than some wild, startling revelation uncovering the unsung heroes of American military history. However, with the good Major's passing two weeks ago – and the subsequent electronic landslide of mail that coated my inbox shortly thereafter – I realize that I cannot in good conscience leave this man off the list any longer. Major Dick Winters was an incredible war hero, and while I might not be able to do his story the same kind of justice that Stephen Ambrose did, I can at least make damn sure that he's included on a list of badass military skull-crushers.
Dick Winters was born on January 21, 1918, in a small town outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In 1941, after it became pretty obvious to everybody on this side of the pond that we were going to need to take a little boat ride across the Atlantic and regulate on some Germans Nate Dogg style, Winters enlisted in the Army in 1941. As a man who never half-assed anything in his life, Winters asked to be put into the Airborne service – the most elite and hardcore troops the Army had – and after passing through jump school went immediately to Officer Candidate School, busted his ass, and took over as a Second Lieutenant in E Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He immediately proved himself as a natural leader to the men – he had the perfect blend of skills that meant he could be totally awesome without also putting up with any of their bull5hi7. Before this guy had even shipped out to the battlefield, Winters was promoted to First Lieutenant, and he was so beloved by the troops that when his dickhead commanding officer started 5hi7 with him the sergeants in the unit told the battalion commander that they would rather hand in their stripes than see Winters get dicked around by some incompetent douchebag company commander who was barely qualified to identify the difference between enfilade fire and a Jeep Wrangler full of drunk Utahraptors with sunglasses on their heads and Hawaiian leis around their necks. The battalion commander was happy to take the Sergeants' stripes away from them, surs, but he also booted Winters' CO out of the company as well. It was kind of a minor victory for everybody, except of course the deposed commander, but don't feel too badly for the guy – he was such a douchebag that they had to get David Schwimmer to play him in the movie of his life, and that should probably tell you all you need to know.
Easy Company's first combat operation was a pretty serious little skirmish called Operation Overlord, where a little over a million men from a dozen different countries stormed the beaches of Normandy and ran full-speed in the direction of an army of heavily-entrenched German machine gun nests manned my men with nothing better to do than rake the entire ocean with one continuous stream of heavy weapons fire. The night before the invasion, Winters' unit was flown over the beach head under the cover of darkness, where they got to jump out of the side of a cargo plane while enemy artillery launched as much shrapnel as possible into the sky. The operation didn't start out great for Lieutenant Winters. After getting pelted with flak for 10 miles and slowly floating down through a hail of pointy metal on a parachute, Winters landed in hostile territory to discover that he'd lost his gun during the drop and could only track down 13 men from his unit. Oh, and the company commander's plane had crashed, killing everyone on board, so Winters was now the new commander of the unit. Good luck with that, buddy.
No problem. Winters relied on his training and his instincts, and somehow managed to keep his cool, survive through the night, organize his men into a cohesive fighting force, battle a few patrols of Germans, and regroup with the main force of paratroopers. But there was no rest for the weary – upon reaching paratrooper command was immediately ordered to assault a group of artillery beyond a nearby hedgerow – four 150mm heavy guns that were causing quite a bit of trouble with all of their annoying "hey let's lob a ton of exploding shells half a foot in length onto the guys who are storming the beaches" business, and someone arbitrarily decided that Winters was just the guy to put those bastards out of everyone's misery. Despite still having only 13 men to attack 50 Germans in entrenched positions, Winters didn't even flinch. He had one squad lay down covering fire with machine guns while he and a second squad ran from trench to trench capping fUX03Rs apart and punching people in the face with brass knuckles. Despite getting shot in the leg while leading the charge, Winters barely even slowed down in his mad rampage of German-dismantling carnage, pretty much tearing the guns apart with his bare hands and then using the bend-to-5hi7 howtizer barrels to club Nazis until their heads popped off, rolled down a hill, and knocked down a series of bowling pins Winters had strategically placed at the bottom of the hill. Winters not only successfully took the guns with just 13 men (losing only one man in the process) and ended the artillery bombardment on Utah Beach, but his first coordinated military action against the enemy was so phuking mind-blowing that to this day the cadets at West Point study it as the perfect example of how to assault fixed point defenses. Oh, and he also captured a detailed map of the German defenses surrounding the beach, which was kind of a useful thing for the American commanders to have. Not a lot of officers out there are awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and a place in American military lore for actions performed during their first combat maneuver, but then again Dick Winters wasn't like a lot of officers out there.
After helping capture the Nazi-infested town of Carentan during the Normandy Campaign, Winters returned to England and was re-deployed during Operation Market Garden in September 1944. Parachuting deep behind enemy lines, surrounded on all sides, and spread out over a ridiculous area still wasn't enough to make Winters feel anything remotely resembling fear or hesitation, and it was while he was re-decorating the windmills of Holland with the insides of Fascist infantrymen Dick Winters accomplished yet another towering act of military awesomeness. One day, while he was out doing some recon and assaulting a bunch of entrenched German machine gun nests, Winters accidentally came across a huge unit of battle-hardened SS infantry hiding behind a dike waiting to ambush the Allied flank. Despite only having 35 men with him and staring down over 300 of Germany's most elite soldiers, Winters once again set aside the numbers game and went completely balls-out – he got pumped up out of his phuking mind, charged on foot across a huge open field (at the head of his formation), got around beside the Germans, and opened fire on them from the flank, pinning them up against the dike and giving them no chance to escape. When he got bored of watching his men gun down the SS, Winters radioed in some artillery and blasted everything out of existence. He lost one man dead, 22 wounded (a 66% casualty rate for his platoon). He destroyed two full companies of German infantry – over 300 guys.
Winters went on to serve as the battalion's executive officer during the Battle of the Bulge in December, where he dug in to the town of Bastogne (a crucial key point blocking the Germans from breaking through Allied lines) and helped inspire the badass men of the 101stAirborne to basically single-handedly withstand a coordinated attack from 15 German SS divisions during over a week of non-stop fighting in the freezing cold winter. After that, he led his men to capture Hitler's summer home – the Eagle's Nest, and it was kind of fitting that after he helped stick a fork in Hitler he went to Hitler's house and stole some of his silver forks. The war ended a few days later. During nearly a year of almost incessant combat, Easy Company sustained 150% casualties, but Dick Winters had managed to lead them from beginning to end.
After the war, Winters went back to PA, married his girlfriend, trained Army Rangers at Fort Dix during the Korean Conflict, and continued being awesome. When he wasn't running his own company or having his life story turned into an Emmy Award-winning miniseries, he gave guest lecturers at West Point during their bi-annually offered "How to Be phuking Hardcore 101" class. He died on 2 January 2011 at the age of 93.
SEAL Team Six
Considering the fact that in one 24-hour period I received over a hundred emails regarding the events of last Sunday, I realize that it would be completely irresponsible of me as the operator of this website to not spend today writing about the most balls-out commando special black ops raid of our generation - a daring assault that took down the world's most universally-despised madman since Adolph Hitler. And, since the details behind this utterly hardcore attack on the planet's most notorious terrorist might never fully be made available to the public, I figure it's about as good a week as any to talk more generaly about the elite group of American badasses that pretty much everyone is convinced carried this op out – SEAL Team Six, the elite counter-terrorism unit of the United States military, and a group of 5hi7-kicking counter-terrorist hardasses who spend their nine-to-five day jobs training to be an ultra-efficient cross-breed between Jack Bauer, Colonel James Braddock, and Jason effing Bourne.
The now-legendary Team Six was formed in October 1980, in direct reaction to the clusterphuk of epic proportions that resulted when the Americans tried to rescue a group of civilians who had been taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran and failed so miserably that the Joint Chiefs decided, phuk it, we need to put together a team of guys whose only job is to kick terrorists in the scrotum until they cough up their marbles and then force-feed their own marbles back to them. Team Six was actually just the third SEAL team formed by the U.S. Navy, but the Admirals gave them number six because it's a much cooler number than three, and also because it might confuse the Soviets into thinking that we had way more of these guys than we actually did. Interestingly, the unit doesn't go by Team Six anymore, instead calling itself DevGroup or DEVGRU, which is short for "Development Group" or something equally boring and innocuous. The rationale behind changing the name to something that sounds like a financial consulting firm or a team of overworked video game designers was basically just so that nowadays high-ranking Admirals can honestly stand in front of TV cameras and say 5hi7 like, "There's no such thing as SEAL Team Six," without lying. While I can understand and appreciate the whole "plausible deniability" thing, I should also mention that I have absolutely no intention of referring to a company of terrorist-eviscerating asskickers as The Development Group for the purposes of this article.
Fast-roping from a helicopter onto a speedboat, to most people, is "extreme sports".To the SEALs, it's "a training exercise".
The general consensus is that we basically know about only a miniscule percentage of the badass operations Team Six has carried out in its career saving the world from terrorists, communists, vampire Nazis, and god-knows whatever the hell else out there is trying to kill us, but the 5hi7 we know about is pretty much totally phuking awesome. Commanded in the early days by Richard Marcinko (a man I intend to cover in much more detail in a later Badass of the Week article), Six's first operation was to parachute into a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico in the middle of the night, attack a terrorist camp, and recover a portable nuclear device from the clutches of a group of madmen. Now, if that's the sort of 5hi7 these guys were doing on their first mission, you can only imagine where it goes from there. Like, for instance, in 1985 thirteen SEALs from Team Six rescued Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon when he and nine members of his staff were taken hostage in his mansion in Grenada. Six briefly made tennis a badass sport, fast-roping down onto Scoon's tennis court from a helicopter while the Grenadan army shot machine guns and anti-aircraft cannons at them. The operatives, completely unfazed by staring death in the face while suspended in mid air from a rope, charged ahead and freed the Queen's Representative on Grenada by storming the mansion and clearing it of enemy troops with a dickload of bullets and concussion grenades. After securing the hostages, the SEALs, realizing they were cut off from extraction, then proceeded to hold the position against a full-on counter attack by basically the entire phuking Grenadan army. These 13 dudes held the position, staring down tanks, APCs and grenade launchers with little more than sniper rifles and small arms. Not only did Scoon get out safely, but all 13 SEAL team members survived, and none of the hostages were killed.
Their operational record only gets more impressive. In 1989, Team Six worked with Delta Force to capture notorious criminal drug lord Manuel Noriega from the jungles of Panama. In the days before Desert Storm they swam around in SCUBA gear disarming anti-ship mines in the Persian Gulf, and then when the war started they were fast-roping onto Kuwaiti oil platforms, wiping out the Iraqi defenders and re-taking the positions before the enemy could set fire to them. In the late 90s ST6 searched for war criminals in Bosnia. In 2009 they freed an American crew taken prisoner by Somali pirates in a manner so phuking badass that it belongs in an action movie: A team of SEAL Team Six snipers simultaneously coordinated three long-range shots from the rocking deck of one ship to another – the first two popped the heads off a pair of pirates patrolling the upper decks, and the third shot went through a porthole window and drilled a pirate who was holding the American ship's captain at gunpoint with an AK-47, killing the scurvy scalawag before he could pull the trigger.
(As a weird side note, SEAL Team Six has also worked as a security force for every Olympic Games since 1984. This seems like overkill, but hey, if you're going to station Colonel John Matrix as a mall security guard outside the phuking food court, you can be damn sure that's the safest Panda Express in the known universe.)
"Excuse me, sir, if you don't have your ticket for the 100-meter freestyleI'm going to have to ask you to leave."
Another thing we know for certain about the SEALs in general – and particularly Team Six – is that their training process is phuking brutal. To put this in perspective, 80% of the people privileged enough to be admitted to SEAL Training wash out before making it through. If four out of every five of the toughest badasses in the U.S. military can't hack it, you can only assume that the demands this training put on you basically border on the inhuman. A typical day might involve running a few dozen miles through wet sand, swimming an ungodly distance through the ocean during high tide, and then coming back to camp, sparring your classmates in underwater hand-to-hand combat training, and then, when you're beat to 5hi7 and so damned exhausted you can barely breathe, your instructors tie your legs together, tie your hands behind your back, and throw you in the deep end of the swimming pool as part of "underwater survival training".
If you're one of the 20% lucky enough to make it through SEAL School, you can look forward to an even more insane series of physical tortures designed to make you a Beast Mode killing machine capable of annihilating anything on two legs in the time it takes most people to chomp down a piece of the Colonel's Spicy Chicken. Summers are spent parachuting into the Arizona desert and living off the land for a week. Winters are in Kodiak Alaska, where you are deployed via submarine, swim a couple miles through freezing water, and then march a few hundred miles through sub-zero temperatures with nothing more than a compass and a combat knife to keep you warm. It's the sort of 5hi7 that would kill most normal people, but by the time it's all done you've got a hardcore team of motherphuking asskickers ready to deploy anywhere in the world within 4 hours for whatever ship-boarding, hostage-rescuing, amphibious-assaulting counter-terrorism operations even the most demented enemy of humanity could imagine.
The big difference between "SEAL training" and "Attempted Homicide"is that with an attempted homicide you don't expect the guy to survive and escape.
"We all knew there was just one way to improve our odds for survival: train, train, train.Sometimes, if your training is properly intense it will kill you.More often -- much, much more often -- it will save your life."- Richard Marcinko
Considering the fact that I went completely overboard with a couple-thousand-word background describing why these guys are easily one of the history's most over-the-top badass military organizations, you can understand why when it came time to go in after the FBI's most wanted terrorist these were the guys who got called in to do the job.
Now, I'm not going to completely go off on a tirade about Osama Bin Laden. I think that there's something to be said for having a little respect for the recently deceased, even when the warm corpse in question is a man who made it his goal in life to utterly destroy you, your family, your dog, and everything you love. Honestly, his career started off respectably enough, serving as a Mujahedeen freedom fighter battling against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, but after the Communists were beaten back, Osama quickly gear-shifted from "hey let's throw the invading Soviets out of our homeland Red Dawn style" to "hey phuk it let's have a complete jihad against everyone all the time," and everything went downhill from there. Bin Laden joined up with radical terrorist groups (and I mean radical here as a synonym for "psycho extremist" and not "totally awesome"), where he went on to orchestrate a lot of totally not-badass things like truck bombings, suicide attacks, and assassinations of Egyptian parliamentarians, all with the aim of furthering his political agenda not through democratic means, but instead by killing innocent civilians until people decided to submit to his will. This rarely works. So, when his part in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center got him disowned by his family and stripped of his Saudi citizenship, Bin Laden went to Afghanistan, founded al-Qaeda, befriended the Taliban, and basically declared war on the U.S., Israel, and everything else in the world. In 1998 he was behind bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, in 2000 a suicide bomber under his command killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole (something the SEALs probably didn't take lightly), and in 2001 he was the mastermind behind the greatest single loss of life on American soil since the Civil War.
This aggression would not stand, man.
So, over the course of the last couple years, the CIA, Special Forces, Delta, and a guy named Admiral McRaven (perhaps the more badass, more accomplished cousin of Mayor McCheese?) tracked Bin Laden to Abbottabad, Pakistan – a quiet, middle-class neighborhood 75 miles from Islamabad and less than a mile from Pakistan's top military academy. He was holed up in an acre-wide compound surrounded by walls 12 feet high and over a foot thick. The compound's main structure was a two-story, fortified building with plenty of possible sniper perches and defensive positions. Obama thought about ordering a bombing raid, but that was deemed too messy, too imprecise, and too potentially dangerous to the nearby civilian population. This was going to have to be surgical. This was going to need the delicate, loving touch that only SEAL Team Six could provide.
So, around 1am on May 1st, 2011, a couple black helicopters (possibly of some crazy Stealth variety nobody's ever heard of before, only further illustrating the fact that these guys get the coolest Batman-style 5hi7 out there) swooped in from a base in Afghanistan, and SEAL operators fast-roped down, possibly alongside an insane commando dog. Nearby Twitter fiends heard a series of large explosions (possibly flashbang grenades), as the SEALs went over the twelve-foot wall and assaulted the lair of the world's foremost terrorist.
"I am a person who loves death. The Americans love life.I will engage them and fight. I will not surrender.If I am to die, I would like to be killed by the bullet."- Osama Bin Laden
It took forty minutes. SEAL Team Six, in and out, all Tangos dead, no SEAL casualties, and the only civilian killed was a woman who was being used as a human shield by one of the terrorists. Even technical problems didn't stop these guys from getting the hell out of there before the Pakistani security forces arrived – one of the SEAL helicopters went down in the attack, either from mechanical failure or some kind of aerodynamic weirdness, but these guy blew that 5hi7 up, loaded into the other chopper, and peeled ass out of there before anybody knew what the phuk was going on.
We probably won't ever know the truth about the men who performed this raid, the details of the mission, or any of the other insane black ops 5hi7 we're all dying to read about. Aside from the whole "national security" thing, SEAL team operators are completely self-effacing, largely because revealing their identities might make them high-priority targets for terrorist attacks, but also because, like true badasses, they like to say they're just carrying out their orders. It's a team effort, we all put work into it, we're just doing our jobs out there, blah blah blah. In the long run, however, this humility and mystery just serves to make these guys even more over-the-top hardcore. It's like how Snake Eyes was always the coolest of the G.I. Joes because you didn't know dick about him except that he could disembowel tanks with a ninja sword and dual-wield Uzis, or like how everyone thought Boba Fett was a hell of a lot more awesome before we saw him running around as a pre-teen in the prequel trilogy.
"The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message:No matter how long it takes, justice will be done."- Barack Obama
Links:TIME Magazine: On the SceneTIME Magazine: Bin Laden DeadDefense Briefing TranscriptNY Times: Finding OsamaSomali Pirate Rescue
Sources:Bahmanyar, Mir. US Navy Seals. Osprey, 2005.Fried-Perenchio, S., and Jennifer Walton. SEAL: The Unspoken Sacrifice. SFP Studio, 2009.Lanning, Col. Michael Lee. Blood Warriors. Random House, 2002.Marcinko, Richard. Rogue Warrior. Pocket, 1993.Pushies, Fred J., et al. U.S. Counter-Terrorist Forces. Crestline, 2002.Roberts, Craig and Charles W. Sasser. Crosshairs on the Kill Zone. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Jacqueline Cochran never shot down an enemy fighter in combat. She never engaged Luftwaffe bogies at twelve o'clock high, screamed over the treetops of North Vietnam while the tracer fire from Soviet MiGs zipped past her windshield, or told the Iceman that he could be her wingman any time. She did, however, do every other damn thing you can possibly do in an airplane, and she did it so phuking well that she's now recognized as one of the most badass women in aviation history. So, on the 58th anniversary of the date she became the first woman to break the sound barrier, here's her story.
While her later years would be spent obliterating all concepts of speed while rocking out in the cockpit of a wide variety of supersonic experimental jet aircraft, Cochran's early years were a lot less about torpedoing through the sky strapped to a rocket with wings and a lot more about chilling in the back woods living in extreme poverty. Jackie's father was a lumberjack living in rural Florida. Now, I had no idea that there were lumberjacks in the wilderness of Florida, but the only image that comes to mind when I think about that is some kind of ungodly mix between Paul Bunyan and those giant guys with tinted sunglasses who explode beer bottles on their foreheads at SEC football tailgating parties, and I can honestly say that this is the sort of man I hope I never have to encounter in an adversarial situation at any point in my life. Lumberjacking isn't really the sort of profession that requires a lot of academic background, and so, since her dad didn't really see the point, young Jackie got a total of two years of elementary school education before she was pulled out of grade school and put to work helping out around the home – a task that included stealing chickens from neighbors so that her family would have food on the table. When she was old enough (i.e. 12 years old or so), Cochran got a job working at a textile mill, doing whatever the hell women used to do in textile mills back in the early 1920s (I have a feeling it involves a 5hi7load of hard work and is pretty light on the smoke breaks). By 14 she was married, by 15 she was a stay-at-home mother and housewife, and a few years after that her marriage inevitably fell apart and left her a single mom living on the outskirts of Pensacola, Florida.
Now, I'm certainly not going to talk 5hi7 about housewives, single moms, and/or Pensacola, but I also think most people can agree that this isn't exactly the sort of "she was abandoned in the woods and raised by wolves and then returned with a magical sword intent on slaying the evil king" origin story that you see with a lot of over-the-top badasses. Perhaps on some level, Jackie knew that. That's probably why, in 1929, with no real prospects and no education to speak of, the 23 year-old Cochran decided she wasn't going to sit around and put up with that bull5hi7 any longer. She took her kid, moved from North Florida to New York City, changed her name from Bessie to Jacqueline, put herself through beauty school, and got a job working as a cosmetics girl in a prestigious department store on Fifth Avenue. While there, she fell in love and married a millionaire, which is a pretty awesome (if relatively easy) way to get out of a life of poverty I suppose, and just like that this unknown single mom from Florida had completely changed her entire life around in the span of like one calendar year. Immediately after seeing her first air show, Jackie went out and earned her pilot's license (a process that took her only 20 days), and started flying around the country selling a new line of cosmetics that she developed herself. Now that's a little more like it.
Jackie's husband, by the way, was the CEO of something called the Atlas Corporation.Whenever I read that, I just keep thinking about those talking vending machines in Borderlands.
Zipping from stop to stop in a biplane selling her 5hi7 was kind of a practical matter, but Cochran quickly determined that she totally phuking loved flying, and that she wanted to be seriously awesome at it. So she just started going out and trying a bunch of crazy-ass stunts in whatever aircraft she could get her hands on, including one time when she got a crappy little open-topped bi-plane up over 30,000 feet – well above the suggested ceiling for the aircraft she was piloting – and then had to think quick where her supplemental oxygen tube burst from the mad G's she was probably pulling and she suddenly found herself without a gas mask in altitudes where human beings really aren't supposed to be able to breathe.
Not only did something like "almost asphyxiating at 30,000 feet and then plummeting to earth like Wile E. Coyote" fail to slow her down, but this near-death experience actually got her even more pumped up to do insane 5hi7 in an airplane. Eventually she started entering flying in competitions, demonstrations, air shows, and races, going up against men and women alike in displays of speed, daring, and general balls-out-ery. Now the big race in the U.S. at this time was the Bendix Cross Country Air Race – an insane race that went from Los Angeles to Cleveland at speeds of over 250 miles an hour, but around this time the race was only open to men. Forget that. Jackie went out and worked with Amelia Earhart (who I've heard she totally hated, by the way... how's that for an awesome rivalry?) and these two now-prestigious aviatrixes (aviatrices?) convinced the organizers to open the race to women. The guys weren't happy about letting the girls play in the clubhouse, but in 1936 they finally relented and allowed women pilots to participate in the Bendix race, mostly for marketing and PR purposes. Two women won it the first year. Cochran won the race two years after that. She'd only been racing professionally for three years, and had only been flying a phuking airplane for a little over five.
A few years later, some horrible 5hi7 started going down in Europe – namely, a little thing historians like to refer to as World War II. The Nazis overran Poland and France and were currently in the process of brutally hammering England with bombs, rockets, and aircraft, and even though the United States was still officially neutral in this whole business Jacqueline Cochran decided she wasn't going to just sit back like a chump and let a bunch of Fascist phuks 5hi7 a bunch of explosives and shrapnel on the good peeps of London. Cochran crossed the Atlantic and volunteered for the British Transport Auxiliary service, who was happy to have her, and she was immediately tasked with ferrying bomber planes across the Atlantic from their manufacturing plants in America to the front-line airfields of war-battered Britain. In 1941, Jackie became the first woman to fly a warplane across the ocean, taking a US-built Lockheed Hudson V from New York to London, passing over deadly waters crawling with U-Boats and dangerous airspace that at times potentially left her vulnerable to attack from German fighter patrols. When Cochran returned back to the United States, she immediately recruited twenty-five more women pilots to help ferry these warbirds across the pond and help the RAF in its desperate struggle. The British Transport Auxiliary was so stoked about this decision that they promoted her to the rank of Wing Commander in the British military.
For the next year, Cochran and her women ferried warplanes to British airfields, and when the United States finally officially declared "Ok, now you Axis suckers are all totally gonna die," Cochran wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt and received permission from the President to help put together the Women's Pilot Training Program. Working with a badass pilot named Robert Olds (the father of an incredibly tough dude named Robin Olds, who I absolutely intend to write about in the next couple months), Cochran helped create the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) – a team of nearly 1,000 experienced women pilots who flew newly-manufactured planes from 120 bases in the United States to the front lines of World War II. The WASPs not only provided valuable reinforcements and equipment to front-line bomber units, but they also freed up more male pilots to serve in front-line air combat duty. As Director of the WASPs, Cochran flew ships, oversaw the program, and ensured the successful operation of the program throughout the duration of the war. By the time the fighting was over, Cochran had received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the French Legion of Honor, and was a Captain in the British Transport Auxiliary and a Lieutenant-Colonel in the U.S. Army Air Force. She was also the first woman to enter Japan after the war, and she witnessed the Japanese surrender in the Philippines and the Nazi trials in Nuremburg.
Once those insanely-dangerous missions to the front lines of enemy territory were no longer available, the woman now affectionately known as "the Speed Queen" decided that the only rational way to risk her life and tempt death inside a cockpit was to work as a hardcore military test pilot. Testing out a few fresh-out-of-the-box F-86 Sabers beside her good friend Chuck Yeager, Cochran hopped into a bunch of hopefully-safe, super-powerful experimental jet aircraft, pushed them to the limits of what they were supposed to be able to accomplish, and casually hoped they didn't completely phuking explode into a cloud of vapor in the lower ionosphere. During her time test-flying out ultra-fast, wildly-unstable prototype technology for the U.S. military, Cochran would go on to set more records than any pilot in history, male or female – including one flight in 1962 when she broke nine different records over the course of one afternoon. That's especially impressive, considering that I don't think I can probably name nine aviation records. She would become the first woman to take off and land a plane on an aircraft carrier, the first woman to become President of the Federation Aeronautique International, and on May 18, 1953 she became the first woman to break the sound barrier. She won the International League of Aviators' award for the "World's Most Outstanding Woman Pilot" every year from 1938 to 1949 (11 years!), and then again in 1953 (when she broke the sound barrier) and 1961. At the age of 57 she became the first woman to break Mach 2. On one of her last flights as a professional test pilot, she broke the air speed record by screaming 1,429 miles an hour in an F-104 Starfighter jet. Basically, if something had wings, Jacqueline Cochrane was going to hop behind the controls, crank the throttle open, and see how many G's the thing could pull in a barrel roll before imploding on itself. No wait, check that, she also flew the phuking Good Year Blimp once, so apparently wings aren't necessarily required. I'm not sure what a loop-de-loop looks like in that thing, but I can only assume the answer is "totally phuking sweet". When she wasn't exploding glass with sonic booms, she was having dinner with Presidents and Prime Ministers, playing poker with Air Force Generals, and having audiences with the Pope.
Oh yeah, this barely-educated one-time Florida housewife also owned a bunch of salons across the country, made millions of dollars off her cosmetics line, and then used the funds to finance a program designed at training female astronauts for the Mercury Program. No biggie.
Jacqueline Cochran, the most accomplished female pilot in American history, died in 1980 at the age of 74. She became the first woman pilot with a permanent display at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the first woman in the International Aviation Hall of Fame. Thanks in part to her, to this day brave female pilots are prominently serving in both combat and non-combat rolls across the U.S. Air Force.
Cochran and Yager chillin'.
Links: Wired.com WASP Museum U.S. Centennial of Flight Florida International University Wikipedia
Sources: Cook, Bernard A. Women and War. ABC-CLIO, 2006. Douglas, Deborah G., et al. American Women and Flight Since 1940. Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2004. Duncan, Joyce. Ahead of Their Time. Greenwood, 2002. Heinemann, Sue. Timelines of American Women's History. Penguin, 1996.
Neil Armstrong "There can be no great accomplishment without risk."
Here's a fun fact: As Neil Armstrong was descending the Lunar Module towards the surface of the Moon, hurtling 50,000 feet towards the rocky surface of an alien landscape at a little over 60 miles an hour, the entire instrumentation panel failed on him. And by "failed", I mean it didn't just die, I mean it flipped it's 5hi7 and went totally insane HAL 9000-style, screaming at the Apollo 11 mission commander with alarms and klaxons and warnings about how there was too much telemetric data coming in for the state-of-the-art Lunar Module computer to process and holy 5hi7 pork chop sandwiches oh my god WTF we're all gonna die. Undeterred by the ominous beacons of his impending fiery mutilation, Neil Armstrong did what pretty much nobody in their right minds would have done.
He turned the computer off.
So here was Neil Armstrong, harnessed into a cramped little aluminum coffin packed with all the technological computing power of a TI-85 solar-powered calculator, fighting the controls trying to manually place a two-passenger missile packed with jet fuel on the surface of an interstellar object nobody has ever attempted to land on before, and to do it delicately enough that it doesn't crash, fall over, explode, or otherwise bring about the brutally-violent deaths of everyone inside. The Lunar Module had just twenty seconds of fuel left in the tank, and only had one control – Activate Thruster – meaning Armstrong's job was like playing Atari Moon Lander on an Etch-a-Sketch while inside the trunk of a car doing 270 down the Autobahn where any slight phuk-up sends you catapulting through a steel wall and subsequently ripped apart by the vacuum of space like those guys in Event Horizon.
It was an impossible task, only marginally possible for the greatest pilots and video game enthusiasts the world has to offer. He'd have one shot at it -- and his actions would either make world history or bring about his terrible premature death.
We, of course, all know how the story ended:
The first man to set foot on any celestial object other than Earth was born Captain Kirk style on a small farm in middle America. Born in Ohio in August 1930 and growing up during the Great Depression will teach a man some 5hi7 about himself, and Neil Armstrong learned values like the importance of hard work, busting his ass for 40 cents an hour as a stock clerk in a pharmacy before and after school. When this guy wasn't smoking Math tests like Cuban cigars or playing baritone in a presumably-awesome jazz band called the Mississippi Moonshiners, he became an Eagle Scout, helped work the farm, and got so phuking pumped about aircraft that he built a homemade wind tunnel out of 5hi7 he found around town so he could test out custom model airplane designs he made by combining multiple kits together into some badass Frankenstein aircraft 5hi7. He earned his pilot's license on his 16th birthday, and before this kid could even legally drive he was working a day job test-flying 65-horsepower two-seater prop planes that had just been repaired – taking these formerly-busted little wooden planes out on joyrides to see if they could be piloted without falling apart and crashing back down to earth. He'd got the job by default because nobody else wanted it, and ended up logging so many hours as a teenage test pilot that the Navy offered him a scholarship to study Aeronautical Engineering at Purdue (provided he commit to spending a couple years as a naval aviator when he was done).
Neil Armstrong did two years at Purdue, then transferred to NAS Pensacola, earning his wings at the age of 20 and shipping off to the Korean War, where he was the youngest kid in his squadron. He flew 78 combat missions in a Grumman F9F Panther, an early model jet fighter, where he earned three Air Medals, evaded capture and was rescued after being shot down behind enemy lines, and survived an emergency crash-landing on the deck of the USS Essex. When all that was done, he said phuk it, I'll go back and finish my degree and marry a beauty queen sorority girl because WTF else do I have going on.
Like he owns the place.
While the military thing wasn't really doing it for him, flying was in Neil Armstrong's blood. After school he went to Edwards Air Force Base outside Los Angeles and spent the next seven years working as a research test pilot – which is basically the exact same thing he was doing when he was 16, only instead of flying rickety wooden propeller planes he was hurtling through the stratosphere at three times the speed of sound in the cockpit of an experimental test fighter that was packed with enough rocket fuel to vaporize sheet metal. As a research test pilot, this self-proclaimed "white-sock, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer" (he hated working out and once said, "I believe that every human being has a finite number of heartbeats, and I don't plan to waste any of mine running around doing exercises.") not only had the exciting/terrifying job of testing out wildly-unstable jets capable of shredding the sound barrier like a cheese grater dismembering a tomato, but then when he was done he got to write a report about what was awesome about the plane and what needed to be fixed.
Neil Armstrong logged over 3,000 hours at the controls of over 200 aircraft ranging from canvas gliders that only used a dashboard compass for navigation to supersonic experimental jet fighters with gigantic rocket engines grafted onto the fuselage, piloting anything, any time, anywhere, regardless of how likely it was to blow up in his face and kill him. When this dude wasn't ripping off hellaciously-righteous loop-de-loops in Chuck Yeager's X-1B, streaking through the stratosphere at Mach 5.7 at an altitude of 207,000 feet in the cockpit of an X-15 hypersonic rocket-powered suborbital jet fighter, or testing out aircraft that ended up being the basis for fighters like the F-14 and the F-18, he was flying as the "chase plane", following some other nutcase in a human-propelled death-missile and making notes about whether or not he thought that poor bastard in front of him was about to explode in a cloud of jet fuel and awesomeness due to some minor technical oversight in the structural design of the machine he was piloting.
Yes, that is a very interesting point.But, in my defense, phuk you, I'm Neil Armstrong.
Armstrong's interesting skillset as both a hardcore twitch-reflex hotshot pilot and a ultimate mega-engineering nerd got him tapped in 1962 to become the first civilian to join the American astronaut program. With his fat salary of $27,000 a year, Armstrong underwent intense training to prepare him for what he was about to face.
In 1966 Neil Armstrong became the first U.S. civilian in space when he commanded the Gemini 8 mission – a mission that would attempt the first-ever spaceship-to-spaceship docking operation. Armstrong masterfully maneuvered the Gemini 8 capsule alongside some random unmanned rocket in orbit around the earth, linked the two vessels up, then almost became mildly annoyed when suddenly one of Gemini's thrusters activated, sending the two linked spaceships into an out-of-control spiraling series of endless space barrel rolls. Armstrong, never one to panic no matter how insanely the mission is going down in flames, simply flipped a switch, undocked with the space junk, turned on his re-entry controls (while still in space!), righted the roll, calmly informed Houston that the mission was coming home early, and masterfully dropped his tiny capsule from outer space into the Pacific Ocean.
He wore sunglasses while doing this. He was just that phuking cool.
You had to try really hard to throw something at Neil Armstrong that would generate any kind of emotional response. I don't really remember where I saw this, but my favorite Neil Armstrong story goes like this: One morning, Buzz Aldrin or Michael Collins (I can't remember which) came into the office to get started on work. Neil was sitting at his desk, working on some paperwork, and just looked up for a second to say "good morning" before going back to his writing. Buzz/Michael went to the NASA shift lead to ask what was going on that day, and was told by the NASA techs that the missions were scrapped today because about an hour ago Neil Armstrong was running a test flight on the Lunar Landing Module when it's equipment failed and it plummeted to the earth and exploded in a giant fireball. Neil had almost died, but had somehow managed to eject a mere 200 feet from the ground and parachuted to safety with only minor injuries. When Buzz/Michael protested that he'd just seen Neil two seconds ago, the NASA guy was like, "Oh, yeah… he's filling out the after-mission report."
So you can see why he was pretty much the perfect man to be sitting at the controls of the Lunar Module (yes, the fully-realized version of the vehicle that had almost blown him into blood vapor in the previous paragraph) as it attempted the first-ever human descent to the Moon. In July, 1969, the 38-year old Armstrong was selected as mission commander on Apollo 11, strapped to a ridiculously-gigantic Saturn V rocket, and catapulted into space by a massive controlled explosion that propelled him from 0 to 243,000 miles an hour in two seconds. He spent ten days in space, landed the Lunar Module on Manual mode, and spent two and a half hours bouncing around on the moon collecting rocks and 5hi7 while one-fifth of the world's population watched slack-jawed on their TV sets. While they were out there, Neil and Buzz Aldrin planted a U.S. flag, a plaque commemorating international peace, and a monument to dead U.S. and Soviet astronauts/cosmonauts, talked to Richard Nixon on a radiophone, and planted a reflector dish in the Sea of Tranquility that allowed some nerds in Austin Texas to shoot a laser into space and measure the exact distance from the Earth to the Moon, mostly so that people throughout the world would know that this dude traveled 232,271 miles FOR SCIENCE.
Neil and Buzz got the LM back off the ground, rejoined the Command Module, hurtled through the Earth's atmosphere at 35,000 feet per second, and returned home to a massive parade in their honor. Armstrong met the Queen, the Pope, the President, and the Shah of Iran (there's an interesting urban legend that Armstrong heard the Muslim call to prayer while in space and immediately converted to Islam, but he repeatedly denied this story), received medals of honor from 17 different countries, and also had a couple airports, streets, and even a piece of the Moon's geography named after him.
Fairly certain that he was never gonna top that, Neil Armstrong retired from astronauting a year later and bought a farm in Ohio. That was going well for a while, but in 1979 he got his wedding ring stuck in the gears of a grain tractor (Neil Armstrong was still working a farm!) and had the thing rip his entire finger off, but in true Neil Friggin' Armstrong fashion he just calmly walked over, picked up the finger, put it on ice, and drove to the hospital to get it re-attached. He went on to work as a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, was an administrator at NASA, ran his own aerospace tech company, and once sued his barber for selling a lock of his hair on eBay for $3,000 (Armstrong told him to either return the hair or donate the $3k to charity… the guy donated).
Any time anyone ever asked him about him being the first human to ever set foot on the Moon, Neil Armstrong would just say that it was the culmination of over a decade of hard work by over 400,000 people and leave it at that.
He died last Sunday, August 25, 2012, at the age of 82.