This Day in U.S. Military History…… December 21

21 December
1620 – The Mayflower reached Plymouth, Mass. after a 63-day voyage. Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower went ashore for the first time at present-day Plymouth, Mass. The crew of the ship did not have enough beer to get to Virginia and back to England so they dropped the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock to preserve their beer stock.
1861 – Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, meets with Secretary of State William Seward concerning the fate of James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys arrested by the U.S. Navy aboard the British mail steamer Trent. During the meeting, Lyons took a hard line against Seward and forced the Lincoln administration to release the Confederates a few days later. The arrest of Mason and Slidell on November 8 near the Bahamas triggered a major diplomatic crisis between Britain and the United States. The British had not taken sides in the American Civil War and they accepted any paying customers wishing to travel on their ships. When Mason and Slidell were arrested, the British were furious that their ship had been detained and their guests arrested. The British government demanded their release. The Lincoln administration refused, and the Americans waited for the British reaction. The British stood firm by their demand and prepared for war with the United States. After Lyons met with Seward, he wrote to Lord Russell, the British Foreign Minister. “I am so concerned that unless we give our friends here a good lesson this time, we shall have the same trouble with them again very soon,” wrote Lyons. “Surrender or war will have a very good effect on them.” The Lincoln administration got the message, and Mason and Slidell were released within a week. “One war at a time,” Lincoln said. The Trent affair was the most serious diplomatic crisis between the two nations during the Civil War.
1861 – U.S. Congress authorized the Medal of Honor to be awarded to Navy personnel that had distinguished themselves by their gallantry in action. The Navy and Marine Corps’ Medal of Honor is our country’s oldest continuously awarded decoration, even though its appearance and award criteria has changed since it was created for enlisted men by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on 16 December 1861. Legislation in 1915 made naval officers eligible for the award. Although originally awarded for both combat and non-combat heroism, the Medal of Honor today is presented for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty. The design of our highest military decoration is rooted in the War Between the States. Crafted by the artist Christian Schuller, the central motif is an allegory in which Columbia, in the form of the goddess Minerva uses the shield of the republic to put down the figure of discord, plainly a reference to the unfolding split in our nation. The design is encircled by 38 stars, representing the states of the Union at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War.
1864 – The Confederate Navy continued vigorous efforts to save the remnants of the Savannah squadron still at that city on the eve of its capture. On 10 December Commander Thomas W. Brent, C.S.S. Savannah, ordered the torpedoes in Savannah harbor removed in order that his vessels might fight their way to Charleston. As Brent later reported to Flag Officer Hunter: “. . . after every endeavor he [Lieutenant McAdam] found that with all the appliances at his command, grapnels, etc., he was unable with the motive power of the boats to remove any one of them, the anchors to which they are attached being too firmly embedded in the sand. . . . Under these circum-stances it did not seem to me possible to carry out the instructions of the Department in regard to taking the Savannah to sea and fighting her way into this [Charleston] or some other port.” After attempting futilely to move the smaller of his vessels upriver, Hunter this date destroyed C.S.S. Savannah, Isondiga, Firefly, and floating battery Georgia. General Sherman occupied Savannah on 23 December having fought his way across Georgia to the sea where he knew the mobility of naval power would be ready to provide him with support, supplies, and means of carrying out the next operation.
1866 – Determined to challenge the growing American military presence in their territory, Indians in northern Wyoming lure Lieutenant Colonel William Fetterman and his soldiers into a deadly ambush on this day in 1866. Tensions in the region started rising in 1863, when John Bozeman blazed the Bozeman Trail, a new route for emigrants traveling to the Montana gold fields. Bozeman’s trail was of questionable legality since it passed directly through hunting grounds that the government had promised to the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Thus when Colorado militiamen murdered more than two hundred peaceful Cheyenne during the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, the Indians began to take revenge by attacking whites all across the Plains, including the emigrants traveling the Bozeman Trail. The U.S. government responded by building a series of protective forts along the trail; the largest and most important of these was Fort Phil Kearney, erected in 1866 in north-central Wyoming. Indians under the leadership of Red Cloud and Crazy Horse began to focus their attacks on Fort Phil Kearney, constantly harassing the soldiers and raiding their wood and supply parties. On December 6, 1866, Crazy Horse discovered to his surprise that he could lead a small detachment of soldiers into a fatal ambush by dismounting from his horse and fleeing as if he were defenseless. Struck by the foolish impulsiveness of the soldiers, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud reasoned that perhaps a much larger force could be lured into a similar deadly trap. On the bitterly cold morning of December 21, about 2,000 Indians concealed themselves along the road just north of Fort Phil Kearney. A small band made a diversionary attack on a party of woodcutters from the fort, and commandant Colonel Henry Carrington quickly ordered Colonel Fetterman to go to their aid with a company of 80 troopers. Crazy Horse and 10 decoy warriors then rode into view of the fort. When Carrington fired an artillery round at them, the decoys ran away as if frightened. The party of woodcutters made it safely back to the fort, but Colonel Fetterman and his men chased after the fleeing Crazy Horse and his decoys, just as planned. The soldiers rode straight into the ambush and were wiped out in a massive attack during which some 40,000 arrows rained down on the hapless troopers. None of them survived. With 81 fatalities, the Fetterman Massacre was the army’s worst defeat in the West until the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Further Indian attacks eventually forced the army to reconsider its commitment to protecting the Bozeman Trail, and in 1868 the military abandoned the forts and pulled out. It was one of only a handful of clear Indian victories in the Plains Indian Wars.
1919 – J. Edgar Hoover gallantly deported anarchist, feminist Emma Goldman to Russia for agitating against forced conscription in the US.
1943 – USS Grayling (SS-208) sinks fourth Japanese ship since 18 December.
1943 – US 5th Army is heavily engaged near Monte Sammucro.
1944 – In the north, US forces recapture Stavelot and bring the advance of the German 67th Corps (part of 6th SS Panzer Army), on the right flank of the German attack, to a halt from here to Monschau. To the south, the German 5th Panzer Army has nearly surrounded Bastogne while Houffalize has been secured.
1944 – On Leyte, advances by US 10th Corps and US 24th Corps link up in the center of the Ormoc Valley. Isolated Japanese forces continue to resist in the area.
1944 – US B-29 Superfortress bombers attacked Mukden in Manchuria.
1945 – General George S. Patton, commander of the U.S. 3rd Army, dies from injuries suffered not in battle but in a freak car accident. He was 60 years old. Descended from a long line of military men, Patton graduated from the West Point Military Academy in 1909. He represented the United States in the 1912 Olympics-as the first American participant in the pentathlon. He did not win a medal. He went on to serve in the Tank Corps during World War I, an experience that made Patton a dedicated proponent of tank warfare. During World War II, as commander of the U.S. 7th Army, he captured Palermo, Sicily, in 1943 by just such means. Patton’s audacity became evident in 1944, when, during the Battle of the Bulge, he employed an unorthodox strategy that involved a 90-degree pivoting move of his 3rd Army forces, enabling him to speedily relieve the besieged Allied defenders of Bastogne, Belgium. Along the way, Patton’s mouth proved as dangerous to his career as the Germans. When he berated and slapped a hospitalized soldier diagnosed with “shell shock,” but whom Patton accused of “malingering,” the press turned on him, and pressure was applied to cut him down to size. He might have found himself enjoying early retirement had not General Dwight Eisenhower and General George Marshall intervened on his behalf. After several months of inactivity, he was put back to work. And work he did-at the Battle of the Bulge, during which Patton once again succeeded in employing a complex and quick-witted strategy, turning the German thrust into Bastogne into an Allied counterthrust, driving the Germans east across the Rhine. In March 1945, Patton’s army swept through southern Germany into Czechoslovakia-which he was stopped from capturing by the Allies, out of respect for the Soviets’ postwar political plans for Eastern Europe. Patton had many gifts, but diplomacy was not one of them. After the war, while stationed in Germany, he criticized the process of denazification, the removal of former Nazi Party members from positions of political, administrative, and governmental power. His impolitic press statements questioning the policy caused Eisenhower to remove him as U.S. commander in Bavaria. He was transferred to the 15th Army Group, but in December of 1945 he suffered a broken neck in a car accident and died less than two weeks later.
1948 – Seishiro Itagaki, Japanese General and minister of War, was hanged.
1950 – Far East Air Force executed “Operation Kiddie Car” by transporting 1,000 Korean War orphans to the island of Cheju-do. Major Dean E. Hess, an F-51 Mustang pilot and military advisor considered the “Father of the ROK Air Force,” organized and led a desperate cross-country trek from Osan to Kimpo Airport to bring the children to safety from the advancing communist forces.
1951 – First helicopter landing aboard a hospital ship, USS Consolation.
1951 – General Matthew Ridgeway broadcast a message requesting that the Red Cross be allowed to inspect communist POW camps.
1963 – In his formal report to President Johnson, McNamara calls Operation Hardnose, which provides intelligence and disrupts Vietcong movements along the Laos corridor ‘remarkably effective,’ and urges its expansion.
1968 – Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, is successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, Jr., and William Anders aboard. On Christmas Eve, the astronauts entered into orbit around the moon, the first manned spacecraft ever to do so. During Apollo 8’s 10 lunar orbits, television images were sent back home, and spectacular photos were taken of Earth and the moon from the spacecraft. In addition to being the first human beings to view firsthand their home world in its entirety, the three astronauts were also the first to see the dark side of the moon. On Christmas morning, Apollo 8 left its lunar orbit and began its journey back to Earth, landing safely in the Pacific Ocean on December 27. On July 20 of the next year, Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission, became the first men to walk on the moon. Recovery was by HS-4 helicopters from USS Yorktown (CVS-10).
1969 – Thailand announces plans to withdraw its 12,000-man contingent from South Vietnam. Thai forces went to Vietnam as part of the Free World Military Forces, an effort by President Lyndon B. Johnson to enlist allies for the United States and South Vietnam. By securing support from other nations, Johnson hoped to build an international consensus behind his policies in Vietnam. The first Thai contribution to the South Vietnamese war effort came in September 1964, when a 16-man Royal Thai Air Force group arrived in Saigon to assist in flying and maintaining some of the cargo aircraft operated by the South Vietnamese Air Force. In 1966, in response to further urging from President Johnson, the Thais agreed to increase their support to South Vietnam. The Royal Thai Military Assistance Group was formed in Saigon in February 1966. Later that year, the Thai government, once again at Johnson’s insistence, agreed to send combat troops to aid the South Vietnamese government. In September 1967, the first elements of the Royal Thai Volunteer Regiment, the “Queen’s Cobras,” arrived in Vietnam and were stationed in Bear Cat (near Bien Hoa, north of Saigon). The Thai regiment began combat operations in October 1967. In July 1968, the Queen’s Cobras were replaced by the Royal Thai Army Expeditionary Division (the “Black Panthers”), which included two brigades of infantry, three battalions of 105-mm field artillery, and an armored cavalry unit. In August 1970, the Black Panther Division was renamed the Royal Thai Army Volunteer Force, a title it retained throughout the rest of its time in South Vietnam. The decision by the Thai government to begin withdrawing its troops was in line with President Nixon’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from South Vietnam as the war was turned over to the South Vietnamese. The first Thai troops departed South Vietnam in 1971 and all were gone by early 1972.
1972 – The Defense Department announces that eight B-52 bombers and several fighter-bombers were lost since the commencement of Operation Linebacker II on December 18. These losses included at least 43 flyers captured or killed. President Richard Nixon ordered the operation after the North Vietnamese negotiators walked out of the peace talks in Paris. In response, President Nixon immediately issued an ultimatum that North Vietnam send its representatives back to the conference table within 72 hours “or else.” When they rejected Nixon’s demand, he ordered a full-scale air campaign against Hanoi and Haiphong to force them back to the negotiating table. On December 28, after 11 days of intensive bombing, the North Vietnamese agreed to return to the talks.
1975 – In Vienna, Austria, Carlos the Jackal leads a raid on a meeting of oil ministers from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). German and Arab terrorists stormed in with machine guns, killed three people, and took 63 people hostage, including 11 OPEC ministers. Calling his group the “Arm of the Arab Revolution,” Carlos demanded that an anti-Israeli political statement be broadcast over radio, and that a bus and jet be provided for the terrorists and their hostages. Austrian authorities complied, and all the hostages were released in Algeria unharmed. OPEC did not hold another summit for 25 years. In 1949, Ilich Ramýrez Sýnchez was born the son of a millionaire Marxist lawyer in Caracas, Venezuela, and attended Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, where he became involved with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. During the 1970s and early 1980s, he acted as a freelance terrorist for various Arab groups and is suspected to have killed as many as 80 people in a chain of bombings, hijackings, and assassinations. Nearly apprehended on several occasions, Carlos the Jackal managed to evade international authorities until 1994, when French agents captured him hiding in the Sudan. Secretly extradited to France, he was sent to a French prison, where he lived for three years before being put on trial in 1997 for the 1975 Paris murders of two French counterintelligence officers and a pro-Palestinian Lebanese who had turned informant. On December 23, 1997, a French jury found Sýnchez guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
1988 – Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York explodes in midair over Lockerbie, Scotland, an hour after departure. A bomb that had been hidden inside an audio cassette player detonated inside the cargo area when the plane was at an altitude of 31,000 feet. All 259 passengers, including 38 Syracuse University students returning home for the holidays, were killed in the explosion. In addition, 11 residents of Lockerbie were killed in the shower of airplane parts that unexpectedly fell from the sky. Authorities accused Islamic terrorists of having placed the bomb on the plane while it was at the low-security airport in Frankfurt, Germany. They apparently believed that the attack was in retaliation for either the 1986 bombing attack on Libya in which Gadhafi was the target, or a 1988 incident, in which the United States killed 290 passengers when it mistakenly shot down an Iran Air commercial flight over the Persian Gulf. Sixteen days before the explosion over Lockerbie, a call was made to the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland, warning that a bomb would be placed on a Pan Am flight out of Frankfurt. Though some claimed that travelers should have been alerted to this threat, U.S. officials later said that the connection between the call and the bomb was purely coincidental. In the early 1990s, investigators identified Libyan intelligence agents Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah as suspects, but Libya refused to turn them over to be tried in the United States. But in 1999-in an effort to ease United Nations sanctions against Libya-Colonel Moammar Gadhafi agreed to turn the suspects over to Scotland for trial in the Netherlands using Scottish law and prosecutors. Families of the victims were dissatisfied with this deal, however, complaining that it did not allow prosecutors to pursue the leads that suggested the bombing was planned and authorized by the highest levels of the Libyan government. The United States did insist, though, that Libya pay compensation to the victims’ families before sanctions against Libya are lifted.
1990 – In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis participated in an evacuation drill to test war readiness.
1991 – El Sayyid Nosair was acquitted in New York of killing Jewish extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Nosair was later convicted in a federal trial.
1991 – In a final step signifying the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, 11 of the 12 Soviet republics declare that they are forming the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Just a few days later, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced he was stepping down from his position. The Soviet Union ceased to exist. The 11 republics-Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan-signed an agreement creating the CIS. Only Georgia, embroiled in a civil war, abstained from participation. Exactly what they created was open to debate. The CIS was not a new nation, but merely an “alliance” between independent states. The political meaning of the alliance was hazy. The independent states each took over the former Soviet government facilities within their borders. The military side of the CIS was even more confusing. They agreed to sustain any arms agreements signed by the former Soviet Union. The former Soviet defense minister would retain control over the military until the CIS could agree on what to do with the nuclear weapons and conventional forces within their borders. Complicating the situation were terrific economic problems and outbreaks of ethnic violence in the new republics. For Gorbachev, the announcement was the final signal that his power-and the existence of the Soviet Union-was at an end. Four days later, on Christmas Day, he announced his resignation.
1997 – President Clinton, accompanied by his wife and daughter, left for Bosnia to spread holiday cheer — and to carry the news that he wanted U.S. troops to remain there indefinitely as the region recovered from its devastating war.
1999 – Amid heightened concerns about the possibility of a holiday terrorist attack, security was ordered tightened at American airports and the Pentagon said it was taking “appropriate action” to protect US forces overseas.
2001 – In Kabul, Afghanistan, power was officially transferred from Pres. Rabbani to Hamid Karzai.
2002 – President Bush received a smallpox vaccination, fulfilling a promise he’d made when he ordered inoculations for about a-half million U.S. troops.
2002 – In Qatar some Persian Gulf leaders opened a summit by calling for regional unity and fast inspections by U.N. experts searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
2003 – Time magazine’s named The American soldier, who bears the duty of “living with and dying for a country’s most fateful decisions,” as Person of the Year.
2004 – A suicide bombing on a base near Mosul killed 22 people and wounded 72 at Forward Operating Base Marez as US soldiers sat down to lunch. Halliburton Co. lost four employees in the attack at the military base. A radical Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility. 2 French reporters held hostage for 4 months in Iraq were released.
2004 – Janes’ Defense Weekly said the US will assign serving military officers to its de facto embassy in Taiwan for the first time since 1979 in a reversal of a longstanding policy.

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