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Baron Manfred Von Richthofen, the world’s first Ace
A bit of a mystery shrouds the death of Baron Manfred Von Richthofen (the “Red Baron”) over the Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River, on April 21, 1918. Some accounts have him crashing to the ground, others say that while he was shot through the torso, he maintained enough control and presence of mind to land his Fokker Dr I before he died of his wounds. Whatever the exact circumstances, he was hit with a .303 caliber round, which confirms that he was killed by a British Empire troop – whether Australian, British, or Canadian – although the identity of the shooter remains in question to this day.
Officially, credit for the Richthofen kill went to RAF Captain Arthur Brown, who was pursuing him at the time. Later analysis tends to credit an Australian machine gunner on the ground, primarily because of the route traveled by the round. It was determined that it went from low in his right side and slightly behind him, then went up and forward from there, but the most telling fact was that it was found still in Richthofen’s clothing. Had the shot come from Brown’s machine gun, it would not have still been there, since the planes were in close proximity to each other.
Thus both the angle of the wound and the diminished velocity of the bullet indicate that the shot came from the ground, most likely one Sergeant Cedric Popkin of the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company.
Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892. He went into the German army and completed his cavalry cadet training in 1911, but soon after the outbreak of the Great War, he became bored and decided he wanted to fly. He secured a transfer in 1915 and started flight training in October, completing his first solo flight on October 10. Taking the liberty of mounting a machine gun on his Albatros B II reconnaissance plane, he essentially created his own fighter. It wasn’t long before he shot down a French reconnaissance plane, although it wasn’t credited to him.
During one of his many exploits, on November 23, 1916, he shot down and killed Major Lanoe George Hawker, who at the time was the best of the British pilots, one whom Richthofen considered very “big game.” By this time, of course, the Allies were concentrating intensely on going after him. He was causing entirely too much damage and had to be stopped.
With 20 kills in April of 1917, Richthofen brought his total to an unprecedented 52. By this time he had become a fearless as well as a ruthless killer, even shooting Allied pilots trying to escape from their downed planes. This was quite a change from earlier, when he once sent a box of cigars to a British opponent who survived.
Then in July of that year, he took a round that grazed and partially splintered his skull and, because it never healed properly, caused discomfort in the form of severe headaches for the rest of his life. After a period of treatment and recuperation, he returned to the squadron, but he wasn’t at his peak for several weeks.
By September of that year, he had managed to recover somewhat, and raised his kill count to 60. By then he was flying the distinctive red triple-wing Fokker Dr I that he is remembered for today. At the time of his death, he had achieved 80 kills, the highest number for World War I of any country, and in fact Baron Manfred Von Richthofen’s air battle record still stands.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
October 18-29, 1962
I was just an airman, another enlisted worker bee stationed at Strategic Air Command’s 43rd Bombardment Wing (Medium). That and the 7th Bombardment Wing (Heavy) shared Carswell AFB at Fort Worth, Texas, whose airplane was the (even then) venerable old B-52.
Ours was the crash-plagued mighty go-faster called the B-58 Hustler, the four-engine delta wing whose top speed was classified, although the government would only admit to Mach 2. In truth, it would fly much faster, but the real top-end figure never really got out. A telling feature was the fact that its only gun, a really fast-firing Gatling model, was at the rear and could put up a wall of lead faster than a fly can get itself airborne. Still, when I encountered someone from the 7th Bomb Wing, they’d kid around about how they intended to paint the B-58s yellow and use them as entrance stands for the B-52s. Those 7th Bomb Wing guys were such clever punsters.
Things were fairly quiet during those years, for the most part. Viet Nam had yet to really heat up, thus the radical hippie protesters hadn’t slithered onto the scene. But late one Monday afternoon, while we “intellectual” airmen were watching the Three Stooges on TV in the dayroom, President Kennedy appeared, interrupting the show. This of course caused a lot of booing and hissing, and attempts to change the channel to something else.
But there was nothing else; Kennedy was on every channel then offered over the North Texas airways. Realizing that this must be something important, we listened to our commander-in-chief as he explained the crisis of major proportions that we faced at that moment. We were all moving when he signed off, and as soon as he did so, every telephone in the barracks started ringing. I let someone else answer them, because it didn’t take a genius to figure that the callers were the section chiefs calling to tell us to get to our assigned duty stations. I changed to my fatigues and double-timed it to the flight line.
One thing that usually happened during an Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI, a.k.a. “alert”) was that there would always be technical problems and SNAFUs that kept the aircraft from making it to scramble status on time. Some would, but the performance was generally terrible, and it must have frustrated Wing HQ quite a bit.
But not this time; this was for real. What was really amazing was that each and every Hustler on the line went up and was certified ready to fly on time. And fly they did, with real nukes and their fail-safe orders on board; no play-acting this time. Our information was that the USA was at DefCon2, and that the next step up was all-out war. Subsequent reports have since confirmed that the October Missile Crisis was the absolute closest the USA got to all-out nuclear war during the Cold War.
The world knows what happened next, of course. Kruschev blinked and Kennedy prevailed. There are some bloggers on the Internet today claiming that Kennedy made plenty of mistakes, and of course hindsight is 20/20. Joint Chiefs member General Curtis LeMay, among others, was convinced that the president had not come close to handling the situation correctly and was pushing hard for an invasion. It was later discovered that there were several tactical nukes on the island, and LeMay’s desired invasion would’ve resulted in catastrophic losses. As far as I was concerned, President Kennedy kept us out of war and got the missiles out of Cuba, and life went on.
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