One of the things that make covert infiltration, rescue and assassination missions — like those seen in movies like "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Argo" — so dangerous is that so many things can go wrong and ultimately result in unplanned casualties. What makes them impressive is that they seem to work flawlessly, even if the original plan fails almost immediately, often because the people carrying out these operations are well trained and quick on their feet. Here are 10 examples of audacious military missions that benefited not just from careful planning, but from expedient thinking as well.
THE KILLING OF 56
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was one of the great strategic masterminds of World War II. Born to an impoverished samurai family, he spent much of his life in the Imperial Japanese Navy and was one of the first naval officers in the world to seriously study the potential of naval aviation and embrace the idea of a battle fleet organized around aircraft carriers rather than heavy battleships.
Yamamoto was the architect of the strike at Pearl Harbor and the driving force behind the development of the IJN’s most famous and deadly aircraft, Mitsubishi’s A6M “Rei-Sen/Zero” fighter and G4M “Hamaki (Cigar)/Betty,” both of which possessed far greater range than comparable Allied aircraft. Unfortunately for Isoroku (literally translated as “56,” which became his Allied code name) the United States Navy had broken the high-level Japanese military codes by the very beginning of the war.
When these top-secret messages revealed that the Admiral would be taking a morale-boosting tour of the Solomon Islands in April of 1943, a flight of long-range twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightnings were dispatched from Guadalcanal as part of the USN’s “Operation Vengeance.”
Yamamoto, who ironically had been one of the strongest opponents of starting a war with America, died in a fireball as his un-armored G4M (known to pessimistic Japanese airmen as the “Flying Lighter”) plunged into the jungles of Bougainville.
THE MAERSK ALABAMA INCIDENT
Oddly-named Danish container ship MV (Motor Vessel) Maersk Alabama sailed the Mombasa-to-Djibouti route for ten peaceful years before the piratical assault that made it famous. Ironically, the crew had participated in a union-mandated anti-pirate training course just a day before Somalian pirates used a captured Chinese fishing boat to attack their vessel.
While the Maersk Alabama successfully swamped the inflatable skiff, the Somalis used to board the ship just by swinging its huge rudder from side to side, the crew had nothing to fend off the pirates other than Chief Engineer Mike Perry’s knife. Incredibly, Perry and his knife managed to capture the pirate ringleader, but his good-faith negotiations with the pirates fell through and the Somalians escaped with the Maersk Alabama captain on one of the ships lifeboats.
Fortunately, the USS Bainbridge had been dispatched to the area (the Maersk Alabama being the first American-registered ship in a hundred years to have fallen prey to pirate assault) and soon tracked down the lifeboat, and elite SEAL sharpshooters picked off the few pirates guarding their hostage.
THE CANADIAN CAPER
Americans have talked a lot of crap about Canadians, but our syrup-loving funny-talking neighbors to the north have never ever done us wrong. Case in point: the infamous Iran hostage crisis of the early 80s, where six American diplomats were sheltered and eventually evacuated by Canadian diplomats despite enormous personal risk to the steadfast and courageous Canucks.
While the majority of America’s Iranian diplomatic staff was impounded/kidnapped by Iran’s nascent Revolutionary Council, a handful of the Great Satan’s functionaries managed to sneak out of a consulate building and eventually found their way to the home of Canadian immigration officer Robert Sheardown, who greeted the desperate Yankees alongside Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.
Taylor and his subordinates wrangled Canadian passports for the American team, while the CIA established a cover story for the operation that claimed that the pretend-Canadians were a location scout crew for a fictional film called “Argo,” a nonexistent movie that the CIA went so far as to create fake posters for.
The American diplomats were soon evacuated to Frankfurt, and thirty years later the fake film "Argo" became the real film "Argo", a fictional and romanticized account of the Canadian Caper that screws up the boundary between real life and metafiction. At any rate, the next time you want to make fun of a Canuck for the way s/he pronounces “sorry,” please remember the brave Canadians who went out of their way to help the USA during one of its darkest hours.
OPERATION NEPTUNE SPEAR
While many people offered different strategies as to how to effectively retaliate against the terrorist attack of 9/11, few objected to the idea of killing the hell out of Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
The search for OBL had long been considered stalled and/or pointless before the 2008 election of Barack Obama, who demanded a renewed search for the bearded bastard in June of 2009. Bin Laden was discovered to have been hiding comfortably within ostensible American ally Pakistan. A
After a concentrated intelligence effort, he was found to be puttering about in a Pakistani manor on the Afghan border. Navy SEALs, quietly stormed OBL’s compound, blew out his evil brains, and dumped him in the ocean within a 12-hour period.
Conspiracy-minded commentators complain that they never actually got to see bin Laden’s body, but more grounded observers object to the CIA’s phony polio vaccinations—since OBL’s death, independent medical workers from the World Health Organization have been murdered by local militants for their supposed complicity in the killing of bin Laden.
THE GRAN SASSO RAID / OPERATION EICHE
Hitler and the rest of the Nazi German establishment didn’t have a lot of useful friends up to and during World War Two. One of the few significant allies of the Third Reich was the Italian Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, a political movement that predated the Nazis and had assumed command of a kinda-sorta-industrialized nation back when Adolf and his pals were still shooting up beer halls.
Say what you want about Adolf Hitler (and you can say everything you want about Adolf Hitler because he was an absolutely horrible human being) he remembered his old friends. In late 1943, when the Italian Fascist government was falling apart and Mussolini was arrested on the order of the Italian king, Hitler personally ordered his most elite commando units to yank Benny out of his comfy prison in Campo Imperatore.
Ace Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny was personally selected to lead a group of Luftwaffe glider troops, landing silently on the Gran Sasso massif and capturing the deposed Fascist dictator without firing a shot. After securing the area, Skorzeny airlifted Mussolini out in a scrawny Fieseler Storch liaison plane, the only German aircraft capable of taking off from the rough and unimproved surface of the plateau.
Although the overloaded “Stork” almost crashed due to the extra weight of burly Otto and pudgy Benito, it successfully delivered the Fascist leader to German-occupied Northern Italy, giving the Nazis a much-needed propaganda boost and shoring up Germany’s southern front for years.
THE ENTEBBE RAID / OPERATION THUNDERBOLT
The diplomatic and strategic details surrounding the hijacking of an Air France jet out of Tel Aviv are too intricate to get into, but suffice it to say that the Palestinian Liberation Organization was pissed off at Israel enough to grab a planeload of Israeli and/or Jewish passengers and eventually lock them down at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.
The IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit was tasked with the safe extraction of the passengers, a mission it accomplished by flying three heavily loaded C-130 transports in under radar and surprising the combined Ugandan and PLO forces with a lightning-fast mobile assault.
The only friendly casualty was Sayeret Matkal’s current commander Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, a name you may be familiar with as his pudgy little brother subsequently decided to enter politics.
Mission code names—particularly those of covert missions—aren’t really supposed to have any relationship to the actual mission itself, to lessen the chances that enemy intelligence will work out the nature of the plan. Operation Jericho, an RAF raid that was all about causing walls to go tumbling down, violated this rule, but due to the unprecedented audacity of the mission German intelligence could never have guessed what the raid was actually about.
A number of French resistance fighters and spies were due to be executed by firing squad in the exercise yard of Amiens Prison and there was no way that British intelligence could delay or cancel the executions with their men on the ground.
The solution: send a force of de Havilland Mosquito long-range fighter-bombers howling across Europe at treetop level to blow a gigantic hole in the prison wall and smash the guards quarters. As crazy as it sounded, the plan was a success, and was even reported live by a BBC reporter riding along with the mission.
RESCUE OF BAT 21 BRAVO
The largest, longest, and most complicated rescue operation of the entire war in Vietnam, the recovery of Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton ended up revolutionizing the way the United States Air Force organized their rescue missions. It also made a lot of people in Strategic Air Command question the wisdom of allowing people with top-secret anti-aircraft missile information out on combat missions.
Hambleton was flying escort for a B-52 mission when his EB-66 Destroyer electronic warfare plane was shot down over the overrun South Vietnamese province of Quang Tri. The lieutenant colonel possessed secrets vital to American air defense and fighter tactics, and Soviet intelligence was determined to track him down.
The USAF attempted an airborne rescue operation that resulted in the loss of five aircraft and the death or capture of thirteen airmen. Realizing that American airplanes had no realistic hope of penetrating the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defenses, the Air Force sent in Navy SEAL commando Lt. Thomas Norris along with a five-man Vietnamese frogman team to reach the downed officer.
Knowing that their radio communications could easily be intercepted, the ground forces guided Hambleton to safety with an improvised code language based on the lieutenant colonel’s encyclopedic knowledge of golf courses—the direction “number one at Tucson National” (a hole running southeast for 408 yards) translated to “move southeast 400 yards.” Despite a broken arm and severe dehydration, Hambleton finally made it to safety.
MRKONJIC GRAD INCIDENT
While it looks more like a bad Scrabble hand than anything else, Mrkonjic Grad is in fact a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina where a Serbian anti-aircraft missile successfully shot down a USAF F-16C flown by Captain Scott O’Grady.
O’Grady immediately went into hiding from the unfriendly locals, surviving a number of close calls and living off the land, using the skills learned from the Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program. NATO aircraft had been picking up intermittent beeps from his survival radio, but it was only on the sixth day of his ordeal that O’Grady felt secure enough to speak into his radio.
Two Marine Sea Stallion helicopters supported by Harrier jets and Super Cobra gunships were in the air four hours later, tracing O’Grady’s beacon to a yellow flare and securing the area. After only seven minutes the pilot was on board and the helicopters were on their way out, narrowly dodging two shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles and a scattering of small-arms fire. The 2001 film Behind Enemy Lines was based heavily on O’Grady’s experiences, although 20th Century Fox never bothered to ask his permission or advice on the film.
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THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI
The infamous pirates of the Barbary Coast were a major hazard to Mediterranean shipping in the early 19th century, but the great powers of Europe were content to just pay the occasional ransom whenever one of their ships was captured.
Not so America, a burgeoning commercial empire with a tiny but capable navy, who couldn’t afford to keep paying off the pirates every time they lost a boatload of cargo. From 1801 to 1805, the young United States Navy cut its teeth by patrolling the coast of Northern Africa and besieging seaports and cities. Unfortunately, the fleet was still prone to rookie mistakes, as the frigate USS Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli harbor and was quickly seized by the locals.
This mistake was rectified by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, who led a party of Marines onboard the ship in the dead of night, overpowered the guards, and put the frigate to the torch, denying the Tripolitan navy of what would have been their largest and most powerful vessel.
Decatur (who became one of the Navy’s first heroes and whose name graces dozens of cities and counties throughout America) discovered that the Philadelphia’s crew was being held hostage ashore in the city of Derna. Acting on this information, Marine Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon led a force of Marines and Greek mercenaries on a desert march from Alexandria to Derna, successfully freeing the captives and raising the American flag on foreign soil for the first time.