If there’s any institution that doesn’t want us to know how much it messes up, it’s the military. If McDonald’s accidentally makes a burger that’s a little more cow dick than usual, they can probably get away with it. But considering how various armed forces deal with a lot of weapons and murder in general, their screw-ups are likely to be a tad more dramatic … as are the cover-ups. Look at how …
4: America Nuked The Japanese … In 1954
As horrific as the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, those bombs were wimpy compared to what America cooked up in the years that followed. Less than a decade after World War II, the military was ready to drop a new type of hydrogen bomb in a test known as Castle Bravo. Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb, had a 15-kiloton yield, while Castle Bravo’s was 15 megatons. You don’t need to be an expert in the metric system to know that’s much larger.
Unfortunately, the people involved this test did not seem to be experts at measuring things. According to their calculations, Castle Bravo was going to be just six megatons, and all their preparations around dropping it on the Bikini Atoll were based on that estimate. The actual explosion was larger than anyone had thought possible, and released more fallout than any bomb previous. And caught in this fallout was a Japanese fishing boat sporting the sadly inaccurate name Lucky Dragon 5.
Lucky Dragon 5 had been outside the predicted danger zone, but the ship was showered with radioactive pulverized coral regardless. By the time they made it back to Japan, all 23 men were vomiting. Their gums were bleeding, and their eyes were burning. They all received treatment for acute radiation sickness, but that wasn’t enough to save radioman Aikichi Kobayama from dying of complications. That made him the world’s first hydrogen bomb victim. Japan, furious, took to calling the incident “a second Hiroshima.”
3: The Canadian Army Covered Up A Grenade Killing Kids At A Summer Camp
If when you hear “Canadian Army,” you imagine 10,000 screaming men flying out of the woods on mooseback, go ahead and keep that whimsical image in your mind, because things are about to get dark. They have a base called Valcartier in Quebec, where, along with several actual divisions, they also have a summer training camp for cadets. Here, kids aged 12-18 come to learn everything from photography to marksmanship to rappelling down cliffs in that really cool way. In 1974, instructor Jean-Claude Giroux was teaching kids about explosives, the lecture centering specifically about the dangers of discarded ones. So yeah, brace yourselves.
They were crowded in a dorm instead of outside, as it was raining, and Giroux passed some inert samples to the cadets in the room. Fourteen-year-old Eric Lloyde asked if he could pull the pin out of a grenade. The instructor said yes. Have you ever heard that gun safety tip which says you should never point a gun at someone, even if you think it’s unloaded, unless you plan to shoot them? Allow me to offer a grenade-themed variant: You should never encourage a kid to pull a pin out of a grenade, even if you think it’s a dud, unless you want it to explode. Which this one did, killing six children and injuring dozens of others in the process.
The full story finally came out 35 years later, and a few years after that, the Defense Department agreed to pay compensation to the 100-plus kids (now middle-aged) who were injured or present. As for Giroux, he was initially found criminally responsible, but later found not guilty in a civilian court and continued to have a long career in the military after that.
2: The Navy Had Recruits Turn Their Backs And Sing The National Anthem As Instructors Drowned Someone
Lee Mirecki was afraid of water. He was also afraid that he wasn’t going to make it very far at the Navy’s Rescue Swimmer’s School, mostly because of said fear of water. During one exercise in which instructors got in the pool and pretended to be panicked drowning victims, Lee panicked too, only he wasn’t pretending. But he actually was a powerful swimmer, and a doctor gave him the OK to keep trying, so he persevered.
In the official telegram to Lee’s mother, the Navy stated the cause of death to be cardiopulmonary arrest that “occurred during normal operations,” which definitely leaves a few important bits out. Then some of the other recruits who’d been present phoned The Pensacola News-Journal anonymously saying there was more to it, and a reporter forwarded this info to Lee’s sister Lynn. It now fell on Lynn to get a copy of the autopsy, talk to a bunch of other newspapers, and finally write to Congress, including the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Only now did the Navy open an investigation into Lee’s death. This ended with Combe getting convicted of negligent homicide, four other instructors getting punished, and a couple other courts martial getting handed out. The family’s wrongful death suit against the Navy was thrown out, which is typical, but the whole case did lead to a couple of changes in policy to keep the same thing from happening again. That particular exercise that killed Lee, called “sharks and daisies,” was abolished.
If you’re about to chime in with your Colonel Jessep speech about how this is the kind of tough exercise the military needs to keep their recruits in top condition, keep in mind that the reason for having the others turn away and sing was so that they wouldn’t see or hear what was being done to their comrade.
1: The U.S. Still Denies Responsibility For That Time It Shot Down A Civilian Plane
In 1988, the Iran-Iraq War was about over, but skirmishes still broke out between Iran and neighboring countries. In July, the USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser, was stationed in the Persian Gulf (in Iranian waters, it would later be revealed, which arguably violated international law — the U.S. at the time was supporting Iraq and Saddam Hussein). Word came that Iranian gunboats were doing, um, something near a tanker from Liberia, so the Vincennes sent a helicopter to check the area out.
The gunboats were just chilling, but the Vincennes moved forward anyway. The coast guard from nearby Oman radioed in, telling them to withdraw, and so did the U.S. command center in Bahrain. After first laughing at these instructions, Captain Will Rogers obeyed, but then the chopper caught sight of something that might have been shots, maybe, and the Vincennes headed north again. Rogers announced plans to fire a missile, even though he didn’t have an actual target yet. He called headquarters to say the gunboats were approaching and about to attack — which didn’t sit well with, like, anyone else, who were pretty sure the gunboats didn’t even know they were there.
The ship’s radar now detected an unidentified airplane, and all such planes are tagged as hostile by default. A nearby aircraft carrier, the USS Forrestal, was also monitoring the situation and concluded the plane was probably commercial. The Vincennes thought the plane was an F-14, which actually wasn’t equipped to do much damage to a missile cruiser, but was a fighter jet all the same. The Vincennes fired. Turns out the plane was actually Iran Air Flight 655, carrying commercial passengers from Tehran to Dubai. All 290 aboard died, including 66 children.