The 5 Most Terrifying Jobs in the History of War

We here at Cracked are as guilty as anyone of celebrating badassery in war -- a dude who captures a whole Nazi platoon by himself deserves all the compliments he can get. But you always want to stop short of glamorizing war, so in that spirit, let's count down some of the mind-bogglingly shitty jobs people have gotten stuck with during wartime.

#5. Crewman on Board a 19th-Century Submarine

The noble dream of sinking an enemy's ship with an underwater boat has been around since Leonardo da Vinci's day. But it wasn't until the Civil War that anyone really pulled off a boat that could submerge long enough to inflict any damage, so the Confederates really thought they had gained an edge over the better-equipped Union when they put the H.L. Hunley into water. If only they had given it the ability to get back out.

Imagine you're a member of the Confederate navy, being asked to try to climb inside this thing for the first time and give it a test run. It's a cramped iron tube, with a crank that drives the propeller. You're going to crouch down inside this dark, leaking coffin with seven other guys, then they're going to plunge the bastard deep into the freezing water.


To be fair, the Hunley was pretty innovative for its time. The ship was equipped to hold eight crew; seven sailors turned a hand-crank propeller while one did the steering. Ballast tanks could be filled with water or pumped with hand pumps for submerging and rising out of water.

So the presumably terrified crew members climbed on board for its first test run. It plunged below the surface of the water ... then the skipper accidentally stepped on the hatch lever. Water came gushing in. Three members of the frantic crew were able to escape, including the skipper. The other five drowned.

Well, accidents happen. They brought the sub back to the surface, dragged the dead bodies out, and decided to try it again. Once more, imagine you're a volunteer. You could probably rationalize it; after all, they'll surely make sure nothing goes wrong this time, and the sub's inventor, Hunley himself, will be taking part!

It sank again. No one survived, including Hunley.

Even his sideburns drowned.

What else was there to do but drag it up to the surface a second time and declare the ship ready for battle? Any volunteers?

On February 17, 1864, a crew, presumably having said their goodbyes to their loved ones and having made out last wills, crawled into the Hunley for a third trip, and this was no test run. The craft was mounted with a torpedo (it would tow the explosive behind it, then drag it into an overhead ship)

and sent five miles out to sea in the hopes of sinking the USS Housatonic.

You could probably handle that with a really big lighter.

Surprisingly, it did. The 1,240 ton boat sank, along with the five crew members who didn't secure spots on the lifeboats. Success! You can only imagine the relief the Hunley's crew must have felt at finally surviving a mission in a submarine in a world clearly not ready for submarines.

Well, they would have been relieved, had they survived. Unfortunately, for reasons that we'll probably never know, the Hunley sank as well, for a third time, along with all eight of its crew. And this time it took a whole 136 years for anyone to bring it back to the surface. Come on, let's give it another shot, gang!

The South shall rise again!

#4. Powder Monkey

It's easy to romanticize the life of an 18th-century seaman, what with all the kid-friendly Johnny Depp movies that downplay the rampant scurvy, tedium and sodomy. But even on board the boats that saw actual ship-versus-ship battles, life wasn't all that awesome.

As illustrated here.

During battles, sailors needed to maneuver the boat and fire their weapons and do other battley things; they didn't have the time for the lengthy and laborious task that was cannon-loading. So some genius came up with the brilliant idea of putting small boys in charge of loading the explosive gunpowder into the ginormous guns. At sea. During battle.

If the fact that these kids were given the most ridiculously dangerous job of all time wasn't enough, their fellow sailors actually had the audacity to give them the most condescending nickname of all time: powder monkeys.

Boys as young as nine worked in the line of fire as they ran up and down the ship carrying bags and casks of flammable gunpowder on their backs.

This was in the days before OSHA.

A lot of these so-called "powder monkeys" were actually kidnapped boys who were then forced into service without pay or any hope of ever seeing their homes again. And they weren't just charged with loading cannons, either. Their main job was transporting the gunpowder from the hold of the ship as muskets and cannons fired overhead, and also taking over for their fellow powder monkeys killed on the job.

Plus, they had to assist gunners in measuring the correct amount of gunpowder to fire the weapons, all while the ship was thrashing about due to getting nailed with waves and cannon balls. So, while today's boys only have to worry about shitting their pants when their teacher doesn't give them a bathroom pass in time, these life lottery winners were basically doing the same job as the crews on The Deadliest Catch, only if the crab could spontaneously explode at any minute.

There are way deadlier catches.

Of course, that's not the last time children would be given shitty jobs during wartime...

#3. Drummer Boy

Among the many, many problems of serving in combat in a pre-walkie-talkie era was communication. In the chaos of battle, soldiers couldn't hear commanding officers or one another. It was all pretty much screaming and flapping your arms.

Not at all dissimilar from your band in high school.

So, it wasn't long before someone figured out that a drummer could serve several purposes: One, he could boost morale, because who doesn't love a good back beat? And two, he could give commands. Each drum roll represented different orders, plus the steady beat kept marchers in line and coordinated (this was back when armies lined up all gentleman-like to face each other). So, all in all, drummers were extremely useful and awesome in every way, bravely thumping away while musket balls whizzed past their heads.

Though it's less awesome when you realize they probably should have been attending elementary school instead.

Pictured: a combat veteran.

Kids as young as 8 years old accompanied soldiers into battle during the Civil War. The picture above is of one of the most famous drummer boys of the Civil War, Johnny Clem. Little Johnny ran away from home at the age of 11 and blustered his way into the Union army after they rejected him twice for his small size. Eventually they relented, realizing that A) they couldn't get rid of him, and B) he just looked so darn cute in his tiny uniform.


Kids like Johnny served as semi-mascots for their units, but all the affection in the world didn't stop grown- ass men from sending this boy and others like him into battle unarmed. Johnny was lucky; he eventually got a teeny-tiny musket custom-trimmed just for him, but most drummer boys had nothing but a funky-ass drumbeat to protect them from enemy fire. Johnny himself was taken as a prisoner of war at the age of 12.

Even though there were drummer boys before and after the Civil War, it was the War Between the States that really made the best use of prepubescent boys as communication systems. Numbers are sketchy on both sides, but it is agreed that so many kids were involved in the Civil War that the conflict earned the nickname of The Boys' War.

Recommended For Your Pleasure

To turn on reply notifications, click here


The Cracked Podcast

Choosing to "Like" Cracked has no side effects, so what's the worst that could happen?

The Weekly Hit List

Sit back... Relax... We'll do all the work.
Get a weekly update on the best at Cracked. Subscribe now!