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.
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!
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.
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.
Let's face it: Being a warrior for a Native American tribe in an era when the white man was steamrolling his way westward was already kind of a shitty job. You're part of a long, horrible, doomed war against a technologically superior opponent you don't completely understand. And, on some level, you know that in the future Kevin Costner is going to make a condescending movie about you.
Up yours, Costner.
But there also comes a time in a young warrior's life when his superiors would say, "We need you to charge through the enemy's lines, dodge their gunfire and bayonets, and poke one of their soldiers with this here dull stick."
The Plains Indians called it counting coup, and it was basically a way to prove yourself in battle. You had to go in and touch the enemy with your coup-stick, and get out. If you did it successfully, you got an eagle feather in your head dress telling everyone you were a badass. If you got wounded in the process, you had to paint the feather red -- you lost points for that. If you got killed, well, that was that.
Keep in mind, there was no ceremonial purpose to this -- as in, they didn't believe the coup stick was magical or that it would curse the enemy or that it was good luck. It was just for bragging rights. Only, to be fully accepted by the tribe, you had to do it. Everybody would sit around after the battle and count coups. You certainly didn't want to be the guy sitting on a goose egg.
There were other ways to get points -- such as stealing an enemy's weapon, or touching an enemy's horse while it was tied up at their camp. Seriously, the Indians treated war like a video game, and the coups were their Xbox achievement points.
"Alright, who has the bag of poop? I'm gonna make a run for the fort."
Member of a Penal Battalion
In 1942, Joseph Stalin established Order 227 to make it clear that no commander or soldier fighting in the war had the authority to retreat in battle. And anyone who defied the order would be eligible to serve in something called "penal battalions." These separate units of convicts and rejects were intentionally sent to do the shittiest and most suicidal jobs in the war. They were to be sacrificed so as not to risk "real" soldiers.
Thus, penal battalions were composed of gulag labor camp inmates, disgraced soldiers accused of cowardice and liberated POWs. You read that right ... their own POWs were punished for their stupidity of getting caught by having to serve in penal battalions, and that's if they weren't executed on the spot after liberation. So why not just run away? Because backing them up were barrier troops who were there for no other reason than to kill soldiers who tried to retreat.
Otherwise known as, "the second crappiest job ever".
So, for instance, the first penal unit was deployed on the Stalingrad front in advance of the invading Germans. Of the 929 disgraced officers who were sent, 300 survived. Some soldiers who actually had been sentenced to death penalty were instead assigned to one of these battalions -- everyone involved knew it was basically the same thing.
Pictured: Not a safe place.
It's hard to nail down what exactly was the worst job for a penal battalion member. Mine-clearing has to be way up there -- and it almost certainly had the shortest life expectancy. Among them were people whose job it was to just dig up the mines and hope they didn't explode in their faces, but then there were the "tramplers" -- guys who ran ahead of advancing troops, with the intention of tripping any mines that might be up there. If you did your job well, you'd wind up in bloody chunks scattered all over the battlefield.
So, yeah, you'd definitely hate to be one of the unlucky few who served in the -- wait, what's that? Over 400,000 troops had to serve in the penal units?
That is hard core, ladies and gentlemen. We don't know if we should be more amazed that the Soviets ever lost a battle, or that they ever managed to win one.
For people who made Rambo-ade out of their shitty wartime jobs, check out 5 Real Life Soldiers Who Make Rambo Look Like a Pussy. Or, for proof that old-timey folk didn't need war to give kids shitty jobs, check out The 6 Worst Jobs Ever (Were Done by Children).
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