A number of very significant things happened in late February including our very successful attack on Tripoli during the First Barbary War and the sinking of the battleship Maine—which led to the beginning of the Spanish-American War. And we can’t forget the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during WWII.
On 15 Feb 1898, a massive explosion of unknown origin sank the battleship USS Maine in Cuba’s Havana harbor, killing 260 of the fewer than 400 American crew members aboard.
Ostensibly on a friendly visit, the Maine had been sent to Cuba to protect the interests of Americans there after a rebellion against Spanish rule broke out in Havana in January.
An official Naval Court of Inquiry ruled in March that the ship was blown up by a mine, without directly placing the blame on Spain. Much of Congress and a majority of the American public expressed little doubt that Spain was responsible and called for a declaration of war.
Diplomatic failures to resolve the Maine matter, coupled with US indignation over Spain’s brutal suppression of the Cuban rebellion and continued losses to American investment, led to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898.
Within three months, the US had decisively defeated Spanish forces on land and sea, and in August an armistice halted the fighting. On December 12, 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed between the US and Spain, officially ending the Spanish-American War and granting the US its first overseas empire with the ceding of such former Spanish possessions as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
In 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the Maine explosion was likely caused by a fire that ignited its ammunition stocks, not by a Spanish mine or act of sabotage.
On 16 Feb 1804, during the First Barbary War, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a military mission that famed British Admiral Horatio Nelson called the “most daring act of the age.”
In June 1801, President Thomas Jefferson ordered Navy vessels to the Mediterranean Sea in protest of continuing raids against US ships by pirates from the Barbary states–Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripolitania. American sailors were often abducted along with the captured booty and ransomed back to the US at an exorbitant price. After two years of minor confrontations, sustained action began in June 1803 when a small US expeditionary force attacked Tripoli harbor in present-day Libya.
In October 1803, the US frigate Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli and was captured by Tripolitan gunboats. The Americans feared that the well-constructed warship would be both a formidable addition to the Tripolitan navy and an innovative model for building future Tripolitan frigates. Hoping to prevent the Barbary pirates from gaining this military advantage, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured American vessel on February 16, 1804.
After disguising himself and his men as Maltese sailors, Decatur’s force of 74 men, which included nine Marines, sailed into Tripoli harbor on a small two-mast ship. The Americans approached the USS Philadelphia without drawing fire from the Tripoli shore guns, boarded the ship, and attacked its Tripolitan crew, capturing or killing all but two. After setting fire to the frigate, Decatur and his men escaped without the loss of a single American. The Philadelphia subsequently exploded when its gunpowder reserve was lit by the spreading fire.
Six months later, Decatur returned to Tripoli Harbor as part of a larger American offensive and emerged as a hero again during the so-called “Battle of the Gunboats,” a naval battle that saw hand-to-hand combat between the Americans and the Tripolitans.
On 20 Feb 1942, during WWII, Lt. Edward O’Hare took off from the aircraft carrier Lexington in a raid against the Japanese position at Rabaul-and minutes later became America’s first flying ace.
In mid-February 1942, the Lexington sailed into the Coral Sea. Rabaul, a town at the very tip of New Britain, one of the islands that comprised the Bismarck Archipelago, had been invaded in January by the Japanese and transformed into a stronghold–in fact, one huge airbase. The Japanese were now in prime striking position for the Solomon Islands, next on the agenda for expanding their ever-growing Pacific empire. The Lexington’s mission was to destabilize the Japanese position on Rabaul with a bombing raid.
Aboard the Lexington was Navy fighter pilot Lt. Edward O’Hare, attached to Fighting Squadron 3 when the US entered the war. As the Lexington left Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific (and still free from Japanese control), for Rabaul, ship radar picked up Japanese bombers headed straight for the carrier. O’Hare and his team went into action, piloting F4F Wildcats. In a mere four minutes, O’Hare shot down five Japanese G4M1 Betty bombers–bringing a swift end to the Japanese attack and earning O’Hare the designation “ace”.
Although the Lexington blew back the Japanese bombers, the element of surprise was gone, and the attempt to raid Rabaul was aborted for the time being. O’Hare was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery–and excellent aim.
On 23 Feb 1945, during WWII and the bloody Battle for Iwo Jima, US Marines took the crest of Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest peak and most strategic position, and raise the US flag. Marine photographer Louis Lowery was with them and recorded the event. American soldiers fighting for control of Suribachi’s slopes cheered the raising of the flag, and several hours later more Marines headed up to the crest with a larger flag. Photographer Joe Rosenthal recorded the raising of the second flag along with a Marine still photographer and a motion-picture cameraman.
The Japanese garrison on the island numbered 22,000 heavily entrenched men. Their commander had been expecting an Allied invasion for months and used the time wisely to construct an intricate and deadly system of underground tunnels, fortifications, and artillery that withstood the initial Allied bombardment. By the evening of the first day, despite incessant mortar fire, 30,000 Marines commanded by General Holland Smith managed to establish a solid beachhead.
During the next few days, the Marines advanced inch by inch under heavy fire from Japanese artillery and suffered suicidal charges from the Japanese infantry. Many of the Japanese defenders were never seen and remained underground manning artillery until they were blown apart by a grenade or rocket or incinerated by a flame thrower.
By 3 March, US forces controlled all three airfields on the island, and on 26 March the last Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima were wiped out. Only 200 of the original 22,000 Japanese defenders were captured alive. Over 6,000 Americans died taking Iwo Jima, and some 17,000 were wounded.
On 24 Feb 1991, after six weeks of intensive bombing against Iraq and its armed forces, US-led coalition forces launched a ground invasion of Kuwait and Iraq.
On 2 Aug 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, its tiny oil-rich neighbor, and within hours had occupied most strategic positions in the country. One week later, Operation Shield, the American defense of Saudi Arabia, began as US forces massed in the Persian Gulf. Three months later, the UN
Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq if it failed to withdraw from Kuwait by 15 Jan 1991.
At 4:30 pm on 16 January 1991, Operation Desert Storm, a massive US-led offensive against Iraq, began as the first fighter aircraft were launched from Saudi Arabia and off US and British aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. All evening, coalition aircraft pounded targets in and around Baghdad as the world watched the events transpire in television footage transmitted live via satellite from Baghdad and elsewhere.
Operation Desert Storm was conducted by an international coalition under the command of US General Norman Schwarzkopf and featured forces from 32 nations, including Britain, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. During the next six weeks, the allied force engaged in a massive air war against Iraq’s military and civil infrastructure, encountering little effective resistance from the Iraqi air force. Iraqi ground forces were also helpless during this stage of the war.
On 24 Feb, a massive coalition ground offensive began, and Iraq’s outdated and poorly supplied armed forces were rapidly overwhelmed. By the end of the day, the Iraqi army had effectively folded, 10,000 of its troops were held as prisoners, and a US air base had been established deep inside Iraq. After less than four days, Kuwait was liberated, and a majority of Iraq’s armed forces had either been destroyed or had surrendered or retreated to Iraq. On 28 Feb, President George Bush declared a cease-fire, and Iraq pledged to honor future coalition and UN peace terms. One hundred and twenty-five American soldiers were killed in the Persian Gulf War, with another 21 regarded as missing in action.
On 28 Feb 1991, during the first Gulf War, Allied and Iraqi forces suspended their attacks as Iraq pledged to accept all UN resolutions concerning Kuwait. Tariq Aziz announced Iraq’s acceptance of all relevant UN Security Council Resolutions. Saddam Hussein calls on his troops to cease fire. The ground war lasted 100 hours. Of course, Saddam lied and followed few of the conditions for his surrender.