America has had a pretty good record when describing military victories – if a military triumph could be called “good” - but what about the losses? The United States has had some pretty embarrassing defeats as well in the short history of our nation. We don’t really like to talk about the ones that we didn’t do so well in, but the men that fought in these battles deserve to be remembered. Which were the worst? This article spans some of the worst military disasters the United States has suffered in our 230+ year history. Do you agree with these?
This is possibly one of the best-known American defeats of the twentieth century. Pearl Harbor was a naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii and the attack was an unannounced military strike conducted by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941. It resulted in the United States’ entry into World War II. The attack was intended as a preventive action in order to keep the U.S. Pacific Fleet from influencing the war that the Empire of Japan was planning in Southeast Asia, against Britain and the Netherlands, as well as the U.S. in the Philippines. The base was attacked by Japanese aircraft (a total of 353, in two waves) launched from six aircraft carriers. Four U.S. Navy battleships were sunk (two of which were raised and returned to service later in the war) and all of the four other battleships present were damaged. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer. 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, 2,402 personnel were killed and 1,282 were wounded. Japanese losses were light, with 29 aircraft and five midget submarines lost, and 65 servicemen killed or wounded. One Japanese sailor was captured. As a result of this attack, the United States entered the war the following day and again with Japan’s ally in Germany, later in the week. When announcing this horrendous defeat, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that “…December 7th would be a day that would live in infamy.”
This battle took place in the Philippines in 1942, in the early days of America’s involvement in WW2. The capture of the Philippine Islands was crucial to Japan’s effort to control the Southwest Pacific, seize the resource-rich Dutch East Indies, and protect its Southeast Asia flank. It was the largest surrender in American and Filipino military history, and was the largest American surrender since the American Revolution. The fight involved nearly 80,000 Americans and Filipino’s fighting a slightly smaller force of Japanese, which numbered about 75,000 men in strength. The battle, itself lasted three months and the Japanese, who had more experience fighting became victorious, despite heavier losses. What makes this battle such a great defeat was that out of the 80,000 men we had positioned there, approximately 75,000 of them were forced to surrender! General MacArthur had to flee the area and uttered his famous words, “I Shall Return” (of which he did). What made matters worse was that the Japanese then led the men who surrendered on a forced march through the jungle, which came to be known as “The Bataan Death March”. The 60-mile march involved the the forcible transfer of 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war captured by the Japanese in the Philippines from the Bataan peninsula to prison camps, was characterized by wide-ranging physical abuse and murder, and resulted in very high fatalities inflicted upon the prisoners and civilians along the route by the armed forces of the Empire of Japan. Beheadings, cutting of throats and casual shootings were the more common actions—compared to instances of bayonet stabbing, rape, disembowelment, rifle butt beating and a deliberate refusal to allow the prisoners food or water while keeping them continually marching for nearly a week in tropical heat. Falling down or inability to continue moving was a death sentence. Prisoners were attacked for assisting someone falling due to weakness, or for no reason whatsoever. Strings of Japanese trucks were known to drive over anyone who fell. Riders in vehicles would casually stick out a rifle bayonet and cut a string of throats in the lines of men marching alongside the road. The exact death count is impossible to determine, but some historians have placed the minimum death toll between six and eleven thousand men; other postwar Allied reports have tabulated that only 54,000 of the 75,000 prisoners reached their destination—taken together, the figures document a rate of death from one in four up to two in seven of those on the death march. The number of deaths that took place in the internment camps from the delayed effects of the march is considerably more. For these atrocities, one of the Japanese generals in charge, a Masaharu Homma, was sentenced to death. In civilian life he was a playwright and amateur painter.
Khe Sanh was a small base used to block enemy infiltration into Laos, serve as an anchor for defenses along the DMZ, and survey Vietnamese troop movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Khe Sanh was always under attack and you may have heard about it mentioned in the movies on the War because of how deadly of an area that it was. Khe Sanh was surrounded right before the Tet Offensive in 1968. The main battle or siege began in late January of that same month. The base was continuously being hit with over 100 artillery per day. In return, the United States launched massive aerial bombardment. The siege lasted seventy-seven days and ended on April 8, 1968. The final casualties reports do not include all the small skirmishes that happened around Khe Sanh, but the American soldiers killed in action was reported to be over 1000 with over 2600 wounded men. War historians feel that while the United States claims this as a victory for the marines, it actually furthered the Vietnam War no further and, in fact, distracted the Americans by allowing the Viet Cong to organize their forces. The Americans abandoned Khe Sanh three months later on July 15, 1968.
You probably have never heard of this battle in history class, but I am sure you’ve heard of what happened afterwards. It was during this battle in the War of 1812 that the British stormed Washington, DC and burned the White House to the ground. It has been called “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.“ The battle happened on August 24, 1814 and the Americans were being led by a terrible leader named, Brigadier General William H. Winder, who had already been captured in a previous battle. In total, Winder could theoretically call upon 15,000 militia, but he actually had less than 2000 poorly trained men at his immediate disposal. Winder split his army up into two groups and took the route the British were most likely NOT going to take. His other general, a General Tobias Stansbury, set up directly in the path of the British attack on Washington, but completely out in the open. When the British started marching, Stansbury got word that Winder was moving to a safer location and he was afraid his flank was going to disintegrate – so he ran. Winder didn’t give any orders what to do if Stansbury couldn’t hold the British, so most of the men fled without firing a shot on the British. They returned to their homes and Washington DC was burned. The British lost 64 men in the assault, many of whom died of heat exhaustion and not warfare. President James Madison and most of the rest of the Federal government were present during the battle and when the British came to town – unopposed – they were almost all captured. It is rumored that Madison’s wife, Dolly, was able to supervise the preservation of some early historical paintings of the previous presidents, yet this has been disputed by some of the Madison’s slaves who were present during the razing of the first White House.
This battle was also referred to as St. Clair’s Defeat and happened around the Ohio River Valley in 1791. General Arthur St. Clair’s men were camped near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio with 1500 ill-equipped men and about 200 women and children. Although a reconnaissance party warned of imminent attack, and President Washington – a veteran of the French-Indian War – had cautioned him not to underestimate the tactics used by the Indians, St. Clair had few guards posted and his troops were completely unprepared. At dawn, on March 7, 1791, St. Clair’s group was attacked by a combined force of Indians, which included: Shawnee, Miamis, Wyamdots and Delawares numbering about 1000 warriors. The attack was vicious and St. Clair’s men were completely in disarray. By the end of the battle, 21 Indians lay dead, while the American casualties numbered 952, including women and children. This is nearly three times the number of dead in the Battle of Little Big Horn 75 years later. The first official Executive Branch inquiry was made and General St. Clair was relieved of his duty.