"Go For Broke": The Story Behind the Most Decorated Military Unit in U.S. History

US Army Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
US Army Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain Steve Rogers single-handedly frees captured Allied soldiers from a Nazi base. "What, are we taking everybody?" one soldier asks, referring to another soldier who appears to be Japanese. "I’m from Fresno," the soldier retorts.

The scene was a hat tip to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American regiment that, during World War II, became the most decorated unit in U.S. history—a distinction it still holds. Members of the 442nd earned 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, five Presidential Unit Citations in just one month, and 9486 Purple Hearts, along with thousands of other honors, during the regiment’s two active years in World War II. Yet when asked about their distinguished service, most of them said they were simply doing their duty.

ONE PUKA PUKA AND THE 442ND

In the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and Arizona were interned under Executive Order 9066; about two-thirds were U.S. citizens. Americans of Japanese ancestry were also reclassified as “enemy aliens” and were no longer allowed to join the military. Despite the fact that Japanese-Americans had served in the military for decades, many already-enlisted troops were discharged from service. The government even seized items like cameras or radios from Japanese-Americans, in case they might use them to spy.

Although some protested these measures, others sent letters and telegrams to President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry Stimson arguing that Japanese-Americans, even the second generation known as the Nisei, were not to be trusted because they were "fanatically devoted to [their] country of origin and emperor," as one California woman wrote. Several cities, 16 California counties, a variety of social clubs, and even some members of Congress registered similar concerns. Some congressmen even called to exchange Japanese-American citizens for Americans held prisoner by Japan.

The Nisei troops, as they were often known, wanted the opportunity to prove that their loyalty was to the United States—not Japan. Many of these soldiers had witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and the aftermath, and they wanted to support their country in any way they could.

Just weeks after Washington gave the military ban order, a group of ROTC students released from the Hawaiian Territorial Guard decided that even if they couldn’t serve as soldiers, they still wanted to help. They gained the approval of regional commander General Delos Emmons to form the Varsity Victory Volunteers, a labor support battalion that included more than 160 students and other individuals of Japanese descent. In early 1942, the group began building roads, fences, and military bases under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Hawaii is our home; the United States is our country,” the youths wrote in a letter to Emmons volunteering their services. “We know but one loyalty and that is to the Stars and Stripes.”

But the Varsity Victory Volunteers were just the beginning. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Hawaii National Guard also included more than 1400 Nisei members—about half its total. The Nisei troops were ordered to turn in their weapons and ammunition and segregated from their fellow soldiers. Concerned about the Nisei's potential response if Hawaii was again attacked by Japan, military leaders sent them to the mainland, and eventually to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. There they formed the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate), with the separate referring to the fact that they were initially an orphan unit without a larger regiment. They were also known as the One Puka Puka (Puka is Hawaiian for "hole," as in zero).

The 100th Infantry Battalion receiving grenade training
The 100th Infantry Battalion receiving grenade training.
U.S. Army Photo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One Puka Puka quickly distinguished themselves during their training, and after watching the “triple-Vs” and the 100th in action, the War Department pushed President Roosevelt to change his stance on Japanese-American military service. He did so in early 1943, and the Army soon asked for 4500 Japanese-American volunteers. They got an overwhelming 10,000, mostly from Hawaii. Nearly 1200 volunteered from internment camps.

“I talked to my father, and he said, ‘Well, you’re an American citizen, so if they want you to join the Army, it’s your duty,’” veteran Stanley Matsumura said in Peter Wakamatsu’s documentary Four-Four-Two: F Company at War. He and his friends did just that.

“I was 19 and living in Yoder, Wyoming when I first heard the news of Pearl Harbor,” Hashime Saito wrote to Dear Abby in December 1980. “I canceled my plans to enter the university and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army.”

At his brother’s wedding at Poston Relocation Center, Technical Sergeant Abe Ohama told friends and family, “All of us can't stay in the camps until the end of the war. Some of us have to go to the front.”

The volunteers became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

BANZAI!

At first, the 442nd wasn’t particularly welcome in Europe. When Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall offered the regiment to General Dwight Eisenhower to fight in France, the latter turned him down with a polite, “No, thank you.” Instead, they found a home with General Mark Clark in the Fifth Army, fighting in Italy.

The 100th finished training and went first, initially joining the 34th Infantry Division, one of the divisions that made up the Fifth Army. They soon earned their reputation in blood. Whether out of a desire to prove their loyalty or just a gung-ho spirit, the Nisei soldiers went after military objectives with a single-minded ferocity.

They entered combat in Italy on September 29, 1943, and soon saw fighting in the southern part of the country. The battalion fought in Salerno and the Volturno river, where the soldiers surprised their fellow American troops with their first banzai charge. (In Japanese tradition, a banzai charge is a last-ditch, often suicidal attack, and the exclamation is a traditional battle cry.) According to the Go For Broke National Education Center, named for the regiment's motto, the banzai charge occurred after a sergeant heard that one of the most respected officers in the battalion had been either wounded or captured: "Many of the soldiers of the 100th had known each other since they were children. Their dedication to one another was such that they never left a man behind, even in death." The sergeant turned out to have heard mistakenly, but the impression of dedication on their fellow soldiers remained.

Yet the 100th truly earned their reputations at the Battle of Monte Cassino. General Clark called the battle “the most grueling, the most harrowing, and in one aspect perhaps the most tragic, of any phase of the war in Italy.” Fighting began in blizzard conditions in the middle of January 1944, and the goal was to take the Gustav Line, a defensive line the Axis forces had created along the natural mountainous landscape of the area that blocked the Allies from Rome.

The battle to take the high ground was long and bloody for everyone involved, and the 100th was no exception. In fact, it was at Monte Cassino that they gained the nickname “The Purple Heart Battalion.” The Monte Cassino Abbey, atop one of the mountains, overlooked an open field with little cover for troops and provided Nazi soldiers and artillery a place to entrench themselves. From behind walls, they fired at any Allied troops who dared to rush the mountain.

On the night of January 24, the 100th’s A and C Companies crossed the dangerous field, checking for tripwires and maneuvering over freezing, flooded irrigation ditches before finding cover behind a wall. When B Company moved to join them after sunrise, only 14 of the 187 men made it to the wall, according to the Go For Broke center.

The company was ordered into reserve—kept away from the action and allowed to rest—but joined the fighting again on February 8. They made good progress and held a key hill for four days but retreated again when the 34th Division was unable to keep up with their pace. Finally, after Allied air reinforcements bombed the ancient abbey into ruin on February 15, the 100th sent wave after wave up the mountain, losing 200 more men before they were relieved.

Their commander, Major Casper Clough Jr., told a correspondent with The New York Times that they were the best soldiers he’d ever seen. “They are showing the rest of the people they are just as good citizens as the next John Doughboy,” he said.

General Mark Clark fastens citation streamers on 100th battalion flags for outstanding performance of duties in the Mediterranean theater
General Mark Clark fastens citation streamers on 100th battalion flags for outstanding performance of duties in the Mediterranean theater.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Because of the battalion’s heavy casualties—the 100th had lost about 800 of its 1300 soldiers since arriving in Europe, more than 200 over just four days at Monte Cassino—other Allied forces took over at Monte Cassino. The 100th regrouped to receive reinforcements, then fought their way over 40 miles from Anzio, Italy, north to Rome, where they were soon joined by the rest of the 442nd and officially attached to the regiment.

By May 1944, when the 442nd’s Second and Third Battalions sailed for Europe, the 100th had racked up a stunning three Distinguished Service Crosses, 21 Bronze Stars, 36 Silver Stars, and 900 Purple Hearts. The Second and Third Battalions quickly showed they were determined to not only uphold the reputation of Nisei soldiers in Europe, but to add to it.

COMBINING THEIR EFFORTS

When the three battalions met outside of Rome to capture the small town of Belvedere, the Second and Third Battalions volunteered to lead the fighting, allowing the 100th to stay in reserve—but One Puka Puka wouldn't be held back. The 442nd destroyed the German troops, took the town, and captured a huge number of enemy weapons. They even decimated an entire SS battalion alone, losing only four of their own men.

By then, French commanders were asking the regiment to join the fighting in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, near the border with Germany. The 442nd fought in Bruyeres and Belmont, but perhaps their most famous campaign was the rescue of the 141st Infantry Regiment’s First Battalion—known as the Lost Battalion.

A 442nd squad leader looks for German movements in a French valley
A 442nd squad leader looks for German movements in a French valley
U.S. Army, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During fighting in the Vosges Mountains, the 141st’s First Battalion had been cut off from the rest of the Allied Forces and nearly 300 men from Texas were trapped by 6000 German troops.

On little rest and with a shortage of men, the 442nd answered the call to rescue their Texan brothers. The mountainous terrain was made more difficult by the icy weather of October 1944, and the 442nd had to travel on soggy dirt trails and fight through German roadblocks to reach the trapped men.

The 442nd’s Second Battalion won a hill from the Germans and took prisoners, but while it helped break the German line, it wasn’t enough to free the trapped men. The Lost Battalion—which had gone without food for several days—beat off five waves of German attackers. The Third Battalion tried to fight from the outside, but got no closer to reaching the Texan troops.

Seeing no other choice, the 442nd decided to “go for broke” straight up the middle in another banzai charge. One of the leaders of the charge, Private Barney Hajiro, single-handedly took down two German machine gun nests. After six days of fighting, the Nisei managed to break through to the lost Texans.

Whether they were still trying to prove themselves or not, the 442nd did just that in the rescue. The Milwaukee Journal summed up the shifting opinion about “Our Heroic Nisei” on November 8, 1944, just days after the campaign:

“At the last minute, relief troops got through. Who were they? Japanese Americans of the famous 442nd regiment—the outfit that had already blazed its way to glory in the toughest spots in Italy. What the relieved Yank soldiers think of their Nisei buddies is best expressed by one grateful private who said: ‘Boy, they are real Americans!’”

For their valor, Governor John Connally made all the surviving members of the 442nd “honorary Texans” in 1963.

The 442nd continued to fight in major battles in France and Italy through the end of the war, often on the front lines. They guarded 12 miles of the French border in what became known as the Champagne campaign, and joined other American forces in liberating the Dachau concentration camps in April 1945.

Thousands of the regiment’s men were killed or wounded in the war, including future Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, who was nearly killed in two separate incidents—once, when a bullet to his chest was stopped only by two silver dollars, and again when he nearly bled out in battle refusing to leave his men behind.

CAPTURING HEARTS AND MINDS

Back on the home front, the 442nd’s reputation helped to build bridges between Americans of Japanese ancestry and their fellow citizens. Army officials authorized more widespread publicity for the 442nd—provided it wouldn’t give away key military intelligence. By then, war correspondents on the front were already eager to share stories about the Nisei troops.

Lieutenant Edward Chasse relayed the bewilderment of German troops captured by the 100th to the Associated Press. In a story published by the Oakland Tribune on February 17, 1944, Chasse said, “We got some prisoners and they didn’t know what was happening. They wondered if the Axis had turned against them.”

Writing for The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, C.L. Sulzberger described an interaction between a captured German officer and an American interpreter after the prisoner saw members of the Nisei regiment. “Said the German to an interpreter, ‘But they look Japanese; it can’t be.’ Said the interpreter, ‘Sure, didn’t you know they were on our side? Or do you believe this stuff Goebbels puts out?’”

Members of the 442nd who sacrificed their lives on the front became some of the human faces of the war—such as Pfc. Sadao Munemori, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Glendale, California, native was killed on April 5, 1945 when he and his fellow soldiers were pinned down by enemy fire. He attacked enemy gun nests alone so his comrades could escape; he nearly made it out himself, but threw himself onto a grenade just feet from safety to save his fellow soldiers.

But while the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd came home to praise and gratitude from some Americans, others were unwilling to look beyond their heritage.

As interned Japanese-Americans and Nisei veterans were returning to their West Coast homes in the spring of 1945, the War Department began receiving reports of what it deemed terrorist attacks against them.

“In the most recent instances reported to Washington, cars have driven by Nisei homes at a high rate of speed and the occupants have fired into the house,” one newspaper reported. “In one case, the homeowner was a returned veteran. With him was a Nisei friend in uniform on furlough.” Fortunately, they were not injured.

Some attacks were more subtle. A Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Spokane, Washington, drew attention after it denied membership to Private Richard Naito. His former commanding officer, Virgil Miller, sent an angry complaint to the post, arguing that "When supposedly reputable organizations such as yours violate the principles and ideals for which we fight, these young Japanese Americans are not the only ones to wonder about our war aims." Corporal George Gelberg, representing a group of veterans stationed at nearby Geiger Field, wrote a letter to the editor of the Spokesman-Review, saying, “The men wished it to be understood that an attack on any minority group in our country strengthens the hands of the Fascist enemies who have been beaten on the military field.” Other Nisei veterans organized a campaign to apply to the post, and when news of the rejection reached the national VFW organization, they issued an apology and stated that Japanese-American veterans were welcome to join.

President Barack Obama and guests after signing a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the 442nd Regiment and 100th Battalion
President Barack Obama and guests after signing a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the 442nd Regiment and 100th Battalion.
White House, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 2011, nearly 70 years after Japanese-American citizens were interned and briefly banned from military service, the 442nd was honored for its members’ sacrifices. Congress awarded the veterans of the 442nd, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the Military Intelligence Service, which performed intelligence work against the Japanese military, with Congressional Gold Medals—the highest civilian award Congress can bestow.

During the ceremony when the awards were delivered, Representative Adam Schiff of California, who co-sponsored the bill honoring the veterans, said: "These American heroes did defend our freedoms and our ideals ... even when these ideals were denied them at home."

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

15 Amazing Facts About the Washington Monument

iStock/Sean Pavone
iStock/Sean Pavone

It's the tallest building in Washington, D.C. and it honors the first U.S. president, George Washington. Here are a few more Washington Monument facts to celebrate the anniversary of its completion on December 6, 1884.

1. Building a monument to George Washington was not a unanimously supported idea.

Today, trumpeting George Washington as a hero and a symbol of national pride isn’t going to start any arguments. In the 19th century, however, Washington’s approval rating was far from 100 percent. The very idea of constructing a monument to honor the former president felt like an affront to the Democratic-Republicans—the opposing party to the Washington-aligned Federalists—who both favored Thomas Jefferson over Washington and decried such tributes as unseemly and suspiciously royalist.

2. It took almost 40 years to complete the Washington Monument's construction.

After decades of deliberation about where to build a monument to George Washington, what form it should take, and whether the whole thing was a good idea in the first place, the foundation for a great stone obelisk was laid at the center of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on July 4, 1848. Although the design looks fairly simple, the structure would prove to be a difficult project for architect Robert Mills and the Washington National Monument Society. Due to ideological conflicts, lapses in funding, and disruptions during the Civil War, construction of the Washington Monument would not be completed until February 21, 1885. The site opened to the public three years later. 

3. A coup within the Washington National Monument Society delayed construction.

In 1855, an anti-Catholic activist group nicknamed the Know-Nothings seized control of the 23-year-old Washington National Monument Society. Once in power, the Know-Nothings rejected and destroyed memorial stones donated by Pope Piux IX. The Know-Nothing affiliation cost the project financial support from the public and from Congress. In 1858, after adding only two layers of masonry to the monument, the Know-Nothings abdicated control of the society. 

4. Early ideas for the Washington Monument included statues, Greek columns, and tombs. 

Before the society settled on building an obelisk, several other ideas were suggested as the visual representation of George Washington’s grandeur. Among them were an equestrian statue of the first president (which was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, D.C.), a separate statue situated atop a classical Greek column, and a tomb constructed within the Capitol building. The last idea fell apart when Washington’s family was unwilling to move his body from its resting place in Mount Vernon.

5. Later design plans included an elaborate colonnade ...

Even after Mills’ obelisk model had been accepted, a few flashier design elements received consideration as possible additions to the final project. Mills had originally intended to surround the tower with a circular colonnade, featuring not only a statue of George Washington seated gallantly atop a chariot, but also 30 individual statues of renowned Revolutionary War heroes. 

6. ... and an Egyptian sun.

Mills placed a winged sun—an Egyptian symbol representing divinity—above the doorframe of the Washington Monument’s principal entrance. The sun was removed in 1885. 

7. The monument originally had a flat top.

It has become recognizable for its pointed apex, but the Washington Monument was originally designed to bear a flat top. The monument's design was capped with a pyramid-shaped addition in 1879.

8. The engineer who completed the Washington Monument asked the government to supply his workers with hot coffee.

Several years after the 1855 death of Mills, Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey Sr., chief of engineers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, assumed responsibility for completing the Washington Monument. Among his most memorable orders was an official request to the U.S. Treasury Department to supply his workers—specifically those assigned to the construction of the monument’s apex—with “hot coffee in moderate quantities.” The treasury complied. 

9. Dozens of miscellaneous items are buried beneath the monument.

On the first day of construction, a zinc case containing a number of objects and documents was placed in the Washington Monument’s foundation. Alongside copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a map of the city of Washington, publications of Census data, a book of poems, a collection of American coins, a list of Supreme Court justices, a Bible, daguerreotypes of George Washington and his mother Mary, Alfred Vail’s written description of the magnetic telegraph, a copy of Appleton’s Railroad and Steamboat Companion, and an issue of the arts and leisure magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, among many other items.

10. Some of the Washington Monument's memorial stones bear strange inscriptions.

The vast majority of the 194 memorial stones lining the Washington Monument are not likely to inspire confusion. Common inscriptions celebrate George Washington, the country, and the states they represent. However, a few of the monument’s stones bear engravings of a more curious variety. A stone donated by a Welsh-American community from New York reads (in Welsh), “My language, my land, my nation of Wales—Wales for ever.” Another stone from the Templars of Honor and Temperance articulates the organization’s rigid support of Prohibition: “We will not make, buy, sell, or use as a beverage any spirituous or malt liquors, wine, cider, or any other alcoholic liquor, and will discountenance their manufacture, traffic, and use, and this pledge we will maintain unto the end of life.” 

11. The apex was displayed at Tiffany's before it was added to the structure.

The men who created the Washington Monument, though reverent in their intentions, were hardly above a good publicity stunt. William Frishmuth, an architect and aluminum magnate connected to the project, arranged for the pointed aluminum top of the monument to enjoy an ornate two-day display at New York City’s luxury jewelry store Tiffany’s. The apex was placed on the floor of the storefront so that shoppers could claim to have walked “over the top of the Washington Monument.” 

12. Opening ceremonies attracted several big-name guests.

Among the 20,000 Americans present for the beginning of construction in 1848 were then-President James K. Polk, three future presidents (James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson), former first lady Dolley Madison, Alexander Hamilton's widow Elizabeth Hamilton (John Quincy Adams' widow was too sick to attend), and a bald eagle.

13. The Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world for about six months.

Upon its official opening on October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument—standing an impressive 555 feet high—boasted the superlative of tallest manmade structure on Earth. The honor was short-lived, however, as the following March saw the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, which topped out at 986 feet. 

14. It is still the tallest of its kind.

As of 2019, the Washington Monument still reigns supreme as both the world’s tallest all-stone structure and the tallest obelisk. (The stone San Jacinto Monument in Texas is taller, but it sits on a concrete plinth.)

15. A few decades after construction, the monument caught "tuberculosis."

Wear and tear had begun to get the best of the Washington Monument by the early 20th century, prompting an exodus of the cement and rubble filler through the structure’s external cracks. The sweating sensation prompted John S. Mosby Jr., author of a 1911 article in Popular Mechanics, to nickname the phenomenon “geological tuberculosis.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER