A Brief Prehistory of Friendly Fire

By Tom Sito | April 7, 2003

In today’s sensationalist media, incidents of soldiers accidentally shooting their own men or civilians is trumpeted far and wide as soon as the reports come in. Then the media asks questions like “aren’t our soldiers today as good as ones from the past? Can’t they shoot straight? Is this symptomatic of our jaded-Godless, hopped-up-on-video-games sick society?

The fact is that “Friendly Fire” incidents are depressingly common in most of history’s conflicts, but the media of the time was too slow or too censored to report things as quickly as they do today. The horrifying images of dead and wounded soldiers from World War Two we see on the History Channel were unknown to the public until well after the war was over. In 1917 a British filmmaker caused an uproar with a film documentary about the Battle of the Somme because it showed a British Soldier falling in battle. The particular scene that caused the uproar was staged make-believe, but no one in England had seen a photograph of a dead British soldier even though the war was nearly two years old.

After the 1943 film documentary Battle of San Pietro director John Huston was excoriated in the American press for showing pictures of dead G.I.’s.. During the battle of Tarawa a slip by the censor bureau allowed the American public to see dead and wounded Marines lying on the beach, and this was treated as a psychological form of Friendly Fire.

But Friendly Fire has been around for a long time:

1777-The Battle of Germantown: George Washington tried a dawn surprise attack on the British army around Philadelphia. The same tactic had worked earlier at Trenton. But in the morning fog and gunsmoke the Yankee right flank got turned around and started shooting at the Yankee center. The Center thought they were being attacked by Tories and returned fire.. By 10:00 AM two thirds of the American army had shot itself to pieces and was retreating away in confusion before the British even knew what was happening. Avoiding Friendly Fire was one of the reasons armies wore such brightly coloured uniforms back then

At the Battles of Camden (1780) and Ravenna (1512) Generals ordered their cannons to fire through their own men to get at the enemy.

1863- On the evening of the second day of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was shot down by his own men as he rode between the lines in the dark. In another part of the field Union General Dan Sickles kept his Third Corps fighting well after dark and was fired on by the rebels and from behind by his own reinforcements. In 1864 Southern General James Longsteeet was similarly wounded by Friendly Fire.

1942- During maneuvers a US Navy destroyer fired a torpedo at the battleship USS Augusta, which was carrying President Franklin Roosevelt at the time. The Torpedo missed, but the story got around. Sailors back home taunted the destroyer crew with jokes like "Don’t Shoot, We’re Republicans!" When Prime Minister Winston Churchill was returning to London from a summit in Washington that year the London air defenses fired on his plane, thinking it was a German bomber.

1943- (Operation Huskie)- During the amphibious invasion of Sicily navy ships confused allied airborne fleets flying overhead to drop paratroops with Luftwaffe bombers and began shooting them down. Gliders filled with paratroops crashed into the ocean. A complete press blackout on the incident was maintained until the 1980’s. The white invasion stripes painted on planes wings after that were an attempt to ensure that future mistakes didn’t happen.

1944- The Port Chicago explosion. In Oakland Harbor African American sailors were given the dreary but dangerous duty of loading ammunition onto ships. But an accident occurred with high explosives that killed 321 men. When the base commander ordered the men to resume loading with no change in pattern and without a promise of an investigation, the black sailors refused to return. They were courtmartialed for mutiny and treason.

Numerous Friendly Fire incidents have occurred in Korea, Vietnam and other locales. War is hell, and getting fired on by your friends is part of it.

(700 words, April 5, 2003)


  • Tom Sito

    A twenty six year veteran of animated film production, Tom Sito's screen credits include most of the respected feature-length animated films you can think of, including Who Framed Roger Rabbitt? Dinosaur, Antz, Shrek and Fantasia 2000.

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