By Brian Hagberg
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
January marked the 25th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, a campaign remembered for a variety of reasons, not the least of which that it marked the first time U.S. military forces used the Global Positioning System in combat. Since then, GPS has grown to serve more than 3 billion users and touches virtually every aspect of life.
While it’s easy to take the benefits provided by GPS for granted, there was a time when timing, navigation and positioning were far less precise and hardly reliable. Let’s look back through history to some people and moments when GPS could have come in handy.
Col. Percy Fawcett made a name for himself in the early 20th century both as an explorer and World War I veteran. According to a 2004 report in The Guardian, Fawcett helped the Bolivian government survey the frontier in Brazil, which led him to begin a search, with his oldest son Jack and friend Raleigh Rimmel, for the lost city called “Z.” The group never returned from the Amazon, and no sign of them has ever been found. Theories about the group’s fate have ranged from being killed by hostile natives, or hungry jaguars, to Fawcett “going native.” Clearly, GPS could have helped Fawcett both map the territory he ventured into, and return from it, thus saving the lives of the more than 100 people who subsequently searched for the famous explorer.
By now, anyone who has attended elementary school in the U.S. has heard the tale of Columbus’ “discovery of America.” In an effort to find a sea route from Western Europe to the “Far East,” along with fame and fortune, Columbus set sail in August 1492. He made landfall two months later on one of the islands in the Bahamas. His incorrect assumption he had landed in Asia could easily have been corrected with the use of GPS. The precision positioning and navigation could have helped Columbus realize his earlier calculations about the Earth’s circumference were off and helped him understand he had reached an entirely different continent.
The Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 marked a turning point in World War II. The liberation of Europe had begun. According to history.com, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had actually chosen June 5 as the day to launch the invasion; however, the weather leading up to that day made it impossible to successfully deploy the paratroopers behind enemy lines to set the stage for the invasion. Had Eisenhower had the benefit of GPS, he may have been able to keep the original date of June 5 for the invasion. Additionally, the paratroopers who were mis-dropped in the hours before the landing would have been able to determine their precise location behind enemy lines.
Battle of Shiloh
According to civilwar.org, on April 6, 1862, Confederate troops launched a surprise attack against the Army of the Tennessee near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. Known as the Battle of Shiloh, the Confederate attack pushed the Union troops back and, amidst the confusion of battle, orders for the Third Division, the reserve unit led by Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, were either unclear or lost in translation. Either way, Wallace led his men on the march to join the right flank of the Union forces. Unfortunately, the road he chose was taking his division to a position which no longer existed. All told, Wallace marched his men for seven hours without joining in the battle at any point. According to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s report, “owing to its being led by a circuitous route [Wallace’s division] did not arrive in time to take part in Sunday’s action.” Had Wallace had the benefit of GPS, his division may have arrived in time to join the fight on the first day, possibly preventing a second day of battle.
Arguably one of the most famous American pilots in history, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. She used her fame to advance aviation and feminist causes, serving as the first president of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of women pilots, according to history.com. Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared while attempting to circumnavigate the world on July 2, 1937, on the leg from New Guinea to Howland Island. According to the biography on ameliaearhart.com, three U.S. ships were stationed near the tiny island and ordered to keep all their lights on to provide markers because, as Earhart said, “Howland is such a small spot in the Pacific that every aid to locating it must be available.” Unfortunately for Earhart, the most precise aid wasn’t yet available.
Battle of the Bulge
On Dec. 16, 1944, the German Army launched a major offensive to try to split Allied forces and regain control of the Western front. The Battle of the Bulge, named because the Allied front line began to resemble a bulge, lasted more than a month, namely because snowstorms in the region prevented Allied air forces from providing support to troops on the ground. Again, if the Allies had been equipped with GPS, the battle possibly could have been turned back much earlier. Though, this would have prevented the “rescue” of the 101st Airborne by Gen. George Patton at Bastogne.
Lewis and Clark
While the expedition headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was highly successful, the three-year, 8,000-mile trek could have been even more successful with GPS. Imagine being able to travel west in the 1800s with precise coordinates and detailed topographical information. Many settlers could have been spared some of the hardships of traveling through the mountains with GPS access.