July 30 1945 USS Indianapolis

“This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.

The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis set out on its secret mission on July 16, 1945, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay, III.  She was delivering “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian, the atomic bomb which would later be dropped on Hiroshima.

USS_Indianapolis_at_Mare_IslandIndianapolis made her delivery on July 26, arriving at Guam two days later and then heading for Leyte to take part in the planned invasion of Japan. She was expected to arrive on the 31st.

Japanese submarine I-58, Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto commanding, fired a spread of six torpedoes at the cruiser, two striking Indianapolis’ starboard bow at fourteen minutes past midnight on Monday, July 30. The damage was massive. Within 12 minutes she had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.

About 300 of Indianapolis’ 1,196-member crew were killed outright, leaving almost 900 treading water. Many had no life jackets and there were few life boats.  There had been too little time.Indianapolis Sub

For four days they treaded water, alone in open ocean, hoping for the rescue that did not come.   Shark attacks began on the first day, and didn’t let up for the entire time they were in the water. Kapok life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless.

Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the days went by. Some went insane and began to attack shipmates.  Others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them in a matter of hours.

Some simply swam away, following some hallucination that only they could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, and then disappear from sight, as the sharks claimed another victim.

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Caribbean Reef sharks circling the sailors in reenactment scene after USS Indianapolis had been sunk by Japanese submarine. As seen on OCEAN OF FEAR: WORST SHARK ATTACK EVER.

At Naval Command, there was confusion about where Indianapolis was to report when it arrived.  When the cruiser failed to arrive on the 31st, there was no report of the non-arrival.  Perhaps worst, a message which could have clarified Indianapolis’ expected arrival on Monday came through garbled, and there was no request to repeat it.

As it was, only the barest of chances led to Indianapolis’ survivors being located at all.   Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn, pilot of a Ventura scout-bomber, had lost the weight from a navigational antenna wire.  Belly-crawling through the fuselage to fix the thrashing antenna, Gwinn noticed an oil slick.  Back in the cockpit, he dropped down to have a better look.  Only then did he spot men floating in open ocean.

Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks and his PBY Catalina amphibious patrol aircraft were the first on the scene.  Horrified to see sharks actually attacking the men below, Marks landed his flying boat at sea.   The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, half dead after almost five days in the water.  Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 317 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.

The Navy had committed multiple errors, from denying McVay’s requested escort to informing him that his route was safe, even when the surface operations officer knew at least two Japanese submarines operated within the area.  No Matter.  A capital ship had been lost and someone was going to pay.  A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to Captain McVay’s court-martial.

No less a figure than Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz (CINCPAC) and Admiral Raymond Spruance, for whom the Indianapolis had served as 5th Fleet flagship, opposed the court-martial, believing McVay to be guilty of an error in judgement at worst, not gross negligence. Naval authorities in Washington saw things differently, particularly Navy Secretary James Forrestal and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King.

Captain McVay’s orders were to “zigzag” at discretion, a naval maneuver most effective at avoiding torpedoes already in the water.   No Navy directives in effect at that time or since have so much as recommended, let alone ordered, zigzagging at night or in poor visibility.

Prosecutors flew I-58 commander Hashimoto in to testify at the court-martial, but he swore that zigzagging would have made no difference.  The Japanese Commander even became part of a later effort to exonerate McVay, but to no avail. Charles Butler McVay III was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag”, his career ruined.

Captain Charles Butler McVay, III
Captain Charles Butler McVay, III

McVay had wide support among Indianapolis’ survivors, but opinion was by no means unanimous. Many family members held him personally responsible for the death of loved ones.  Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays would come and go.  There was almost always hate mail from some family member. One Christmas missive read “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son”.

As the years went by, McVay began to question himself.  In time, he came to feel the weight of the Indianapolis’ dead, a soul crushing burden from which there was no escape.  On November 6, 1968, Charles McVay took a seat on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and killed himself.  He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.

The ULTRA code-breaking system which revealed I-58’s presence on Indianapolis’ course, would not be declassified until the early 90s.

Afterward:

Hunter Alan Scott was 11 and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. He was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of Indianapolis’ shark attacks.  The next year, he created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on USS Indianapolis’ sinking.

The boy interviewed nearly 150 survivors and reviewed 800 documents.  The more he read, the more he became convinced that Captain McVay was innocent of the charges for which he’d been convicted.

Scott’s National History Day project went up to the state finals, only to be rejected because he used the wrong type of notebook to organize the material.

He couldn’t let it end there. Scott began to attend Indianapolis survivors’ reunions, at their invitation, and helped to gain a commitment in 1997 from then-Representative Joe Scarborough that he would introduce a bill in Congress to exonerate McVay the following year.

Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire joined Scarborough in a joint resolution of Congress.  Hunter Scott and several Indianapolis survivors were invited to testify before Senator John Warner and the Senate Armed Services committee on September 14, 1999.

Holding a dog tag in his hand, Scott testified “This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.

The United States Congress passed a resolution in 2000, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 30, exonerating Charles Butler McVay, III of the charges which had led to his court martial, humiliation and suicide.

The record cannot not be expunged – Congress has rules against even considering bills which alter military records.  Yet Captain McVay had been exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried for years to accomplish, without success.  Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.

The last word on the whole episode belongs to Captain Hashimoto, who wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1999 on behalf of Captain McVay.  “Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences“, wrote the former submarine commander, now a Shinto Priest.  “Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction“.

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July 29, 1967 USS Forrestal

With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control.   Flare-ups would continue inside the ship until 4:00 the next morning.

The Super Carrier USS Forrestal departed Norfolk, Virginia in June 1967, with a crew of 552 officers and 4,988 enlisted men. Sailing around the horn of Africa, Forrestal stopped briefly at Leyte Pier in the Philippines, before sailing on to “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin, arriving on July 25.

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1,000lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. These tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb, featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures.  Like a huge sparkler.

A-7E_VA-25_dropping_bombs_over_Vietnam_c1970
US Navy A-7 Corsair drops a load of Mark 83 bombs; Photograph by USN – Official U.S. Navy photograph from the USS Ranger (CVA-61) 1970-71 Cruise Book., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18491727

Along with the Mark 83s, the ordnance resupply had included 16 AN-M65A1 “fat boy” bombs, WWII surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs of the 29th.  These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 20+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than newer ordnance, composition B becomes more so as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful as well, up to 50%, by weight.

These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last 30 years in the heat and humidity of the Philippine jungle.  Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys.  They were rusting and leaking paraffin, their packaging rotted.  Some had production dates as early as 1935.

Handlers were wary of these old weapons, fearing they might go off spontaneously during catapult launch. Someone suggested that they be immediately jettisoned. Captain John Beling was informed of these concerns, and demanded that Diamond Head, their supply ship, take them back and exchange them for newer ordnance.  The reply was that there were no more.   Combat operations were using Mark 83s up faster than new ones could be procured. Fat boys were all that was available.

At 10:50am local time, July 29, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.

Today, John McCain’s diagnosis of brain cancer has brought the Senator from Arizona to prominence in the evening news.  Fifty years ago today, Lieutenant Commander John McCain was in the cockpit of an A-4 Skyhawk. Next to him was Lieutenant Commander Fred D. White in his own A-4.

An electrical malfunction fired a 5″ Zuni rocket across the flight deck and into White’s fuel tank. The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented it from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other fuel tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration as McCain scrambled down the nose of the aircraft and across the refueling probe.

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Damage Control Team #8 sprang into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boys turning cherry red in the flames. Without benefit of protective clothing, Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1,000lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent its cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.

Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold as they fought the flames, but composition B explosives proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  The bomb went off in just over a minute, killing Farrier instantly and virtually the entire firefighting team, along with Fred White, who was a split second behind McCain.

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By Official U.S. Navy Photograph – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID USN 1124794

The Mark 83 bombs performed as designed, but eight of the old thousand-pounders went off in the next few seconds, triggering the sympathetic detonation of at least one 500 pounder. The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist as huge holes were torn in the flight deck, flaming jet fuel draining into the aircraft hangar and the living quarters below.

Gary Childs, my uncle, was in his cabin when the fire broke out, leaving just before his quarters were engulfed in flames.  With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, he and hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control.   Flare-ups continued inside the ship until 4:00am on the 30th.

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Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial contains the names of 134 crewmen who died in the  conflagration. Eighteen of those found their final rest at Arlington National Cemetery.  Another 161 were seriously wounded. Not including the aircraft, damage to the USS Forrestal exceeded $72 million.  Equivalent to over $415 million today.

July 24, 1915 Shipwreck in Chicago

Woodrow Wilson’s administration passed strict lifeboat legislation in the wake of the RMS Titanic disaster. Ironically, that weight is probably what doomed the already top-heavy Eastland, to disaster.

The SS Eastland was a passenger steamship based in Chicago, used for tours of the inland waterways and Great Lakes areas around the city.  Eastland’s design was top heavy and made her subject to listing, a problem that plagued the ship from her christening in 1903. Embarking passengers would crowd along the rail to wave goodbye, several times having to be herded across the decks to reduce the list. Once, she even started to take on water at the main gangplank.SS_Eastland

Special passenger restrictions were imposed on Eastland, which seemed to help until 1914, when Woodrow Wilson’s administration passed strict lifeboat legislation in the wake of the RMS Titanic disaster.

The ironic part is that the weight of additional lifeboats is probably what doomed the already top-heavy Eastland to disaster.

It was July 24, 1915, when Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and the Petoskey, were chartered to take Western Electric employees to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Eastland was docked on the south bank of the Chicago River, between Clark and LaSalle, near the site of the present day Merchandise Mart. Passengers began boarding around 6:30am.  By 7:10 the ship had reached its full capacity of 2,572 passengers.

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A number of passengers went below decks to get out of the chill, but hundreds stayed out on the upper decks, excited about the day ahead. The port side list away from the dock, had set in early in the boarding process, and crew members began to pump water into the starboard ballast tanks to stabilize the ship.  Something interesting must have happened on the river at 7:28, causing a number of passengers to rush to the port side rail.

Novelist Jack Woodford witnessed what happened next, describing it in his autobiography: “And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy”.  Hundreds were trapped below decks, others were crushed under heavy bookcases, pianos and tables.

Another vessel, the Kenosha, pulled alongside almost immediately.  Several passengers were able to jump directly onto her decks, others were rescued at the wharf, only 20′ away.  Hundreds were beyond saving.

Eastland_PostcardTemporary morgues were set up in area buildings for the identification of the dead; including what is now the sound stage for The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Studios, and the location of the Chicago Hard Rock Cafe.

Then-20-year-old George Halas was scheduled to be on the Eastland, but he was late and showed up after the capsize. 844 passengers and four crew members lost their lives in the disaster, but Eastland herself would have a second life. She was raised from the bottom, converted to a gun boat, and stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Reserve, re-christened USS Wilmette.

Wilmette saw no combat service in WWI, though she was given the task of sinking UC-97, a German U-Boat surrendered to the US after WWI. Wilmette’s guns were manned by Gunner’s Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in WWI, and Gunner’s Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo of the war.

Wilmette would serve once again as a training ship in WWII, and sold for scrap on Halloween day, 1946.

July 18, 1812  Slow-Motion Race for Survival

During the late Revolution, some five times the number of Americans died in the dreadful prison ships and camps of the British, than were killed in combat.  There was little reason to believe that the prisoners of this war would fare any better.  Constitution faced a race for survival and the stakes were life and death.

Launched in 1794 and named by George Washington, USS Constitution was one of 6 three masted, heavy frigates built for the United States Navy. Her hull was made of the wood from 2,000 Georgia live oak trees, and built in the Edmund Hartt shipyard of Boston, Massachusetts.

Constitution’s August 1812 gun battle with HMS Guerriere has been well documented. Watching Guerriere’s shots bounce off Constitution’s hull, an American sailor exclaimed “Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!” The “Old Ironsides” nickname was born.

USS_Constitution_v_HMS_Guerriere
[http://www.stuartswanfurniture.com/ironsides.htm#Guerriere Stuart Swan] USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere 19 August 1812 This painting by Anton Otto Fischer depicts the first victory at sea by the fledgling US Navy over the mighty Royal Navy.
Less well known is Constitution’s slow-motion race with death, which had taken place a month earlier.

The War of 1812 was declared on the 18th of June.   Constitution put to sea on July 12 under the command of Captain Isaac Hull. She was looking to join a five-ship squadron under Captain John Rodgers, when five sails were spotted off Egg Harbor, New Jersey.  It was July 17.  Hull first believed them to be Rodgers’ squadron, but he was mistaken.  Lookouts reported on the morning of the 18th that they were 5 British warships, and they were giving chase.

That soon to be famous “iron” hull would have been useless in a five-to-one fight. A common naval tactic of the day was to close to short range and fire at the masts and rigging of opposing vessels, thus shutting down the ship’s “power plant”.  A disabled vessel could then be boarded and a bloody fight would ensue with cutlass and pistol. There was no question, whatever.  For those 5 British captains, Constitution would have been a great prize.

In the late Revolution, some five times the number of Americans died in the dreadful prison ships and camps of the British, than those killed in combat.  There was little reason to believe that the prisoners of this war would fare any better.  Constitution faced a race for survival and the stakes were life and death.

Conditions were near dead calm and all six vessels were wetting sail, trying to get the most out of light winds. In a process called “kedging”, Hull ordered ship’s boats to row out ahead, carrying small “kedge anchors” to the end of their chains and dropping them overboard. Sailors would then haul the great ship up the chain, hand over hand, and the process would be repeated. The British ships soon imitated the tactic, in a slow-motion chase lasting 57 hours in the July heat.

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Constitution’s crew dumped everything they could find overboard to lessen the weight, including 2,300 gallons of drinking water. Cannon fire was exchanged several times, though the shots fell short of their mark.  On July 19, Constitution pulled far enough ahead that the British broke off their pursuit.

Old Ironsides was brought into drydock in May 2015, beginning 26 months’ restoration.   The highest tide of the summer will occur this Sunday, when the dry dock will be flooded and the ship will be towed out into Boston harbor.

There the restoration will continue, including the installation of  standing and running rigging.  President Washington’s three-masted, heavy frigate may be boarded peacefully this September, when the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat, is once again opened to the public.

I wonder what George Washington would say, if he heard she has her own Facebook page.

Old Ironsides, Drydock

June 19, 1864 Ship’s Duel

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil.

Maryland native Raphael Semmes was a career Naval officer, having served in the United States Navy from 1826 to 1860.  There was an extended leave of absence following the Mexican-American war, in which he settled in Alabama and practiced law.  Semmes was offered a Confederate naval appointment in 1861, following the secession of his adopted home state.  He resigned his commission, the following day.

Following a fruitless assignment to purchase arms from the North, Semmes was ordered to New Orleans, to convert the steamer Habana into the commerce raider CSS Sumter.  Semmes breached the Union blockade in June of 1861, outrunning the sloop of war USS Brooklyn.  So began the most successful commerce raider, in naval history.

Captain_Raphael_Semmes_and_First_Lieutenant_John_Kell_aboard_CSS_Alabama_1863
Captain Raphael Semmes standing by his ship’s 110-pounder rifled cannon. His XO 1st Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell, stands by the ship’s wheel.

His was a war on the economic might of the Union.  Sumter would eliminate 18 Union merchant vessels from the Caribbean to the Atlantic, constantly eluding the Union warships sent to destroy her.  In six short months, CSS Sumter was laid up in neutral Gibralter, her boilers too spent to go on.

On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality” in the American Civil War, prohibiting the sale of ships of war. Vessels were permitted neither to alter or improve their equipment while in British waters, but were permitted to enter.

Hull #290 was launched from the John Laird & Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England as the screw sloop HMS Enrica on May 15, 1862.   Enrica left Liverpool that July on a “trial run”, a party of ladies and customs officials on board to allay suspicions that the trip was anything but ‘neutral”.

The ruse was a success.  Passengers were transferred to a tug only a short distance from Liverpool and returned to port, while the ship itself continued on to the Terceira Island in the Azores.  There she met her new captain.  Raphael Semmes.

Three days, 8 cannon and 350 tons of coal later, Enrica was transformed into the 220’, 1,500 ton sloop of war and Confederate States of America commerce raider, CSS Alabama.

CSSAlabama, artist unknown
CSS Alabama, artist unknown

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil. In her two years as commerce raider, Alabama destroyed the Union warship USS Hatteras off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $123 million in today’s dollars.

Alabama was badly in need of a refit when she put into Cherbourg, France, on the 11th of June. The Mohican-class Union sloop of war USS Kearsarge was then on patrol near Gibraltar, making it to Cherbourg by the 14th.

Seeing that he was blockaded, Semmes challenged Kearsarge Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel.  “My intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain”.

That suited Winslow just fine.  Kearsarge took up station in international waters, and waited.

USS_Kearsarge
USS Kearsarge

Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg on the morning of June 19, 1864, escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which remained nearby to ensure that combat remained in international waters.  Kearsarge steamed further out to sea as the Confederate vessel approached.  There would be no returning to port, until the issue was decided.

Captain Winslow put his ship around and headed for the enemy at 10:50am. Alabama fired first from the distance of a mile, firing furiously as the range decreased.

Heavy, overlapping rows of chain armor allowed Kearsarge to be more deliberate, and she chose her shots, carefully.

Kearsarge Stern Post
Kearsarge Stern Post

The engagement followed a circular course at a range of a half mile; the ships steaming in opposite directions and firing at will.

Alabama’s forward 7-inch Blakely pivot rifle scored an early success, lodging a 56lb shell in Kearsarge’s exposed sternpost.  With its rudder thus bound, Kearsarge’s mobility was sharply limited.  It could have been far worse for Captain Winslow, however, had that shell not failed to explode.

One of Kearsarge’s 11″ Dahlgren smooth bore pivot cannon found its mark, tearing Alabama’s hull open at the waterline and exploding her steam boiler.   Alabama turned and tried to run back to port, but Kearsarge headed her off.  Within an hour of the first shot, the most successful commerce raider in history was reduced to a sinking wreck.

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“Sinking of the CSS Alabama” by Xanthus Smith (1922)

Wounded in the battle, Semmes hurled his sword overboard, denying the Union captain that symbol of surrender.  He ordered the striking of his ship’s Stainless Banner and a hand-held white flag of surrender, as Alabama went down by the stern.

For those Confederate sailors rescued by Kearsarge, the Civil War was over. They would spend the rest of the war as prisoners.  Raphael Semmes escaped with 41 others, being plucked from the water and taken to neutral ports by the British steam yacht Deerhound, and the private sail yacht Hornet.

Battle_of_Kearsarge_and_Alabama_(1892)_by_Xanthus_SmithSemmes would recover from his wounds, returning to the war ravaged South via Cuba in February, 1865.  That April, he would supervise the destruction of all Confederate warships in the vicinity, following the fall of Richmond.  Semmes’ former command fought on as “the Naval brigade”, Semmes himself appointed Brigadier General, though the appointment would never be confirmed.  The Confederate Senate had ceased to exist.

Elements of the Naval Brigade fought with Lee’s rear guard at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, before their surrender at Appomattox, only days later.  Semmes himself was surrendered with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army near Durham Station, North Carolina.

Semmes returned to Mobile after the war, where he resumed his legal career.  There were those who wanted to try the man for piracy, but it never happened.  Raphael Semmes died an untimely death in 1877, as the result of eating some bad shrimp.

His 1869 Memoirs of Service Afloat During The War Between the States has been described as one of the “most cogent but bitter defenses ever written”, about the “lost cause”, of the South.

 

 

June 15, 1904  P.S. General Slocum

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” 

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now  the East Village.  “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world, save for Berlin and Vienna.

General Slocum tokenIt was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum, left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.

She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300+ children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am.  A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.

Slocum 3

The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment.  Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor.  Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.Slocum 4

Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered”  It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. The wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.

Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.  Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion, and then jumped overboard with her newborn to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

Slocum-ablaze

Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and his feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.  Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned.  It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.  There were only 321 survivors.General Slocum Casualties

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six month old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both her sisters, were among the unidentified dead.

Youngest_Slocum_Survivor

Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  There were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  There was nothing for them, there.   Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100.  The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.

General_Slocum_Memorial

April 18, 1943 Terrible Resolve

Painfully aware of the overwhelming productive capacity of the American economy, Yamamoto sought to neuter the US High Seas fleet in the Pacific, while simultaneously striking at the oil and rubber rich resources of Southeast Asia

Captian Isoroku YamamotoIsoroku Takano was born in Niigata, the son of a middle-ranked samurai of the Nagaoka Domain. His first name “Isoroku”, translating as “56”, refers to his father’s age at the birth of his son. At this time, it was common practice that samurai families without sons would “adopt” suitable young men, in order to carry on the family name, rank, and the income that came with it. The young man so adopted would carry the family name.  So it was that Isoroku Takano became Isoroku Yamamoto in 1916, at the age of 32.

After graduating from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, Yamamoto went on to serve in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, later returning to the Navy Staff College and emerging as Lieutenant Commander in 1916. He attended Harvard University from 1919-1921, learning fluent English. A later tour of duty in the US enabled him to travel extensively, and to study American customs and business practices.

Like most of the Japanese Navy establishment, Yamamoto promoted a strong Naval policy, at odds with the far more aggressive Army establishment. For those officers, particularly those of the Kwantung army, the Navy existed only to ferry invasion forces about the globe.

Yamamoto opposed the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the 1937 land war with

uss_panay
Panay

China. As Deputy Navy Minister, it was Yamamoto who apologized to Ambassador Joseph Grew, following the “accidental” bombing of the USS Panay in 1937. Even when he was the target of assassination threats by pro-war militarists, Yamamoto still opposed the attack on Pearl Harbor, which he believed would “awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”.

Yamamoto received a steady stream of hate mail and death threats in 1938, as a growing number of army and navy officers spoke publicly against him. Irritated with Yamamoto’s immovable opposition to the tripartite pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, army hardliners dispatched military police to “guard” him. In one of the last acts of his short-lived administration, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai reassigned Yamamoto to sea as Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, making it harder for assassins to get at him.

USS-Arizona-Sinking-Pearl-Harbor-Newspaper-December-7-1941-AP-Getty-640x480Many believed that Yamamoto’s career was finished when his old adversary Hideki Tōjō ascended to the Prime Ministership in 1941. Yet there was none better to run the combined fleet. When the pro-war faction took control of the Japanese government, he bowed to the will of his superiors. It was Isoroku Yamamoto who was tasked with planning the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Nothing worked against the Japanese war effort as much as time and resources. Painfully aware of the overwhelming productive capacity of the American economy, Yamamoto sought to emasculate the US High Seas fleet in the Pacific, while simultaneously striking at the oil and rubber rich resources of Southeast Asia. To accomplish this first objective, he planned to attack the anchorage at Pearl Harbor, followed by an offensive naval victory which would bring the Americans to the bargaining table. It’s not clear if he believed all that, or merely hoped that it might work out.

Yamamoto got his decisive naval engagement six months after Pearl Harbor, near Midway Island. Intended to be the second surprise that finished the carriers which had escaped destruction on December 7, American code breakers turned the tables. This time it was Japanese commanders who would be surprised.

Battle-Of-Midway-Turns-Tide-Of-Pacific-War-2American carrier based Torpedo bombers were slaughtered in their attack, with 36 out of 42 shot down.  Yet Japanese defenses had been caught off-guard, their carriers busy rearming and refueling planes when American dive-bombers arrived.

midway-copyMidway was a disaster for the Imperial Japanese navy. The carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, the entire strength of the task force, went to the bottom. The Japanese also lost the heavy cruiser Mikuma, along with 344 aircraft and 5,000 sailors. Much has been made of the loss of Japanese aircrews at Midway, but two-thirds of them survived. The greater long term disaster, may have been the loss of all those trained aircraft mechanics and ground crew who went down with their carriers.

The Guadalcanal campaign, fought between August 1942 and February ’43, was the first major allied offensive of the Pacific war and, like Midway, a decisive victory for the allies.

Needing to boost morale after the string of defeats, Yamamoto planned an inspection 2013-Yamamoto-10.1tour throughout the South Pacific. US naval intelligence intercepted and decoded his schedule.  The order for “Operation Vengeance” went down the chain of command from President Roosevelt to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King to Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor. Sixteen Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, the only fighters capable of the ranges involved, were dispatched from Guadalcanal on April 17 with the order: “Get Yamamoto”.

Yamamoto’s two Mitsubishi G4M bombers with six Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes in escort were Yamamoto Wreckintercepted over Rabaul on April 18, 1943. Knowing only that his target was “an important high value officer”, 1st Lieutenant Rex Barber opened up on the first Japanese transport until smoke billowed from its left engine. Yamamoto’s body was found in the wreckage the following day with a .50 caliber bullet wound in his shoulder, another in his head. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Isoroku Yamamoto had the unenviable task of planning the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he was an unwilling participant in his own history. “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain”, he had said, “I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success”.Yamamoto