February 9, 1942 Of Hoodlums and Heroes

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

As the Great War gave way to the Roaring Twenties, operators of the great ocean-going liners began to look at a new class of vessels.

The White Star Lines’ Britannic, Olympic and the doomed Titanic. Cunard’s Carpathia, Mauretania and the ill-fated Lusitania. The Red Star Line’s Finland, Kroonland, and Lapland. These were the veterans of the trans-Atlantic trade, built around enormous numbers of immigrants and the one-way steerage class voyage from Europe, to the United States.

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Normandie poster

As the US all but shut down immigration in the early 1920s, the shipping industry looked to a new class of super liner to serve an upper-crust tourist trade, particularly Americans traveling to Europe, to escape Prohibition.

The German-built Norddeutscher Lloyd company was first off the line with the SS Bremen and Europa. The British-made RMS Queen Mary was not far behind, but the Queen of this new class of super-liner, was the French-built Normandie.

SS Normandie was one-of-a-kind.  The first vessel laid in compliance with the 1929 SOLAS Convention (Safety of Life at Sea), she was enormous.  1,029-feet long and 119-feet wide and displacing 85,000 tons, she was the largest liner in the world. 1,975 berths offering seven classes of service, served by a crew of 1,300.

Despite worldwide depression, Normandie was launched in 1932, making her first Atlantic crossing, in 1935.

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Normandie under construction

War broke out in Europe in 1939.  When France surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940, Normandie was tied to a dock, in New York.  Under no circumstance would such a vessel be allowed to fall into Nazi hands.  SS Normandie was immediately placed under “protective custody” by the US Navy.

There was speculation in the press, that the liner would be converted to an aircraft carrier in the event of American entry into the war.  The Navy seized the liner in the wake of Pearl Harbor, but not for a carrier.  The most luxurious liner in the world would be converted, to a troop ship.

Work began within weeks on the renamed USS Lafayette.

normandie-6-3176-default-largeThe afternoon of February 9, 1942 was cold and clear, over the West 49th Street pier. Welder Clement Derrick was removing the last of four stanchions in the Grand Salon when sparks ignited bales of burlap, covering highly flammable life vests.

Within a half-hour, much of the great liner was engulfed in flames. Black, oily smoke filled the City skyline as spectators crowded Pier 88.

Squadrons of fire boats poured a deluge of water, more than the great liner could bear. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews attempted to board when she suddenly lurched several feet, to port. USS Lafayette was drowning in the water, meant to save her life.

The scene was a carnival, with food vendors and  hawkers. Skycraper windows were opened, to watch the grim spectacle.

USS Lafayette continued her slow roll as, unseen within her holds, shifting water picked up speed. In twelve hours, it was over. At 2:35am on February 10, she rolled over and died.

Miki Rosen was five at the time, coming by in the family car, to gawk at the scene: “My father wanted us to see it because it was an historical event. I was terribly frightened by this enormous thing that I knew was supposed to be upright and bobbing up and down. It didn’t even look like a ship. It was a mass of iron floating in the water.”

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USS Lafeyette, 1942

It wasn’t long before speculation turned to certainty. Sabotage. German spies were all over the waterfront, taking jobs as bartenders, stevedores and factory workers. Only a month earlier, 33 German agents were sentenced in a Brooklyn courtroom, to 300 years.  German U-Boats sank 20 allied vessels in January alone, a mere sixty miles off the New Jersey and Long Island shore.

main-qimg-5b28658362e63dfcf2abdc5a8709522fBBC broadcaster Alistaire Cooke, “the Twentieth Century’s de Tocqueville”, spoke of American seamen, torpedoed and picked up by a German submarine. The U-Boat commander came in and asked, in a perfect Brooklyn accent, if any were from the borough. “Maybe I worked with some o’ youse guys.  I was twelve years in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The FBI recreated Clement Derrick’s accident with the same dreadful result but, no matter.  By then, speculation had turned to “fact”.

Naval intelligence distrusted the official FBI version.  Hordes of uniformed personnel descended on the waterfront from Connecticut to New Jersey, to be met with a glowering brick wall of silence.  This was a rough and unaccustomed place, an underworld of sailors and gangsters,  fishermen and longshoremen.  A world of street toughs who’d long since lost any trust in uniforms, from meter maids to police officers.  Ivy-league Naval intelligence types got no information whatsoever.  Many were lucky, to escape without a beating.

The only authority in this world, was the Mob.

Naval Intelligence Director Rear Admiral Carl Espe remembered:  “The outcome of the war appeared extremely grave. In addition, there was the most serious concern over possible sabotage in the ports. It was necessary to use every possible means to prevent and forestall sabotage….” Someone on the docks was feeding the Nazis information, and only the mob had the power to hunt down the guilty party.  Policy makers fretted about doing business with the Mafia, while the Kriegsmarine U-Boats enjoyed the “Happy Time”.  

Could the Mafia even be trusted?  Vito Genovese fled New York to Italy back in 1937 to avoid a murder prosecution, where he became close friends with Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. So tight were the pair that the cagey gangster dispatched hit men to New York to murder newspaperman Carlo Tresca, a vocal critic of the fascist regime.

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Joseph “Socks” Lanza

Closer examination told a different story. Genovese was an opportunist, a double-crosser with no loyalty.  Most Sicilian gangsters were different, most of them refugees from savage Italian purges where Mafiosi were machine gunned, bombed and arrested, in droves. Thugs and gangsters yes, but almost to a man they hated the fascists with the white heat, of a thousand suns.

So it was, the United States Navy entered into one of the strangest relationships of WW2, an operation which would remain secret, until 1977. “Operation Underworld“.

The first mob boss to come on board was Joseph “Socks” Lanza, a hulking bulldozer of a man and undisputed lord of the Fulton fish market. Socks got his name because he’d “sock” anyone in the jaw, who disagreed with his pronouncements. A man with a criminal history going back to 1917, Joe Socks could order the fishing fleet from Maine to Florida to dump an entire catch to inflate prices, with a nod of his head. Fishermen failing to bribe the racketeer found their fish left rotting, on the docks. Continued disobedience resulted in arson, beatings, and death.

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If anyone could ferret out a Judas passing information to German intelligence it was Joe Socks, but how to contact a gangster, sworn to the code of Omerta?

Head of the New York Rackets Bureau, Murray Gurfein and Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden met with Lanza in the office of the gangster’s attorney. Gurfein explained “It’s a matter of great urgency. Many of our ships are being sunk along the Atlantic coast. We suspect German U-boats are being refueled and getting fresh supplies off our coast …You can find out how and where the submarines are being refueled.”  Surprisingly, the Gangster jumped at the opportunity.

Socks provided union cards held for no-show jobs. Soon, naval intelligence agents were sailing aboard mackerel fleets from Newfoundland to Florida, ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications forming a valuable first-line of defense, against the Nazi submarine menace.

Important as it was, Lanza’s fishing fleet wasn’t enough, and Socks himself was disliked by the other four New York crime families.

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Charles “Lucky” Luciano

The never-ending scrum of troop ships and merchant vessels crowding the New York waterfront was of life-and-death importance to the allied war effort. The only man who controlled it all, was in prison. Lucky Luciano.  The only man Luciano trusted, was the Jewish gangster, Meyer Lansky.

Unlike the Italians, no one questioned Lansky’s patriotism.  He and his Jewish mob had attacked Nazi meetings all over the city, throwing some of them out of the windows.

The meeting was arranged and, on May 12, 1942, Luciano was quietly transferred from Dannemora prison to a country club by comparison, and promised parole at the war’s end. This in exchange for the mobster’s cooperation in defeating Nazi Germany.

Cooperate, he did. The word went out from Luciano’s prison cell, from the docks to the heart of the city. Soon, every hat check girl and bartender, every longshoreman and numbers runner and the guys who serviced the vending machines, became the eyes and ears of the United States Navy. From bathroom attendants to elevator operators, the American Nazi organization known as German American Bund couldn’t so much as think out loud, without someone listening in.

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

In the end, USS Lafayette would never sail under a US Flag.  She was a total loss, sold for scrap in 1946.  The government was as good as its word. On January 3, 1946, Governor Thomas E. Dewey commuted Luciano’s sentence, on condition that he did not resist deportation. The most powerful mob boss in New York, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, was deported to Naples.  Four years to the day from the death of the USS Lafayette.

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January 31, 1918 Battle of May Island

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in.  The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast. The table was set, for disaster.

ww1navybritish-shipbuildingmapbritishisles2Operation E.C.1 was a planned exercise for the British Grand Fleet, scheduled for February 1, 1918 out of the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow in the North Sea Orkney Islands.

Forty vessels of the British Royal Navy departed Rosyth in the Scottish fjord at the Firth of Forth on January 31, bound for Scapa flow. They were the 5th Battle squadron with destroyer escort, the 2nd Battlecruiser squadron and their destroyers, two cruisers and two flotillas of K-class submarines, each led by a light cruiser.

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in.  The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast.

While only an exercise, strict radio silence was observed, lest there be any Germans in the vicinity. Each vessel displayed a faint blue stern light, travelling 400-yards ahead of the next-in-line. Black-out shields restricted the lights’ visibility to one compass point left or right of the boats’ center line.   The table was set for disaster.

Though large for WW1-vintage submarines at over 300-feet, K-class subs were low to the water and slow, compared with the much larger surface vessels.  Compounding the problem, the unfortunately nicknamed”Kalamity Klass” was powered by steam, meaning that stacks had to be folded and closed, before the thing was ready to dive.  Only eighteen K-class submarines were ever built, one of which caused damage to a German U-boat, in a ramming attack.

Seems the K-class was more dangerous to its own people, than anyone else.

A half-hour into the cruise, the flagship HMS Courageous passed a tiny speck on the map called May Island and picked up speed. A pair of lights appeared in the darkness as the 13th Submarine Flotilla passed, possibly a pair of mine sweeping trawlers. The flotilla turned hard to port to avoid collision when the helm of the third-in-line K-14 jammed, and veered out of line. Both K-14 and the boat behind her, K-12 turned on their navigation lights as K-22, the next submarine in line, lost sight of the flotilla and collided with K-14, severing the bow and killing two men. Two stricken submarines now struggled to pull themselves apart while an entire fleet sped through the darkness, unaware of what was about to happen.

The destroyer HMS Ithuriel received a coded signal and turned to lend aid, doubling back and followed by the remainder of the 13th submarine flotilla and thus putting themselves on collision course with the outgoing 12th flotilla.

Unaware of the mess lying in her path, 12th flotilla escort HMS Fearless was traveling way too fast to change the outcome. Fearless went “hard astern” on sighting K-17 but too late, her bow knifing through the smaller vessel, sinking the sub within minutes with the loss of 47 men. Meanwhile, outgoing submarine K-4 heard the siren and came to a stop but not the trailing K-3 which hit her sister sub broadside, nearly cutting the vessel in half.

K-4 sank in minutes, with the loss of 55 crew.

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HMS Fearless

The number of near misses that night, can never be known. 104 men were dead before it was over, with the total loss of two K-class submarines. Four more sustained severe damage, along with the Scout Cruiser HMS Fearless.

A hastily arranged Board of inquiry began on February five and sat for five days, resulting in several courts martial for negligence.  Those would be adjudicated, “unproved”.

The whole disaster and subsequent inquiry was kept quiet to avoid embarrassment, and deprive the German side of the propaganda bonanza. Full details were released only in 1994, long after the participants in this story, had passed away.

On January 31, 2002, a memorial cairn was erected in memory of the slain.  As it had been eighty four years earlier, there wasn’t a German to be found.  The “Battle of May Island” was no battle at all.  Only the black forlorn humor, of men at war.

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December 30, 1951 Chief Dog Sinbad, USCG

Sinbad’s breed was best described as “liberty-rum-chow-hound, with a bit of Bulldog, Doberman, Pinscher, and what-not. Mostly what-not”- Martin Sheridan Life Magazine, December 1943.

In times of peace, the United States Coast Guard is charged with protecting the security of the nation’s borders, maritime law enforcement and rescue operations. One of seven uniformed military service branches, Coast Guard operations may be expanded in time of conflict, or by order of the Commander-in-Chief.

During WW2, the Coast Guard operated hundreds of vessels from patrol frigates to troop ships, performing convoy escort, anti-submarine and replenishment operations. Many of the landing craft used in amphibious operations were operated by Coast Guardsmen. There may be no group in the employ of the United States government, better qualified to navigate the shoals, surf and strong currents encountered by small boats, in shallow water.

Semper Paratus. Always Ready.

Sinbad_pawprint-517x640In the winter of 1937, the Coast Guard cutter USCGC George W. Campell steamed out of New York harbor, patrolling the east coast with a mission of life-saving and national defense. The night before, Chief Boatswain’s Mate A. A. “Blackie” Roth (the name is also given as “Rother”) had given his girlfriend, a puppy. She couldn’t keep him, the landlord wouldn’t allow it. No other crewman could take the small dog. It was either leave him astray and hope for the best, or smuggle the puppy on board.

The Captain addressed the assembled crew on the first day of the cruise. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, when one of them, barked back.

They called him “Sinbad”, and gave him a uniform, a service record and a rank.  Dog, 1st class.

Sinbad quickly learned ship’s routine, and often “racked” with other sailors.  He could always be found near the galley knowing that’s where the food comes from, and he loved himself a cup of black coffee.

Sinbad_2Sinbad’s favorite toys were the large metal washers which he’d hide, until someone came to play with him.  They even built him a hammock, much more comfy to sleep in, in those long Atlantic swells.

Sinbad was possessed of the best qualities of the sailor and of his own kind, and of the worst.  In 1940, he nearly set off an international incident.

With the dark clouds of WW2 already over Europe, Denmark was overrun and occupied, by Nazis.  Greenland was once a Danish territory, and the allies hoped to keep the place out of German hands.  Campbell was sent to secure diplomatic ties with the Danes and the Greenlanders, who lived there.

Greenland is thinly populated, a place where locals mainly fish and raise sheep, for a living.  On shore for a week, Sinbad was quick to discover the pastures and the great fun of chasing sheep.  The sheep themselves were not amused and some died of exhaustion. Others became too nervous to go out and eat.  The owners weren’t amused either, and one demanded that Sinbad be shot.

The captain thought that too severe a punishment and Sinbad was banished, never to set foot on Greenland, again.  There was no end of amusement among the crew of the Campbell, that Sinbad had been brought before a Captain’s mast. It would not be his last.

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Sinbad was awarded the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle-Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal and Navy Occupation Service Medal, which he wore, attached to his collar.

When war came, the cutter was transferred to the Navy, and the patrols became longer.

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“Sinbad’s statue in Campbell’s mess hall watching over the ship. Captain James Hirschfield believed the WWII Campbell would survive after being disabled in combat so long as Sinbad stayed aboard”.

In the winter of 1943, Campbell was assigned to convoy protection, defending the vital north Atlantic supply route from roving “wolf packs” of German submarines.  Sinbad never did get used to the sound of gunfire or depth charges, and would hide below decks, his paws over his ears.  On February 22, the German submarine U-606 unleashed a barrage of torpedoes, against an allied convoy.

A day-long game of cat & mouse ensued in which the sub would pop up for another attack, only to be swarmed and driven into yet another crash dive.  A periscope was spotted at 7:26 pm and Campbell charged in with a string of depth charges, colliding with the sub at the end of the run.  U-606 was destroyed and Campbell badly damaged, disabled and without power, due to flooding.

All but “essential personnel” were evacuated  Captain James Hirschfield felt that Sinbad was good luck.  No harm could befall the cutter while he was on board, and so he remained, essential personnel, taken under tow for repairs by the Polish destroyer, Burza.  Sinbad had remained on deck with “his boys”, throughout the action.

Sinbad’s breed was best described as “liberty-rum-chow-hound, with a bit of Bulldog, Doberman, Pinscher, and what-not. Mostly what-not”- Martin Sheridan Life Magazine, December 1943.

Sinbad was promoted in 1943 to the rank of K9C, “Chief Dog” – equivalent to Chief Petty Officer – the second of only two dogs to be classified as non-commissioned officers.  Since that time, ‘regulations’ have transformed all subsequent animals into “property” rather than personnel.

Fun fact:  The first was Sergeant Stubby, the Staffordshire Terrier who was smuggled “over there” during the Great War, and once caught a German spy by the arse while he was prowling about allied trenches.

Campbell served the duration of WW2, with Sinbad on board, the entire time.  In 1948, he was ready to retire.  Sinbad had been at sea for eleven years.   He was finally ready for shore detail.

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After eleven years at sea, Sinbad was “retired” to enjoy the comfortable life of a mascot, at the Barnegat shore station.,

The assembled media and photographers were too much that day, and Sinbad bolted across the gang plank, and down the dock.  To be AWOL from a United States Coast Guard cutter is a serious offense, and Sinbad was busted in rank, back to Dog, 1st class.  He was probably just as happy to be back with the enlisted guys.

Sinbad was transferred to the Barnegat Light Small Boat Station in New Jersey, where he served as station mascot for the duration of his military career.

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Sinbad is welcomed aboard by the crew of the Barnegat light station

Chief Dog Sinbad served all of his fourteen years with the United States Coast Guard.  He passed away on this day in 1951 at the Barnegat light station and is buried there, at the base of the flagpole.  A sailor always, Sinbad could drink with the best of them, and always enjoyed that cuppa black coffee.  Irrespective of his latest rank, he was many years, a media celebrity.  Life magazine may have said it best:  “An Old Sea Dog Has Favorite Bars and Plenty of Girls in Every Port.”

Throughout her 46 years of service, USCGC Campbell was referred to as “The Queen of the Seas”.  She was sunk as a training target in November 1984, a single harpoon missile leaving her nearly intact, as she went out of sight.  The final radio message, broadcast as she disappeared beneath the waves:  The Queen is dead.  Long live the Queen.

Today, the USCGC Campbell (WMEC-909) patrols the east coast out of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, the sixth Coast Guard Cutter to bear the name.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 13, 1941 Cook’s Assistant

There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

Similar to the Base Exchange system serving American military personnel, the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) is the UK-government organization operating clubs, bars, shops and supermarkets in service to British armed forces, as well as naval canteen services (NCS) aboard Royal Navy ships.

naafiNAAFI personnel serving on ships are assigned to duty stations and wear uniforms, while technically remaining civilians.

Tommy Brown was fifteen when he lied about his age, enlisting in the NAAFI on this day in 1941 and assigned as canteen assistant to the “P-class” destroyer, HMS Petard.

On October 30, 1942, Petard joined three other destroyers and a squadron of Vickers Wellesley light bombers off the coast of Port Said Egypt, in a 16-hour hunt for the German “Unterseeboot”, U–559.

Hours of depth charge attacks were rewarded when the crippled U-559 came to the surface, the 4-inch guns of HMS Petard, permanently ending the career of the German sub.

The U-559 crew abandoned ship, but not before opening the boat’s seacocks.   Water was pouring into the submarine as Lieutenant Francis Anthony Blair Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the water and swam to the submarine, with Junior canteen assistant Tommy Brown close behind.

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With the submarine sinking fast, Fasson and Grazier made their way into the captain’s cabin.   Finding a set of keys, Fasson opened a drawer, to discover a number of documents, including two sets of code books.

With one hand on the conning ladder and the other clutching those documents, Brown made three trips up and down from the hatch, to Petard’s whaler.

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With the sub beginning to sink, the canteen assistant called for his shipmates to get out of the boat, but the other two were trapped. Brown himself was dragged under, but managed to kick free and come to the surface.  Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, did not escape.

The episode brought Brown to the attention of the authorities, ending his posting aboard Petard with the revelation of his true age.  He never was discharged from the NAAFI, and later returned to sea on board the HMS Belfast.

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By 1945 he was Leading Seaman Tommy Brown, home on shore leave when fire broke out at the family home in South Shields.  He died while trying to rescue his youngest sister Maureen, and was buried with full military honors in Tynemouth cemetery.

Fasson and Grazier were awarded the George Cross, the second-highest award of the United Kingdom system of military honors.  Since he was a civilian due to his NAAFI employment, Brown was awarded the George medal.

Fasson Memorial

None of the three would ever learn that their actions had helped to end the war.

For German U-boat commanders, the period between the fall of France and the American entry into WW2 was known as “Die Glückliche Zeit” – “The Happy Time” – in the North Sea and North Atlantic.  From July through October 1940 alone, 282 Allied ships were sunk off the northwest approach to Ireland, for a combined loss of 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping.

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Tommy Brown’s Mediterranean episode took place in 1942, in the midst of the “Second Happy Time”, also known among German submarine commanders as the American shooting season. U-boats inflicted massive damage during this period, sinking 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons with the loss of thousands of lives, against a cost of only 22 U-boats.

According to USMM.org, the United States Merchant marine suffered a higher percentage of fatalities at 3.9%, than any other American service branch during WW2.

enigma2Early versions of the German “Enigma” code were broken as early as 1932, thanks to cryptanalysts of the Polish Cipher Bureau, and French spy Hans Thilo Schmidt.

French and British military intelligence were read into Polish decryption techniques in 1939, \methods which were later improved upon by the British code breakers of Bletchley Park.  Vast numbers of messages were intercepted and decoded from Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe sources, shortening the war by at least a year, and possibly two.

The Kriegsmarine was a different story.  Maniacally jealous of security, Admiral Karl Dönitz introduced a third-generation enigma machine (M4) into the submarine service around May 1941, a system so secret that neither Wehrmacht nor Luftwaffe, were aware of its existence.  The system requires identical cipher machines at both ends of the transmission and took a while to put into place, with German subs being spread around the world.

By early 1942, all M4 machines were in place.  On February 2, German submarine communications went dark.  For code breakers at Bletchley Park, the blackout was sudden and complete.  Like the flipping of a switch.  For a period of nine months, Allies had not the foggiest notion of what the German submarine service was up to.  The result was disastrous.

BletchleyThe beginning of the end of darkness came to an end on October 30, when a ship’s cook climbed up that conning ladder.  Code sheets allowed British cryptanalysts to attack the “Triton” key used by the U-boat service.  It would not be long, before the U-boats themselves, were under attack.

Tommy Brown never knew what was in those documents.  The entire enterprise would remain Top Secret, until years after his death.  Winston Churchill would later write, that the actions of the crew of Petard, were crucial to the outcome of the war.  There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 7, 1941 Aftermath

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

It was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 am local time, December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes.  Across Hickam Field and over the still waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard the USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40′ were torn into her side in the first ten minutes of the fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.

_oahuBilge inspection plates had been removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawled out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four of them sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

Nine Japanese torpedoes struck USS Oklahoma’s port side, in the first ten minutes.

HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic
The last moments of USS Oklahoma.  H/T John F DeVirgilio for this graphic

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get at those trapped inside. 32 were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hell. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull. USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remaining within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona. Repairs were prioritized and USS Oklahoma was beyond repair. She, and her dead, would have to wait.

Oklahoma DiverRecovery of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex salvage operation ever attempted, beginning in March, 1943.  With the weight of her hull driving Oklahoma’s superstructure into bottom, salvage divers descended daily to separate the tower, while creating hardpoints from which to attach righting cables.

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull of the Oklahoma, 3″ cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.

Two pull configurations were used over 74 days, first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, the decks once again saw the light of day, for the first time in over two years.

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USS Oklahoma, righting strategy

Fully righted, the ship was still ten-feet below water. Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed cavernous holes left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated. A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations. Divers stuffed kapok into gaps as water was pumped out.

Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job. Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day. 1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.

9781591147244CDR Edward Charles Raymer, US Navy Retired, was one of those divers. Raymer tells the story of these men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading.  Most of them are gone now, including Raymer himself.  They have earned the right to be remembered.

Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.

Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.

Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort. She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.

The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, destined for the indignity of a scrapyard in San Francisco bay. She would never make it. Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm, 540 miles east of Hawaii. On May 17, disaster struck. Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed that the former battleship was listing heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around, when these two giant tugs suddenly found themselves slowing to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.

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Ocean-going tug Hercules, photograph by William Havle

Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines to Oklahoma. Monarch’s line played out and detached, but Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment. With tow line straight down and sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks directly over Oklahoma’s final resting place, the 409-ton tug bobbing to the surface like the float of a child’s fishing line.

“Okie” had been stabbed in the back, attacked and mortally wounded before she knew her nation was at war.  The causes leading to her final descent, remain uncertain.  Most will tell you, those plates couldn’t hold.  The beating of six years earlier, was just too much.   Those who served on her decks, might tell you she preferred to die at sea.

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December 4, 1950 Wingmen to the End

Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was born in 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the son of a schoolteacher and a warehouse worker.   A mixed-race young man of African, Chickasaw and Choctaw ancestry, Jesse grew up in a time of real discrimination.  Brown had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up under depression-era segregation, but his parents kept him on the “straight & narrow”.  Julia and John Brown made sure their kids stuck with their studies.  Such parental devotion would serve them well.

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Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was born in 1924, the son of a successful Irish grocer from Fall River, Massachusetts who went on to attend the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, in 1939.

The pair could not have come from more different backgrounds, but both men became  carrier pilots with the United States Navy, and served together during the conflict in Korea.

110kqivOn June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south. The 38,000-man army of the Republic of Korea didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north. Within hours, the shattered remnants of the army of the ROK and its government, were streaming south toward the capital of Seoul.

The United Nations security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula. In November, the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict in support of their Communist neighbor.

By December, 120,000 troops of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) had all but overrun the 15,000 men of the US X Corps, who found themselves surrounded in the frozen wasteland of the Chosin Reservoir. Dozens of close air support missions were being flown every day to keep the Chinese army at bay.

At 13:38 on December 4, Thomas “Lou” Hudner took off from the carrier USS Leyte, part of a six-aircraft flight with squadron executive officer Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli, Lieutenant George Hudson, Lieutenant Junior Grade Bill Koenig, Ensign Ralph McQueen and Hudner’s wingman, Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown.

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“Off To The Chosin” by Nicolas Trudgian

An hour later, Koenig radio’d Brown that his aircraft appeared to be trailing fuel.  Chinese infantry were known to hide in the snow, and ambush incoming aircraft.  It’s likely that Brown was hit by small arms fire, from the ground.  Losing oil pressure with the aircraft all but impossible to control, Brown had no choice but to crash land on a snow covered mountain side. Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

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“Wingmen to the End” by Gareth Hector Hat tip Adam Makos, author of “Devotion, an epic story of heroism, friendship and sacrifice”, https://www.adammakos.com/devotion-book.html

Hudner did the unthinkable and deliberately crash landed his own aircraft.  Now injured himself, Hudner hobbled across the snow to the aid of his trapped wing man. He scooped snow onto the fire with his bare hands in the 15° cold, burning himself in the process as Brown faded in and out of consciousness. A Marine Corps helicopter landed at 15:00, piloted by Lieutenant Charles Ward.  The two went at the stricken aircraft with an axe for 45 minutes, but could not free the trapped pilot.

The two were considering Jesse’s plea that they amputate his trapped leg with that axe, when the pilot faded away for the last time. Jesse Brown’s last words were “Tell Daisy I love her”.

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They had to leave. “Night was coming on” Hudner later explained, “and the helicopter was not equipped to fly in the dark. We’ll come back for you”, he said.  Jesse Brown could no longer hear.

Hudner pleaded the following day to be allowed to go back to the crash site, but his superiors were unwilling to risk further loss of life. Two days later, the site was bombed with napalm, to prevent the aircraft and the body from falling into Chinese or North Korean hands.  Jesse Brown’s body was still stuck in the cockpit though, by this time, his clothes had been removed.

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H/T Sierra Hotel Aeronautics

American pilots recited the Lord’s prayer, as they watched his body being consumed by the flames.

Jesse LeRoy Brown, the first Black Naval Aviator in American history, became the first to die, sixty-eight years ago, today.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart,  posthumously.

Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside. One of eleven to be so honored following the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, Hudner would remain the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor, during the entire conflict in Korea.

In July of 2013, Thomas Hudner returned to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, in fulfillment of a 63-year-old promise.  “We’ll come back for you“.

Political relations with the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea were as frigid at that time as the frozen mountains of the Chosin Reservoir, yet Hudner received permission to return to the site. He was 88 at the time. In the end, wretched weather hampered the effort.  North Korean authorities told him to return when the weather was more cooperative.

Recently, American President Donald Trump has worked toward a thaw in relations on the Korean peninsula, in cooperation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Less than a week ago, a South Korean train crossed the demilitarized zone into North Korea, a move which would have been unheard of, for much of the last seventy years.

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“Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner, left, meets Commander Nathan Scherry following the christening of the USS Thomas Hudner in Bath, Maine, on April 1, 2017. Scherry will command the new guided-missile destroyer”.  H/T, KDSK.com

The future is uncertain, but Korean rapprochement comes too late for Lou Hudner and Jesse Brown.  Thomas Jerome “Lou” Hudner passed away at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, on November 13, 2017, and was buried a with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.  He was 93.  The remains of Jesse LeRoy Brown were never recovered from that North Korean mountainside.

Three days ago, Hudner’s wife of fifty years Georgea was on-hand to witness the United States Navy commission its newest naval warship in Boston.  The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Thomas Hudner.

Afterward – Do you believe in Ghosts?