December 13, 1942 Ship’s Cook

Untold numbers of lives that could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old ship’s cook.

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) on board Royal Navy ships.

NAAFI 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 and assigned as canteen assistant to the “P-class” destroyer, HMS Petard.

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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.

U-559
U-559

The 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.

With U-559 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 through the hatch, to Petard’s whaler.

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U-185 sinking, after American depth charging

In the final moments, the ship’s cook called for his shipmates to get out of the boat. Brown himself was dragged under, but managed to kick free and come to the surface.  Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, went down with the German sub.

The episode brought Brown to the attention of the authorities, ending his posting aboard Petard when his true age became known.  He was not discharged from the NAAFI, and later returned to sea on board the light cruiser, HMS Belfast.

In 1945, now-Leading Seaman Tommy Brown was home on shore leave, when fire broke out at the family home in South Shields.  He died while trying to rescue his 4-year-old sister Maureen, and was buried with full military honors in Tynemouth cemetery.

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

355b2-442_doenitz_paukenschlagFor 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 on the approaches to Ireland, for a combined loss of 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping.

Tommy Brown’s Mediterranean episode took place in 1942, in the midst of the “Second Happy Time”, a period 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.

USMM.org reports that the United States Merchant Marine service suffered a higher percentage of fatalities at 3.9%, than any American service branch in WW2.

Bletchley ParkEarly 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, these methods later improved upon by the British code breakers of Bletchley Park.

Vast numbers of messages were intercepted and decoded from Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe sources through the Allied intelligence project “Ultra”, shortening the war by at least a year, and possibly two.

The Kriegsmarine was a different story.  Maniacally concerned with 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.

M4All M4 machines were distributed by early 1942.  On February 2, German submarine communications went dark.  For code breakers at Bletchley Park, the blackout was sudden and complete.  For a period of nine months, Allies had not the slightest idea of what the German submarine service was up to.  The result was catastrophic.

U-559 documents were rushed back to England, arriving at Bletchley Park on November 24, allowing cryptanalysts to attack the “Triton” key used within the U-boat service.  It would not be long, before the U-boats themselves were under attack.

The M4 code was broken by December 13, when the first of a steady stream of intercepts arrived at the Admiralty Operational Intelligence Office, giving the positions of 12 U-boats.

The UK Guardian newspaper wrote: “The naval historian Ralph Erskine thinks that, without the (M4) breakthrough, the Normandy invasion would have been delayed by at least a year, and that between 500,000 and 750,000 tons of allied shipping were saved in December 1942 and January 1943 alone”.

Tommy Brown never knew what was in those documents.  The entire enterprise would remain Top Secret, until decades after he died.

Winston Churchill later wrote, that the actions of the crew of HMS Petard were “crucial to the outcome of the war”.

Untold numbers of lives that could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old ship’s cook.

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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 the same. 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.

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December 7, 1942 The Ship that Wouldn’t Die

Commander Joe Taylor found a typewriter and wrote the plan of the day, to which he added this headline, “Big Ben Bombed, Battered, Bruised and Bent But Not Broken”.  No ship in history had taken such a beating, and survived.

On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese air forces attacked the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor.  The attack killed 2,335 and wounded another 1,178.  Four battleships and two other vessels were sunk to the bottom.  Thirteen other ships were damaged or destroyed. 188 aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged, most while still on the ground.  All eight battleships then in harbor were damaged.

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USS Oklahoma

Four torpedoes slammed into USS Oklahoma, capsizing the Nevada-class battleship and trapping hundreds within the overturned hull.  Frantic around-the-clock rescue efforts delivered 32.  Bulkhead markings later revealed that at least some of the sailors aboard the doomed battleship lived another seventeen days.  Seventeen days alone in that black, upside down hell, they died waiting for the rescue that came too late. The last mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve, 1941.

Harvard-educated Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the unwilling architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, writing home to a correspondent “I wonder if our politicians [who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war] have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices”.  Yamamoto well understood the consequences of the actions taken by his government, confiding to his diary. “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”

Isoroku_YamamotoFor Imperial Japan, Yamamoto’s worst nightmare would prove correct.  In terms of GDP, the Tokyo government had attacked an adversary, nearly six times its own size.  The Japanese economy reached its high point in 1942 and declined steadily throughout the war years, while that of the United States exploded at a rate unseen in human history.

1942 started out grimly in the Pacific, with Americans and their Filipino allies besieged in Bataan and Corregidor, and Commonwealth forces hurled from the Malayan peninsula.  The Kriegsmarine celebrated the “Second Happy Time”, as German submarine commanders called it the “American shooting season”.  Yet, at the home front, 1942 saw massive industrial mobilization.

The backbone of American naval power during this period was the Essex-class aircraft carrier, remaining so until the supercarriers of the 60s and 70s.  Twenty-four Essex class carriers were completed during WW2, including USS Franklin, her hull laid down seventy-five years ago, today, one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  December 7, 1942.

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Essex-class carrier, USS Franklin

“Big Ben” was launched ten months later at Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginia, and commissioned on January 31, 1944.

For the remainder of 1944, Franklin’s engagements read like a timeline of the war, South of the Japanese home islands. The Bonin archipelago. Mariana Islands. Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Haha Jima, Leyte, Guam and the Palau Islands.

By late 1944, a series of defeats had left the Japanese critically short of military aviators, and the experienced aircraft mechanics and groundcrew necessary to keep them aloft.

On October 14, USS Reno was hit by the deliberate crash of a Japanese airplane.   The following day, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally lead an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers, against a carrier task force including USS Franklin.  Arima was killed and part of a plane hit Franklin.

It’s not clear that this was a suicide attack, but Japanese propagandists were quick to seize on Arima’s example.   Official Japanese accounts bear little resemblance to the actual event, but Arima was officially given credit for the first kamikaze attack, of World War II.

By war’s end, this “divine wind” tactic would end the lives of 3,862 kamikaze pilots, and over 7,000 naval personnel.

On October 30, Franklin was attacked by a three-plane squadron of enemy bombers, bent on a suicide mission. One plummeted off her starboard side while a second hit the flight deck, crashing through to the gallery deck, killing 56 and wounding 60.   The third discharged it’s bombs nearly missing Franklin, before diving into the flight deck of the nearby Belleau Wood.  It was a harbinger of things to come.

Both carriers withdrew to Ulithi Atoll for temporary repairs of battle damage, and Franklin proceeded to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, for more permanent repairs.

Early in the following spring, Franklin rendezvoused with Task Force 58, joining in strikes against the Japanese home islands.

On the morning of March 19, 1945, Franklin turned into the early dawn wind preparing to launch aircraft, while up on the bridge, Commander Stephen Jurika was writing in his log.  On the hangar deck, chow lines snaked their way between 12″ wide “Tiny Tim” rockets on ordnance carts, while Messmen plopped the morning’s breakfast onto steel trays.

At 7:05, Commander Jurika heard a message from the carrier Hancock.  “Enemy plane closing on you…one coming toward you!”  Franklin’s Combat Information Center (CIC) picked up the enemy bomber at a range of twelve miles, but lost it in the clutter of Task Force 58’s morning launch.

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At 7:07, Commander Jurika saw the Japanese dive bomber sweep over his head, dropping two 500-pound bombs on Franklin.  The first ripped through 3-inch armor to the hangar deck, as the second exploded two decks below. Great sheets of flame enveloped the flight deck, as the 32-ton forward elevator literally rose into the air.  5 bombers, 14 torpedo bombers and 12 fighters were engulfed in the inferno, between them carrying 36,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 30 tons of bombs and rockets.

From the other ships of TF 58, Franklin appeared to be engulfed in flames.  With firefighters working fore and aft and Franklin making 24 knots, an aft gas line ruptured, igniting bombs, rockets, and a 40mm ready-service magazine. This second explosion literally lifted Franklin and spun her to starboard, as a 400′ sheet of flame towered over the carrier.  Franklin was listing at 13°, with radar and CIC, gone.  The flight deck was ruptured in a dozen places.  In ready room #51, eleven of twelve aviators of the famed “Black Sheep Squadron”, were dead.

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12′ Tiny Tim rockets flew screaming across the decks in every direction, as entire aircraft engines, propellers attached, flew through the air.  Each time firefighters dropped to the deck, and then went back at it.

Commander Jurika felt as if the carrier was a rat, being shaken by an angry cat.

The destroyers Miller and Hickox moved within several hundred feet, aiming their hoses at the damaged ship. A Mitsubishi Zero fighter was reported diving on the carrier at 7:41, but determined flak batteries, brought it down.

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Six minutes later, the light cruiser Santa Fe moved up, hurling life jackets and floater nets into the water to help swimmers.  Task Group 58.2 commander Rear Admiral Ralph Davison departed Franklin for the destroyer Miller, telling Captain Leslie Gehres, “Captain, I think there’s no hope. I think you should consider abandoning ship — those fires seem to be out of control”.

Ensign William Hayler later said “I was not sure whether I was entering Dante’s Inferno or crossing the River Styx”

A mile-high column of thick, greasy smoke rose from the carrier, as signalmen blinkered a message to Santa Fe: “We have lost steering control. Can you send fire hoses? Can you send for sea tugs?” Santa Fe blinkered back, asking if Franklin’s magazines were flooded.  “We believe the magazines are flooded, Big Ben replied. “Am not sure”. No one knew at the time, that the water valves were on, but the pipes had split. Hundreds of tons of explosives stored in the aft magazines, were dry.

Franklin 3Lieutenant Commander Joseph O’Callahan, a Jesuit priest from Boston and former Holy Cross track star was a Chaplain aboard the Franklin.  O’Callahan was everywhere, hurling bombs overboard and administering last rites, shouting encouragement and fighting fires.   Father O’Callahan would be the only Chaplain of WW2, to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

At 10am, Santa Fe signaled the carrier Bunker Hill: “Franklin now dead in water. Fires causing explosions. Have got a few men off. Fires still blazing badly…whether Franklin can be saved or not is still doubtful”.  Boards and ladders stretched between the cruiser and the carrier, evacuating the wounded.  Gehres ordered 800 off Franklin onto Santa Fe, as thirty sailors hacked at the starboard anchor with files, steel cutters and acetylene torches, dumping the anchor and using the 540′ chain as a towline, to the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser, USS Pittsburgh.  Others passed hot shells hand to hand, and dumping them overboard.

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Chaplain O’Callahan administers last rites

Another dive bomber attacked at 12:40, dropping its 500-pounder close enough to shake the carrier, while a motley crew of laundrymen and ship’s buglers manning the last operational 40mm AA guns, dropped the “Judy” into the water.

By 15:45, Franklin was under tow at 7 knots. That night she was able to make way under her own power.  No lights shone that night, but for the faint red glow of still burning fires.  The few Franklin crew remaining would continue to fight off additional dive bombers and put out fires, through the 31st.

832 were dead and another 300 wounded, one-third of the crew. Commander Joe Taylor found a typewriter and wrote the plan of the day, to which he added this headline, “Big Ben Bombed, Battered, Bruised and Bent But Not Broken”.  No ship in history had taken such a beating, and survived.

 

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 the same. 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.

November 20, 1820  The Real Moby Dick

Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked.  This one hit the port side so hard that it shook the ship.

The whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in August 1819, the month when Herman Melville was born.  The 21 man crew expected to spend 2-3 years hunting sperm whales, filling the ship’s hold with oil before returning to split the profits of the voyage.

Whaleship at seaEssex sailed down the coast of South America, rounding the Horn and entering the Pacific Ocean.  They heard that the whaling grounds near Chile and Peru were exhausted, so they sailed for the “offshore grounds”, almost 2,000 miles from the nearest land.

They were there on November 20, 1820, with two of their three boats out hunting whales.  The lookout spotted a huge bull sperm whale, much larger than normal, estimated at 85 feet long and 80 tons.  He was behaving oddly, lying motionless on the surface with his head facing the ship.  In moments the whale began to move, picking up speed as he charged the ship.  Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked.  This one hit the port side so hard that it shook the ship.

Wreck of the whale ship Essex

The huge animal seemed dazed by the impact, floating to the surface and resting by the ship’s side.  He then turned and swam away for several hundred yards, before turning to resume his attack.  He came in at the great speed of 24 knots according to First Mate Owen Chase, ramming the port bow and driving the stern into the water.  Oak planking cracked and splintered as the whale worked his tail up and down, driving the 238-ton vessel backward.  Essex had already started to go down when the whale broke off his attack, diving below the surface, never to return.

Essex_photoCaptain George Pollard’s boat was the first to make it back, and he stared in disbelief.  “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”  he asked.  “We have been stove by a whale” came the reply.

No force on earth could save the stricken whale ship. The crew divided into groups of seven and boarded the three boats.  It wasn’t long before Essex sank out of sight and they were alone, stranded in 28′ open boats, and about as far from land as it was mathematically possible to be.

The whalers believed that cannibals inhabited the Marquesa islands, 1,200 miles to the west, so they headed south, parallel to the coast of South America.  Before their ordeal was over, they themselves would become the cannibals.

With good winds, they might reach the coast of Chile in 56 days.  They had taken enough rations to last 60, provided they were distributed at starvation levels, but most of it had been ruined by salt water.  There was a brief reprieve in December, when the three small boats landed on a small island in the Pitcairn chain.  There they were able to get their fill of birds, eggs, crabs, and peppergrass, but within a week the island was stripped clean.  They decided to move on, except for three who refused to get back in the boats.

EssexThey never knew that this was Henderson Island, only 104 miles from Pitcairn Island, where survivors from the 1789 Mutiny on HMS Bounty had managed to survive for the past 36 years.

After two months at sea, the boats had long separated from one another.  Starving men were beginning to die, and the survivors came to an unthinkable conclusion.  They would have to eat their own dead.

When those were gone, the survivors drew lots to see who would die, that the others might live.  Captain Pollard’s 17-year-old cousin Owen Coffin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot.   Pollard protested, offering to take his place, but the boy declined. “No”, he said, “I like my lot as well as any other.”  Again, lots were drawn to see who would be Coffin’s executioner.  Owen’s friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the black spot.

On February 18, the British whaleship Indian spotted a boat containing Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson.  It was 90 days after Essex’ sinking.  Five days later, the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin pulled alongside another boat, to find Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell inside.  The pair was so far gone that they didn’t notice at first, gnawing on the bones of their comrades.

The three who were left on Henderson Island were later rescued.  The third whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island several years later, with four skeletons on board.

The Essex was the first ship recorded to have been sunk by a whale, though it would not be the last.  The Pusie Hall was attacked in 1835. The Lydia and the Two Generals were both attacked by whales a year later, and the Pocahontas and the Ann Alexander were sunk by whales in 1850 and 1851.

31 years after the Essex sinking, a sailor turned novelist published his sixth volume, beginning it with the words, “Call me Ishmael”.

October 21, 1797 Old Ironsides

Freshly restored and re-fitted, Old Ironsides took her first sail in three years only yesterday.  220 years since her own launch, and to honor the 242nd birthday, of the United States Navy.

When the United States won its independence from Britain in 1783, the young nation soon learned that freedom was not without disadvantages. One being that America had lost its protector at sea.

British and French vessels harassed American merchant shipping, often kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to serve in their own navies.

barbary-warBarbary pirates were a problem for Mediterranean shipping, and throughout parts of the Atlantic. Predominantly North African Muslims with the occasional outcast European, the Barbary pirates operated with the blessing of the Ottoman Empire, the Barbary Coast states of Algiers, Tunis & Tripoli, and the independent Sultanate of Morocco. The Barbary Corsairs had long since stripped the shorelines of Spain and Italy in search of loot and Christian slaves.

Many villages wouldn’t be re-inhabited until the 19th century.  Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, thousands of ships were captured and held for ransom.  Somewhere between 800,000 and 1.25 million Europeans disappeared into the Arab slave markets of North Africa and the Middle East.

Barbary pirates began to harass American shipping as early as 1785.  They captured 11 American vessels in 1793 alone, holding the ships and crew for ransom.

Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, appropriating funds to build a fleet of 6 three-masted, heavy frigates for the United States Navy. The act included a clause halting construction, in the event of a peace treaty with Algiers.   No such treaty was ever concluded.

Launched this day in 1797 and named by George Washington himself, USS Constitution was one of these six. Her hull was made of the wood from 2,000 Georgia live oak trees, and built in the Edmund Hartt shipyard of Boston, Massachusetts.

USS_Constitution_underwayConstitution’s first duties involved the “quasi-war” with France, but this was not the France which helped us win our independence. France had been swallowed up in a revolution of its own by this time.  Leftists calling themselves “Jacobins” had long since sent their Bourbon King and his Queen Consort to the guillotine. Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette and Hero of the American Revolution, languished in an Austrian prison.

The French Monarchy would one day be restored, but not before a Corsican Corporal rose to the rank of Emperor to meet his Waterloo, fighting (and winning) more battles than Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, Alexander the Great, and Hannibal, combined.  But I digress.

The Barbary pirates were paid “tribute” during this time to keep them quiet, but that ended in 1800.  Yusuf Karamanli, Pasha of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 from the incoming Jefferson administration. Jefferson refused, and Constitution joined in the Barbary Wars in 1803, a conflict memorialized in a line from the Marine Corps Hymn “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”

USS_Constitution_underway, turningTwo months after the War of 1812 broke out in June, Constitution faced off with the 38 gun HMS Guerriere, about 400 miles off the coast of Halifax. Watching Guerriere’s shots bounce off Constitution’s 21” thick oak hull, an American sailor exclaimed “Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!” Guerriere was reduced to an unsalvageable hulk in twenty minutes, and the nickname “Old Ironsides” was born.

The month before, Constitution had put to sea intending to join a five ship squadron off the coast of New Jersey. Spotting five sails and thinking that they had found their squadron on July 17, Constitution was disabused of that notion when lookouts reported the next morning 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, disabling the ship’s “power plant”. A disabled vessel could then be boarded and a bloody fight would ensue with cutlass and pistol. Those 5 British captains would have considered Constitution to be a great prize; the ship 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“, Constitution’s boats were rowed out ahead of the ship, dropping small “kedge anchors”. Sailors would then haul the great ship up the anchor chain, hand over hand, repeating the process over and over. The British ships soon imitated the tactic.  What followed was a slow motion race 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. Constitution pulled far enough ahead of the British ships that they abandoned the pursuit on July 19.

Old Ironsides, Drydock
Old Ironsides, in Drydock

USS Constitution is still in service today, the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat. She went into dry dock for major overhaul in October 2014 and re-floated on July 23 this year.  Freshly restored and re-fitted, Old Ironsides took her first sail in three years only yesterday.  220 years since her own launch, and honoring the 242nd birthday, of the United States Navy.

 

October 11, 1776 Valcour Island

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country. For now, he had bought his young nation, another year in which to fight.

In the early days of the American Revolution, the 2nd Continental Congress looked north, to the Province of Quebec. The region was lightly defended at the time, and Congress was alarmed at its potential as a British base from which to attack and divide the colonies.

The Continental army’s expedition to Quebec ended in disaster on December 31, as General Benedict Arnold was severely injured with a bullet wound to his left leg.  Major General Richard Montgomery was killed and Colonel Daniel Morgan was captured, along with about 400 fellow patriots.

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Profile of the schooner “Liberty”

Quebec was massively reinforced in the Spring of 1776, with the arrival of 10,000 British and Hessian soldiers. By June, the remnants of the Continental army had been driven south to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point.

Congress was right about the British intent to split the colonies.  General Sir Guy Carleton, provincial governor of Quebec, set about doing so almost immediately.

Retreating colonials took with them or destroyed almost every boat along the way, capturing and arming four vessels in 1775:  the Liberty, Enterprise, Royal Savage, and Revenge.  Determined to take back the crucial waterway, the British set about disassembling warships along the St. Lawrence, moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, the 125-mile long lake dividing upstate New York from Vermont.

There they spent the summer and early fall of 1776, literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake.  120 miles to their south, colonials were doing the same.

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Sawmill at Fort Anne

The Americans had a small fleet of shallow draft bateaux used for lake transport, but needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat.

In 1759, British Army Captain Philip Skene founded a settlement on the New York side of Lake Champlain, built around saw mills, grist mills, and an iron foundry.

Today, the former village of Skenesborough is known as “Whitehall”, considered by many to be the birthplace of the United States Navy.  In 1776, Major General Horatio Gates put the American ship building operation into motion on the banks of Skenesborough Harbor.

Hermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain, to spearhead the effort, explaining “I am intirely uninform’d as to Marine Affairs”.

200 carpenters and shipwrights were recruited to the wilderness of upstate New York. So inhospitable was this duty that workmen were paid more than anyone else in the Navy, with the sole exception of Commodore Esek Hopkins. Meanwhile, foraging parties scoured the countryside looking for guns, knowing that there was going to be a fight on Lake Champlain.

It is not widely known, that the American Revolution was fought in the midst of a smallpox pandemic. General George Washington was an early proponent of vaccination, an untold benefit to the American war effort.  Nevertheless, a fever broke out among the shipbuilders of Skenesborough, that almost brought their work to a halt.

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Lake Champlain:  Garden island (right), Valcour Island (left)

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776.  In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54′ gondolas (gunboats), and four 72′  galleys.  Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, where it was fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

As the two sides closed in the early days of October, General Arnold knew he was at a disadvantage.  The element of surprise was going to be critical.  Arnold chose a small strait to the west of Valcour Island, where he was hidden from the main part of the lake. There he drew his small fleet into a crescent formation, and waited.

Carleton’s fleet, commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.

Valcour 2Sailing south on the 11th under favorable winds, some of the British ships had already passed the American position behind Valcour island, before realizing they were there. Some of the British warships were able to turn and give battle, but the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.

Fighting continued for several hours until dark, and both sides did some damage.  On the American side, Royal Savage ran aground and burned. The gondola Philadelphia was sunk. On the British side, one gunboat blew up. The two sides lost about 60 men, each.  In the end, the larger ships and the more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight.

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Only a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Patriot side. That night, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, limping down the lake on muffled oars. British commanders were surprised to find them gone the next morning, and gave chase.

One vessel after another was overtaken and destroyed on the 12th, or else, too damaged to go on, was abandoned.  The cutter Lee was run aground by its crew, who then escaped through the woods.  Four of sixteen American vessels escaped north to Ticonderoga, only to be captured or destroyed by British forces, the following year.

Valcour 1On the third day, the last four gunboats and Benedict Arnold’s flagship Congress were run aground in Ferris Bay on the Vermont side, following a 2½-hour running gun battle.  Today, the small harbor is called Arnold’s Bay.

200 escaped to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, personally torching his own flagship before leaving it for the last time, flag still flying.

The British would retain control of Lake Champlain, through the end of the war.

The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it.  Yet it had been able to inflict enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet was left with no choice but to return north for the winter. One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country.  For now, the General had bought his young nation, another year in which to fight.

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A 1905 postcard displays the remains of Benedict Arnold’s flagship, the “Congress”.

September 27, 1943 The Waving Girl

Legends grew up around her, over the years. She had fallen in love with a sailor. She wanted him to find her when he returned. He’d been lost at sea. The bittersweet truth is less dramatic.

Following the War of 1812, President James Madison ordered a series of coastal fortifications to be built, to protect the young nation from foreign invasion. Fort Pulaski, located on Cockspur Island between Savannah and Tybee Island, Georgia, is one of them.

Florence Margaret Martus was born there in 1868, where her father was an ordnance sergeant. She spent her childhood on the south channel of the Savannah River, moving in with her brother, keeper of the Cockspur Island Lighthouse, when she was 17.

cockspur

Sometime around 1887 while still a young girl, Florence began waving at ships passing in the river. She’d use a lantern by night and a white handkerchief by day.

It started with friends, working the river.  Harbor masters, bar pilots and tugboat captains.  Before long, “the waving girl” and her collie were familiar figures, greeting every ship that came or left the port of Savannah.  Sailors would look for her and salute in return. Vessels would blow their horns, but few ever met her in person.

The Waving Girl Statue
The Waving Girl Statue

Legends grew up around her, over the years. She had fallen in love with a sailor. She wanted him to find her when he returned. He’d been lost at sea.

The bittersweet truth is less dramatic. She later said, “That’s a nice story. But what got me started – I was young and it was sort of lonely on the island for a girl. At first I would run out to wave at my friends passing, and I was so tickled when they blew the whistle back at me“.

And so, Miss Martus would take out her handkerchief by day or light her lantern by night, and she would greet every vessel that came or went from the Port of Savannah.  Every one of them.  Some 50,000, over 44 years.

Florence Martus
Florence Margaret Martus

In 1893, Martus and her brother braved hurricane conditions, rowing out to save several men from a sinking boat.

She waved an American flag at the troop ship St. Mihiel after WWI, on its return to Savannah carrying the United States Army of the Rhine.

“The Waving Girl” had taken it upon herself to greet every single ship entering and leaving the Port of Savannah, from young womanhood until old age.

She stopped only when she was forced to do so when her brother, then 70, had to leave his lighthouse job and the home which went with it.

All that time she kept a careful record of every ship:  name, date, where it was from and type of vessel.  It must have broken her heart to move, because she burned the entire record.  44-years’ worth. WWII-era reporter Ernie Pyle lamented “The daily record for forty-four years, one of the most legendary figures of the Seven Seas, kept in her own hand, gone up in smoke in two minutes”.

Martus never reconciled herself to the move, saying, “It’s just like trying to dig up that big oak tree and get it to take root someplace else.”

The artist Felix de Weldon, who sculpted the United States Marine Corps Memorial outside Arlington National Cemetery, erected a statue of the Waving Girl and her collie. You can see it in Morrell Park, on the west bank of the Savannah River.

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Florence Martus passed away on February 8, 1943, following a brief bout with bronchial pneumonia.  One of the Liberty ships built in Savannah during World War II, was named in her honor. The SS Florence Martus was officially christened seven months later, September 27, 1943.

FlorenceMartusTheWavingGirl

August 29, 1854  The President’s Desk

The British government ordered at least three desks to be fashioned out of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards.  The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880.  A token of gratitude for HMS Resolute’s return, 24 years earlier.

(AP Photo/Look Magazine, Stanley Tretick, File)
The desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by almost every American President since, whether in a private study or the oval office. 

HMS ResoluteHMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased by the English government in 1850 as the Ptarmigan, and refitted for Arctic exploration.  Re-named Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the Franklin expedition, which had disappeared into the ice pack in 1845.

They never found Franklin, though they did find the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where they had been stranded since 1850.

Three of the expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853, including Resolute.  There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships.  Most of them made it, despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island between May and August of the following year.resoluteice2

The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return.

Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1.5 nautical miles per day.

The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position.  Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship.  Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.

Resolute hulk
LLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS, England, October 4, 1879: “The Old Arctic Exploring Ship Resolute, Now Broken Up At Chatham Dockyard”

1856 was a difficult time for American-British relations.  Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, giving her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit, and Resolute sailed for England later that year, Commander Henry J. Hartstene presenting her to Queen Victoria on December 13.

Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879.  The British government ordered at least three desks to be fashioned out of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards.  The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880.  A token of gratitude for HMS Resolute’s return, 24 years earlier.

KENNEDY
(AP Photo/Look Magazine, Stanley Tretick, File)

The desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by almost every American President since, whether in a private study or the oval office.

FDR had a panel installed in the opening, since he was self conscious about his leg braces.  It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk into the Oval Office.  There are pictures of JFK working at the desk, while his young son JFK, Jr., played under it.

Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House after the Kennedy assassination.

The desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only time the desk has been out of the White House.

Jimmy Carter returned the Resolute Desk to the Oval Office, where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, so far, Donald Trump.

President Trump at Resoute Desk