October 14, 1939 Death of the Royal Oak

Captain Benn was almost alone in believing that his ship was attacked by torpedo.  The cause of the sinking was still being argued over the next day, when divers went down and found a German torpedo propeller. Only then was it understood, that the Kriegsmarine  had taken the war, into British home waters.  By that time, U-47 was gone.

In the early days of WWII, the British Royal Navy based the main part of the Grand fleet at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.  Protected as it was by blocking ships and underwater cables, the anchorage considered impregnable to submarine attack.

f918c0672ea9cc256d0295ed46d0ca83The harbor at Scapa flow had been home to the British deep water fleet since 1904, a time when the place truly was, all but impregnable.  By 1939, anti-aircraft weaponry was all but obsolete, old block ships were disintegrating, and anti-submarine nets were inadequate to the needs of the new war.

The men of the German Unterseeboot U-47 commanded by officer Günther Prien, were not impressed. U-47 entered the Royal Navy base in the evening hours of the October 13, 1939. By 12:55am on the the 14th, they were within 3,500 yards of the unmistakable silhouette of the WWI era Revenge Class Battleship, HMS Royal Oak.

Believing he had a certain kill, Prien aimed two of his four torpedoes at the Battleship, and the other two at the 6,900 ton Pegasus, which he’d mistaken in the dark for the much larger HMS Repulse. Tubes one, two and three fired successfully, torpedoes away, but #4 jammed. Only one found its mark, blowing a hole in the starboard bow of the Royal Oak, near the anchor chains.

On the battleship, Captain William Benn was told the most likely cause was an internal explosion, either that or a high flying German aircraft had dropped a bomb. Damage control teams were assembled to assess the damage, while aboard U-47, Prien thought his one hit had been against Repulse (Pegasus). He was prepared to run, but saw no threat from oncoming surface vessels.  Coming about and firing the stern torpedo, the crew worked to free the jammed #4 torpedo tube, while reloading bow tubes 1-3. That one missed as well, and the Germans cursed their luck.

400px-U-47_raid.svgThe electric torpedoes of the era were highly unreliable, and this wasn’t shaping up to be their night.

Finally, tubes one and two were reloaded, and the jammed tube #4 was serviced and ready to go. U-47 crept closer and, at 1:25am, fired all three torpedoes at the Royal Oak. All three found their target within ten seconds of one other, blasting three holes amidships on the starboard side. The explosions set off a series of fires and ignited a cordite magazine and exploding with a fiery orange blast that went right through the decks.\

Royal Oak rolled over and sank in thirteen minutes. 833 sailors and officers were lost from ship’s company of 1,234, including Rear Admiral Henry Evelyn Blagrove, commander of the 2nd Battle Squadron.

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The Royal Navy considered the anchorage so secure that, even now, searchlights and anti-aircraft fire raked the sky, searching for the air attack that wasn’t there.  Captain Benn was almost alone in believing that his ship was attacked by torpedo.  The cause of the sinking was still being argued over the next day, when divers went down and found a German torpedo propeller. Only then was it understood that the Kriegsmarine had taken the war, into British home waters.

Royal Oak Wreck

The successful attack at Scapa Flow was a crushing defeat for the British, and payback for the Germans. The entire German High Seas Fleet had been interned there at the end of WWI. Admiral Ludwig von Reuter wasn’t about to let his fleet fall into allied hands, and ordered the lot of them, scuttled. British guard ships succeeded in beaching a few at the time, but 52 of 74 vessels had sunk to the bottom.

Many of those wrecks were salvaged in the interwar years, and towed away for scrap. Those which remain are popular sites for recreational divers, but not Royal Oak. As a designated war grave, Royal Oak is protected by the Military Remains Act of 1986.  Unauthorized divers are strictly, prohibited.

The wreck of the Royal Oak lies nearly upside down in 100′ of water, her hull just 16-feet beneath the surface. Each year, divers place the red St. George’s Cross with the Union Flag of the White Ensign at her stern, a solemn tribute to the honored dead of World War 2, and to the first Royal Navy battleship lost in the most destructive war in history.

Royal Oak Ensign

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October 9, 1776 Buying Time

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country.  For now, he and the hundreds of patriots who had literally built a fleet in wilds of upstate New York, had bought their country another year in which to continue the fight.

The American Revolution began a year earlier in 1775, when the 2nd Continental Congress looked north to the Province of Quebec.  Congress viewed the region as a potential jump-off point for British forces to attack and divide the colonies, though it was lightly defended at the time.

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 the leg, Major General Richard Montgomery was killed, and Colonel Daniel Morgan captured along with 400 fellow patriots. 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.

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

Retreating colonials had taken with them or destroyed every boat they could find, along the way.  The British set about disassembling warships from the St. Lawrence, moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean, on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, on the New York/Vermont line. They spent the summer and early fall literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake, while 120 miles to their south, colonials were doing the same.

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Valcour Bay as it looks, today

The Americans had a small fleet of shallow draft “bateaux” used for lake transport, but they needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat. A shipbuilding program of their own was needed, which Major General Horatio Gates set in motion in Skenesborough, New York, in what is now Whitehall. Hermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates eventually asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain I civil life, to spearhead the effort. Arnold was ambivalent about the assignment, writing “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 their duty that they had to be 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.

541px-Battle_of_Valcour_Island_1776.svgIt’s not well 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, but a fever broke out among shipbuilders which nearly brought their work to a halt.

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776, 15 ships 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, 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 and including fifty unarmed support vessels, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.

Sailing south two days later under favorable winds, some British vessels had already passed the American position before realizing anyone was there. Some British warships were able to turn and give battle, but some of the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.

Philadelphia-Sinking-Assisted-by-the-Row-Galley-Washington-Painting-by-Ernie-Haas
Philadelphia Sinking Assisted by the Row Galley Washington Painting by Ernie Haas

The Americans were able to do some damage, but larger ships and the more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight. About a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Americans.

On the moonless and foggy night of the 11th, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, and limped 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, and abandoned. The last of the American vessels, the smallest ones, were finally run aground in a small bay on the Vermont side, now called Arnold’s Bay.

valcour2-370x236200 were able to escape to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, who personally torched his own flagship, the Congress, before leaving it behind, flag still flying.

The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it, yet the losing effort had inflicted enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet had little choice but to return north for the winter.

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country.  For now, he and the hundreds of patriots who had literally built a fleet in wilds of upstate New York, had bought their country another year in which to continue the fight.

Valcour Island (1)

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October 7, 1571 Lepanto

Cross met Crescent this day in 1571 near the Greek island of Lepanto.  It’s been called “The battle that saved the Christian west”.

Following the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was massively expanded under Sultan Selim I, “Selim the Grim”. 1516 – ’17 saw a 70% expansion of Ottoman landmass, with the subjugation of large swaths of the Arabian peninsula, historic Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.

Suleiman_featuredSelim’s son and successor would become the tenth and longest-ruling Ottoman Sultan in 1520, until his death in 1566. He was “Süleiman the Magnificent”, a man who, at his height, ruled over some fifteen to twenty million, at a time when the entire world contained fewer than 500 million

By 1522, Süleiman had managed to expand his rule to Serbia, placing the Ottoman Empire in direct conflict with the Habsburg monarchy, early predecessor to what we remember from WW1, as the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Catholic states of Europe were plunged into a morass of their own at this time, wracked by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, and by a series of wars for hegemony, over the formerly-independent city-states of the Italian peninsula. The “Italian wars” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pitted no fewer than eight separate Christian alliances against one another, between forces of the Valois and Habsburg monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian republics. In time, republican Venice was alone in retaining her independence, aside from minor city-states such as Lucca and San Marino.

Venice attempted to check Ottoman expansion into the eastern Mediterranean until 1540 when, exhausted and despairing of support, signed a humiliating capitulation to the Sultan.

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Roxelana, the harem slave who rose to be “Queen” of the Ottoman Empire

This, the second such conflict between Venice and the Ottomans, left the republic without her former buffer territories in Greece and the Serbo-Croatian possessions of Dalmatia.

Hurrem Sultan, better known as “Roxelana”, was probably kidnapped from the Polish principality of Ruthenia, and sold into the slave markets of Istanbul, given by the Valide Sultan (legal mother of the Sultan and chief consort to Selim I), to her son Süleiman.  Roxelana is unique in Ottoman history, rising from Harem slave and Sultan’s concubine, to Süleiman’s legal wife and “Queen of the Ottoman Empire.” It was she who began a 130-year period of female influence over the male line known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, though born to slavery, the wives and mothers of the Sultan wielded extraordinary political power over affairs of Empire.

She was instrumental in driving the unlikely ascension of her son Selim II to the Sultanate, following the death of her son Mehmed from smallpox, and the murders of his half-brother Mustafa and his brother Bayezid, engineered between himself and his father.

The eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a major overseas possession of the Venetian republic and, surrounded by Ottoman territory, had long been “in the wolf’s mouth”. The Turkish invasion force of 350-400 ships arrived on July 1, 1570, carrying between 80,000 – 150,000 men. First capturing the coastal cities of Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca, the Ottoman force marched inland to lay siege to Nicosia, the largest city on the island. The siege would last forty days, resulting in the death of some 20,000 residents and the looting of every church, public building and palace, in the city.

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By Mid-September, the Ottoman cavalry arrived outside the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus, the east coast port city of Famagusta.

At this point, Famagusta’s defenders numbered fewer than 9,000 men with 90 guns, pitted against an invading force swelled by this time to over 250,000 with 1,500 cannon. The defense of Famagusta would hold out for eleven months, led by the Venetian lawyer and military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. By the following August, five major assaults had cost the lives of some 52,000 invaders, including the first-born son of the Turkish commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha. Bragadin’s command was reduced to 900 sick, starving and injured defenders who, like local civilians, begged him to surrender.

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Walled citadel of Famagusta, in North Cypress

According to the customs of the time, negotiation before a city’s defenses were successfully breached allowed for terms of surrender, whereas all lives and property were forfeit, in a city taken by storm. Terms of safe passage were agreed upon, yet, on presentation of the city, Bragadin was seized by Lala Mustafa Pasha, his ears and nose cut off, and thrown into a cell. A massacre followed in which every Christian left alive in the city, was killed.  Bragadin was skinned alive in the public square and the stuffed with straw, reinvested with his military insignia, and sent with the heads of his officers to Istanbul, as a gift to Sultan Selim II.

Pope Pius had tried since 1566, to put together a “Holy League” to oppose the Ottoman invasion.   Marcantonio Bragadin was betrayed in the end and put to death.  Yet, the heroic defense against impossible odds of September 17, 1570 to August 5, 1571, bought a coalition of Catholic maritime states, time in which to defend themselves.

Cross met Crescent this day in 1571 near the Greek island of Lepanto.  It’s been called “The battle that saved the Christian west”.  The Europeans were outnumbered, with 212 ships and as many as 40,000 soldiers and oarsmen, compared with a Muslim force numbering 278 vessels, and as many as 50,000 soldiers and oarsmen.

The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

Fernando_Bertelli,_Die_Seeschlacht_von_Lepanto,_Venedig_1572,_Museo_Storico_Navale_(550x500).jpg

What the Holy League lacked in numbers however, was made up in equipment, and experience.  The Christians possessed 1,815 guns, to fewer than half than number for the Ottoman fleet.

Ten thousand would be lost to the Christian side, compared with four times that number, for the adversary.  the Ottoman fleet was crushed over five hours of combat, losing 200 ships burned, sunk or captured, compared with 17 for the Europeans.

The Spanish novel Don Quixote has been translated into more languages than any book in western history, save for the holy bible.  Author Miguel de Cervantes participated in the battle at the age of 23, receiving three gunshot wounds and losing his left hand.

Cervantes_Portrait_3235573b
Cervantes

While the European victory at Lepanto put a halt to Muslim expansion in the western Mediterranean, zero lost territory was regained while the Sultan solidified his control, over the east. The Ottoman fleet was rebuilt within six months, including some of the largest capital ships, then in existence.

Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, Chief Minister to Sultan Selim II went so far as to taunt the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro, that the Christian triumph amounted to little:

“You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor”.

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August 17, 1942 Makin Island Raid

The war in the Pacific continued for another three years, but the Butaritari people never forgot the barbarity of the Japanese occupier, nor the Marines who had given their lives in the attempt to throw them out.

Military forces of the Japanese Empire appeared unstoppable in the early months of WWII, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as American military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler, first. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.

That April, 75,000 surrendered the Bataan peninsula, beginning a 65-mile, five-day slog into captivity through the heat of the Philippine jungle. Japanese guards were sadistic,  beating marchers at random and bayoneting those too weak to walk. Japanese tanks would swerve out of their way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

The Imperial Japanese Navy asserted control over much of the region in 1941, installing troop garrisons in the Marshall Island chain and across the ‘biogeographical region’ known as Oceana.

Map_OC-Oceania
WWF Map of the biogeographic region ‘Oceana

The “Island hopping strategy” used to wrest control of the Pacific islands from the Japanese would prove successful in the end but, in 1942, the Americans had much to learn about this style of warfare.

Today, the island Republic of Kiribati comprises 32 atolls and reef islands, located near the equator in the central Pacific, among a widely scattered group of federated states known as Micronesia. Home to just over 110,000 permanent residents, about half of these live on Tarawa Atoll.  At the opposite end of this small archipelago is Butaritari, once known as Makin Island.

A few minutes past 00:00 (midnight) on August 17, 1942, 211 United States Marine Corps raiders designated Task Group 7.15 (TG 7.15) disembarked from the submarines Argonaut and Nautilus, and boarded inflatable rubber boats for the landing on Makin Island. The raid was among the first major American offensive ground combat operations of WW2, with the objectives of destroying Japanese installations, taking prisoners to gain intelligence on the Gilbert Islands region, and to divert Japanese reinforcement from allied landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

Left), Makin Island as seen by Nautilus and, Right), Marine raiders about to embark

High surf and the failure of several outboard engines confused the night landing.  Lt. Colonel Evans Carlson in charge of the raid, decided to land all his men on one beach instead of two as originally planned, but not everyone got the word. At 5:15, a 12-man squad led by Lt. Oscar Peatross found itself isolated and alone but, undeterred by the lack of support, began to move inland in search of the enemy. Meanwhile, the balance of TG 7.15 advanced inland from the landing, encountering strong resistance from Japanese snipers and machine guns.

Two Bansai charges turned out to be a tactical mistake for Japanese forces. Meanwhile, Peatross and his small force of 12 found themselves behind the Japanese machine gun team engaging their fellow Marines.  Peatross’ unit killed eight enemy soldiers along with garrison commander Sgt. Major Kanemitsu, knocked out a machine gun and destroyed several enemy radios, while suffering three dead and two wounded of their own.

Unable to contact Carlson, what remained of Peatross’ small band withdrew to the submarines, as originally planned.  That was about the last thing that went according to plan.

Makin Island Burning
View of Makin Island from USS Nautilus, waiting to withdraw Marine Corps raiding force

At 13:30, twelve Japanese aircraft arrived over Makin, including two “flying boats”, carrying reinforcements for the Japanese garrison. Ten aircraft bombed and strafed as the flying boats attempted to land, but both were destroyed in a hail of machine gun and anti-tank fire.

The raiders began to withdraw at 19:30, but surf conditions were far stronger than expected. Ninety-three men managed to struggle back to the waiting submarines, but eleven out of eighteen boats were forced to turn back. Despite hours of heroic effort, exhausted survivors struggled back to the beach, most now without their weapons or equipment.

Wet, dispirited and unarmed, seventy-two exhausted men were now left alone on the island, including only 20 fully-armed Marines originally left behind, to cover the withdrawal.

A Japanese messenger was dispatched to the enemy commander with offer to surrender, but this man was shot by other Marines, unaware of his purpose.  A rescue boat was dispatched on the morning of the 18th to stretch a rescue line out to the island. The craft was attacked and destroyed by enemy aircraft.  Both subs had to crash dive for the bottom where each was forced to wait out the day. Meanwhile, exhausted survivors fashioned a raft from three remaining rubber boats and a few native canoes, and battled the four miles out of Makin Lagoon, back to the waiting subs. The last survivor was withdrawn at fifty-two minutes before midnight, on August 18.

Many survivors got out with little but their underclothes, and a few souvenirs

The raid annihilated the Japanese garrison on Makin Island, but failed in its other major objectives.  In the end, Marines had asked the island people to bury their dead.  There had been no time.  Casualties at the time were recorded as eighteen killed and 12 missing in action.

The war in the Pacific continued for another three years, but the Butaritari people never forgot the barbarity of the Japanese occupier, nor the Marines who had given their lives in the attempt to throw them out.

Captured Flag
Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson holds a souvenir with his second-in-command from the Makin Island raid, James Roosevelt.  The President’s son. 

Neither it turns out, had one Butaritari elder who, as a teenager, had helped give nineteen dead Marines a warrior’s last due.  In December 1999, representatives of the Marine Corps once again came to Butaritari island, not with weapons this time, but with caskets.

The man spoke no English, save for a single song he had memorized during those two days back in 1942, taught to him by those United States Marines:   “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

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August 15, 1942 Baby Vet

During the WW2 era, it wasn’t unusual for boys to lie about their age in order to enlist.

Calvin Leon Graham was a child of the Great Depression, a poor East Texas farm kid born April 3, 1930, the youngest of seven.

By the time  Japanese military planners were outlining the surprise attack on the American anchorage at Pearl Harbor, the boy’s mother had become widowed and remarried. The man was by all accounts mean and abusive of his step-children. By sixth grade, Calvin had moved out with an older brother, living in a cheap rooming house and supporting himself selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school.

The boys’ mother continued to visit, sometimes only to sign their report cards, at the end of a semester.

CalvinLGrahamBeing around newspapers allowed the boy to keep up on events overseas, “I didn’t like Hitler to start with“, he once told a reporter. By age eleven, some of Graham’s cousins had been killed in the war, and the boy wanted to fight.

He began to shave, believing that his facial hair would come in faster and thicker that way (it didn’t), and practiced “talking deep”.

In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent” he later said, “but they preferred 17“. Graham forged his mother’s signature and stole a notary stamp, telling his mother he was going to see some relatives for a while.

On this day in 1942, Calvin Leon Graham showed up at a Houston recruiting office, dressed in his older brother’s clothes. All five-foot-two inches of him, and 125 pounds. He was twelve years old.

Graham was less concerned with the recruiting officer spotting that forged signature, than he was with the dentist. With good reason, this was a man with a finely tuned BS detector. “When the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17“. At last, the boy played his trump card, informing the dentist that the last two boys were fourteen and fifteen, and that the dentist had already let them through. “Finally,” Graham recalled, “he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go“.

During the WW2 era, it wasn’t unusual for boys to lie about their age in order to enlist. Ray Jackson joined the United States Marine Corps at 16, and founded a group for underage military veterans in 1991, “to assure all underage veterans that there will be no retribution from the government because of their fraudulent enlistment“. Smithsonian.com reports the organization lists over 1,200 active members.  Twenty-six of them, are women.

The boy was sent to boot camp in San Diego and on to Pearl Harbor six weeks later, and assigned to the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota.

When South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia and cleared the Panama Canal, “No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific.” Under the command of Captain Thomas Leigh Gatch, the battleship was brimming with “green boys” –  cocky, inexperienced new recruits, full of fight and eager for payback against the Japanese empire.

During the October battle for the Santa Cruz islands, South Dakota was credited with downing 26 Japanese aircraft, while taking a 500-pound bomb to the #1 gun turret.

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The USS South Dakota engages a Japanese torpedo bomber during the Battle of Santa Cruz October 26, 1942. Photo: US Navy

Standing on the bridge, Captain Gatch watched as that 500-pounder came in, striking the main gun turret.  The impact threw the skipper off his feet and severed his jugular vein, and permanently injuring ligaments in the man’s arms. Quick-thinking quartermasters saved the unconscious captain’s life, and several later asked him, why he hadn’t ducked. “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship“, he said, “to flop for a Japanese bomb“.

Before the action was over, the South Dakota’s guns had fired 890 rounds of 5-inch, 4,000 rounds of 40mm, 3,000 rounds of 1.1-inch and 52,000 rounds of 20mm ammunition. One of those gunners, was twelve-year-old Calvin Graham.

Over the November 14 night battle for Guadalcanal, USS South Dakota came under attack from three Japanese warships, receiving no fewer than forty-seven hits. With her radio communications out and radar demolished, the battleship lost track of the complicated tactical situation. Calvin Graham was manning his 40mm gun when shrapnel tore through his mouth and jaw, tearing out his front teeth. Another hit burned the boy severely and threw him off his feet, and down three stories of superstructure.

Despite his injuries, Graham did what he could to take care of his fellow sailors:

“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night. It was a long night. It aged me… I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead”.

USS South Dakota was so beat up during the confused night action, that the Japanese believed her to have been sunk.  Eventually, she would limp back to new York for repairs and, not wanting the enemy to know too much, she was stripped of her insignia.

USS South Dakota would complete her WW2 service as “Battleship X”, but that must be a story for another day.

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Graham received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his actions, but such distinctions were short-lived. His mother learned what the boy had been up to and informed the Navy of his real age. Graham was thrown in the brig for lying about his age and held for nearly three months, released only when his sister threatened to go to the media. He was stripped of his medals and dishonorably discharged from the military. At thirteen, Calvin Graham was a “Baby Vet”, no longer fitting in at school and rejected by the nation he had served.

If only our politicians, could expect such stern justice.

Graham soon chose the life of an adult, marrying and fathering a child at the age of fourteen, while working as a welder.  He was divorced by seventeen and enlisted in the Marine Corps. A fall from a pier broke his back three years later, ended his military career for good and leaving him selling magazine subscriptions for a living.

517537543_c_o-300x267For the rest of his life, Calvin Graham fought for a clean service record, and for restoration of medical benefits. President Jimmy Carter personally approved an honorable discharge in 1978, and all Graham’s medals were reinstated, save for his Purple Heart. He was awarded $337 in back pay but denied medical benefits, save for the disability status conferred by the loss of one of his teeth, back in WW2.

Graham came to public notice in 1988 with the made-for-TV movie Too Young the Hero starring Rick Schroder, prompting government review of his case.  Graham earned $50,000 for rights to his story, but half went to two agents and another 20% to the writer of a book, which was never published.  Graham and his wife received only $15,000, before taxes.

Calvin Graham, Medals

Calvin Leon Graham, Military Awards
1st Row: Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”
2nd Row: Purple Heart Medal, Navy Unit Commendation with service star, American Campaign Medal
3rd Row: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two service stars, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal

President Ronald Reagan signed legislation granting Graham full disability benefits and increasing back pay to $4,917, and allowing $18,000 for medical expenses incurred during his military service. Lamentably, many old medical bills were permanently lost, and some of his doctors, had died. Graham received only $2,100 reimbursement for past medical expenses.

Calvin Leon Graham died at his home in Fort Worth Texas in 1992, a victim of heart failure.  He was buried at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Fort Worth, Texas.  Graham’s Purple Heart was reinstated two years later and awarded to his widow by Secretary of the Navy John Dalton. Fifty-two years after the events which led to its award.

Calvin-Leon-Graham-grave

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August 7, 1573, El Draque

Twenty tons of silver and gold were captured by the raid, far too much to carry.  With Spanish forces hot on their heels, Drake and his party buried part of the trove in the jungle and another part on the beach, probably feeding into later tales of pirate’s buried treasure.

When the casual student of history can hark back to a time when “Britannia ruled the waves”, it’s hard to remember that the world’s great naval powers were once Spain and Portugal.

In the late 15th century, the two determined to slice the world into “spheres of influence”, in order to minimize conflict.   The Treaty of Tordesillas signed in 1494 between the Pope and the respective monarchs, bequeathed most of the Americas, to Spain.

Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Church fewer than twenty years later, triggering the Protestant reformation.  The non-Catholic powers of next-century Europe were not about to recognize Papal authority, nor abide by his treaties.

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Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494, dividing the world into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence

Spanish authorities were deeply suspicious of foreign encroachment onto their territory, and murdered several hundred French Huguenot inhabitants of Fort Caroline near the future Jacksonville Florida, in 1565.  At the time, the French had already surrendered.

In 1562-’63 and again in 1564-’65, the English adventurer John Hawkins engaged in trading expeditions with Spanish colonies in the New World, with tacit approval from the British crown. Such trade was technically illegal according to the 1494 treaty, but local authorities were happy to trade for slaves.  Hawkins received glowing testimonials from local magistrates and governors, often in exchange for bribes, and took orders from his Spanish clients for a third such journey.

Spanish authorities were alarmed at this challenge to their monopoly.  The sneak attack of September 23, 1568 at the port of San Juan de Ulúa was a humiliating defeat for the English, resulting in the loss of five British ships and the death of hundreds of British seamen.  One-hundred or more survivors were stranded on the beach and later tortured, burned at the stake, or sentenced to penal servitude for life on Spanish galleys, following the arrival of the Inquisition in 1571.

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The Battle of San Juan de Ulúa

Hawkins’ relative and protégé Francis Drake was forced to swim for it, and flee for his life at the helm of the Judith, one of only two ships and a mere 70 or 80 crew, to survive. Three more turned up a year later, in Nova Scotia.

Being forced like that to abandon his relative and sponsor to fend for himself was a searing humiliation, leaving Drake with a deep and abiding hatred for all things Catholic.  Most especially, Spain.

Drake launched his first major undertaking in 1572, attacking Spanish operations on the Isthmus of Panama, where Peruvian silver and gold were moved overland to the coastal Caribbean town of of Nombre de Dios, where galleons awaited to remove the treasure to Spain. Drake and a crew including French privateers attacked a Spanish mule train in March 1573 with the help of local Maroons, African slaves escaped from the Spanish.

Twenty tons of silver and gold were captured by the raid, too much to carry.  With Spanish forces hot on their heels, Drake and his party buried part of the trove in the jungle and another part on the beach, probably feeding into later tales of pirate’s buried treasure.

The triumphant expedition returned to Plymouth this day in 1573, heroes in England and reviled in Spain. Gonzalo González del Castillo described “El Draque”, in a letter to King Philip II, “The people of quality dislike him for having risen so high from such a lowely family; the rest say he is the main cause of wars“.

At one point during that raid of 1572-’73, Drake had climbed a tree to scout the vicinity, becoming the first English man to see the Pacific ocean. He remarked that one day, he wanted an Englishman to sail those waters. He himself gained that chance in 1577, when Elizabeth I sent Drake on an expedition against Spanish holdings along the Pacific coast of the Americas.

Historians disagree to this day, whether this was a voyage of exploration, piracy or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King in the eye.  When it was over, Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

This was the third such voyage. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was first, setting out 58 years earlier with 5 ships and 200 men.  Magellan himself didn’t make it.  He was killed on a Philippine beach in 1521.  Eighteen of his men straggled back on two ships, in 1522.

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Death of Ferdinand Magellan, 1521

Ordered by King Charles I to colonize the Spice Islands for Spain, explorer García Jofre de Loaísa would be the second, leaving in 1525 with 450 men aboard seven ships.  None of his vessels ever made it back, nor did the explorer.  25 men returned to Spain in 1536, under Portuguese guard.

The Pelican left Plymouth, England on November 15, 1577 with four other ships and 164 men. The weather was so rancid they soon had to turn back, seeking shelter in Falmouth, Cornwall, and finally returning to Plymouth, where the whole thing started.  The small flotilla set out once again on December 13 after making repairs and soon joined by a sixth ship, the Mary.

Drake crossed the Atlantic and made it to Patagonia, when it seems one of his people got on his last nerve. Thomas Doughty had been given command of the captured Portuguese ship Santa Maria, renamed the Mary, when he caught Drake’s brother Thomas stealing from the vessel’s cargo. One thing led to another and Doughty himself was accused as “a conjurer and a seditious person”. Doughty was brought before a shipboard trial on charges of treason and witchcraft, establishing a principle which lasts to this day, that a ship’s captain was absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of the passengers.

Golden Hind Replica
Golden Hinde, replica

Thomas Doughty lost his head, near the spot where Magellan had put his own mutineers to death, a half century earlier.  Drake renamed his flagship the “Golden Hind” (Female deer), probably to smooth over the Doughty episode with the expedition’s sponsors.

From the 16th century on, the Spanish Main was a rich source of treasure. The three sided box enclosing the Caribbean from Florida through Mexico and along the northern coast of South America was a ripe territory for pirates and buccaneers, though that became less so as you traveled south along the South American coast, and unheard of at this time in the Pacific.

Spanish_MainReduced to three ships by August 1578, Drake made the straits of Magellan, emerging alone into the Pacific that September.

El Draque captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of gold near Lima, when he heard about a galleon sailing west toward Manila.  The aptly named “Cacafuego”,  (“Fireshitter”) would be the richest prize of the voyage, with a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of “royals of plate” (silver coins), 80 pounds of gold and 26 tons of silver.

After a fine dinner with the Cacafuego’s officers and passengers, Drake offloaded his captives, each with a gift appropriate to his rank, and a letter of safe conduct.

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Cacafuego, under full sail (left), under attack by Francis Drake

The expedition landed on the California coast in June 1579, claiming the land for the English Crown and calling it Nova Albion “New Britain”. The precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spanish.  First-hand records from the voyage were destroyed in a Whitehall Palace fire in 1698.  Today Drakes Bay, about 30 miles from San Francisco, is anyone’s best guess.

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Drake’s Bay

The Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, England with Drake and 59 remaining crew on September 26, 1580. The half share owed to the queen surpassed the crown’s entire income for the year.  Awarded a knighthood the following year, Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Dysentery brought the seafaring career of El Draque to an end in January 1596, off the coast of Panama. Dressed in his armor and buried at sea near Portobelo, Divers have searched for his coffin, to this day.

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July 29, 1967 Inferno at Sea

Damage Control Chief Gerald Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes of the fire.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 was wiped out.

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

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1000-lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. Tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb, featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall compared with older munitions, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures, like an enormous sparkler.

Along with Mark 83s, ordnance resupply had included sixteen AN-M65A1 “Fat Boy” bombs, Korean war era surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs of the 29th.  These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 10+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than the newer ordnance, composition B becomes more volatile as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful as well, as much as 50%, by weight.

250px-Yankee_Station_Location_1These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last ten years in the heat and humidity of Subic Bay depots.  Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys, with their rusting shells leaking paraffin, and rotted packaging.  Some had production date stamps as early as 1953.

Handlers feared the old bombs might spontaneously detonate from the shock of a catapult takeoff.

In 1967, the carrier bombing campaign was the longest and most intense such effort in US Naval history.   Over the preceding four days, Forrestal had already launched 150 sorties against targets in North Vietnam.  Combat operations were outpacing production, using Mark 35s faster than they could be replaced.

When Forrestal met the ammunition ship Diamond Head on the 28th, the choice was to take on the Fat Boys, or cancel the second wave of attacks scheduled for the following day.

220px-CVA-59_fire_aft_deck_planIn addition to the bombs, ground attack aircraft were armed with 5″ “Zuni” unguided rockets, carried four at a time in under-wing rocket packs.   Known for electrical malfunctions and accidental firing, standard Naval procedure required electrical pigtails to be connected, at the catapult.

Ordnance officers found this slowed the launch rate and deviated from standard procedure, connecting pigtails while aircraft were still, “in the pack”. The table was set, for disaster.

At 10:50-am local time, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.  Twenty-seven aircraft were on deck, fully loaded with fuel, ammunition, bombs and rockets.  An electrical malfunction fired a Zuni rocket 100′ across the flight deck, severing the arm of one crewmember and into the 400-gallon external fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk, awaiting launch.

The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented the weapon from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration.

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In WW2, virtually all American carrier crew were trained firefighters.  This changed over time and, by 1967, the United States Navy had adopted the Japanese method at Midway, relying instead on specialized and highly trained damage control and fire fighting teams.

Damage Control Team #8 came into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boy bombs turning cherry red in the flames.  Farrier  was working without benefit of protective clothing, there had been no time.  Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1000-lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent its cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.

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Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold as they fought the flames, but the composition B explosives proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes of the fire.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 was wiped out.

Future United States Senator John McCain managed to scramble out of his cockpit and down the fuel probe.  Lieutenant Commander Fred White made it out of his own aircraft a split-second later, but he was killed in that first explosion.

The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist in the violence of the explosions, office furniture thrown to the floor as much as five decks below.  Huge holes were torn into the flight deck while a cataract of flaming jet fuel, some 40,000 US gallons of the stuff, poured through ventilation ducts and into living quarters below.

Ninety-one crew members were killed below decks, by explosion or fire.

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With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, sailors and marines fought heroically to bring the fire under control, though they sometimes made matters worse.  Without training or knowledge of fire fighting, hose teams sprayed seawater, some washing away retardant foam being used to smother the flames.

With the life of the carrier itself at stake, tales of incredible courage, were commonplace. Medical officers worked for hours in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. Explosive ordnance demolition officer LT(JG) Robert Cates “noticed that there was a 500-pound bomb and a 750-pound bomb in the middle of the flight deck… that were still smoking. They hadn’t detonated or anything; they were just setting there smoking. So I went up and defused them and had them jettisoned.” Sailors volunteered to be lowered through the flight decks into flaming and smoked-filled compartments, to defuse live bombs.

The destroyer USS George K. MacKenzie plucked men out of the water as the destroyer USS Rupertus maneuvered alongside for 90 minutes, directing on-board fire hoses at the burning flight and hangar decks.

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Throughout the afternoon, crew members rolled 250-pound and 500-pound bombs across the decks, and over the side.  The major fire on the flight deck was brought under control within four hours, but fires burning below decks would not be declared out until 4:00am the following day.

Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial records the names of 134 crewmen who died in the conflagration. Another 161 were seriously injured.  26 aircraft were destroyed and another 40, damaged.  Damage to the Forrestal itself exceeded $72 million, equivalent to over $415 million today.

Gary Childs of Paxton Massachusetts, my uncle,  was among the hundreds of sailors and marines who fought to bring the fire under control.  Gary was below decks when the fire broke out, leaving moments before his quarters were engulfed in flames. Only by that slimmest of margins did Uncle Gary and an untold number of others escape being #135.

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.