February 3, 1943 Greater Love Hath No Man

Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant.  Each gave his life jacket to the nearest man.

The Troop Transport USAT Dorchester sailed out of New York Harbor on January 23, 1943, carrying 904 service members, merchant seamen and civilian workers.  They were headed for the  the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland, part of a six-ship convoy designated SG-19 together with two merchant ships and escorted by the Coast Guard Cutters Comanche, Escanaba and Tampa.

Built as a coastal liner in 1926, Dorchester was anything but graceful, bouncing and shuddering her way through the rough seas of the North Atlantic.German submarine wolf packs had already sunk several ships in these waters.  Late on the night of February 2, one of the Cutters flashed flashed the light signal “we’re being followed”.

Dorchester Captain Hans Danielson ordered his ship on high alert that night.  Men were ordered to sleep in their clothes with their life jackets on, but many disregarded the order.  It was too hot down there in the holds, and those life jackets were anything but comfortable.

Some of those off-duty tried to sleep that night, while others played cards or threw dice, well into the night.  Nerves were understandably on edge, especially among new recruits, as four Army chaplains passed among them with words of encouragement.

They were the Jewish rabbi Alexander David Goode, the Catholic priest John Patrick Washington, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) minister Clark Vandersail Poling, and the Methodist minister George Lansing Fox.

At 12:55am on February 3rd, the German submarine U-223 fired a spread of three torpedoes.  One struck Dorchester amidships, deep below the water line.  A hundred or more were killed in the blast, or in the clouds of steam and ammonia vapor billowing from ruptured boilers.  Suddenly pitched into darkness, untold numbers were trapped below decks.  With boiler power lost, there was no longer enough steam to blow the full 6 whistle signal to abandon ship, while loss of power prevented a radio distress signal.  For reasons which remain unclear, there never were any signal flares.druidartThose who could escape scrambled onto the deck, injured, disoriented, many still in their underwear as they emerged into the cold and darkness.

The four chaplains must have been a welcome sight, guiding the disoriented and the wounded, offering prayers and words of courage.  They opened a storage locker and handed out life preservers, until there were no more.  “Padre,” said one young soldier, “I’ve lost my life jacket and I can’t swim!”  Witnesses differ as to which of the four it was who gave this man his life jacket, but they all followed suit.  One survivor, John Ladd, said “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Rabbi Goode gave his gloves to Petty Officer John Mahoney, saying “Never mind.  I have two pairs”.  It was only later that Mahoney realized.  Rabbi Goode intended to stay with the ship.

story11Dorchester was listing hard to starboard and taking on water fast, with only 20 minutes to live.  Port side lifeboats were inoperable due to the ship’s angle.  Men jumped across the void into those on the starboard side, overcrowding some to the point of capsize.  Only two of fourteen lifeboats launched successfully.

Private William Bednar found himself floating in 34° water, surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” he recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

As the ship upended and went down by the bow, survivors floating nearby could see the four chaplains.  With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die.web-four-chaplains-painting-courtesy-of-the-chapel-of-the-four-chaplainsRushing back to the scene, coast guard cutters found themselves in a sea of bobbing red lights, the water-activated emergency strobe lights of individual life jackets.  Most marked the location of corpses.  Of the 904 on board, the Coast Guard plucked 230 from the water, alive.

The United States Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on the four chaplains for their selfless courage, but strict requirements for “heroism under fire” prevented it from doing so.  Congress authorized a one time, posthumous “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism”, awarded to the next of kin on January 18, 1961 by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia.special-medalJohn 15:13 teaches us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.  Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant.  Each gave his life jacket to the nearest man.

Carl Sandburg once said that “Valor is a gift.  Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”  If I were ever to be so tested, I hope I would prove myself half the man as any of those four chaplains.

January 17, 1994 Ghost of the American Star

Naval interiors of the age tended to be stodgy and overwrought.  America has the almost unique distinction of having its interiors designed entirely by women, as naval architect William Francis Gibbs turned to the all-female team of Miriam Smyth, Ann Urquhart & Dorothy Marckwald.  

The Federal Government passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, “to further the development and maintenance of an adequate and well-balanced American merchant marine”.

The act served multiple purposes, among them modernizing what was at that time a largely WWI vintage merchant marine fleet, and serving as the basis for a naval auxiliary that could be activated in time of war or national emergency.

Ss_america_under_constructionTwo years later, the first keel laid under the Merchant Marine act was the SS America, built by the United States Line and operated as a passenger liner until the United States entered WWII in 1941.

Naval interiors of the age tended to be stodgy and overwrought.  America has the almost unique distinction of having its interiors designed entirely by women, as naval architect William Francis Gibbs turned to the all-female team of Miriam Smyth, Ann Urquhart & Dorothy Marckwald.

“It is not without reason”, according to team leader “Dot” Marckwald, “the majority of the passengers are women, and no man could ever know as much about their comfort problems and taste reactions as another woman.”

SS America was christened by Eleanor Roosevelt and launched on August 31, 1939. One day later, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland.

America would serve as a passenger liner for the two years remaining for American neutrality. American flags were painted on both sides of her hull, and at night she sailed while fully illuminated.

Where there are government subsidies, there are strings.  For SS America, those strings were pulled on May 28, 1941, while the ship was at Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.  The ship had been called into service by the United States Navy, and ordered to return to Newport News.

Re-christened the USS West Point, she served as a transport for the remainder of the war, carrying in excess of 350,000 troops and other passengers by 1946.  It was the largest total of any Navy troop ship in service during WWII, and included USO entertainers, Red Cross workers, and prisoners of war.  As America, she had even carried two Nazi spies as part of her crew, until their discharge on America’s return to Virginia.  The two spies, Franz Joseph Stigler and Erwin Wilheim Siegler, were members of the Duquesne spy ring, reporting allied movements in the Panama Canal Zone until they and 31 of their cohorts were found out late in 1941.

WestPointBalloon1During her service to the United States Navy, West Point was awarded the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.

Returned to civilian service in 1946 and re-christened America, the ship remained a favorite for cruise ship vacationers through most of the fifties.  By 1964, the competition from larger, faster ships and the airlines had put the best years behind the aging liner.  Sold and then sold again, she had come full circle by 1978, when new owners tried to capitalize on the old ship’s mystique.

ss-america-gettyimages-940194090She was in terrible condition and her refit nowhere near complete when America set sail on her first cruise on June 30, 1978.  There was rusted metal, oil soaked rags and backed up sewage.  There were filthy mattresses and soiled linens.  One woman later said, she was a “floating garbage can.”  The angriest of customers actually got into fist fights with members of the crew.  There were so many complaints the ship finally turned back, still within sight of the Statue of Liberty.

Impounded for non-payment of debts and receiving an inspection score of 6 out of a possible 100 points by the Public Health Service, the US District Court ordered America to be sold at auction.

One new owner after another bought the hulk during the eighties, only to default.  First it was going to be a prison ship, and then sold and renamed Alferdoss translating as “paradise” in Arabic.  She was anything but at this point.  The next buyer intended to scrap her, only to become the latest in a long line of financial defaults.

SS America, InteriorsSold yet again in 1993 and renamed the American Star, the new owners planned to convert her to a five-star hotel ship off Phuket, Thailand.  A planned 100 day tow began on New Year’s Eve of 1993, but the lines broke.  On January 17, 1994, the former SS America was adrift in foul seas, running aground in the Canary Islands the following day.   Discussions of salvage operations were soon squashed, as the ship broke in two in the pounding surf.

maxresdefault-2The National WWII Museum in New Orleans reports on its website that the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now passing at a rate of 550 per day.  How many, I wonder, might think back and remember passage on the most successful troop transport of their day.

By the spring of 2013, the only time you could tell there’s a wreck on the beach, was at low tide.

November 28, 1949 Simon

Equivalent to the American Medal of Honor or the British Victoria Cross, the “Dickin Medal” is the highest award in the British system of Military honors, awarded to animals for service in time of military conflict. The Dickin has been awarded only 71 times. Recipients include 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to this day, only one cat. A ship’s cat. The champion rat killer of the Yangtze River. Simon.

According to the archaeological record, the earliest trade dates to the Neolithic period of the 10th millennium, BC. The Austronesian peoples of island Southeast Asia established trade routes with the Indian sub-continent, as early as 1500 BC. Egyptians traded with Asian merchants from the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty.  The Greco-Roman palate of antiquity would not have been the same without the spice roads, plied first by land and later, by sea.

From the earliest times when man took to the ocean, food stores and trade goods alike were an attractive food source for the Black Rat, Rattus rattus.

Black Rat

Able to climb obstacles from trees to buildings to ship’s ropes, DNA and other evidence suggests the black rat originates not from Europe, but southeast Asia.

Also known as the “ship’s rat”, the animal reaches sexual maturity in as little as three to four months and completes the act of reproduction, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 7 or 8 “kittens” with an average gestation period of only 20 to 22 days and a weaning period, of 20 to 28.

Rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity.  Left uncontrolled, rats will destroy a ship’s stores in a matter of weeks.  This is to say nothing of the black rat’s prodigious ability to carry disease without itself, being affected.  From Bubonic plague to Typhus to Toxoplasmosis, Trichinosis and any number of Streptococci, this third to half-pound animal has done more than any creature in history, to alter the course of human events.

Unsurprisingly, the “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea since man first took to the water.

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Ship’s cat “Blackie” greets Winston Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Simon” was about a year old in 1948, one of countless and nameless feline waifs, starvelings roaming the dockyards of Hong Kong in search of a morsel.  17-year-old Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom smuggled the animal on board the frigate HMS Amethyst, the job of “ship’s cat” being open at that time.

Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather of that time and place.  As Hickinbottom recalled, ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.

simon-hms-amethyst-catSimon earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s hat.

China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.

The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.

On April 29, 1949, Amethyst was on her way up river when she came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The frigate returned fire but she was soon disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire.  The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, killing Commander Skinner and badly wounding the ship’s cat.

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“Yangtse Incident by Timothy OBrien. HMS Amethyst about to return fire while a Sunderland of 88 Squadron makes a hurried departure, 23rd of April 1949”. H/T worldnavalships.com

By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last, desperate transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.

The order was given to evacuate.  Some managed to swim across to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months became a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.

Simon was carried to the sick bay where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his little body, and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur.  He was grievously wounded and wasn’t expected to make it, through the night.

As weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties as rat killer, below decks.  A good thing it was, too.  The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin.  Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rodent known as Mao Tse-tung.

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HMS Amethyst makes a nighttime dash for freedom. Painting by Montague Dawson

The Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained extensive damage in the episode.  The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.

Dickin_Medal.jpgAll but unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War 1, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, the Dickin is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor and bearing these words, “We Also Serve”.

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Simon the cat received the Dickin Medal, for catching rats and protecting food supplies during the time the ship was trapped by the Chinese. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Excepting the 2014 blanket award to all animals of the “Great War”, the Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception.  Recipients include 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to this day, only one cat.  A ship’s cat.  The champion rat killer of the Yangtze River.  Simon.

Simon arrived to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp.  Unhappily, Simon didn’t survive his war wounds, after all.  Placed in quarantine like any other animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to severe infections of his wounds and died on this day, November 28, 1949.

More than a thousand people including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst, attended the funeral for the two-year-old feline.  Simon’s gravestone at the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford reads: “Throughout the Yangtze Incident his behavior was of the highest order.”

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November 25, 1841 The Slave Ship Amistad

In arguing the case United States v. Schooner Amistad, former President John Quincy Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government.

By 1839, the international slave trade was illegal in most countries while the “peculiar institution” of slavery, was not. In April of that year, five or six hundred Africans were illegally purchased by a Portuguese slave trader and shipped to Havana, aboard the slave ship Teçora.

Fifty-three members of the Mende people of West Africa, were sold to Joseph Ruiz and Pedro Montez, who planned to use them on their Cuban sugar plantation. The Mendians were given Spanish names and designated “black ladinos,” fraudulently documenting the 53 to have always lived as slaves, in Cuba. In June, Ruiz and Montez placed the Africans on board the schooner la Amistad, (“Friendship”), and set sail down the Cuban coast to Puerto del Principe.

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Replica of the slave ship, Amistad

The Africans were brought in chains to Teçora but chains were judged unnecessary for the short coastal trip, aboard Amistad.  On the second day at sea, two Mendians were whipped for an unauthorized trip, to the water cask.  One of them asked where they were being taken.  The ship’s cook responded.  They were to be killed, and eaten.

That mocking response would cost the cook, his life.

On the second night at sea, captives armed with cane knives seized control of the ship, led by Sengbe Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinqué. The Africans killed the ship’s Captain and the cook, losing two of their own, in the struggle.  Montez was seriously injured while Ruiz and a cabin boy named Antonio, were captured and bound.  The rest of the crew, escaped in a boat.

The mulatto cabin boy who really was a black ladino, would be used as translator.

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Mendians forced the two to return to their homeland but the Africans, were betrayed.  By day, the two would steer east, toward the African coast.  By night when the position of the sun could mot be seen, the pair would turn north.  Toward the United States.

After 60 days at sea, Amistad came aground off Montauk on Long Island Sound, when several Africans came ashore, for water.  The ship was apprehended by a US Coastal Survey brig under the command of Thomas Gedney and Richard Meade.  Meanwhile on shore, Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham (the two had nothing to do with the Washington), captured the Africans who had come ashore.

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This print depicting Joseph Cinqué appeared in The New York Sun newspaper, August 31, 1839

Amistad was piloted to New London Connecticut, still a slave state at that time.  The Africans were placed under the custody of United States marshals.

Both the slave trade and slavery itself were legal according to Spanish law at this time, while the former was illegal, in the United States.   The Spanish Ambassador demanded the return of Ruiz’ and Montez’ “property”, asserting the matter should be settled under Spanish law.  American President Martin van Buren agreed but, by that time, the matter had fallen under court jurisdiction.

Gedney and Meade of the Washington sued under salvage laws for a portion of the Amistad’s cargo, as did Green and Fordham.  Ruiz and Montez sued separately.  The district court trial in Hartford determined the Mendians’ papers to be forged.  These were now former slaves  entitled to be returned, to Africa.

Antonio was ruled to have been a slave all along and ordered returned to the Cubans.  He fled to New York with the help of white abolitionists and lived out the rest of his life, as a free man.

Fearing the loss of pro-slavery political support, President van Buren ordered government lawyers to appeal the case up to the United States Supreme Court.  The government case depended on the anti-piracy provision of a treaty then in effect between the United States, and Spain.

A former President, son of a Founding Father and eloquent opponent of slavery, John Quincy Adams argued the case, in a trial beginning on George Washington’s birthday, 1841.

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In United States v. Schooner Amistad, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court 8-1, ruling that the Africans had been detained illegally,  and ordering them returned to their homeland.

John Tyler, a pro slavery Whig, was President by this time. Tyler refused to provide a ship or to fund the repatriation.  Abolitionists and Christian missionaries did the work, 35 surviving Mendians departing for Sierra Leone on November 25, 1841 aboard the ship, Gentleman.

Back in Sierra Leone, some of the Africans helped establish a Christian mission.  Most including Joseph Cinque himself, returned to homelands in the African interior. One survivor, a little girl when it all started by the name of Margru, returned to the United States where she studied at Ohio’s integrated Oberlin College, before returning to Sierra Leone as the Christian missionary, Sara Margru Kinson.

In arguing the case, President Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government.

152 years later, President Bill Clinton, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and AG Janet Reno orchestrated the kidnap of six-year-old Elián González at gunpoint, returning him  to Cuba over the body of the mother who drowned bringing the boy to freedom.

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October 11, 1776 Buying Time. The Battle of Valcour Island

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-foot Gondolas (gunboats), and four 72-foot′ Galleys. Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, there to be fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

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.  Congress was alarmed at the potential of 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 captured, along with some 400 fellow Patriots.

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The nightmare took on a life of its own in the String of 1776, with the massive reinforcement of Quebec.   10,000 British and Hessian soldiers. By June, the remnants of the Continental army were driven south to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point.

The continental Congress was correct about the British intention of splitting the colonies. General Sir Guy Carleton, provincial Governor of Quebec, set about doing so, almost immediately.

Retreating colonials took with them or destroyed nearly 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 and 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.

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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 the south, colonials were doing the same.

The Americans possessed 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.

Skenesborough Sawmill.jpgHermanus 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.  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. Notwithstanding, a fever broke out among the shipbuilders of Skenesborough, which almost 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. In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54-foot Gondolas (gunboats), and four 72-foot′ Galleys. Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, there to be fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

download - 2019-10-11T070000.649.jpgAs 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.

Sailing 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.  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 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, 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.

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On 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 her for the last time, flag still flying.

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British forces 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 turncoat.  A traitor to his country.  For now, the General had bought his infant nation, another year in which to fight.

 

Afterward

221 years later, maritime surveyors from the Survey Team of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum located the last vessel left unaccounted for, from the October 11, 1776 Battle of Valcour Island.  With mast yet standing and her bow gun at the ready, the wreck lies upright at a depth inaccessible to recreational divers, protected and preserved by the cold, dark, fresh waters of Lake Champlain.

Over the next two years, careful examination of source documents eliminated one patriot gunboat after another from consideration as the identity of the “missing gunboat”. In the end, the Pristine wreck was identified as the Spitfire, sister ship to Benedict Arnold’s seven other 54-foot gunboats constructed over the Summer of 1776, in the wilderness of Skenesborough.

Today, the Spitfire site is protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act, providing that “No person may possess, disturb, remove, or injure” any part of this precious underwater shrine, to our shared American history.

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Painting of the Spitfire by Ernie Haas.  Hat tip https://www.lcmm.org/explore/shipwrecks/revolutionary-war-gunboat-spitfire/

 

April 20, 1949 Ship’s Cat

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon. 

Mankind first crossed the line from hunter-gatherer to farmer, some ten thousand years ago. The earliest civilization known mainly for agricultural subsistence is the naturally well-watered region around Jericho, circa 8000BC. From that day to this, grain stockpiles and domesticated livestock have attracted vermin.  With that came the wild ancestor of the common house cat, Felis silvestris catus.

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From the earliest times when man took to the sea, food stores were an attractive free ride, for rodents.

Rats reach sexual maturity in as little as four to five weeks and complete the act of procreation, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 8 to 14 “kittens” and run as high, as 21. With an average gestation period of only 21 to 23 days, rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity.

Left uncontrolled, rats and mice can destroy ship’s stores in a matter of weeks. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from the earliest days, first controlling damage to pantries, ropes and woodwork and, in more modern times, electrical wiring.  To say nothing, of rat-borne disease.

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Not without reason, are cats seen as good luck at sea. The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, able to detect even minor changes in barometric pressure. Sailors paid careful attention to the cat’s behavior, often the first sign of foul weather ahead.

Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) is believed to descend from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to the Scandinavian peninsula from the modern-day United Kingdom, sometime in the first millennium.

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Norwegian Forest Cat

“Simon” was found in 1948, one of countless and nameless cats roaming the dockyards of Stonecutter’s Island, in Hong Kong. He was about a year old at that time, a sickly little waif, smuggled on board the HMS Amethyst by 17-year-old Ordinary Seaman, George Hickinbottom. Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats, and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather in that time and place.  Happily, the job of ship’s cat was open at that time, however (says Hickinbottom), ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.

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Simon, the Amethyst cat

Simon quickly earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s cap.

China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.

The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.  On this day in 1949 and only a hundred miles upriver, Amethyst came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

yi4Amethyst returned fire but it wasn’t long before she was disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire.  The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, mortally wounding Commander Skinner and badly injuring the ship’s cat.

By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.

The order was given to evacuate and some managed to swim to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months turned to a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.

Simon was brought to the sick bay, where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his body and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur.  He was not expected to make it through the night.

Simon-HMS-Amethyst

As the weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties, below decks.  A good thing it was, too.  The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin.  Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rat known as Mao Tse-tung.

peopleThe Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained heavy damage in the episode.  The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.

Unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War One, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, it is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor.

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon.

Simon returned to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp.  Unhappily, Simon did not survive his war wounds, after all.  Required to be placed in quarantine like any animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to complications of his injuries and died on November 28, 1949.

Able_Seacat_Simon

Hundreds attended Simon’s funeral at the PDSA Ilford Animal Cemetery in east London, including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst. These words were inscribed on the stone, which marks his grave:

IN
MEMORY OF
“SIMON”
SERVED IN
H.M.S. AMETHYST
MAY 1948 — NOVEMBER 1949
AWARDED DICKIN MEDAL
AUGUST 1949
DIED 28TH NOVEMBER 1949.
THROUGHOUT THE YANGTZE INCIDENT
HIS BEHAVIOUR WAS OF THE HIGHEST ORDER

    

A Trivial Matter
“Oskar” was plucked from the ocean on May 27, 1941 by sailors from HMS Cossack, following the sinking of the German Battleship, Bismarck. So named from the International Code of Signals for the letter ‘O’, code for “Man Overboard”, Oskar became ship’s cat aboard the British warship until October 27 when a German torpedo blew off the forward one-third of the destroyer, killing 159 sailors. Oskar survived this disaster as well, making his way to land and thence to the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and dubbed “Unsinkable Sam”. The mighty carrier was herself sunk by a German torpedo on November 14, leaving Unsinkable Sam “angry but quite unharmed” clinging to a plank, in open ocean. World War Two would would rage for another four years, but not this particular ship’s cat. A superstitious lot, no sailor wanted any part of a shipmate who’d been through three wrecks. Sam was transferred first to the Governor of Gibraltar and then back to the United Kingdom where he lived out the rest of his days, at the “Home for Sailors”, in Belfast.
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April 17, 1945 Kamikaze

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a human bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

By the end of 1944, a series of naval defeats had left the Imperial Japanese critically short of military aviators, and the experienced aircraft mechanics and ground crew necessary to keep them aloft.

On October 14, the Atlanta class light cruiser USS Reno was hit by a Japanese aircraft in what many believed to be a deliberate crash.  The following day, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally lead an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers against a carrier task force.  Arima was killed and part of one bomber hit the USS Franklin, the Essex-class carrier known as “Big Ben”.

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17-year-old Corporal Yukio Araki (holding the puppy) died the following day in a suicide attack near Okinawa. H/T Wikipedia

Japanese propagandists were quick to seize on Arima’s example.  Whether this was a deliberate “kamikaze” attack remains uncertain.  The tactic was anything but the following week, during the battle of Leyte Gulf.  Japanese aviators were deliberately flying their aircraft, into allied warships.

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

American Marines invaded Iwo Jima in February 1945, the first allied landing on Japanese territory. It was a savage contest against a dug-in adversary, a 36-day battle costing the lives of 6,381 Americans and nearly 20,000 Japanese.

The table was set for the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war.

On April 1, Easter Sunday, 185,000 troops of the US Army and Marine Corps were pitted in the 85-day battle for Okinawa, against 130,000 defenders of the Japanese 32nd Army and civilian conscripts.  Both sides understood, the war would be won or lost in this place.

While Kamikaze attacks were near-commonplace following the October battle for Leyte Gulf, these one-way suicide missions became a major part of defense for the first time in the battle for Okinawa.  Some 1,500 Kamikaze aircraft participated in the battle for Okinawa, resulting in US 5th Fleet losses of 4,900 men killed or drowned, and another 4,800 wounded.  36 ships were sunk and another 368 damaged.  763 aircraft, were lost.

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Kamikaze, taking off

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a flying bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

On April 16, 1945, the Sumner-class destroyer USS Laffey was assigned to radar picket duty, thirty miles north of Okinawa. At 8:25 a.m., the radar operator reported a solid cluster of blips at 17,000 yards, too numerous to count and approaching fast.  165 kamikazes and 150 other enemy aircraft were coming in, from the north

The Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber appeared near the destroyer at 8:30. This was a reconnaissance mission and, fired upon, the Val jettisoned her bombs, and departed. Four more D3As were soon to follow, tearing out of the sky in a steep dive toward USS Laffey. 20mm AA fire destroyed two while the other two crashed into the sea. Within seconds, a Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bomber made a strafing run from the port beam while another approached on a bomb run, from the starboard side. These were also destroyed but, close enough to wound three gunners, with shrapnel. The flames had barely been brought under control when another Val crashed into the ship’s 40mm gun mounts, killing three sailors while another struck a glancing blow, spewing aviation fuel from a damaged engine.

kamikaze - USS Laffey

Immediately after, another D3A came in strafing from the stern, impacting a 5″ gun mount and disintegrating in a great column of fire as its bomb detonated a powder magazine. Another Val came in within seconds, crashing into the burning gun mount while yet another scored a direct hit, jamming Laffey’s rudder to port and killing several men. Within minutes, another Val and yet another Judy, had hit the port side.

It was all in the first fifteen minutes.

Soon, four FM2 Wildcats followed by twelve Vought F4U Corsair fighters from the escort carrier Shamrock Bay waded into the Kamikazes attacking Laffey, destroying several before being forced to return, low on fuel and out of ammunition.

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By the time it was over, some fifty Kamikazes were involved with the action. USS Laffey suffered six Kamikaze crashes, four direct bomb hits and strafing fire that killed 32 and wounded another 71. Lieutenant Frank Manson, assistant communications officer, asked Commander Frederick Becton if he thought they should abandon ship. Becton snapped “No! I’ll never abandon ship as long as a single gun will fire.” He didn’t hear the comment, from a nearby lookout: “And if I can find one man to fire it.”

For USS Laffey, the war was over.  She was taken under tow the following day, April 17, and anchored near Okinawa.  She would not emerge from dry dock, until September.

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Today, the WW2 destroyer is a museum ship, anchored at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  A bronze plaque inside the ship is inscribed with the Presidential Unit Citation, received for that day off the coast of Okinawa:

For extraordinary heroism in action as a Picket Ship on Radar Picket Station Number One during an attack by approximately thirty enemy Japanese planes, thirty miles northwest of the northern tip of Okinawa, April 16, 1945. Fighting her guns valiantly against waves of hostile suicide planes plunging toward her from all directions, the U.S.S. LAFFEY sent up relentless barrages of antiaircraft fire during an extremely heavy and concentrated air attack. Repeatedly finding her targets, she shot down eight enemy planes clear of the ship and damaged six more before they crashed on board. Struck by two bombs, crash-dived by suicide planes and frequently strafed, she withstood the devastating blows unflinchingly and, despite severe damage and heavy casualties, continued to fight effectively until the last plane had been driven off. The courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men enabled the LAFFEY to defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds, and her brilliant performance in this action, reflects the highest credit upon herself and the United States Naval Service.

For the President,
James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

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The Battle for Okinawa
“The Battle of Okinawa was an intense 82-day campaign involving more than 287,000 US and 130,000 Japanese troops. It was considered the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater, and more than 90,000 men died from both sides, along with almost 100,000 civilian casualties. During this conflict, Kamikazes inflicted the greatest damage ever sustained by the US Navy in a single battle, killing almost 5,000 men. All told, Kamikazes sank 34 ships and damaged hundreds of others during the entire war”. H/T Listverse.com