August 19, 1812 Single Combat

On the afternoon of August 19, 1812 Constitution spotted a large frigate to leeward, some 400 miles off the coast of Halifax. She was that same 38 gun frigate HMS Guerriere, from the earlier pursuit. This time there would be no flight. There was about to be a fight.

When the United States first won independence from Britain in 1783, the young nation soon learned that freedom had some disadvantages. One big one being that America had lost its protector, at sea.

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

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Barbary pirates were a problem for Mediterranean and Atlantic shipping alike, harassing American shipping as early as 1785. 

In 1793 alone these brigands captured 11 American vessels holding the ships and crew, for ransom.

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

Named by George Washington himself and launched October 21, 1797, USS Constitution was one of these six. With hull made from the wood of 2,000 Georgia live oak trees, she was built in the Edmund Hartt shipyard of Boston, Massachusetts.

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Constitution’s first duties involved the “quasi-war” with France, but this was not the France who helped the US win the war for independence. The French monarchy was swallowed up by this time in a revolution of its own, radical leftists calling themselves “Jacobins” sending the Bourbon King and his Queen Consort Marie Antoinette, to the guillotine. Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette and Hero of the American Revolution, languished in an Austrian prison.

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

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

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In July 1812, Constitution put to sea off the coast of New Jersey intending to join the five ship squadron of Commodore John Rodgers. Spotting sail over the night of July 17 and thinking that they had found their rendezvous, Constitution was soon disabused of that notion. Lookouts reported 4 British warships heading west and a 5th, the 38-gun frigate, HMS Guerriere, heading straight for her.

The 64-gun ship of the line HMS Africa soon joined the chase along with the frigates Shannon, Aeolus and Belvidera. That soon to be famous “iron” hull would be useless in a 5 to 1 fight.

With light winds that sometimes died down altogether Constitution dropped her boats, to tow the ship. Captain Philip Broke followed suit ordering the boats of his entire fleet to join in, towing HMS Shannon. Captain Isaac Hull ordered nine tons of drinking water pumped overboard but still, her pursuers closed the distance. First Lieutenant Charles Morris suggested “kedging“, where Constitution’s boats were rowed out to drop small “kedge anchors”. Sailors would then haul the frigate up the anchor chain. British ships imitated the tactic but the fire of Constitution’s aft guns kept the adversary at bay.  Before it was over this slow motion race for survival lasted 57 hours, in the July heat.

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Constitution sailed for Boston to replenish drinking water supplies after this episode and returned to sea on August 2, to raid British shipping off the coast of Halifax. Meanwhile Broke detached Guerriere to return to Halifax, for a much needed refit.

On the afternoon of August 19, 1812 Constitution spotted a large frigate to leeward, some 400 miles off the coast of Halifax. She was that same 38 gun frigate HMS Guerriere, from the earlier pursuit. This time there would be no flight. There was about to be a fight.

Aboard Guerriere Captain James Richard Dacres was holding the American merchant Captain William Orne, captive. Dacres asked the American who this might be and Orne replied she was without doubt, American. The British captain remarked he’d be “made for life” to be the first to capture an American frigate.

Both vessels shortened to ‘fighting sail’, preparing for action. Watching a ball bounce harmlessly off Constitution’s 21” thick oak hull, one American sailor exclaimed “Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!” The two ships closed to “half a pistol shot” range and pounded each other with broadsides the Constitution to starboard and Guerriere, to port.

The larger guns and thicker hull of USS Constitution took their toll and Guerrier’s mizzenmast fell, as Constitution turned to deliver another broadside. Guerrier’s bowsprit became snarled in Constitution’s rigging and now the two ships were locked together, slowly rotating clockwise and exchanging fire, at point-blank range. Boarding parties were made ready but heavy seas prevented anything but musket shot. Soon the aft cabin was ablaze on the American ship but the English, were taking a pounding.

Like prize fighters locked in a clinch the two ships finally parted as Guerriere’s foremast and mainmast, snapped off at the deck. Her “power plant” thus crippled Dacres ordered sail set on the bowsprit as Constitution ran downwind, repairing rigging before once again, turning to the battle.

In twenty minutes Guerriere was reduced to an unsalvageable hulk. Ten American sailors were discovered afterward, “pressed” into service aboard the British frigate. Captain Dacres had allowed them to remain below decks, rather than fight their countrymen. Dacres was escorted aboard Constitution where Hull refused his sword, saying that he could not take the sword of a man who had fought so gallantly.

Captain Hull wanted to tow the hulk into port as a prize, but she was beyond salvage. Guerriere was burned to the waterline. With shot embedded in her lower masts Constitution returned to port, unable to continue her cruise. Captain Dacres returned to England to stand court-martial, for the loss of his ship.

Isaac Hull could have joined the likes of John Paul Jones, David Farragut and Chester Nimitz as naval heroes of the young nation, but he would never again hold a fighting command. His brother had died and Hull was duty bound to support his widowed sister-in-law, and her children. Permission was asked and granted, that he switch commands with Captain William Bainbridge. Bainbridge would go on to a long an illustrious career at sea and service, under six presidents. Hull served out his career as commander of the Boston Navy Yard.

USS Constitution is still in service today, the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel, still afloat. She went into dry dock for major overhaul in October 2014 and re-floated in July, 2017.  Freshly restored and re-fitted, Old Ironsides can be boarded at your convenience at Charlestown harbor. But this time, you needn’t bring a musket.

Old Ironsides, Drydock

July 29, 1967 Ghosts of the Forrestal

With the life of the carrier at stake, tales of incredible courage became commonplace.


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-pound 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. Think of 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 scheduled for 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.

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These 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.

Some 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.

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In 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 now 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-feet across the flight deck, severing the arm of one crew member and piercing 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 fuel tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration.

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During World War 2, virtually every American carrier crewmember was a trained firefighter.  Over time, this began to change. 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 to suit up.  Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1000-lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent the thing from cooking off as the rest of 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 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 had all but ceased to exist.

Margins of survival were now become, split-second. Future United States Senator John McCain managed to scramble out of his cockpit and down the fuel probe.  Lieutenant Commander Fred White scrambled out of his own aircraft only 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 that 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 at stake, tales of incredible courage became 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 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.

image (13)Gary Childs of Paxton Massachusetts, my uncle, was one among hundreds of sailors and marines who fought to bring the fire under control.  He was below decks when the fire broke out, leaving moments before his quarters were engulfed in flames. Only by that slimmest of margins did he and any number of sailors aboard the USS Forrestal on this day in 1967, escape being #135.

July 26, 1945 Blood in the Water

Naval Command had not the slightest idea of what happened to USS Indianapolis.  A random patrol aircraft discovered men floating in open ocean. The last survivor was plucked from the water well past half-dead following nearly five days in the water.


The Portland class heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis set out on her secret mission July 16, 1945, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay III.  What very few knew at that time, “Indie” was delivering “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian, the atomic bomb later dropped on Hiroshima.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35) underway September 27, 1939

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

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I-58

The Japanese submarine I-58, Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto commanding, fired a spread of six torpedoes at the cruiser, two striking Indianapolis’ starboard bow at fourteen minutes past midnight on Monday, July 30. The damage was massive.  Within 12 minutes, the 584-ft, 9,950-ton vessel had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.

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

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

The ordeal faced by the survivors, is beyond description.  Alone and stranded in open ocean, these guys treaded water for four days, hoping and praying for the rescue that did not come.

Shark attacks began on the first day, and never let up. Kapok-filled life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless. Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the hours turned into days. Some men went insane and began to attack their shipmates, while others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them within a few hours. Some simply swam away, following some spectral vision that only he could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, then to disappear forever, as the sharks claimed another victim.

Naval Command had not the slightest idea of what happened to Indianapolis, nor why she didn’t show up on the 31st.  A random patrol aircraft passing the area that Thursday afternoon, that finally discovered men floating in open ocean. The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, well past half-dead after nearly five days in the water. Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 316 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.

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Mochitsura Hashimoto

The Navy had committed multiple errors, from denying McVay’s requested escort to informing him that his route was safe, even when the surface operations officer knew there were at least two Japanese submarines, operating in the area.

No captain in the history of the United States Navy was subjected to court-martial for losing a ship sunk by an act of war.  The United States Navy lost over 350 ships to combat operations during WW2.  It didn’t matter.  On this occasion, someone was going to pay.

A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to McVay’s court-martial. There was evidence that the Navy itself had put the ship in harm’s way.  When prosecutors flew the I-58 commander in to testify, Hashimoto swore that zigzagging would have made no difference. The Japanese Commander even became part of a later effort to exonerate McVay, but to no avail. Charles Butler McVay III was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag“, his career ruined.

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Charles Butler McVay, III

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

McVay began to doubt himself.  By 1968 he must have felt the weight of Indianapolis’ dead, like a great stone upon his shoulders.

On November 6, 1968, Charles Butler McVay III sat down on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and shot himself.  He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.

It would take more than 20 years for exonerating evidence to be declassified.

Afterward:
Hunter Alan Scott was eleven and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. The boy was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of Indianapolis’ shark attacks. The following year, Scott created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on the USS Indianapolis sinking. The boy interviewed nearly 150 survivors and reviewed 800 documents.  The more he read, the more he became convinced that Captain McVay was innocent of the charges for which he’d been convicted.

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

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

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

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

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

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Some of Indianapolis’ crew, before her sinking.

The record cannot not be expunged.  Congress has rules against even considering bills altering military records, and there is no means by which to reverse a court-martial.  It’s never happened.  Yet Captain McVay was exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried to accomplish without success.  Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.  Who said one person can’t make a difference?

Today, only 3 of  Indianapolis’ survivors remain alive.  The wreck of the “Indy” was discovered in August 2017, in 18,000-feet of water.  Leader of the civilian expedition which located the wreck, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen commented ”To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling”.

June 23, 1865 Civil War – the Final Chapter

Editorial cartoons of the era satirized “Rip van Waddell” for continuing hostilities, long after the Civil War was over.

On April 9, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. President Lincoln was assassinated on the 14th. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured on the 10th of May.

The last fatality of the war between the states, the “war of northern aggression” to half the nation, occurred at the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Brownsville, TX over May 12–13, resulting in the death of Private John J. Williams of 34th Indiana regiment.  He was the last man killed during the Civil War.

General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the remains of three Confederate Armies to General William Tecumseh Sherman at Bennett Place on April 26.  Organized resistance came to a full stop when Confederate General E. Kirby Smith surrendered his forces to General E. R. S. Canby in New Orleans on May 26.

And yet the last hostile action of the civil War was still nearly a month away.

Both sides long practiced economic warfare against the other.  The federal “Anaconda Plan” sought to strangle the economy of the South while Confederate commerce raiders roamed the oceans of the world, destroying the other side’s merchant shipping.

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Editorial cartoon satirizing “Rip Van Waddell” still engaged in combat after everyone else thought the Civil War was over.

The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah, Lieutenant James Iredell Waddell Commanding, was in the Bering Sea hunting prizes at this time, between the coasts of Alaska and Siberia.

On June 22, the last round of the Civil War was a warning shot, fired across the bows of a whaler off the Aleutian Islands.

It must have been a sight, to see a wooden hulled Union whaler laden with oil, burned to the waterline under starlit skies amidst the ice floes of the Bering Sea.

Waddell learned of Lee’s surrender on June 23, along with Jeff Davis’ proclamation that the “war would be carried on with re-newed vigor”.  Waddell elected to continue hostilities, capturing 21 more whalers in the waters just below the Arctic Circle.  The last 11 were captured in the space of just 7 hours.

The only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe, Shenandoah traversed 58,000 miles in 12 months and 17 days at sea, capturing or sinking 38 merchant vessels, mostly whaling ships.  The voyage had taken 1,000 prisoners without a single battle casualty on either side.

Waddell was on the way to attack San Francisco on August 2, when he learned in a chance meeting with the British Barque Barracouta, that the war was truly over.

Believing they would all be hanged as pirates, Captain Waddell aimed to surrender to neutral England.  He took down his battle flag and put CSS Shenandoah through a radical alteration at sea. She was dismantled as a man-of-war; her battery dismounted and struck below, her hull repainted to resemble an ordinary merchant vessel.

There followed a 9,000 mile race down the coast of Mexico, around Cape Horn and across the Atlantic, with American vessels in constant pursuit. CSS Shenandoah made it to English territorial waters outside the Mersey, when the pilot refused to take the ship into Liverpool.  He needed to know, under which flag this vessel sailed.  The crew raised the Stainless Banner, the third and last official flag of the Confederacy.

CSS Shenandoah’s “Stainless Banner” displayed on the Sesquicentennial (150 year) anniversary of her final voyage

CSS Shenandoah sailed up the River Mersey with flag aloft, spectators lining both sides of the river.  Captain Waddell surrendered to Captain James A. Paynter of HMS Donegal.  The Stainless Banner was lowered for the last time at 10:00am on November 6, 1865, in front of CSS Shenandoah’s officers and crew, and the Royal Navy detachment who had boarded her.

The last official act of the Civil War occurred later that morning, when Captain Waddell walked up the steps of Liverpool Town Hall, presenting the letter by which he surrendered his vessel to the British government.

The officers and crew were unconditionally released following investigation, as they had done nothing to justify further detention. CSS Shenandoah was returned to the United States where the Government sold her to Majid bin Said, the first Sultan of Zanzibar.  Bin Said renamed the vessel El Majidi, in honor of himself. The former CSS Shenandoah was blown ashore and wrecked in a hurricane, in 1872.

HMS Donegal survived longer than any other player in this story. Launched in 1858, she remained in service to the British Crown until 1925 when she was sold, and broken up for scrap. Some of Donegal’s timbers were used to build the front of the Prince of Wales public house in the town of Brighouse, in West Yorkshire. The place still operates to this day, as the Old Ship Inn.

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The Old Ship pub in Brighouse was built from the timbers of the decommissioned HMS Donegal in 1926

June 19, 1864 Single Combat

Tales of single combat reach back to the mists of antiquity where history fades, into legend.  Homer’s Iliad tells of the great battle when Menelaus squared off against Paris and later Achilles, met  Hector. The Hebrew Bible brings us that most unlikely of tales where David, slew Goliath.  The Islamic chronicles are filled with such stories as are the native legends of the American plains, legends of European Knights and tales of the samurai, of the Japanese home islands.  On this day in 1864 the American Civil War took to the battle in a no-holds-barred fight to the finish off the coast of Cherbourg.

  

Tales of single combat reach back to the mists of antiquity where history fades, into legend.  Homer’s Iliad tells of the great battle when Menelaus squared off against Paris and later when Achilles, met  Hector. The Hebrew Bible brings us that most unlikely of tales where David, slew Goliath.  The Islamic chronicles are filled with such stories as are legends of European Knights, tales of Japanese samurai and the aerial dogfights of a later age.

On this day in 1864 the American Civil War took to the seas in a fight to the finish off the coast of Cherbourg, between the federal steam sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge and the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama. 

Only one would come out of this alive.

Hull #290 was launched from the John Laird & Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England as the screw sloop HMS Enrica on May 15, 1862. She sailed in secret to the Terceira Island in the Azores, where she was met by Raphael Semmes, her new captain. Three days, 8 cannon and 350 tons of coal later, the Enrica was transformed into the 220′, 1,500-ton sloop of war and Confederate States of America commerce raider, CSS Alabama.

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CSS Alabama

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil. In her two-year career as commerce raider, Alabama claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $123 million in today’s dollars.  She was the most successful, and most notorious, commerce raider of the Civil War.

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Civil War Steam Sloop USS Kearsarge

Alabama was in sore need of a refit when she put into Cherbourg France, on the 11th of June, 1864. The Mohican-class Union steam sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge, then on patrol near Gibralter hurried to Cherbourg, arriving on the 14th.

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Captain Raphael Semmes and 1st Lieutenant John Kell aboard CSS Alabama 1863

Seeing himself blockaded, Alabama’s Captain challenged Kearsarge Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel, saying “my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain“.  That suited Winslow just fine, who took up station in international waters, and waited for Alabama to come out.

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

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

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Sinking of the CSS Alabama, by Andy Thomas

The engagement followed a circular course at a range of a half mile; the ships steaming in opposite directions and firing at will.  One ball from Alabama lodged in Kearsarge’s sternpost, but failed to explode.  Within an hour, Kearsarge’s 11″ Dahlgren smooth bore pivot cannons reduced the most successful commerce raider in history to a sinking wreck. Alabama turned and tried to run back to port, but Kearsarge headed her off as rising water stopped her engines.

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USS Kearsarge Sternpost

Semmes struck his colors and sent a boat to Kearsarge with a message of surrender and an appeal for help.

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

June 11, 1775 The Battle of Machias

Called by some the “Lexington of the Sea”, the little-known episode was the first naval battle of the American Revolution.

In the Passamaquoddy tongue, “Machias” roughly translates into “bad little falls”, after the river that runs through the place. Five hours and 15 minutes drive-time from Boston, Machias Maine sports a campus for the University of Maine, a municipal airport and, even today, a year-round population barely exceeding 2,000.

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Machias-area residents who discussed downtown revitalization Tuesday evening said the Bad Little falls was the town’s most distinctive element. (KATHERINE CASSIDY PHOTO)

Not necessarily a place where you’d expect the first naval combat of the American Revolution.

In 1775, the modern state of Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Machias itself, a small fishing village on the “Down East” New England coast, was a thorn in the British side since the earliest days of the Revolution.   A local pilot intentionally grounded the coastal patrol schooner HMS Halifax that February, in Machias Bay.  The place also served as a base from which privateers preyed on British merchant shipping.

In April, a British foray from the occupied city of Boston had culminated in the Battle at Lexington Green.  While the King’s troops held the ground in the wake of the early morning skirmish, the decision of the afternoon’s battle at nearby Concord was quite different.  The colonial’s response to the column of “Regulars” was that of a swarming beehive, resulting in a Patriot victory and a British retreat under fire, all the way back to Boston.

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Boston was all but an island in those days, connected to the mainland only be a narrow “neck” of land.  A Patriot force some 20,000 strong took positions in the days and weeks that followed, blocking the city and trapping four regiments of British troops (about 4,000 men) inside of the city.

For General Thomas Gage, in charge of all those troops, the best hope for resupply was by water.

British Royal Navy Admiral Samuel Graves wanted the guns from the wreck of the Halifax, concerned they would otherwise fall into rebel hands.  Gage wanted lumber, with which to build barracks.  So it was that the wealthy merchant and Tory loyalist Ichabod Jones was enlisted to help, blissfully unaware of the dim view in which his activities were held by fellow colonials.

Jones arrived at Machias on June 2 aboard the merchant ships Unity and Polly, under guard of the armed schooner HMS Margaretta, commanded by Midshipman James Moore.  They had come to trade food for lumber but the townspeople were split, and voted against doing business with Jones.  This provoked a threat from the Margaretta, which moved into range to bombard the town.  The action resulted in a second vote and the trade was approved, but Jones’ response was ham-fisted.   The merchant would only do business, with those who had voted with him in the first place.

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HMS Margaretta

Local militia leader Colonel Benjamin Foster conceived a plan to seize the merchant, and saw his opportunity on June 11, when Jones and Moore were in church.  They almost had the pair too, but Jones saw some twenty men approaching, and fled for the woods.  Moore was able to get back to the Margaretta, but events soon spun out of control.

Colonel Foster and his brother, a man with the delightful name of Wooden Foster, seized the Unity.  A group of thirty began to construct breastworks to serve as protection, while others commandeered the coastal packet Falmouth.   There was gong to be a fight.

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A group of Machias men approached Margaretta from the land and demanded her surrender, but Moore lifted anchor and sailed off in attempt to recover the Polly.  A turn of his stern through a brisk wind resulted in a boom and gaff breaking away from the mainsail, crippling the vessel’s navigability. Unity gave chase followed by Falmouth.

Musket fire was exchanged from both sides and hand grenades were thrown onto the decks of the Unity.   Soon, the Margaretta was boarded from both sides, the fighting hand to hand.

Called by some the “Lexington of the Sea”, the little-known episode was the first naval battle of the American Revolution and ended in victory for the Patriot side.  Four Royal Navy seamen were killed outright and another ten wounded including Moore himself, who received a musket ball to the chest and died the following day.

Patriot losses amounted to ten killed and another three wounded.

HMS Margaretta served out the remainder of the Revolution as the renamed Machias Liberty.  British payback came on October 18 when Falmouth Massachusetts, the modern-site of Falmouth Maine and not to be confused with either of the modern-day towns of  Falmouth Massachusetts, or Falmouth Maine, was burned to the ground.

British forces attempted a second assault on Machias, with an amphibious landing of 1,000 troops over the 13th – 14th of August, 1777.  The attempt was beaten back by local militia and their Passamaquoddy and Penobscot allies, with both sides claiming victory.  The nearby village of Castine would be occupied in 1779 as would Machias itself during the War of 1812.  On both occasions, captured territories were re-dubbed the Crown Colony of “New Ireland”, a refuge for Loyalists and a base for future military operations.

The Crown Colonies of New Ireland survived for four years in the first instance and eight months in the second.  The failed Penobscot expedition of 1779 to retake the colony would result in the most catastrophic defeat suffered by American Naval forces until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 162 years later, but that must be a story for another day.

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Britain defending New Ireland from the Penobscot Expedition by Dominic Serres

May 21, 1944 Hammerberg

Let the man’s Medal of Honor citation tell his story. He didn’t live long enough to read it for himself.

From June to November 1944, forces of the United States Marine Corps and US Army conducted an offensive intended to dislodge Japanese forces from the Mariana Islands and the island nation of Palau, with operations supported by elements of the US Navy and code named, Operation Forager.

Part of the island-hopping strategy employed to defeat the Japanese empire, Operation Forager followed the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and had as its objective the neutralization of Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support for the Allied drive to retake the Philippines, and to provide bases for strategic bombing raids against the Japanese home islands.

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LST in Sicily

In May 1944, the naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor was a rush of activity, building up for the planned invasion.  78 years ago today, twenty-nine LSTs (Landing Ships, Tank) were tied beam-to-beam on six piers in the “West Loch” loading munitions, high octane gasoline and other equipment.

Shortly after 15:00 local time, LST-353 exploded causing a chain reaction down the line. Munitions exploded hurling men and equipment into the air. 200 men and more were hurled into the water in explosions powerful enough to knock over vehicles. On shore eleven buildings were destroyed altogether. Another nine were damaged.

Firefighting efforts were slow to get underway due to the heat and the inexperience of many of the crew. Some LSTs were able to move away under their own power or with the assistance of tugs. Others were left adrift and afire and slowly sinking, into the channel.

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A NASA image of Pearl Harbor. The disaster occurred in West Loch which is to the left side of the photo, where the water is lighter in color.

Burning gasoline spread across the water and ignited other ships, left unharmed by the initial explosions. Fires burned for twenty-four hours as yet other vessels were intentionally sunk to contain the disaster.

Casualty figures are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 163 personnel killed in the incident in West Loch and another 396, wounded. Some sources put the number of dead as high as 392.  Eleven tugboats were damaged while engaged in fire control efforts.  Six LSTs were sunk, two already carrying smaller, fully loaded Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) lashed to their decks.  Several others were heavily damaged and/or run aground.

A press blackout was ordered immediately after the incident, and military personnel were ordered not to talk. A Naval Board of Inquiry was opened the following day. The disaster at West Loch was initially believed to be caused by Japanese submarines. The idea was dismissed due to the shallow depth of the harbor, and the presence of anti-submarine nets.

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The wreckage of the LST 480 following the West Loch Disaster.

The precise cause of the accident remained elusive, as everyone near the initial explosion was dead. Army stevedores were unloading mortar ammunition at the time, using an elevator just fifteen feet from 80 drums of fuel. Some believe a mortar round was accidentally dropped and exploded. Others contend that fuel vapors were ignited by a cigarette, or welder’s torch.

Subsequent salvage and removal efforts on the West Loch brought up the remains of a Japanese midget submarine, now believed to be the fifth such sub used in the attack from two years prior.

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known about the incident, today.

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Less still is remembered about the men who came to clean up the mess. The last fatality from the disaster at West Loch occurred nine months later during salvage operations, for a sunken LST.

In February 1945, five teams of hardhat divers were brought in to raise these hulks and clear the channel. Working under the mud and the water of West Loch, four teams using jet nozzles successfully cleared tunnels under some of the wrecks, the first stage in refloating the sunken hulls.

Disaster struck as the fifth team labored to clear a tunnel under one sunken LST. We can only imagine the blackness down there in all that swirling mud as divers George Fuller and Earl Brown labored with jet nozzles, to clear the way. Suddenly steel wreckage overhead, caved in. Buried alive with lifelines and air hoses hopelessly tangled in jagged shards of steel, the pair was trapped under 40-feet of water and some 20-feet of muck. 

Other divers attempted t0 reach the pair but only stirred up more mud. A US Department of Defense website page describing the event relates that even a special dive team, declined to take further risk.

There seemed no chance for either man’s survival when fellow Navy diver Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg slipped into the water.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg

Owen Hammerberg had nothing to prove when it came to guts, and cold courage. Once stationed aboard the USS Advent Hammerberg dove into the water to free cables, snarled about a live mine. Imagine being down there, so close as to touch a mine powerful enough to blow himself to rags and atoms and sink the ship, on which he was stationed. And yet the man patiently labored until finally freeing the cable, without explosion.

Now working in the swirling mud and pitch blackness beneath the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the diver worked desperately to wash another tunnel under the sunken LST.  After five hours of exhausting labor Hammerberg was able to locate and free the first man, George Fuller. Following later inquiry congressional records state “Fuller, who had been pinned by a steel plate, shook Hammerberg’s hand underwater before heading to the surface for safety”.

Though physically tired Hammerberg labored on to reach Earl Brown, the second trapped diver. Eighteen grueling hours after the rescue began he finally found his man.

I do office work and I’m worn out after an eighteen hour day. What one man experienced after such a span of time down there, we will never know. Suddenly the whole mess caved in and a great piece of steel pinned Owen Hammerberg on top of Earl Brown.

Two days later a Filipino father and son team of divers at last rescued one of them and recovered the dead body, of the other. The cave-in had killed Owen Hammerberg even as his body protected that of the second man.

Navy diver and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was the only service member in all of World War 2 and the last man ever to receive the Medal of Honor as the result of heroism performed outside of combat.

Let the man’s Medal of Honor citation tell his story. He didn’t live long enough to read it for himself.

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“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a diver engaged in rescue operations at West Loch, Pearl Harbor, 17 February 1945. Aware of the danger when 2 fellow divers were hopelessly trapped in a cave-in of steel wreckage while tunneling with jet nozzles under an LST sunk in 40 feet of water and 20 feet of mud. Hammerberg unhesitatingly went overboard in a valiant attempt to effect their rescue despite the certain hazard of additional cave-ins and the risk of fouling his lifeline on jagged pieces of steel imbedded in the shifting mud. Washing a passage through the original excavation, he reached the first of the trapped men, freed him from the wreckage and, working desperately in pitch-black darkness, finally effected his release from fouled lines, thereby enabling him to reach the surface. Wearied but undaunted after several hours of arduous labor, Hammerberg resolved to continue his struggle to wash through the oozing submarine, subterranean mud in a determined effort to save the second diver. Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific pressure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his 2 comrades. His heroic spirit of self-sacrifice throughout enhanced and sustained the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.”

Author’s note: I have searched without success for the names of the Filipino father and son divers who rescued Earl Brown and recovered the body of Owen Hammerberg. Kindly let me know if you find that information. They too have earned the right to be remembered.

Feature image top of page: “Divers are lowered into Bikini Lagoon during an Operation Crossroads survey in July 1947”. Hat tip Naval History and Heritage Command

April 14, 1912 A Penny, to Remember

Warm and dry in our rooms we can only wonder what went through the minds, of those lowering the lifeboats. Among them was Thomas Millar who must have wondered why. He had wanted to give little Tommy and Ruddock, a better life. He was about to leave his sons, orphans.

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Captain Edward Smith

The great ship left the port of Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, narrowly averting an accident only minutes into her maiden voyage. 

The largest liner in the world at this time, the bow wave of the RMS Titanic lifted the liners SS City of New York and Oceanic at their moorings.  Dropping into the trough, New York’s mooring cables snapped with a sound like a rifle shot as the vessel swung about, stern-first. The crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled frantically to bring New York under tow as Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith ordered starboard engines hard astern. Collision was averted, by a scant four feet.

The liner to the left is the Oceanic. The stern of the New York edges towards the Titanic” H/T http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org

The idea for this largest of all luxury liners came about in 1907, construction beginning on March 31, 1909 at the Harland and Wolff shipyards of Belfast, Ireland.

Thomas Millar

In its prime Harland and Wolff was the largest shipyard in the world with some 40,000 workmen tramping to work across the cobblestone paved streets, of Belfast.

Thomas Millar was one of those workers. The son of a sailor Millar grew up in the shadow of the great vessels of northern Ireland and all but destined, for the shipbuilding industry. First came the apprenticeship with Harland & Wolff and later work at Vickers of Barrow, Workman, Clark & Co. of Belfast before returning to work, at Harland & Wolff.

Along the way, “Tommy” married Jane “Jennie” Ruddock, the marriage producing two sons, Thomas born February 9, 1901 and William Ruddock born March 5, 1907.

Millar took pride in his work, assigned to help build the great engines of RMS Titanic and proud to take some small part in the technological wonder, of the age. At night Millar would tell the boys about his work, wanting to instill in them the same pride he felt, in seeing the great liner take form.

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One of Britannic’s funnels, in transit to the ship

Disaster struck the family in January 1912 when Jennie died suddenly, of tuberculosis. With work now nearing completion on Titanic, the grieving father thought about a fresh start. He would improve his lot and that of his small family. So it was he left the dockyards to work, for the White Star Line. He would get himself settled and, when the time was right, he would reunite with his boys to pursue their new life. In America.

Thomas accepted work as assistant deck engineer for the White Star Line responsible for the upkeep of cranes, davits and the like. As things turned out he was assigned to the maiden voyage of the vessel he had helped to build. RMS Titanic.

With 16 transverse bulkheads Titanic could survive the breach, of as many as four. Shipbuilder Magazine dubbed the vessel “unsinkable”. The name was never officially sanctioned by her builders, but no matter. From that day, to this the name lives on, in the public imagination.

At last came the day. Time to leave. The work would be constant, and Thomas knew this was no place for children. He left the boys with his aunt Mary bidding the two, goodbye. “Be good to your aunt” he told the boys, “and try not to fight with your cousins”. He reached in his pocket and pulled out two new pennies. “Don’t spend these” he told his sons, “until we’re together again”.

Later that day the boys stood on the shores of Belfast Loch watching the liner, steam away. So tightly did each grip his penny the date imprinted into the palm of his small hand. 1912.

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The story from here, is familiar. On Sunday April 14, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Conditions were clear, calm and cold, just a few degrees above freezing. There had been warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but no ice was believed to pose a danger, to such a ship as Titanic. Captain Smith said it himself, that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge. Iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines in reverse, veering the ship to port. Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision was averted. Below the surface, the starboard side ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.

The ship was built to survive flooding in four watertight compartments. The iceberg had opened five. As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear. The great ship was doomed.

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The vessel was built for 64 wooden lifeboats but only carried, 16. Based as they were on ship size and not the number of passengers and crew, regulations required enough for 990. Titanic carried enough for 1,178.

There was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity. And yet, many boats were launched only half-full. Confused and still sleepy in the midnight air many refused the small boats, reluctant to leave the “safety” of the 40,000-ton ship. In other cases so strictly did some adhere to the “women and children first” directive, that evacuation included women and children, only. The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard. Lifeboat #1 rated for 60, contained 12.

Only 20 miles away the crewmen of the SS Californian saw distress rockets but dismissed them, as fireworks. Titanic’s wireless operator pleaded for help but the dits and dahs fell on deaf ears. Californian’s wireless operator, had gone to bed. 57 miles away the steamship Carpathia turned and dashed to the rescue but, too late.

In the hour and ½ it took to lower the lifeboats Titanic’s enormous propellers were visible above the water. Warm and dry in our rooms we can only wonder what went through the minds, of those lowering the lifeboats. Thomas Millawas one of those. Did he wonder in those last hours of his life…why? He had left to seek a better life for little Tommy and Ruddock. He was about to leave them orphans.

1,496 died that night of 2,223 passengers and crew. Mostly from hypothermia. Thomas Millar’s body if it was ever recovered, was never identified. Tommy and Ruddock never did spend those pennies. The coins remain treasured family heirlooms from that day to this. You can still see those two pennies if you like, on the streets of Belfast. There Thomas’ Great-Granddaughter Susie Millar directs “the original & ONLY Titanic themed tour in Belfast guided by the direct descendant of a crew member”. http://www.titanictours-belfast.co.uk/

March 18, 1917 The Concrete Fleet

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war with the need for new ships, greater than ever. Something had to be done. One answer, was concrete.

The last third of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented technological advancement, an industrial revolution of international proportion.

The war borne of the second industrial revolution, would be like none before.

From the earliest days of the “War to end all Wars”, the Triple Entente powers imposed a surface blockade on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, throttling the maritime supply of goods and crippling the capacity to make war. A 1928 academic study put the death toll by starvation at 424,000, in Germany alone.

The Kaiser responded with a blockade of his own, a submarine attack on the supply chain to the British home islands. It was a devastating incursion against an island adversary dependent on prodigious levels of imports.

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Joseph Louis Lambot’s first prototype, built 1848

1915 saw the first German attacks on civilian shipping. Total losses for that year alone came to 370 vessels against a loss of only 16 U-Boats.

The US was a late arrival to the “War to End All Wars”, as yet nominally neutral. On this day in 1917 President Woodrow Wilson’s request for a declaration of war and the Congress’ affirmative response, was a scant three weeks away.

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war with the need for new ships, greater than ever. Something had to be done. One answer, was concrete.

The idea of concrete boats was nothing new.  In the south of France, Joseph Louis Lambot experimented with steel-reinforced “ferrocement”, building his first dinghy in 1848.

By the outbreak of WW1, Lambot’s creation had sunk to the bottom of a lake, where it remained for 100 years, buried deep in anaerobic mud. Today you can see the thing at the Museum of Brignoles, in the south of France.

Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built barges and small ships of concrete in the 1890s.  British boat builders experimented with the stuff, in the first decade of the 20th century.  The Violette, built in Faversham in 1917, is now a mooring hulk in Kent, the oldest concrete vessel still afloat.

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Violette 3

The Violette built in 1917, is the oldest concrete ship, still afloat.

The American government contracted with Norwegian boat builder N.K. Fougner to create a prototype, the 84-foot Namsenfjord launched in August, 1917. The test was judged a success. President Wilson approved a twenty-four ship fleet consisting of steamers and tankers to aid the war effort. The first and largest of the concrete fleet, the SS Faith was launched on this day in 1918, thirty days ahead of schedule.

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“Constructed by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in 1918, the SS Faith was the first concrete ship built in the United States”. – H/T warfarehistorynetwork.com

The New York Times was ecstatic:

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‘”When the first steel vessels were built people said they would not float, or if they did they would be too heavy to be serviceable,” said W. Leslie Comyn, President of the concern which built the boat. “Now they say the same about concrete. But all the engineers we have taken over this boat, including many who said it was an impossible undertaking, now agree that it was a success”‘.

All that from a west coast meadow with two tool sheds, a production facility 1/20th the cost of a conventional steel shipyard.

The Great War ended eight months later with only half the concrete fleet, actually begun.  None were completed.  All were sold off to commercial shippers or for storage, or scrap.

For all its advantages as a building material, ferrocement has numerous drawbacks. Concrete is a porous material, and chunks tend to spall off from rusting steel reinforcements. We’ve all seen what that looks like, on bridge abutments. Worst of all, the stuff is brittle. On October 30, 1920, the SS Cape Fear collided with a cargo ship in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island and “shattered like a teacup”, killing 19 crewmen.

SS Palo Alto was a tanker-turned restaurant and dance club, before breaking up in heavy waves, in Monterey Bay.

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SS Palo Alto

SS San Pasqual was damaged in a storm in 1921 and became a warehouse for the Old Times Molasses Company of Havana. She was converted to a coastal defense installation during WW2 and outfitted with machine guns and cannon, then becaming a prison, during the Cuban revolution. The wreck was later converted to a 10-room hotel before closing, for good.  That was some swanky joint, I’m sure.

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SS San Pasquale

The steamer SS Sapona was sold for scrap and converted to a floating liquor warehouse during Prohibition, later grounding off the shore of Bimini during a hurricane.  All the liquor, was lost.

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SS Sapone as she looked, in 2009.  H/T Compsciscubadive

The SS Atlantus was destined to be sunk in place as a ferry dock in Cape May New Jersey in 1926, until she broke free in a hurricane and ran aground, 150-feet from the beach. Several attempts were made to free the hulk, but none successful. At one time, the wreck bore a billboard. Advertising a marine insurance outfit, no less. Kids used to swim out and dive off, until one drowned. The wreck began to split up in the late 1950s. If you visit sunset beach today, you might see something like the image, at the top of this page.

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SS Atlantus, Insurance billboard

In 1942, the world once again descended into war.  With steel again in short supply, the Roosevelt administration contracted for another concrete fleet of 24 ships.  The decades had come and gone since that earlier fleet.  This time, the new vessels came off the production line at the astonishing rate of one a month featuring newer and stronger aggregates, lighter than those of years past. Like the earlier concrete fleet, most would be sold off after the war.  Two of the WW2 concrete fleet actually saw combat service, the SS David O. Saylor and the SS Vitruvius.  

In March 1944, an extraordinary naval convoy departed the port of Baltimore. including the concrete vessels, SS David O. Saylor and SS Vitruvius.  It was the most decrepit procession to depart an American city since Ma and Pa Joad left Oklahoma, for California.  A one-way voyage with Merchant Marines promised a return trip, aboard Queen Mary.

Merchant mariner Richard Powers , described the scene:

“We left Baltimore on March 5, and met our convoy just outside Charleston, South Carolina,” Powers recalled. “It wasn’t a pretty sight: 15 old ‘rustpots.’ There were World War I-era ‘Hog Islanders’ (named for the Hog Island shipyard in Philadelphia where these cargo and transport ships were built), damaged Liberty Ships.”

1,154 U-boats were commissioned into the German navy before and during WW2, some 245 of which were lost in 1944.  The majority of those, in the North Atlantic.  The allied crossing took a snail’s pace at 33 days and, despite the massive U-boat presence, passed unmolested into Liverpool.  Powers figured, “The U-Boats were not stupid enough to waste their torpedoes on us.”

Herr Hitler’s Kriegsmarine should have paid more attention.

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On June 1, Seaman Powers’ parade of misfit ships joined a procession of 100 British and American vessels.  Old transports and battered warships, under tow or limping across the English channel at the stately pace of five knots.  These were the old and the infirm, the combat damaged and obsolete.  There were gaping holes from mine explosions, and the twisted and misshapen evidence of collisions at sea. Some had superstructures torn by some of the most vicious naval combat, of the European war.  Decrepit as they were, each was bristling with anti-aircraft batteries, Merchant Mariners joined by battle hardened combat troops.

Their services would not be required.  The allies had complete air supremacy over the English channel.

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A line of U.S. Liberty ships deliberately sunk off the coast at Omaha beach to form a breakwater for the Mulberry harbor there.(U.S. Army) H/T wearethemighty.com

These were the “gooseberries” and “blockships”.   Part of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors intended to form breakwaters and landing piers in support of the D-Day landing, charged with the difficult and dangerous task of scuttling under fire at five points along the Norman coast.  Utah.  Omaha.  Gold.  Juneau.  Sword.

Later on, thousands more merchant vessels would arrive in support of the D-Day invasion.  None more important than those hundred or so destined to advance and die, the living breakwater without which the retaking of continental Europe, would not have been possible.

A Trivial Matter
The British Army lost 19,240 killed on the first Day of the WW1 Battle of the Somme. French and German forces suffered a whopping 975,000 casualties on one single day of the ten-month Battle of Verdun. Imperial Russia lost five million soldiers, in the first two years of WW1. Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the previous 100 years. Combined.

February 3, 1917 Sink the Housatonic

n the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California and now the Zimmermann telegram…the events combined to become the last straw.  On April 2 the President who had won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war” addressed a joint session of the United States Congress, requesting a declaration of war.

The June 28, 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  began a cascade of events which would change the course of the 20th century.  Entangling alliances and mutual suspicion combined with slavish dependence on timetables to effect the mobilization and counter-mobilization of armies.  

Remember the 1960s counterculture slogan “what if there was a war and nobody came”? In 1914, no one wanted to show up late in the event of war.  And so, there was war.  By October, the “War to End All Wars” had ground down to the trench-bound hell which would characterize the next four years.

Both the German and British economies were heavily dependent on imports to feed populations at home and to prosecute the war effort. By February 1915, the two powers were attempting to throttle the other through naval blockade.

Great Britain’s Royal Navy had superior numbers, while the Imperial German Naval surface fleet was restricted to an area of the North Sea called the German Bight. In other theaters, Germans augmented their small navy with commerce raiders and “unterseeboots”.  More than any other cause it was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which would bring the United States into the war, two years later.

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On February 4, 1915, Imperial Germany declared a naval blockade against shipping to Britain stating that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening”. “Neutral ships” the statement continued, “will also incur danger in the war region”.

As the war unfolded, German U-boats sank nearly 5,000 ships, close to 13 million gross register ton including the Cunard Liner Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale, Ireland on May 7, 1915. 1,198 were drowned including 128 Americans. 100 of the dead, were children.

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Reaction in the United States and the United Kingdom alike were immediate, and vehement. The sinking was portrayed as the act of barbarians and Huns. For their part the Imperial German government maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, as the embassy pointed out ads were taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

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Warnings from the German embassy often ran directly opposite ads for the sailing itself. Many dismissed such warnings believing such an attack, was unlikely.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war.  The policy was reinstated in January 1917 prompting then-Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to comment, “Germany is finished”.  He was right.

On February 3, 1917, SS Housatonic was enroute from Galveston Texas to Liverpool England bearing a cargo of flour, and grain. Passing the southwest coast of England the liner was stopped and boarded by the German submarine U-53.

American Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who said he was sorry. Housatonic he said, was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”, and would be destroyed. The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship while German sailors raided the American vessel .

Based on what was taken, WWI vintage German subs were especially short on soap.

Abandoned and adrift Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, U-53 towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast. Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been seen, and then slipped away.

President Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the same day. Four days later a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

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Two weeks later, British Intelligence divulged the Zimmermann note to Edward Bell, secretary to the United States Embassy in Britain.  It was a diplomatic overture from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, promising American territories in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the United States.

Zimmermann’s note read, in part:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California and now the Zimmermann telegram…the events combined to become the last straw.  On April 2 the President who had won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war” addressed a joint session of the United States Congress, requesting a declaration of war.

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

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