October 11, 1776 Valcour Island

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

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

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

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Profile of the schooner “Liberty”

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

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

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

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

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Sawmill at Fort Anne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A 1905 postcard displays the remains of Benedict Arnold’s flagship, the “Congress”.
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September 27, 1943 The Waving Girl

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

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

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

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

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

The Waving Girl Statue
The Waving Girl Statue

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

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

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

Florence Martus
Florence Margaret Martus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FlorenceMartusTheWavingGirl

August 29, 1854  The President’s Desk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Trump at Resoute Desk

July 30 1945 USS Indianapolis

“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 heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis set out on its secret mission on July 16, 1945, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay, III.  She was delivering “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian, the atomic bomb which would later be dropped on Hiroshima.

USS_Indianapolis_at_Mare_IslandIndianapolis 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.

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 she had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.

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

For four days they treaded water, alone in open ocean, hoping for the rescue that did not come.   Shark attacks began on the first day, and didn’t let up for the entire time they were in the water. Kapok life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless.

Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the days went by. Some went insane and began to attack shipmates.  Others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them in a matter of hours.

Some simply swam away, following some hallucination that only they could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, and then disappear from sight, as the sharks claimed another victim.

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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.

At Naval Command, there was confusion about where Indianapolis was to report when it arrived.  When the cruiser failed to arrive on the 31st, there was no report of the non-arrival.  Perhaps worst, a message which could have clarified Indianapolis’ expected arrival on Monday came through garbled, and there was no request to repeat it.

As it was, only the barest of chances led to Indianapolis’ survivors being located at all.   Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn, pilot of a Ventura scout-bomber, had lost the weight from a navigational antenna wire.  Belly-crawling through the fuselage to fix the thrashing antenna, Gwinn noticed an oil slick.  Back in the cockpit, he dropped down to have a better look.  Only then did he spot men floating in open ocean.

Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks and his PBY Catalina amphibious patrol aircraft were the first on the scene.  Horrified to see sharks actually attacking the men below, Marks landed his flying boat at sea.   The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, half dead after almost five days in the water.  Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 317 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.

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 at least two Japanese submarines operated within the area.  No Matter.  A capital ship had been lost and someone was going to pay.  A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to Captain McVay’s court-martial.

No less a figure than Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz (CINCPAC) and Admiral Raymond Spruance, for whom the Indianapolis had served as 5th Fleet flagship, opposed the court-martial, believing McVay to be guilty of an error in judgement at worst, not gross negligence. Naval authorities in Washington saw things differently, particularly Navy Secretary James Forrestal and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King.

Captain McVay’s orders were to “zigzag” at discretion, a naval maneuver most effective at avoiding torpedoes already in the water.   No Navy directives in effect at that time or since have so much as recommended, let alone ordered, zigzagging at night or in poor visibility.

Prosecutors flew I-58 commander Hashimoto in to testify at the court-martial, but he 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.

Captain Charles Butler McVay, III
Captain Charles Butler McVay, III

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

As the years went by, McVay began to question himself.  In time, he came to feel the weight of the Indianapolis’ dead, a soul crushing burden from which there was no escape.  On November 6, 1968, Charles McVay took a seat on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and killed himself.  He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.

The ULTRA code-breaking system which revealed I-58’s presence on Indianapolis’ course, would not be declassified until the early 90s.

Afterward:

Hunter Alan Scott was 11 and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. He was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of Indianapolis’ shark attacks.  The next year, he created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on 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, only to be rejected because he used the wrong type of notebook to organize the material.

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 New Hampshire joined Scarborough in a joint resolution of Congress.  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.

The record cannot not be expunged – Congress has rules against even considering bills which alter military records.  Yet Captain McVay had been exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried for years to accomplish, without success.  Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.

The last word on the whole episode belongs to Captain Hashimoto, who wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1999 on behalf of Captain McVay.  “Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences“, wrote the former submarine commander, now a Shinto Priest.  “Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction“.

July 29, 1967 USS Forrestal

With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control.   Flare-ups would continue inside the ship until 4:00 the next morning.

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

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1,000lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. These tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb, featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures.  Like a huge sparkler.

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US Navy A-7 Corsair drops a load of Mark 83 bombs; Photograph by USN – Official U.S. Navy photograph from the USS Ranger (CVA-61) 1970-71 Cruise Book., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18491727

Along with the Mark 83s, the ordnance resupply had included 16 AN-M65A1 “fat boy” bombs, WWII surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs of the 29th.  These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 20+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than newer ordnance, composition B becomes more so as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful as well, up to 50%, by weight.

These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last 30 years in the heat and humidity of the Philippine jungle.  Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys.  They were rusting and leaking paraffin, their packaging rotted.  Some had production dates as early as 1935.

Handlers were wary of these old weapons, fearing they might go off spontaneously during catapult launch. Someone suggested that they be immediately jettisoned. Captain John Beling was informed of these concerns, and demanded that Diamond Head, their supply ship, take them back and exchange them for newer ordnance.  The reply was that there were no more.   Combat operations were using Mark 83s up faster than new ones could be procured. Fat boys were all that was available.

At 10:50am local time, July 29, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.

Today, John McCain’s diagnosis of brain cancer has brought the Senator from Arizona to prominence in the evening news.  Fifty years ago today, Lieutenant Commander John McCain was in the cockpit of an A-4 Skyhawk. Next to him was Lieutenant Commander Fred D. White in his own A-4.

An electrical malfunction fired a 5″ Zuni rocket across the flight deck and into White’s fuel tank. The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented it 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 as McCain scrambled down the nose of the aircraft and across the refueling probe.

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Damage Control Team #8 sprang into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boys turning cherry red in the flames. Without benefit of protective clothing, Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1,000lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent its cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.

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.  The bomb went off in just over a minute, killing Farrier instantly and virtually the entire firefighting team, along with Fred White, who was a split second behind McCain.

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By Official U.S. Navy Photograph – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID USN 1124794

The Mark 83 bombs performed as designed, but eight of the old thousand-pounders went off in the next few seconds, triggering the sympathetic detonation of at least one 500 pounder. The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist as huge holes were torn in the flight deck, flaming jet fuel draining into the aircraft hangar and the living quarters below.

Gary Childs, my uncle, was in his cabin when the fire broke out, leaving just before his quarters were engulfed in flames.  With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, he and hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control.   Flare-ups continued inside the ship until 4:00am on the 30th.

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Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial contains the names of 134 crewmen who died in the  conflagration. Eighteen of those found their final rest at Arlington National Cemetery.  Another 161 were seriously wounded. Not including the aircraft, damage to the USS Forrestal exceeded $72 million.  Equivalent to over $415 million today.

July 24, 1915 Shipwreck in Chicago

Woodrow Wilson’s administration passed strict lifeboat legislation in the wake of the RMS Titanic disaster. Ironically, that weight is probably what doomed the already top-heavy Eastland, to disaster.

The SS Eastland was a passenger steamship based in Chicago, used for tours of the inland waterways and Great Lakes areas around the city.  Eastland’s design was top heavy and made her subject to listing, a problem that plagued the ship from her christening in 1903. Embarking passengers would crowd along the rail to wave goodbye, several times having to be herded across the decks to reduce the list. Once, she even started to take on water at the main gangplank.SS_Eastland

Special passenger restrictions were imposed on Eastland, which seemed to help until 1914, when Woodrow Wilson’s administration passed strict lifeboat legislation in the wake of the RMS Titanic disaster.

The ironic part is that the weight of additional lifeboats is probably what doomed the already top-heavy Eastland to disaster.

It was July 24, 1915, when Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and the Petoskey, were chartered to take Western Electric employees to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Eastland was docked on the south bank of the Chicago River, between Clark and LaSalle, near the site of the present day Merchandise Mart. Passengers began boarding around 6:30am.  By 7:10 the ship had reached its full capacity of 2,572 passengers.

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A number of passengers went below decks to get out of the chill, but hundreds stayed out on the upper decks, excited about the day ahead. The port side list away from the dock, had set in early in the boarding process, and crew members began to pump water into the starboard ballast tanks to stabilize the ship.  Something interesting must have happened on the river at 7:28, causing a number of passengers to rush to the port side rail.

Novelist Jack Woodford witnessed what happened next, describing it in his autobiography: “And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy”.  Hundreds were trapped below decks, others were crushed under heavy bookcases, pianos and tables.

Another vessel, the Kenosha, pulled alongside almost immediately.  Several passengers were able to jump directly onto her decks, others were rescued at the wharf, only 20′ away.  Hundreds were beyond saving.

Eastland_PostcardTemporary morgues were set up in area buildings for the identification of the dead; including what is now the sound stage for The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Studios, and the location of the Chicago Hard Rock Cafe.

Then-20-year-old George Halas was scheduled to be on the Eastland, but he was late and showed up after the capsize. 844 passengers and four crew members lost their lives in the disaster, but Eastland herself would have a second life. She was raised from the bottom, converted to a gun boat, and stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Reserve, re-christened USS Wilmette.

Wilmette saw no combat service in WWI, though she was given the task of sinking UC-97, a German U-Boat surrendered to the US after WWI. Wilmette’s guns were manned by Gunner’s Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in WWI, and Gunner’s Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo of the war.

Wilmette would serve once again as a training ship in WWII, and sold for scrap on Halloween day, 1946.

July 18, 1812  Slow-Motion Race for Survival

During the late Revolution, some five times the number of Americans died in the dreadful prison ships and camps of the British, than were killed in combat.  There was little reason to believe that the prisoners of this war would fare any better.  Constitution faced a race for survival and the stakes were life and death.

Launched in 1794 and named by George Washington, USS Constitution was one of 6 three masted, heavy frigates built for the United States Navy. Her hull was made of the wood from 2,000 Georgia live oak trees, and built in the Edmund Hartt shipyard of Boston, Massachusetts.

Constitution’s August 1812 gun battle with HMS Guerriere has been well documented. Watching Guerriere’s shots bounce off Constitution’s hull, an American sailor exclaimed “Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!” The “Old Ironsides” nickname was born.

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[http://www.stuartswanfurniture.com/ironsides.htm#Guerriere Stuart Swan] USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere 19 August 1812 This painting by Anton Otto Fischer depicts the first victory at sea by the fledgling US Navy over the mighty Royal Navy.
Less well known is Constitution’s slow-motion race with death, which had taken place a month earlier.

The War of 1812 was declared on the 18th of June.   Constitution put to sea on July 12 under the command of Captain Isaac Hull. She was looking to join a five-ship squadron under Captain John Rodgers, when five sails were spotted off Egg Harbor, New Jersey.  It was July 17.  Hull first believed them to be Rodgers’ squadron, but he was mistaken.  Lookouts reported on the morning of the 18th that they were 5 British warships, and they were giving chase.

That soon to be famous “iron” hull would have been useless in a five-to-one fight. A common naval tactic of the day was to close to short range and fire at the masts and rigging of opposing vessels, thus shutting down the ship’s “power plant”.  A disabled vessel could then be boarded and a bloody fight would ensue with cutlass and pistol. There was no question, whatever.  For those 5 British captains, Constitution would have been a great prize.

In the late Revolution, some five times the number of Americans died in the dreadful prison ships and camps of the British, than those killed in combat.  There was little reason to believe that the prisoners of this war would fare any better.  Constitution faced a race for survival and the stakes were life and death.

Conditions were near dead calm and all six vessels were wetting sail, trying to get the most out of light winds. In a process called “kedging”, Hull ordered ship’s boats to row out ahead, carrying small “kedge anchors” to the end of their chains and dropping them overboard. Sailors would then haul the great ship up the chain, hand over hand, and the process would be repeated. The British ships soon imitated the tactic, in a slow-motion chase lasting 57 hours in the July heat.

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Constitution’s crew dumped everything they could find overboard to lessen the weight, including 2,300 gallons of drinking water. Cannon fire was exchanged several times, though the shots fell short of their mark.  On July 19, Constitution pulled far enough ahead that the British broke off their pursuit.

Old Ironsides was brought into drydock in May 2015, beginning 26 months’ restoration.   The highest tide of the summer will occur this Sunday, when the dry dock will be flooded and the ship will be towed out into Boston harbor.

There the restoration will continue, including the installation of  standing and running rigging.  President Washington’s three-masted, heavy frigate may be boarded peacefully this September, when the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat, is once again opened to the public.

I wonder what George Washington would say, if he heard she has her own Facebook page.

Old Ironsides, Drydock