December 13, 1941 Cook’s Assistant

There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

Similar to the Base Exchange system serving American military personnel, the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) is the UK-government organization operating clubs, bars, shops and supermarkets in service to British armed forces, as well as naval canteen services (NCS) aboard Royal Navy ships.

naafiNAAFI personnel serving on ships are assigned to duty stations and wear uniforms, while technically remaining civilians.

Tommy Brown was fifteen when he lied about his age, enlisting in the NAAFI on this day in 1941 and assigned as canteen assistant to the “P-class” destroyer, HMS Petard.

On October 30, 1942, Petard joined three other destroyers and a squadron of Vickers Wellesley light bombers off the coast of Port Said Egypt, in a 16-hour hunt for the German “Unterseeboot”, U–559.

Hours of depth charge attacks were rewarded when the crippled U-559 came to the surface, the 4-inch guns of HMS Petard, permanently ending the career of the German sub.

The U-559 crew abandoned ship, but not before opening the boat’s seacocks.   Water was pouring into the submarine as Lieutenant Francis Anthony Blair Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the water and swam to the submarine, with Junior canteen assistant Tommy Brown close behind.

Ww2-Hms-Petard-The-Enigma-2000-Cover

With the submarine sinking fast, Fasson and Grazier made their way into the captain’s cabin.   Finding a set of keys, Fasson opened a drawer, to discover a number of documents, including two sets of code books.

With one hand on the conning ladder and the other clutching those documents, Brown made three trips up and down from the hatch, to Petard’s whaler.

war (1)

With the sub beginning to sink, the canteen assistant called for his shipmates to get out of the boat, but the other two were trapped. Brown himself was dragged under, but managed to kick free and come to the surface.  Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, did not escape.

The episode brought Brown to the attention of the authorities, ending his posting aboard Petard with the revelation of his true age.  He never was discharged from the NAAFI, and later returned to sea on board the HMS Belfast.

grazier 2

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

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

Fasson Memorial

None of the three would ever learn that their actions had helped to end the war.

For German U-boat commanders, the period between the fall of France and the American entry into WW2 was known as “Die Glückliche Zeit” – “The Happy Time” – in the North Sea and North Atlantic.  From July through October 1940 alone, 282 Allied ships were sunk off the northwest approach to Ireland, for a combined loss of 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping.

tmp791791015303315457

Tommy Brown’s Mediterranean episode took place in 1942, in the midst of the “Second Happy Time”, also known among German submarine commanders as the American shooting season. U-boats inflicted massive damage during this period, sinking 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons with the loss of thousands of lives, against a cost of only 22 U-boats.

According to USMM.org, the United States Merchant marine suffered a higher percentage of fatalities at 3.9%, than any other American service branch during WW2.

enigma2Early versions of the German “Enigma” code were broken as early as 1932, thanks to cryptanalysts of the Polish Cipher Bureau, and French spy Hans Thilo Schmidt.

French and British military intelligence were read into Polish decryption techniques in 1939, \methods which were later improved upon by the British code breakers of Bletchley Park.  Vast numbers of messages were intercepted and decoded from Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe sources, shortening the war by at least a year, and possibly two.

The Kriegsmarine was a different story.  Maniacally jealous of security, Admiral Karl Dönitz introduced a third-generation enigma machine (M4) into the submarine service around May 1941, a system so secret that neither Wehrmacht nor Luftwaffe, were aware of its existence.  The system requires identical cipher machines at both ends of the transmission and took a while to put into place, with German subs being spread around the world.

By early 1942, all M4 machines were in place.  On February 2, German submarine communications went dark.  For code breakers at Bletchley Park, the blackout was sudden and complete.  Like the flipping of a switch.  For a period of nine months, Allies had not the foggiest notion of what the German submarine service was up to.  The result was disastrous.

BletchleyThe beginning of the end of darkness came to an end on October 30, when a ship’s cook climbed up that conning ladder.  Code sheets allowed British cryptanalysts to attack the “Triton” key used by the U-boat service.  It would not be long, before the U-boats themselves, were under attack.

Tommy Brown never knew what was in those documents.  The entire enterprise would remain Top Secret, until years after his death.  Winston Churchill would later write, that the actions of the crew of Petard, were crucial to the outcome of the war.  There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

thomas-brown-sharon-carley-462946894

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
Advertisements

December 7, 1941 Aftermath

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

It was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 am local time, December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes.  Across Hickam Field and over the still waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard the USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40′ were torn into her side in the first ten minutes of the fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.

_oahuBilge inspection plates had been removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawled out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four of them sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

Nine Japanese torpedoes struck USS Oklahoma’s port side, in the first ten minutes.

HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic
The last moments of USS Oklahoma.  H/T John F DeVirgilio for this graphic

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get at those trapped inside. 32 were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hell. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull. USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remaining within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona. Repairs were prioritized and USS Oklahoma was beyond repair. She, and her dead, would have to wait.

Oklahoma DiverRecovery of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex salvage operation ever attempted, beginning in March, 1943.  With the weight of her hull driving Oklahoma’s superstructure into bottom, salvage divers descended daily to separate the tower, while creating hardpoints from which to attach righting cables.

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull of the Oklahoma, 3″ cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.

Two pull configurations were used over 74 days, first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, the decks once again saw the light of day, for the first time in over two years.

rightng-strategy
USS Oklahoma, righting strategy

Fully righted, the ship was still ten-feet below water. Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed cavernous holes left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated. A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations. Divers stuffed kapok into gaps as water was pumped out.

Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job. Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day. 1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.

9781591147244CDR Edward Charles Raymer, US Navy Retired, was one of those divers. Raymer tells the story of these men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading.  Most of them are gone now, including Raymer himself.  They have earned the right to be remembered.

Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.

Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.

Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort. She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.

The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, destined for the indignity of a scrapyard in San Francisco bay. She would never make it. Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm, 540 miles east of Hawaii. On May 17, disaster struck. Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed that the former battleship was listing heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around, when these two giant tugs suddenly found themselves slowing to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.

the-tug-boat-hercules-william-havle
Ocean-going tug Hercules, photograph by William Havle

Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines to Oklahoma. Monarch’s line played out and detached, but Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment. With tow line straight down and sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks directly over Oklahoma’s final resting place, the 409-ton tug bobbing to the surface like the float of a child’s fishing line.

“Okie” had been stabbed in the back, attacked and mortally wounded before she knew her nation was at war.  The causes leading to her final descent, remain uncertain.  Most will tell you, those plates couldn’t hold.  The beating of six years earlier, was just too much.   Those who served on her decks, might tell you she preferred to die at sea.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

December 4, 1950 Wingmen to the End

Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was born in 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the son of a schoolteacher and a warehouse worker.   A mixed-race young man of African, Chickasaw and Choctaw ancestry, Jesse grew up in a time of real discrimination.  Brown had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up under depression-era segregation, but his parents kept him on the “straight & narrow”.  Julia and John Brown made sure their kids stuck with their studies.  Such parental devotion would serve them well.

jesse-leroy-brown-2

Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was born in 1924, the son of a successful Irish grocer from Fall River, Massachusetts who went on to attend the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, in 1939.

The pair could not have come from more different backgrounds, but both men became  carrier pilots with the United States Navy, and served together during the conflict in Korea.

110kqivOn June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south. The 38,000-man army of the Republic of Korea didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north. Within hours, the shattered remnants of the army of the ROK and its government, were streaming south toward the capital of Seoul.

The United Nations security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula. In November, the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict in support of their Communist neighbor.

By December, 120,000 troops of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) had all but overrun the 15,000 men of the US X Corps, who found themselves surrounded in the frozen wasteland of the Chosin Reservoir. Dozens of close air support missions were being flown every day to keep the Chinese army at bay.

At 13:38 on December 4, Thomas “Lou” Hudner took off from the carrier USS Leyte, part of a six-aircraft flight with squadron executive officer Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli, Lieutenant George Hudson, Lieutenant Junior Grade Bill Koenig, Ensign Ralph McQueen and Hudner’s wingman, Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown.

painting-off-to-the-chosin
“Off To The Chosin” by Nicolas Trudgian

An hour later, Koenig radio’d Brown that his aircraft appeared to be trailing fuel.  Chinese infantry were known to hide in the snow, and ambush incoming aircraft.  It’s likely that Brown was hit by small arms fire, from the ground.  Losing oil pressure with the aircraft all but impossible to control, Brown had no choice but to crash land on a snow covered mountain side. Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

wingmen-to-the-end
“Wingmen to the End” by Gareth Hector Hat tip Adam Makos, author of “Devotion, an epic story of heroism, friendship and sacrifice”, https://www.adammakos.com/devotion-book.html

Hudner did the unthinkable and deliberately crash landed his own aircraft.  Now injured himself, Hudner hobbled across the snow to the aid of his trapped wing man. He scooped snow onto the fire with his bare hands in the 15° cold, burning himself in the process as Brown faded in and out of consciousness. A Marine Corps helicopter landed at 15:00, piloted by Lieutenant Charles Ward.  The two went at the stricken aircraft with an axe for 45 minutes, but could not free the trapped pilot.

The two were considering Jesse’s plea that they amputate his trapped leg with that axe, when the pilot faded away for the last time. Jesse Brown’s last words were “Tell Daisy I love her”.

ap_jesse_brown_thomas_hudner_mi_130725_16x9_992

They had to leave. “Night was coming on” Hudner later explained, “and the helicopter was not equipped to fly in the dark. We’ll come back for you”, he said.  Jesse Brown could no longer hear.

Hudner pleaded the following day to be allowed to go back to the crash site, but his superiors were unwilling to risk further loss of life. Two days later, the site was bombed with napalm, to prevent the aircraft and the body from falling into Chinese or North Korean hands.  Jesse Brown’s body was still stuck in the cockpit though, by this time, his clothes had been removed.

23561321_1671529152912193_50553384345769687_n
H/T Sierra Hotel Aeronautics

American pilots recited the Lord’s prayer, as they watched his body being consumed by the flames.

Jesse LeRoy Brown, the first Black Naval Aviator in American history, became the first to die, sixty-eight years ago, today.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart,  posthumously.

Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside. One of eleven to be so honored following the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, Hudner would remain the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor, during the entire conflict in Korea.

In July of 2013, Thomas Hudner returned to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, in fulfillment of a 63-year-old promise.  “We’ll come back for you“.

Political relations with the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea were as frigid at that time as the frozen mountains of the Chosin Reservoir, yet Hudner received permission to return to the site. He was 88 at the time. In the end, wretched weather hampered the effort.  North Korean authorities told him to return when the weather was more cooperative.

Recently, American President Donald Trump has worked toward a thaw in relations on the Korean peninsula, in cooperation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Less than a week ago, a South Korean train crossed the demilitarized zone into North Korea, a move which would have been unheard of, for much of the last seventy years.

636463693852708011-hudner.scherry.10
“Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner, left, meets Commander Nathan Scherry following the christening of the USS Thomas Hudner in Bath, Maine, on April 1, 2017. Scherry will command the new guided-missile destroyer”.  H/T, KDSK.com

The future is uncertain, but Korean rapprochement comes too late for Lou Hudner and Jesse Brown.  Thomas Jerome “Lou” Hudner passed away at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, on November 13, 2017, and was buried a with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.  He was 93.  The remains of Jesse LeRoy Brown were never recovered from that North Korean mountainside.

Three days ago, Hudner’s wife of fifty years Georgea was on-hand to witness the United States Navy commission its newest naval warship in Boston.  The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Thomas Hudner.

Afterward – Do you believe in Ghosts?

November 21, 1916 Miss Unsinkable

Floating on the still, frigid waters of the north Atlantic, Violet Jessop must have wondered about Captain Smith.  This was not their first cruise together, nor even their first shipwreck.

The maiden voyage of the largest ship afloat left the port of Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew. An accident was narrowly averted only minutes later, as Titanic passed the moored liners SS City of New York and Oceanic.

Both smaller ships lifted in the bow wave formed by Titanic’s passing, then dropped into the trough. New York’s mooring cables snapped, swinging her about, stern-first. Collision was averted by a bare 4-feet as the panicked crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled to bring New York under tow.

Edward Smith
Titanic Captain, Edward Smith

By the evening of the 14th, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, conditions clear, calm and cold. There were warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but it was generally believed that ice posed little danger to large vessels at this time.  Captain Edward Smith opined 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 of an iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines put in reverse, veering the ship to the left. Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision had been averted. Below the surface, the starboard side of Titanic ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.

Violet_jessop_titanicThe 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 that the ship was doomed.

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The ship was built for 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4,000, however the White Star Liner carried only 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles. Regulations then in effect required enough room for 990 people. Titanic carried enough to accommodate 1,178.

As it was, there was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity.  So strictly did Royal Navy officer Charles Lightoller  adhere to the “women and children first” directive, that many boats were launched, half-full.  The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard.

Lightoller himself survived, only by clinging to the bottom of an overturned raft.

titanic-01-wallpaper

Violet Jessop was among those first to leave, clutching someone’s forgotten baby.  As ship’s nurse, she was there to look after the comfort of the White Star Line passengers.  Now, this small boat full of confused and disoriented women were being lowered into the cold and darkness of night, while all aboard the great ship was light, and warmth.

Denial is a funny thing, that psychological defense mechanism described by Sigmund Freud, in which a person rejects a plain fact too uncomfortable to contemplate.  There was denial aplenty that night, from the well dressed passengers filing onto the decks, and from Violet Jessop, counting the lighted portholes as the boat creaked ever downward.  One row, then two:  every abandoned stateroom a tableau.  Three, and four:  feathered hats on dressers, scattered jewels on table tops.  Five and then six:  each lighted circle revealing a snapshot, soon to slip out of sight.

violet-jessop-post-660x357

Floating on the still, frigid waters of the north Atlantic, Jessop must have wondered about Captain Smith.  This was not their first cruise together, nor even their first shipwreck.

The White Star Line’s RMS Olympic set sail for New York seven months earlier, with Captain Edward Smith, commanding. Violet Jessop was on duty as the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke performed mechanical tests, on a course parallel to the trans-Atlantic liner. Something went wrong and the tiller froze, swinging the bow of the Edgar-class cruiser, toward the liner. Hydrodynamic forces took over and the two ships collided, just after noon. The hull of the cruiser was smashed, two great gashes carved into the side of Olympic, one below the water line.

Two compartments flooded, but the watertight doors did their job. Olympic limped back to Southampton for repairs. Captain Smith and Violet Jessop moved on to the maiden voyage of her sister ship, the unsinkable RMS Titanic.

197-640x409

Denial turned to horror that frigid April night in 1912, when six rows of lights became five and then four, and Titanic began to rise by the stern.  RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene around 4am in response to distress calls, and diverted to New York with survivors.  Four days later, a crowd of 40,000 awaited the arrival of 705 survivors , in spite of a cold, driving rain.  It would take four full days to compile and release the list of casualties.

Violet Jessop survived that night.  Captain Smith, did not.

Back in 1907, Director General of the White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay planned a series of three sister ships, to compete with the Cunard lines’ Mauritania, and Lusitania. What these lacked in speed would be made up in size, and luxurious comfort. The three vessels were to be named Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic.

800px-Britannic_Funnel_in_transport
One of Britannic’s funnels, in transit to the ship

That last name was quietly changed following the Titanic disaster and, on December 12, 1915, the newly christened Britannic was ready for service.

Four years later, the world was at war. Nurse Jessop was working aboard HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic.  On November 21, 1916, HMHS Britannic was on station near Kea in the Aegean Sea, when she was struck by a German mine, or torpedo.  Violet Jessop calmly made her way to her cabin,  She’d been here, before.  There she collected a ring, a clock and a prayer book, and helped another nurse, collect her composure.

maxresdefault

After the Carpathia rescue, Jessop complained to friends and family that she missed her toothbrush. Her brother Patrick had jokingly told her, next time you wreck, “look after your toothbrush”.  This time, she didn’t forget it.

Britannic should have survived even with five watertight compartments filled, but nurses defied orders and opened the windows, to ventilate the wards.   In fifty-five minutes, HMHS Britannic replaced her sister ship Titanic, as the largest vessel on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately, daytime hours combined with warmer weather and more numerous lifeboats, to lessen the cost in lives.  1,035 were safely evacuated from the sinking vessel, keeping the death toll in the Britannic wreck, to thirty.

Violet Jessop survived three of the most famous shipwrecks of her age, and never tired of working at sea. She returned to work as stewardess aboard RMS Olympic after the war, before retiring to private life and passing away, in 1971.

John Maxtone-Graham, editor of “Titanic Survivor”, the story of her life, remembers one last story about “Miss Unsinkable”. Fifty-nine years after the wreck, the phone rang late one night, during a violent thunderstorm. A woman’s voice at the other end asked “Is this the Violet Jessop who was a stewardess on the Titanic and rescued a baby?” “Yes” came the reply, “who is this?” The woman laughed, and responded “I was that baby.”

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

November 14, 1851 The Real Moby Dick

The eighty-foot bull sperm whale charged in at the great speed of 24 knots according to First Mate Owen Chase, ramming the port bow and driving the stern into the water. Oak planking cracked and splintered as the whale worked his tail up and down, driving the 238-ton vessel backward. Essex had already started to go down when the whale broke off his attack, diving below the surface, never to return.

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

Essex sailed down the coast of South America, rounding the Horn and entering the Pacific Ocean. The word from other whalers, was that the fishing grounds off the Chilean coast were exhausted, so Essex sailed for the “offshore grounds”, almost 2,000 miles from the nearest land.

cde992e6edd27a574f090a6eef22f5b7

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

essex-hit-e1423695603699

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

seconda-gallery-ufficiale-per-in-the-heart-of-the-sea-le-origini-di-moby-dick

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

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

In-the-Heart-of-the-Sea-2-Full

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

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

cd8717566c2952f0745f257428198647

They never knew that this was Henderson Island, only 104 miles from Pitcairn Island, for eighteen years the refuge of the last survivors from the 1789 Mutiny on HMS Bounty.

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

EssexMap

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

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

The three who were left on Henderson Island were later rescued.  Several years later, the last whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island, four skeletons on board.

approaching pitcairn

The Essex was the first ship recorded to have been sunk by a whale.  She would not be the last. The Pusie Hall was attacked in 1835. The Lydia and the Two Generals were both sunk by whales in 1836, and the Pocahontas and the Ann Alexander came under attack in 1850 and ’51.  The clipper ship Herald of the Morning was struck by a sperm whale off Cape Horn in 1859, but not fatally.

On this day in 1851, a sailor-turned novelist published his sixth volume, beginning with the words, “Call me Ishmael”.  Thirty-one years nearly to the day, after the sinking of the whale ship Essex.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

November 10, 1775 Semper Fi

Happy 243rd birthday, United States Marine Corps.  Semper Fi.

The Navy had been in existence for less than a month and the Battles of Lexington and Concord a mere seven months in the past, when the Continental Marines were formed by an act of the 2nd Continental Congress, convened on November 10, 1775.

“Resolved, That two Battalions of Marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or inlisted into said Battalion, but such are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required: that they be inlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress: that they be distinguished by the names of the first and second battalion of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.”

Happy-Birthday-US-Marine-Corps

Historians differ on the location of the first recruiting station. Some will tell you that it was the “Conestoga Waggon” tavern in Philadelphia. Tradition holds it to have been the “Tun Tavern”, a name coming from the Olde English “Tun”, meaning a barrel or a keg of beer.

Continental Marines served a number of important functions during the Revolution, including ship-board security, amphibious assault and ship to ship combat. Then as now, Marines were riflemen first. During naval engagements they could be found in the masts and rigging, their sharpshooters’ skills taking out opposing helmsmen, gunners and ship’s officers.

tun-tavern--birthplace-of-the-marine-corps-bill-cannon
Tun Tavern, birthplace of the Marine Corps, by Bill Cannon

The first Marine landing on a hostile shore took place in March the following year, when a Marine force under the former Quaker, Captain Samuel Nicholas, captured New Province Island in the Bahamas. The island’s British governor managed to ship out 150 barrels of powder, but several brass cannon and mortars were captured, and later put to use with George Washington’s Continental Army.

Captain Nicholas was the first commissioned officer in the Continental Marines, and is now remembered as the first commandant of the Marine Corps.

list-us-marine-Battle_of_Nassau-E
First Marine landing, New Providence Island Bahamas, March 3, 1776

The Continental Congress disbanded the Marines in 1783, following their help in winning American independence. Increasing conflict and the coming “quasi-war” with revolutionary France would soon bring them back.

President John Adams signed a bill establishing the United States Marine Corps as a permanent military force under Navy jurisdiction on July 11, 1798.

The most famous action of the early period occurred during the Tripolitan War of 1801–’05, against the Barbary states of Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, and the independent Sultanate of Morocco. US Army Lieutenant William Eaton and United States Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon led eight Marines and 500 mercenaries on a 600-mile forced march through the desert, against a much larger force defending the city of Derna, in Libya.

list-us-marinesAttack_on_Derna_by_Charles_Waterhouse_01
US Marine attack Derna, by Charles Waterhouse

Ottoman viceroy Prince Hamet awarded a Mameluke sword to O’Bannon on December 8, 1805, in a gesture of respect for the Marines’ conduct. That curved, cross-hilted scimitar became the model for swords worn by Marine officers to this day, the victory at Derna memorialized in a line from the Marine Corps Hymn “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli”.

Marine-Corps-Mameluke-sword

Since then, the Marine Corps has participated in virtually every conflict ever fought by the United States, and usually the first ones in. To date, United States Marines have executed over 300 landings on foreign shores.

Badly outnumbered in 1918 near the French hunting preserve of Belleau Wood, Marines under General James Harbord, were urged to withdraw.  One captain retorted “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”  Over three weeks, US Marines and Army troops made a half-dozen assaults on German positions in the Wood, enduring poison gas, withering machine gun fire and hand to hand combat.  Belleau Wood killed more Marines than every battle in Marine Corps history combined, and proved for all time the Marine Corps’ reputation as an elite fighting force.

Marines in the World War II era are best known for Pacific “island hopping” battles such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Iwo Jima, but 6,000 Marines took part in nearly every theater, of the war.  Always riflemen first, it was Marine Corps sharpshooters who cleared the way for the D-Day landing, picking off floating mines on the morning of June 6.

To the Germans of Belleau Wood, this new and unfamiliar fighting force were “Höllenhunde” (“hellhound”), “Teufelshunde”, (“Devil Dogs.”), an appellation which survives, to this day.  Devil Dog and Marine Corps mascot “Chesty XV” arrived at Marine barracks Washington DC on March 19, 2018, the phase I recruit to begin training, immediately.

marines-chesty-bulldog.jpg

The original Tun Tavern burned down in 1781, shortly before the end of the Revolution. Today, the site is part of Interstate 95, where the highway passes Penn’s landing. You can still visit the Tun Tavern-styled restaurant at the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, where a beer and a bread pudding is always part of the lunch menu.

The USMC has 182,000 active duty members as of 2016, with 38,500 in reserve. They are separated into three divisions, headquartered at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Camp Pendleton in California; and Okinawa, Japan. Each division maintains one or more expeditionary units, prepared for major operations anywhere in the world on two weeks’ notice.

Happy-Birthday-USMC-1.jpg

Over the course of Marine Corps history, fewer than 100 people have ever received the title of Honorary Marine, including Brigadier General Bob Hope, Master Sergeant Bugs Bunny, Corporal Jim Nabors and Gary Sinise of the “Lieutenant Dan Band”. Such a title may only be bestowed by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the license plate of whose car will always read “1775”.

Happy 243rd birthday, United States Marine Corps.  Semper Fi.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

November 6, 1944 Going Home

For the first and last time in history, a man was deliberately buried at sea, inside of the aircraft he had served.

When the Great Depression fell over the nation in the 1930s, few states had a harder time of it, than Oklahoma.  Loyce Edward Deen grew up in this world, the seventh of eight children born to Grace and Allen Deen in the small town of Sulphur.

The family moved to Altus, Oklahoma where Allen worked as a schoolteacher.  Loyce would care for his younger brother Lewis, born with Down’s syndrome.  The pair became close. It must have broken Loyce’s heart when Lewis became and ill and died, while Loyce was still in Jr. High.

Loyce and his older brother Lance were busy during the High school years, caring for Grace following a debilitating stroke.

Loyce’s niece Bertha Deen Sullivan was little at the time, and still remembers.  “Loyce was a tall dark handsome young man with deep blue eyes”. He would pick her up and ask “Who loves ya?”, and then he would kiss her on the forehead.

Altus was the kind of small town, where the newspaper printed the bio of every graduating High school senior. The Times-Democrat wrote that “Loyce Deen is a young man with high ambitions. He plans to enter the US Navy aeronautical mechanics division after graduation and finds subjects such as problems of American democracy, the most interesting. He has also been active in dramatics work at school.

Loyce worked for a time with the government’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and later joined the Douglas Aircraft Company in Wichita, building wing sets for the A-26 Invader attack bomber.

Loyce_pic_Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Loyce had wanted to join the Navy. In October 1942, he did just that. First there was basic training in San Diego, and then gunner’s school, learning all about the weapons systems aboard a Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber. Then on to Naval Air School Fort Lauderdale, before joining the new 15th Air Group, forming out of Westerly, Rhode Island.

On April 29, 1944, the Air Group reported for duty aboard the “Fightingest Ship in the Navy” at Pearl Harbor.  The aircraft carrier, USS Essex.

An Air Group consists of eighty or so aircraft, of three distinct types. First are the fighters, the fast, single seat Grumman Hellcats. Next are the two-seat dive bombers, the Curtiss Helldivers, the pilot joined by a rear-seat gunner whose job it is to lay the one-ton bomb on the target, while handling a machine gun at the same time. Third is the torpedo bomber, the Grumman Avenger, with two enlisted crewmen in addition to the pilot. The Avenger carries a ton of bombs, depth charges or aerial torpedoes and, like the Helldiver, is designed for low-level attack.

cache_3727742604Loyce was the turret gunner on one of these Avengers, assigned to protect the aircraft from above and teamed up with Pilot Lt. Robert Cosgrove from New Orleans, Louisiana and Radioman Digby Denzek, from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cosgrove was a superb pilot, often returning aircraft to the carrier, so shot up as to seem unflyable. Digby had several jobs, including arming the weapons systems, and operating the radio. When the team was under fire, Digby would crawl down into a ball turret on the belly of the aircraft, his machine gun defending, from below.

The 15th Air group saw some of the most intense fighting it had ever encountered during the battle of Leyte Gulf of October 24-25, 1944. Commander Lambert, who oversaw the Avenger squadron, described “Coming in through the most intense and accurate AA yet experienced, the squadron made three hits on one battleship, two hits on another battleship, and two hits each on two different heavy cruisers“.

Dennis_Blalock
Dennis Blalock of Calhoun GA, his hands on the shoulders of shipmate, Loyce Deen. Both would be dead within ten days, of this photograph

Deen received a shrapnel wound to his foot sometime during the fighting of the 24th. He wrapped the thing up and stayed on to fight, the following day. He would receive a Purple heart medal for the wound. Posthumously.

Following rest and replenishment at Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands, USS Essex was on station for the November 5 Battle of Manila Bay.  Loyce could have stayed back on a hospital ship until that foot healed, but chose to ignore the injury and rejoin his unit.

Loyce’s niece Bertha, was not surprised. On being informed of his injury, she said “I’m not surprised he stayed with his unit. Loyce would not have it any other way – he would always remain at his post to make sure his brothers came home safely with him.

Loyce Deen climbed into his gun turret for the last time on November 5. It was a two hour ride to the target zone in Manila Bay, with Japanese aircraft on the radar for most of that time, and the carriers USS Lexington and Ticonderoga, under kamikaze attack.

Lieutenant Cosgrove’s Avenger came under savage anti-aircraft fire, from a Japanese cruiser.  Loyce Deen took two direct hits and was killed, instantly.  The Avenger aircraft, tail number 93, was so smashed up as to be all but unflyable.  It took all of the pilot’s strength and skill to fly the thing back through two thunderstorms, and land on the Essex.

e281f946d5375133dd2c1afe6213dacd

What remained of Loyce Edward Deen was so badly mangled, it was all but impossible to remove him from his smashed turret.  For the first and last time in history, a man was deliberately buried at sea, inside of the aircraft he had served.

Fingerprints were taken and dog tags removed.  This Avenger was not even scavenged, for parts.  With the crew of the USS Essex assembled on deck, the shattered aircraft was pushed over the side.  Two other Avengers flew overhead in salute, as the tail dipped beneath the waves.

Loyce Edward Deen, was going home.

Not long after the ceremony, the Essex went to General Quarters.  There were kamikazes to deal with.

Lt. Cosgrove and the rest of Air Group 15 got back into their aircraft the following day and again on the 12th, 13th and 14th, and attacked those same cruisers in Manila Bay.

The Deen family would not receive the knock on the door, until Thanksgiving week.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.