January 17, 1994 Death of a Troop Ship

SS America had the largest total of any Navy troop ship in service during WWII, and included USO entertainers, Red Cross workers, and prisoners of war

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

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

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

Naval interiors of the age tended to be stodgy and overwrought. SS America has the almost unique distinction of having its interiors designed entirely by women, as naval architect William Francis Gibbs turned to the all-female team of Miriam Smyth, Ann Urquhart & Dorothy Marckwald. “It is not without reason”, according to team leader “Dot” Marckwald, “the majority of the passengers are women, and no man could ever know as much about their comfort problems and taste reactions as another woman.”ss-america-lounge-from-balcony

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

She would serve as a passenger liner for the two years remaining for US neutrality, with American flags painted on both sides of her hull.  At night she’d sail while fully illuminated.

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

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

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

Returned to civilian service in 1946 and re-christened America, the ship remained a favorite for cruise ship vacationers through most of the fifties. By 1964, the competition from larger, faster ships and the airlines had put the best years behind the aging liner. Sold and then sold again, she had come full circle by 1978, when new owners tried to capitalize on the old ship’s mystique. She was in terrible condition and her refit nowhere near complete when America set sail on her first cruise on June 30, 1978. There was rusted metal, oil soaked rags and backed up sewage. There were filthy mattresses and soiled linens, and so many complaints that the ship turned back after barely clearing the Statue of Liberty.

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

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

Sold yet again in 1993 and renamed the American Star, the new owners planned to convert her to a five-star hotel ship off Phuket, Thailand. A planned 100 day tow began on New Year’s Eve of 1993, but the lines broke. On January 17, 1994, the former SS America was wreck-ss-americaadrift in foul seas, running aground in the Canary Islands the following day.

Discussions of salvage operations were soon squashed, as the ship broke in two in the pounding surf.

The National WWII Museum in New Orleans reports on its website that the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now passing at a rate of 550 per day.  The Frank Buckles of their era, the last living American veteran of WWI, is expected to pass some time in the 2030s.  How many, I wonder, might think back and remember passage on the most successful troop transport of their day.

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

 

 

 

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December 22, 1944 Battered Bastards of Bastogne

The American medic, knowing he had to convey the intent of the message, translated as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen”. You can go to hell.

The largest German offensive of the western front burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming to drive a wedge between British and American forces, and to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to the German’s ability to re-supply. It was called “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein”, “Operation Watch on the Rhine”.

The tactical surprise was complete, allied forces driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the US in WWII, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving 610,000+ Americans.WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE LOW COUNTRIES

The seven roads leading to Antwerp converged in Bastogne, in what the Germans called “Straße Oktopus”, “Road Octopus”. The town was strategically indispensable to the German drive on Antwerp, and all or parts of 7 German armored divisions converged on the place. Over 54,000 men. The Allies understood the importance of the place as well as the Germans, and General Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to hold the town at all costs.

bastogne_resupply1944_smFor two days, a desperate defense of the nearby villages of Noville and Foy held back the 2nd Panzerdivision, as 11,000 men and 800 officers of the 101st joined a combined force of 11,000 converging on Bastogne. By the 21st, Bastogne’s field hospital was overrun, they were surrounded by forces outnumbering them 2½ to one. Poorly supplied for the cold winter conditions with air supply made all but impossible by weather conditions, the citizens of Bastogne gave their blankets to the American soldiers, along with white linens which they used for camouflage.

On the morning of December 22, 1944, two German officers appeared at the American perimeter along with two enlisted men, carrying a white flag. They were a Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corps, and Lt. Hellmuth Henke of the Panzer Lehr Operations Section. They carried a note from German General Luttwitz, 165 words in all, and reading in part: “To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne. There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note”.

The note worked its way up the chain of command to the acting Division Commander, General Tony McAuliffe. Told that there was a surrender ultimatum, McAuliffe first thought that it was the Germans who wanted to surrender. Soon disabused of that notion, he laughed and said: “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!”

Knowing that he had to reply, McAuliffe said “Well I don’t know what to tell them.” Lt. General Harry Kinnard spoke up, saying, “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat”. McAuliffe said, “What do you mean?” and Kinnard replied “Sir, you said ‘Nuts’.” They all agreed, and McAuliffe wrote his reply. “To the German Commander, “Nuts!” The American Commander.”

Joseph H. “Bud” Harper was the American army officer who delivered the reply, with medic Ernie Premetz acting as translator.

Confused by the American slang, Henke asked “What does that mean?” Harper said to Premetz “You can tell them to take a flying shit.” The medic, knowing he had to convey the intent of the message, translated as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen”. You can go to hell. Harper then said, “If you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.” Henke replied, “We will kill many Americans. This is war.” Harper then said, “On your way Bud, and good luck to you.”

Years later, Harper would say that he always regretted wishing them luck.

Elements of George Patton’s 3rd Army would break through from the southwest four days bastognelater, ending the German encirclement.

By the end of January, the last great effort of German armed forces had been spent and driven back beyond their original lines. An official report by the US Army on the Battle of the Bulge lists 108,347 casualties, including 19,246 killed, 62,489 wounded and 26,612 captured and missing. Those numbers could have been far worse, if not for what newspapers would soon call the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”.

Afterward

Augusta Marie Chiwy (“Shee-wee”) was the bi-racial daughter of a Belgian veterinarian and a Congolese mother she never knew.  Thinking it safe to visit her father in Bastogne that Christmas, Chiwy found herself, like everyone else in that place, surrounded.  A trained nurse, Chiwy spent the augusta-chiwy-at-workentire siege tending to the wounded, along with Dr. Jack Prior.  Once, she even ran through enemy fire to collect the wounded from the field.  On Christmas eve, she was blown off her feet and through a wall. She got up and went back to it, despite the direct hit that killed 30 American wounded, along with the only other nurse at the Rue Neufchatel aid station, Renée Lemaire. 

A Black nurse called “Anna” briefly appeared in Historian Stephen Ambrose’ ‘A Band of Brothers’, and on the HBO series based on the book.  But who was Anna?  Was she a myth?  British military historian Martin King discovered her in a nursing home, 61 years after the encirclement ataugusta-chiwy-in-old-age Bastogne.  Chiwy married after the war, and rarely talked about her experience in Bastogne.  It took King a full 18 months to coax the story out of her.  The result was the 2015 Emmy award winning historical documentary, “Searching for Augusta, The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne”.

In 2011, she was awarded a Knighthood in the Order of the Crown in the name of King Albert II of Belgium.  The United States Army awarded her the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service, presented by the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium.  Augusta Chiwy died on August 23, 2015, near Brussels.

December 20, 1943 Fishing Buddies

“You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity”

franz-stiglerAt the age of 26, Franz Stigler was an Ace. The Luftwaffe pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, some of his kills had been revenge, payback for the death of his brother August earlier in the war. But this man was no Nazi. He was a German Patriot with 22 confirmed kills. On December 20, 1943, he needed one more for a Knight’s Cross. He tossed his cigarette aside and climbed into his fighter as the crippled American B17 bomber lumbered overhead. This was going to be an easy kill.

21-year-old Charles Brown was at the throttle of that B17, a planeb17pilotcharlesbrown named “Ye Olde Pub”. The earlier attack on the munitions factory in Bremen had been a success, but the pilot and crew paid a heavy price for it. Their aircraft had been savaged by no fewer than 15 German fighters. Great parts of the air frame were torn away, one wing severely damaged and part of the tail torn away. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns. Brown himself had been knocked out at one point, coming around just in time to avert a fatal dive.

The aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude, the American pilot well inside German air space when he looked to his left and saw his worst nightmare. Three feet from his wing tip was the sleek gray shape of a German fighter, the pilot so close that the two men were looking into one another’s eyes.

Brown’s co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke said “My God, this is a nightmare.” “He’s going to destroy us,” came the reply. This had been Brown’s first mission, he was sure it was about to be his last.

Before his first mission, Stigler’s commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, had said “Honor is everything here.  If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself”. Stigler must have remembered those words as he watched the wounded, terrified US airmen inside the B17, some still helping one another with their injuries. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy, Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

ye-olde-pub-christmas-b-17
Tail Gunner, Ye Olde Pub

The German had to do something. The Nazis would surely shoot him for treason if he was seen this close without completing the kill. One of the American crew was making his way to a gun turret as the German made his decision. Stigler saluted his adversary, motioned with his hand for the stricken B17 to continue, and then peeled away. Ye Olde Pub made it, crossing 250 miles of the frozen North Sea before finally landing in Norfolk.

More than 40 years later, the German pilot was living in Vancouver, Canada, when Brownbrown-and-stigler took out an ad in a fighter pilots’ newsletter. It said that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ Stigler saw the ad, and the two met for the first time in 1987. “It was like meeting a family member”, Brown said at their first meeting, “like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years”.

fishing-buddiesThe two became close friends and occasional fishing buddies until their passing in 2008, six months apart. Stigler was age 92 and Brown 87. Their story is told in a book called “A Higher Call”, if you want to know more about it. In their obituaries, both were mentioned as the other man’s “special brother”.

December 12, 1937 Panay incident

Though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story

USS Panay was a flat bottomed river craft, built in Shanghai as part of the Asiatic fleet and charged with protecting American lives and property on the Yangtze River, near Nanking.

Japanese forces invaded China in the summer of 1937, advancing on Nanking while American citizens evacuated the city.  The last ones boarded Panay on December 11:  five officers, 54 enlisted men, four US embassy staff, and 10 civilians.

Japanese air forces received word the morning of December 12, 1937, that Chinese forces were being evacuated on several large steamers and a number of junks, about 12 miles north of the city.

Anchored a short way upstream along with several Chinese oil tankers, Panay came under bombing and strafing attack that morning, sinking mid-river with three men killed.  43 sailors and five civilians, were wounded.  Two newsreel cameramen were on board at the time of the attack, and were able to film part of it.

The American ambassador to Japan at the time was Joseph C. Grew, a man who was morebaltimore_news_post_panay than old enough to remember how the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor brought the US into war with Spain in 1898.  Grew hoped to avoid a similar outcome following the Panay sinking, though Japanese authorities were less than helpful.  US cryptographers uncovered information shortly after the attack indicating that aircraft were operating under orders, while the Japanese government continued to insist that the attack had been accidental.

The matter was officially settled four months later, with an official apology and an indemnity of $2,214,007.36 paid to the US government.  The “accidental attack” narrative appears to have been a safe story both sides pretended to accept, but it seems a little hard to believe.   HMS Ladybird had been fired on that same morning by Japanese shore batteries, and the attack was followed a month later by the “Allison incident”, in which the American consul in Nanking, John M. Allison, was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier.

Added to the fact that American property was being looted by Japanese forces, it seems clear that relations between the two governments were poisonous at the time.

Interestingly, though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story.  Ambassador Grew was flooded with expressions of sympathy from Japanese citizens, who apologized for their government and expressed affection for the United States.

They came from citizens of all ages and walks of life, from doctors and professors to school children.  The wives of high ranking Japanese officials apologized to Grew’s wife without their husbands’ knowledge, while ten Japanese men describing themselves as retired US Navy sailors living in Yokohama, sent a check for $87.19.

A typical letter read: “Dear Friend! This is a short letter, but we want to tell you how sorry we are for the mistake our airplane made. We want you to forgive us I am little and do not understand very well, but I know they did not mean it. I feel so sorry for those who were hurt and killed. I am studying here at St. Margarets school which was built by many American friends. I am studying English. But I am only thirteen and cannot write very well. All my school-mates are sorry like myself and wish you to forgive our country. To-morrow is X-Mas, May it be merry, I hope the time will come when everybody can be friends. I wish you a Happy New Year. Good-bye.”

The two governments never did patch things up.  The US placed an embargo in September 1940, prohibiting exports of steel, scrap iron, and aviation fuel to Japan, in retaliation for their occupation of northern French Indochina:  modern day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japan occupied southern Indochina by the summer of 1941, as the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands retaliated by freezing Japanese assets.

Throughout that summer and fall, Japan tried to negotiate a settlement to lift the embargo on terms allowing them to keep their newly captured territory, while at the same time preparing for war.  General Hideki Tojo, future Prime Minister, secretly set November 29 as the last day on which Japan would accept a settlement without war.

Air and naval forces of the Imperial Japanese government attacked the US naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, about a week later.

December 8, 1941 Day of Infamy

There was no knowing if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been an isolated event, or whether there would be a continuation of such attacks, sabotage on facilities, or even assassination attempts

It was early on a Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, when the armed forces of Imperial Japan attacked the US Navy’s Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

The President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was notified almost immediately.  It had been an act of war, a deliberate attack on one sovereign nation by another, and Roosevelt intended to ask the Congress for a declaration of war.

Work began almost immediately on what we now know as Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, to be delivered to a joint session of Congress the following day.

There was no knowing if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been an isolated event, or whether there would be a continuation of such attacks, sabotage on facilities, or even assassination attempts.

The speech was scheduled for noon on the 8th, and the Secret Service knew they had afdr problem. Roosevelt was fond of his 1939 Lincoln V12 Convertible.  Roosevelt called it the “Sunshine Special,” but the car was anything but secure.  Armored Presidential cars would not come into regular use for another 20 years, after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Federal regulations of the time restricted the purchase of any vehicle costing $750 or higher, $10,455 in today’s dollars, and that wasn’t going to get them an armored limo. They probably couldn’t have gotten one that quickly anyway, even if there had been no restriction on spending.

In 1928, Al Capone had purchased a Cadillac 341A Town Sedan with 3,000 pounds of armor and inch-thick bulletproof windows.  It was green and black, matching the Chicago police cars of the era, and equipped with a siren and flashing lights hidden behind the grill.  Capone himself was at Palm Island, Florida in 1941, having been in and out of Alcatraz by this time and reduced to a neurosyphilitic wreck.  His limo had been sitting in a Treasury Department parking lot, ever since being seized in his IRS tax evasion suit from years earlier.

Mechanics cleaned and checked Capone’s Caddy well into the night of December 7th, al-capones-limomaking sure that it would safely get the Commander in Chief the few short blocks to Capitol Hill.  It apparently did, because Roosevelt continued to use it until his old car could be fitted with the same features.  To this day, Presidential limousines have flashing police lights hidden behind their grilles.

Roosevelt probably learned that he was riding in Al Capone’s limo after he got in, on the way to Capitol Hill.  He didn’t seem to be bothered, the President’s only comment was “I hope Mr. Capone won’t mind.”

December 7, 1941 USS Oklahoma

The Oklahoma turned turtle during the attack, trapping hundreds of sailors within her hull

Air forces of the Imperial Government of Japan attacked the US Navy anchorage at Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago, today. The attack killed 2,403 and wounded another 1,178.  All eight battleships then in harbor were damaged.  Four sank to the bottom along with a number of smaller ships. 188 aircraft were destroyed, most while still on the ground.

Most would be re-floated and some returned to service, but not all. The Nevada-class righting-of-the-uss-oklahomabattleship USS Oklahoma was raised from the bottom, but was never repaired. In 1947 she would sink under tow to the mainland, very nearly taking two ocean going tugs to the bottom, with her.

The Pennsylvania-class battleship USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull.

The hulk of the Arizona is such a prominent part of the memorial today, that it’s easy to believe it’s the only ship still lying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  But Arizona is not alone.

Less well known is the Florida-class dreadnought USS Utah, which defied salvage efforts. Now a War Grave, 64 honored dead remain within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona.

Likewise, little remembered, is the fate of the 429 killed aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma. The Oklahoma turned turtle during the attack, trapping hundreds of sailors within her hull. Faint tapping sounds came from within.  Frantic around the clock rescue efforts resulted in the deliverance of 32 sailors.

Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days.

Seventeen days alone in that black, upside down place, they died waiting and hoping for the rescue that would come too late. The last mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve, 1941.