The Bay of Pigs

Background

I originally intended to begin this essay by asserting that the fifteen years following World War II were not a particularly good time to be an American.  On further reflection, the statement remains valid, but I’d have to suggest a much extended time period — maybe three decades to around 1980.  Looking back upon the post-World War II period, it seems as if the American Republic was suddenly beset with utter morons occupying high government positions when, in fact, they should not have been allowed to work at a car wash.

Following the Second World War, military veterans returned to their homes with the expectation of owning a piece of the good life everyone fought so hard for … that having the tragedies and heartbreaks of war, the inconveniences of rationing, and all the uncertainties behind you, that a new day was coming.  It was dawn in America.  Everyone could smell the Maxwell House Coffee — good to the last drop.

We drank the coffee but didn’t enjoy much of the good life.  The American economy was in flux, but almost everyone expected that sort of thing.  Politicians were telling Americans that we were somehow responsible for putting Europe back together, and yes — Americans would have to pay for it.  Americans would have to pay for the U.S. arms race with the Soviet Union, too — after giving the Russians all of our military technology and secrets to the atomic bomb.  Writer and former socialist George Orwell (real name, Eric Blair) called that period the “Cold War.”  In Orwell’s context, the “cold war” was the threat of nuclear war.  If Orwell was anything at all, he was perceptive.

None of the news was particularly good (for anyone). Almost everyone enjoyed the Cuban Missile Crisis — especially the kids who had to practice getting under their desks at school and the families that began borrowing money for a backyard bomb shelter. Iron curtains, bamboo curtains, and civil wars broke out from Indochina to Greece, Palestine to Iran, China, and Malaya. And then there was a period when it seemed as if every Jew who ever worked for the U.S. government was a spy for the Soviet Union — more than a handful, at any rate.

After John F. Kennedy was elected to the presidency in November 1960, one of his chief concerns was the loss of America’s prestige among world nations and the credibility of its government among the American people.  He was determined to “draw a line in the sand.”  There would be no more stalemates in the containment of global communism.  In a comment made to journalist James Reston of the New York Times, Kennedy said, “Now, we have had a problem making our power credible; Vietnam looks like the place.”

Vietnam was not the place.

After taking office in January 1961, Kennedy was correct to acknowledge a failure in American diplomacy, but he might have given some consideration to the government’s inability to reason.  Given the United States’ long history in Cuba, one wonders what Eisenhower thought when he authorized the CIA to plan a paramilitary invasion there.  Even if it was true that just the mention of Fidel Castro’s name gave Eisenhower gas, what did the United States hope to gain by funding, organizing, and then screwing up an ex-pat invasion of Cuba?

It wasn’t just Eisenhower, his predecessor, or even Kennedy — the deficiency was in the entire body of American policy-makers whose collective brains couldn’t charge a triple-A battery.  The cost of this deficiency was five million in Korea and Vietnam, and only the Almighty knows how many dead we’ve left behind in the Middle East.  Yes, the madness continues —

If one could go back in time and sit with and engage one of the long-dead presidents in conversation, who would that be, and what would one wish to talk about?  There are several presidents that I’d like to speak with.  I might ask Roosevelt, for example, what he thought when he ordered the OSS to create and arm communist guerrillas in Southeast Asia?  I might ask Truman, “What did you think North Korea and the Soviet Union would do after your Secretary of State neglected to include the Korean Peninsula under the umbrella of the United Nation’s defense pact?  I would ask Mr. Eisenhower, given his background as a five-star general, “What was the likely result of invading Cuba with a mere 1,400 irregular Cuban exiles?”  In other words, “What in the hell were you guys thinking?”

Nightmare

Fidel Alejandro Castro-Ruz was born into wealth.  His father was a successful farmer from Galicia, Spain and his mother was the child of a Spanish Canarian.  Fidel Castro was well-educated but an unruly child (typical of the way Hispanic boys are raised).  He turned out just as his parents wished.  Fidel began law studies at the University of Havana in 1945, which became the birthplace of his political activism.  When he failed in his candidacy for class president, he became critical of corrupt politics — defined as anyone who disagreed with Fidel Castrol.  It was an attitude quickly and easily transferred to real Cuban politics.

In college, Castro adopted the political philosophy of Eduardo Chibás, advocating for social justice, honest government, and political freedom.  Ultimately, however — even while still in college — Fidel Castro became a man just like those he claimed to detest.  He hired gangsters to suppress anyone whose views differed from his own, which was problematic because, according to historian John Gaddis, Fidel Castro was a revolutionary without an ideology.  He was a street fighter, guerrilla, assassin, interminable speaker — and a pretty good baseball player, but Castro had only one focus: his lust for power.  Fidel Castro was willing to use any means to obtain it.  If he followed any example, it was that of Joseph Stalin — not Karl Marx.

Until 1898, Cuba was part of the Spanish Empire.  In the preceding thirty years, Cuba was a troubled land with three wars of liberation, which began in 1868.  Liberation finally came to Cuba through the Spanish-American War, but the United States withheld self-rule until 1902 when a Cuban-born American named Tomás Estrada Palma became Cuba’s first president.  Afterward, large numbers of American settlers and businessmen began arriving in Cuba.  Within three years, non-Cuban Americans owned sixty percent of Cuba’s rural properties.  Palma’s growing unpopularity over these conditions prompted the US government to dispatch 5,000 Marines to “police” the island between 1906-1909.  Marines returned for the same purpose in 1912, 1917, and 1921.

In 1952, Cuban general Fulgencio Batista seized power and proclaimed himself president.  After consolidating his power, Batista canceled planned elections and introduced a new form of democracy to the Cuban people.  He called it “disciplined democracy.” Until the appearance of Fidel Castro, the US Ambassador to Cuba was the second-most popular (the second most powerful) man in Cuba.[1]

Batista’s tyranny resulted in an armed rebellion with several groups competing for domination.  College professor Rafael G. Barcena headed the National Revolutionary Movement, University Student President Antonio Echevarria led the Revolutionary Student Union, and Fidel Castro led the 26 July Movement (M-26-7).  Castro also led his guerrilla army against the Batistas from 1956 to 1959.  The more Batista tried to repress Castro, the less popular he became.  By mid-1958, when his army was in full retreat, Batista resigned the presidency in December and went into exile.  Before he departed Cuba, Batista liberated $ 300 million US dollars.  One can live comfortably in Malaga, Spain, on that money.

Cuban attorney Manuel Urrutia Lleo replaced Batista as president.  Castro approved of Lleo, particularly since most of Manuel’s cabinet were members of M-26-7.  Lleo appointed Castro to serve as prime minister.  Dismissing the need for new elections, Castro proclaimed the new administration a “direct democracy,” in which the Cuban people would assemble en masse and express their democratic will.

Yet, despite Castro’s political success and relative popularity, not every Cuban was happy — so the revolution continued for several years.  It’s how Latino politics is done.  The Escambray Rebellion (which lasted for six years) had the support of Cuban exiles, the American CIA, and Rafael Trujillo’s regime in the Dominican Republic.  As rebellions go, it was a bloody mess.  There were explosions, arsons, assassinations, firefights in downtown areas, and a few melees in outlying areas.  A few revolutionaries even hijacked an airline and ordered it flown to Jacksonville, Florida.  By May 1961, Castro decided he’d had enough “revolution” and started getting serious about cracking down on all political opposition.  Castro-friendly police officials began arresting hundreds of the usual suspects.

In public, Castro objected to the torture and torment Batista inflicted on the Cuban people, but Castrol increased the amount of suffering forced on Cuban dissidents.  Reacting to stories of widespread prison torture and assassination, Cubans demanded fair trials for those accused of crimes.  At first, Castro appeared as a moderating force and helped set up public trials, but a responsible American press openly challenged  Castro’s claims, accusing those efforts of a sham.  They reported that Castro’s “fair trials” always ended with execution.  The American press was right about Castro.  Behind the scenes, press members daring to criticize Castro for any alleged atrocities found themselves at odds with media union members.  In 1960, a government edict mandated that every news article criticizing government policy contain a “clarification” by a printer’s union representative attesting to the truth of the article.  It was the beginning of government censorship in Cuba.

Castro’s reaction to allegations in the press was vociferous.  “Revolutionary justice,” he said, “is not based on legal precepts but moral conviction.”  As a demonstration of his support for revolutionary justice, Castrol organized the first Havana trial in front of an audience of 17,000 onlookers.  When a revolutionary jury found a group of former Cuban pilots “not guilty” of intentionally bombing a Cuban village, Castro ordered a retrial.  At the second trial, the jury found all of the accused “guilty as charged.”  Revolutionary justice also saw the execution of former Castro ally William A. Morgan.[2]

In 1960, the U.S. government wasn’t happy with the direction of Castro’s government.

Fiasco

In 1960, the US and Cuba entered into a period of quid-pro-quo diplomacy.  Castro ordered the country’s oil refineries (then controlled by Exxon, Standard Oil, and Shell) to process crude oil purchased from the Soviet Union.  The US government ordered the companies to refuse.  Castro then nationalized the refineries.  The US canceled all sugar imports from Cuba.  Castro responded by nationalizing all US banks, sugar mills, and other holdings.  The US imposed an embargo on all American-made exports (except medicines and certain foods).  Castro seized over 500 American-owned businesses, including Coca-Cola and Sears Roebuck.

At a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), the US Secretary of the State accused Castro of being a Bolshevik, a Stalinist, and a tool for global communism.  Secretary Christian Herter urged the OAS to denounce the Castro regime.  Castro pointed to the plight of American blacks, suggesting that the United States might consider getting its own house in order before criticizing others. At the meeting, the US pledged not to interfere in the domestic affairs of the Cuban government — but, of course, the pledge was a major fib because, by the time of the OAS meeting, the American CIA was already passing around its catalog of dirty tricks for comments and recommendations.

The idea of overthrowing the Castro regime took root early in 1960.  As the threat of global communism grew larger, the CIA increased its effort to undermine communist countries, organizations, and activities — even if that meant supporting brutal neo-fascist dictatorships.

Heading this effort was CIA Director Allen Dulles, a former member of the OSS.  Recognizing that the Castro regime was becoming openly hostile toward the US, Dulles urged President Eisenhower to authorize a para-military invasion of the island.  Eisenhower wasn’t convinced an attack was a good idea, but based on developing options, the president permitted Dulles to “begin planning.”  Richard M. Bissell, Jr., one of the “Georgetown set” insiders, was in charge of this effort.[3]

On 17 March 1960, the CIA submitted its plan to overthrow Fidel Castro to the National Security Staff.  President Eisenhower suggested that he might be able to support it, and then he approved $13 million to explore further options.  The plan’s first objective was to replace Castro with someone more devoted to the interests of the Cuban people and the United States — and of course, in a manner that would not implicate the United States.

In August 1960, the CIA contacted the Cosa Nostra mob in Chicago, offering them a contract to assassinate Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and Revolutionary Che Guevara.[4]  If the mob’s operation should prove successful, the CIA promised to reward them with a monopoly on gaming, prostitution, and drugs inside Cuba.  [Morality is only an 8-letter word].

After this 1960 CIA-Mob meeting, planning for Fidel Castrol’s assassination began in earnest.[5]  Some of the CIA and Chicago mob’s methods were creative in the same way as James Bond’s awesome gadgets: poison pills, exploding seashells, and clothing coated with toxins.  The CIA also considered the usual methods of murder: snipers, ambuscades, and explosives.  No Aston Martin was ever mentioned.  Later, in 1961, when President Kennedy was making secret overtures to Castro, CIA officer Desmond Fitzgerald assigned CIA agent Rolando Cubela to murder Castro.  Fitzgerald told Cubela that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had sanctioned the kill.

Bissell assembled agents to help him put the plan together, several of whom had participated in the coup d’état in Guatemala in 1954 — including David Philips, Gerry Droller, G. Gordon Liddy, and E. Howard Hunt.[6]  Droller was placed in charge of rounding up anti-Castro Cuban ex-pats living in the United States.  Hunt helped fashion a government in exile (which the CIA would control) and then traveled to Havana to meet with people from various backgrounds.  When Hunt returned to the United States, the State Department denied the CIA’s request to conduct irregular military training on U. S. soil.  Cuban exiles were afterward informed that they would have to travel to Mexico for their training.

The plan involved four elements: propaganda, covert operations inside Cuba, assembling paramilitary forces outside of Cuba, and providing naval gunfire, air, and logistical support for the ground forces once the invasion occurred.  At this point, however, it was only a planning session.  Contrary to what many people now claim, there is no evidence that Eisenhower ever approved a final plan or gave his final approval for “launch.”

On 20 October 1960, presidential candidate John Kennedy released a scathing criticism of Eisenhower’s Cuba policy which stated, in part, “We must attempt to strengthen the non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces … who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro.”  At this point, Castro must have had a good inkling about U. S. intentions toward Cuba. 

By 31 October, in addition to John Kennedy’s “heads up” to Castro, the CIA had already experienced several “war stoppers.”  In fact, it almost couldn’t get any worse.  The Cubans intercepted every attempt to infiltrate covert agents, and the CIA’s aerial supply drops all fell into the hands of the Cuban military.  Fidel Castro would have had to have been the deaf, dumb, and blind kid not to suspect something “big” was about to happen.  Bissell began to re-think his game plan.  His best new idea was an amphibious assault involving some 1,500 men.  Note to clarify: that would be fifteen-hundred lightly armed men opposing around 89,000 well-armed home guards.

John Kennedy’s election in early November 1960 re-energized CIA operatives.  Dulles and Bissell provided a general outline of their plan to president-elect Kennedy on 18 November 1960.  Dulles voiced confidence that the CIA was capable of overthrowing the Cuban government.  On 29 November 1960, President Eisenhower met with the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Treasury Department, and CIA to discuss Bissell’s amphibious raid idea.  No one expressed any objection, and Eisenhower gave his tentative approval subject to the preferences and prerogatives of president-Elect Kennedy.

Bissell presented his outline to the CIA’s “special group” on 8 December 1960.  Of course, he would not commit any details to written records because if there was ever a time for “plausible deniability,” this operation was it.  The planning continued until 4 January 1961.  Bissell added a “lodgment” of about 750 men at an undisclosed location in Cuba.

Following the election of 1960, President Eisenhower conducted two meetings with president-elect Kennedy at the White House.  Eisenhower informed Kennedy that since the previous March, the CIA had managed to train several small units of Cuban ex-pats in Guatemala, Panama, and Florida, but it was nothing of significant consequence.  President Eisenhower emphasized that despite the Cuban ex-pats’ stated preferences, he was not in favor of returning Batista to power at the head of an American-funded foreign militia.

Going Rogue

On 28 January 1961, CIA officials briefed President Kennedy together with key members of his cabinet.  The plan was code-named Operation Pluto, which called for a 1,000-man amphibious landing at Trinidad, Cuba, 170 miles southeast of Havana, near the foothills of the Escambray Mountains.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk offered a few embarrassing observations.  He didn’t understand, for example, why the CIA was talking about airfields and B-26 aircraft.  If this was a covert operation if the United States intended to blame everything on Cuban ex-pats, where would such men come up with the B-26 Marauder?  Kennedy wasn’t pleased with Trinidad; he wanted a less likely landing site.  After the meeting, the unenthusiastic new president authorized planning to continue but directed additional briefings with progress.

In March, CIA officers helped Cuban exiles in Miami create the Cuban Revolutionary Council.  The CIA ensured that the Revolutionary Council approved former Cuban prime minister José Miró Cardona as Cuba’s new head of state.

CIA planners divided its fifteen-hundred-man paramilitary force into six battalions (five infantry and one paratroop).  According to the plan, these men would assemble in Guatemala on 17 April and launch their assault from that location.

Despite the deep reservations of Secretary Rusk and U.S. Army General Lyman Lemnitzer, JCS Chairman, President Kennedy approved the CIA’s plan, now known as Operation Zapata, on 4 April 1961.[7]  The Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) in Las Villas Province was chosen as the point of assault because it was relatively isolated and had a sufficiently long airfield.  Also, its location would make it easier for the United States to deny direct involvement.  Bissell designated three landing sites (Blue Beach, Red Beach, and Green Beach).

On 15 April, eight CIA-owned B-26 bombers attacked Cuban airfields and returned to their South Florida base.  On 17 April, the main invasion force landed at Blue Beach and quickly overwhelmed a local militia.

Initially, José Ramon Fernandez led the Cuban army’s counter-attack.  Later, Fidel Castro took control of the Cuban force.  The Cubans quickly publicized the event as a U. S. invasion.  For whatever reason, the invaders lost their initiative and faltered in the face of Castro’s overwhelming response.  Back in Washington, President Kennedy chickened out and withheld the CIA’s promised naval and air support, without which the CIA plan could not — and did not succeed.

The Cuban exiles surrendered to Castro’s forces on 20 April.  More than an overwhelming defeat for the Cuban invaders, it was an unmitigated disaster for American foreign policy and CIA whizbangmanship — even worse than that, the invasion elevated Fidel Castro to the position of a national hero, solidified his place in Cuba, and pushed Cuba toward closer ties with the Soviet Union.  The stage was thus set for the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Debrief

In the history of American clandestine operations, there may not have been a less covert operation than the Bay of Pigs invasion.  To begin with, all the Cubans had to do to achieve a forewarning of the invasion was read the American newspapers.  The Cuban invaders themselves openly bragged about what they were up to throughout the entire training period.  Loose lips sink ships.

In addition to this lack of security, the CIA’s covert operators initiated several acts of sabotage before the landing, such as setting fire to government buildings and department stores, a robust propaganda effort, and of course, Castro was receiving regular reports on the CIA’s activities, courtesy of his new best friends, the Soviet KGB.  Everyone who was anyone knew all about the CIA’s top-secret Cuban invasion plan.[8]

Despite all the Navy’s efforts to mask their role in support of the invading force, Cuban-flown Soviet MiG-15’s kept regular tabs on the position of naval support platforms beginning on 14 April 1961.  More than this, the Cuban aircraft wanted the navy to know that the Cuban air force was keeping an eye on them.  A planned diversionary amphibious assault on the night of 14/15 April turned back mid-way to shore when Cuban defense forces opened fire.  Later that morning, the CIA dispatched a T-33 reconnaissance sortie over the diversionary site, which the Cuban defense force promptly shot down.  The plane crashed into the sea, and its pilot, Orestes Acosta, did not survive.

Also, on 15 April, eight B-26 aircraft with Cuban air force markings attacked three Cuban airbases (two near Havana and one close to Santiago).  The strike intended to cripple the Cuban air force, and while a few Cuban military aircraft were destroyed, most casualties were civilian airframes.  However, this was not the story told to CIA handlers by the pilots during their post-mission debrief.  The CIA didn’t know the truth of these strikes until after reviewing aerial films taken by a U-2 overflight on 16 April.  It was based on this U-2 film and President Kennedy’s intention to continue his (worst-ever) deception that he canceled all future air support missions.

At mid-day on 15 April, Cuba’s UN ambassador began screaming bloody murder about a U. S. invasion of his country.  Much earlier in the year, CIA operatives approached Cuba’s UN ambassador, Señor Raúl Roa, attempting to encourage his defection.  It was an effort, Roa, no doubt reported to this foreign minister — and this would have been another piece in the puzzle for the Castro government.

Responding to Roa’s accusations, America’s UN ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, denied US involvement in the reported incident.  President Kennedy’s statement to the press was, “I have emphasized before that this was a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator.  While we could not be expected to hide our sympathies, we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not intervene in any way.”

Castro’s government knew better.  Before the end of the day on 15 April, the head of Cuba’s National Police, Efigenio Amerijeiras, began rounding up all the usual suspects.  The National Police would eventually arrest upwards of 100,000 Cuban citizens.  They would become the hapless casualties in the CIA’s war against Fidel Castro.  In all likelihood, probably no more than a handful of Cubans living in Cuba at the time had any knowledge of the invasion.

The Scoundrels

Bissell’s numerous assistants included Tracey Barnes, Allen Dulles, a training cadre from the U. S. Army Special Forces Group, members of the U. S. Air Force and Air National Guard, and CIA officers David Atlee Philips, E. Howard Hunt, David Morales, Gary Droller, Jacob Esterline, Colonel Jack Hawkins, Colonel Stanley Beerli, and Felix Rodriguez.[9]

According to Allen Dulles, CIA planners always believed that once the invasion force went ashore, President Kennedy would authorize any action required to prevent mission failure (which is what Eisenhower did in 1954 in Guatemala).  Kennedy would not pursue that path, but the mission’s failure depressed the president and, in fits of anger, indicated to a confidante that he wanted to splinter the CIA “into a thousand pieces.”[10]

After Kennedy’s assassination, investigators considered (very briefly) whether the threat might have been connected to his untimely death.  Splintering the CIA did not occur, but from that moment forward, Kennedy had little confidence in the advice of the CIA or senior officers inside the Pentagon.  According to Kennedy’s friend Ben Bradlee, the president told him, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”

Political Fallout

The Kennedy administration didn’t mind playing fast and loose with international law or ignoring gentlemanly behavior, but it was mightily embarrassed when the secret invasion plan turned into a well-publicized failure.  During a State Department press conference on 21 April, John Kennedy issued his often quoted statement, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers — and defeat is an orphan.”  He then accepted responsibility for the shenanigans, even though Secretary Adlai Stevenson denied involvement with the United Nations.  A few months later, revolutionary and mass murderer Che Guevara sent a note to President Kennedy thanking him for the invasion, saying, “Before the invasion, the revolution [in Cuba] was weak.  Now it’s stronger than ever.”

Subsequently, the Castro regime became (understandably) paranoid about US intentions, particularly after Kennedy imposed trade sanctions, which he followed with a formal embargo.  The invasion didn’t work out, but that didn’t stop Kennedy from doubling his efforts to depose Fidel Castro.  A short time later, Kennedy ordered the Pentagon to design a secret plan to overthrow Castro.  The plan, codenamed Operation Mongoose, included sabotage and assassination.[11]

Sources:

  1. Ambrose, S. E.  Eisenhower: Soldier and President.  American Biography Press, 2007.
  2. Anderson, J. L.  Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.  Grove/Atlantic Press, 1997.
  3. Bathell, L.  Cuba.  Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  4. Bohning, D.  The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1965.  Potomac Books, 2005.
  5. Lynch, G. L.  Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs.  Brassy Publishing, 1998.
  6. Schlesinger, A. M. Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Houghton-Mifflin, 1965, 2002.

Endnotes:

[1] Disciplined democracy is somewhat like compassionate conservatism.  It may be disciplined, but it isn’t democracy, and it might be compassionate, but it isn’t conservatism. 

[2] Morgan (1928 – 1961) was a U.S. citizen who fought in the Cuban Revolution as a commandante instrumental in helping Castro’s forces achieve victory.  Morgan was one of about two dozen U.S. citizens to fight in the revolution and one of only three foreign nationals to hold high rank.  Following the revolution, Morgan became disenchanted with Castro’s turn to communism.  When Castro discovered that Morgan was one of the CIA operatives in the Escambray rebellion, Cuban authorities arrested, tried, and executed him in the presence of Fidel and Raul Castro.

[3] Including a number of former OSS officers, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Desmond Fitzgerald, Clark Clifford, Eugene Rostow, Cord Meyer, William Averell Harriman, Felix Frankfurter, James Reston, Allen Dulles, and Paul Nitze.

[4] If verifiably true, then there is a justifiable reason to corollate the relationship between the CIA and the plot to assassinate South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem (2 Nov 1963) and the CIA, American mafia, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 Nov 1963.    

[5] The American people never knew about this, of course, until the Church Committee Hearings in 1975.  The Church Committee investigated CIA abuses, such as the assassination of foreign leaders.  Since most of these were never proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the committee labeled them “Alleged Assassination Plots.” 

[6] Later, Liddy and Hunt were both convicted of illegal activity involving the White House Plumbers. 

[7] Both Kennedy brothers appeared enthusiastic about the operation, and both seemed to play down any hesitation from cabinet advisors.  They had made a campaign promise to rid Cuba of Castro, and that’s what they intended to do.

[8] It was later learned that the CIA knew that the KGB knew about the invasion plan and that the KGB had likely informed Castro, but it was something the CIA never shared with President Kennedy.  The CIA was also informed by British Intelligence that, according to their sources, the Cuban population was overwhelmingly behind Fidel Castro.  There would likely be no groundswell of support for the ex-pat invaders.

[9] Colonel Hawkins, a Marine Corps Officer, was assigned to the CIA to assist in planning for amphibious operations.  After completing basic officer’s school in 1939, Hawkins served with the 4th Marines in Shanghai, China, and later moved with that regiment to the Philippine Islands.  Captured on Bataan, the Japanese interned him at a POW camp on Mindanao.  He and several others escaped, eventually making their way to Colonel Wendell Fertig’s guerrilla band.  Hawkins led several guerrilla raids against the Japanese until evacuated by submarine to Australia.  He later authored a book about his Philippine experiences, titled Never Say Die.

[10] Quick review: a new president who wants to split his spy agency into a thousand pieces could become a primary target for assassination. If the CIA had a hand in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was very likely the only project they undertook in the 1960s that worked out as planned.

[11] An extensive campaign of terrorist attacks against Cuban (civilian) government officials, led by Edward Lansdale and William K. Harvey.  


America’s OSS — Part 2

(Continued from Last Week)

IN EUROPE

With the training and assistance of the British Intelligence Service, OSS proved especially useful in providing a global perspective of the German war effort, its strengths, and its weaknesses.  In direct (covert) operations, OSS agents supported major Allied operations, such as Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa in 1942.  Success in Operation Torch included identifying pro-Allied supporters, locating, and mapping amphibious landing sites, and coopting high-ranking Vichy French military officers.

Clandestine operations in Europe also involved the neutral countries: Sweden, Spain, and Switzerland, where information about German technologies was obtained and forwarded to Washington and London.  A network headquartered in Madrid established and maintained control over Free French auxiliaries, which aided the Allied invasion of France in June 1944.

Allen Dulles’ operations from Switzerland provided extensive information about German military strength, air defenses, submarine production, the V-1 and V-2 rocket systems, and Biological/Chemical/Atomic research and development.  Dulles also supported resistance efforts in France, Austria, and Italy.

In addition to intelligence collection activities, OSS operations included infiltration and sabotage operations, propaganda campaigns, and specialized training for nationalist guerrilla groups.  In 1943, the OSS employed as many as 24,000 people, many of whom were serving Army, Navy, and Marine Corps officers.  They were men like Edward Lansdale (Army Air Corps), Jack Taylor (U. S. Navy), Peter Ortiz[1] and Sterling Hayden[2] (U. S. Marine Corps), and thousands more whose names we no longer remember.

IN THE FAR EAST

In late 1943, representatives from OSS descended upon the 442nd Infantry Regiment looking to recruit volunteers for “extremely hazardous assignments.”  There were numerous volunteers, of course, but the OSS only selected Nisei (the children of Japanese immigrants).  OSS assigned these volunteers to Detachments 101 and 202 within the China-Burma-India Theater.  Their duties were to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war, translate documents, monitor radio communications, and participate in covert operations.  All of these covert operations were successful.

Franklin Roosevelt was well-known for his anti-colonial views, particularly concerning French Indochina — a massive territory involving present-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  Roosevelt made these views crystal clear at the Tehran Conference in 1943.  Both Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin adopted a position against returning Indochina to the French in the post-world war period, but with extensive colonial interests of their own, British, and Dutch diplomats expressed their full intention to re-constitute their colonial empires.  Roosevelt stated, for publication, “Our goal must be to help them [brown people] achieve their independence because 1.1 billion enemies are dangerous.”

In late 1943, Roosevelt instructed Donovan to support national liberation movements in Asia as a means of resisting Japanese occupation.  In France, the OSS worked alongside the Free French to resist Nazi occupation.  In Asia, the OSS worked against the (Vichy) French by setting up guerrilla bases to support anti-Japanese/anti-French colonial covert operations throughout Southeast Asia.  To accomplish this, the OSS advised, supplied, and helped organize nationalist (nee communist) movements, specifically in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.[3]

THE PEOPLE

Colonel Donovan may have had the assistance and guidance of British intelligence in putting together the OSS, but it was entirely up to him to find the right men and women to undertake dangerous missions.  Most of the people he recruited were members of the Armed Forces, but he also sought those from civilian and foreign backgrounds.

What kind of person was Donovan looking for?  In his own words, “I’d rather have a young lieutenant with enough guts to disobey a direct order than a colonel too regimented to think for himself.”  In essence, Donovan was looking for men with PhDs who could win a bar fight.  Within a few months, OSS rivaled MI-6 and the SOE, a feat only possible by carefully screening candidates and training them in the same manner as British commandos.  The primary training facility, then known as Site S, was located where Dulles International Airport now stands.  All successful candidates shared similar characteristics: courageous, determined, independent thinkers, highly intelligent, and fluent in two or more European languages.

SPIES AND SABOTEURS

The most significant accomplishment of the OSS in World War II was its ability to penetrate the Third Reich.  The men and women assigned to this task were either German-Americans fluent in the German language or were German or Austrian exiles (many of whom were communists, former labor activists, Jewish refugees, or escaped prisoners of war).  The OSS also successfully recruited German officials as spies, such as the German diplomat Fritz Kolb.  Through such activities, the United States and Great Britain obtained the plans and technical specifications for Germany’s V-2 rocket, the Tiger Tank, and such advanced aircraft as the Messerschmitt BF-109 and Messerschmitt ME-163.  Through the OSS team serving under Heinrich Maier, the Allied Powers learned about Germany’s “Final Solution” to their Jewish problem — the death camps.

Along with OSS accomplishments were a few failures.  American and British secret operatives were good at what they did, but so were the Germans.  The Gestapo systematically uncovered Maier’s team because one of the team members was a double agent.  Gestapo agents arrested and later executed most of the Maier group.

The major cities of neutral countries became beehives of intelligence-gathering activities and spying operations for both the Allied Powers and Germany — Madrid, Stockholm, and Istanbul among them.  The OSS initiated operations in Istanbul in 1943.  The railroads connecting Central Asia with Europe and Turkey’s proximity to the Balkan states made Istanbul an excellent site for intelligence operations.  OSS operations in Istanbul, code-named Net-1, involved infiltrating and carrying out subversive operations in the Old Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

At the head of Net-1 operations was a former Chicago banker named Lanning MacFarland.  “Packy” MacFarland’s cover story was that he was a United States Lend-Lease Program banker.  MacFarland hired a fellow named Alfred Schwartz, a Czechoslovakian engineer, and businessman.  Schwartz’s code name was Dogwood.  Schwartz, employed by the Istanbul Electric Company, hired an assistant named Walter Arndt.  Through their efforts, the OSS was able to infiltrate anti-fascist groups in Austria, Hungary, and Germany.  Additionally, Schwartz persuaded diplomatic couriers from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Germany to smuggle U.S. propaganda information into their home territories and help establish contact with German-Italian antagonists.  Most of this information was conveyed either through memorization or microfilm.

British Intelligence began to suspect the Dogwood operation because it produced far more information than they expected.  Working with the OSS, British and American agents discovered that Dogwood was unreliable and dangerous to the entire MI-6/SOE/OSS effort.  German agents had effectively placed phony information into the OSS system through Dogwood, which at the time was America’s largest intelligence gathering operation in the occupied territory.  Accordingly, Dogwood was promptly shut down.

But the OSS was no “one-trick” pony.  In 1944, OSS agents purchased technical information on the Soviet cipher from disaffected Finnish Army officers.  Donovan, aware that such activities violated Roosevelt’s agreement with Stalin, purchased the materials anyway and, through this “violation of a direct order,” discovered a large-scale Soviet espionage ring in North America.  What Donovan did with this information is unknown, but he channeled it somewhere (possibly to the FBI) because otherwise, we wouldn’t know about it today.

Most of us have watched Hollywood films about OSS airborne teams infiltrating the cold mountainous areas of Norway.  These were undoubtedly highly fictionalized re-creations of actual (or similar) events.  In late March 1945, an OSS team code-named Rype dropped into Norway to carry out sabotage operations behind German lines.  From a base in the Gjefsjøen Mountains, this group successfully disrupted railroad operations, the purpose of which was to prevent the withdrawal of German forces back to Germany.  Contrary to the several Hollywood films depicting such feats, Rype was the only American operation conducted on German-occupied Norwegian soil during World War II.  The infiltration group was mainly composed of Norwegian-Americans recruited as volunteers from the U. S. Army’s 99th Infantry Battalion.  The leader of this group was famed OSS/CIA man William Colby.

Another crack OSS leader was Navy Lieutenant Jack H. Taylor (1909-1950).  Donovan recruited Taylor shortly after he joined the U. S. Navy in 1942 — one of the first to join the clandestine organization.  Donovan assigned Taylor to the maritime unit (a precursor to the U. S. Navy Seals).  Working with famed inventor Christian J. Lambertsen, Taylor helped develop the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit.  The LARU allowed OSS agents to undertake diving missions deemed critical to the OSS and Allied armed forces.  Taylor worked with a highly decorated OSS Marine special operator by the name of Sterling Hayden (who later became a Hollywood actor), dodging German navy vessels in the Aegean Sea. 

Also, in March 1945, the OSS initiated Operation Varsity.  It consisted of four OSS teams of two men under Captain Stephen Vinciguerra (code name Algonquin).  Their mission was also to infiltrate German lines, but none of these were successful.

ENTER HARRY TRUMAN

When President Roosevelt died in office on 12 April 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman assumed the mantle of the American presidency.  It was a significant turning point in Washington’s foreign policy simply because Truman didn’t share Roosevelt’s (and Donovan’s) New Deal optimism.  Roosevelt and Donovan saw Western colonialism as an example of imperial tyranny, whereas Truman wanted to put the world back together again the way it was before World War II.  Beyond this, post-war Soviet Union expansionism changed Truman’s concept of the United States’ role in a new global environment.  At the San Francisco Conference in late spring 1945, the Truman administration gave French diplomats his assurances that France could reassert their pre-war sovereignty over French Indochina.  Such warranties placed Donovan’s OSS “out of step” with Washington’s new policymakers — particularly about colonialism and communism.

Besides, Harry Truman was “an Army man” and saw no reason for the existence of the Office of Strategic Services as a separate entity working outside the scope of the Navy and War Departments — even though, at least ostensibly, OSS worked for the Chairman, JCS.  Truman had little patience with anyone questioning his policies or decisions; anyone who did became “an enemy,” which Donovan surely did become, and Truman was determined to dispense with both Donovan and the OSS.

At the time of Truman’s ascension to power, however, Donovan’s OSS agents were heavily involved in collecting intelligence information about the Third Reich and the Soviet Union and laying the groundwork for nationalist movements in Southeast Asia.  Truman didn’t like all that meddling, and neither did many of the Army’s senior field commanders — who believed that counter-intelligence operations if they were going to exist at all, should only exist as a prerogative of senior field commanders.

The problem was that senior army commanders stationed in Europe in the immediate post-war period were utterly oblivious to the machinations of the Soviet Union and its demon-seed, East Germany.  But Intelligence insiders did realize that the information provided to the U.S. government by OSS was too valuable to allow that organization to collapse without replacing it with a structure to continue that practical work.

SERVANT OR MASTER?

On 20 September 1945, President Truman terminated the OSS by Executive Order 9621.  Its dismembered carcass ended up in the State Department (Research and Analysis) and the War Department (Strategic Services Unit).  The War Department assigned Brigadier General John Magruder (formerly Bill Donovan’s deputy) as the Director, SSU.  Magruder supervised the disestablishment of OSS and managed the institutional preservation of its clandestine intelligence capability.

Four months later, President Truman directed the establishment of the Central Intelligence Group (CIG).  Magruder’s SSU was transferred to the CIG in mid-1946, which became the Office of Special Operations (OSO).  The National Security Act of 1947 formally established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as an independent agency, which assumed the same functions as OSS.  As to all those spies and saboteurs, the CIA continues to maintain a paramilitary component known as its Special Activities Division.

The CIA did not, unfortunately, get off to a very good start.  Since the heady old days of the Truman administration, the question of whether the CIA would become the servant or master of U.S. intelligence policy has been an ongoing struggle.  Numerous incidents would appear to reflect both institutional overreach and changing attitudes among political executives about what the CIA is doing and how they are doing it.

SOME EXAMPLES

  • Domestic spying (including the data mining and compromise of smart-TVs, search engines, and personal automobiles)
  • Torture by proxy (extraordinary rendition)
  • Internal foreign spies
  • Funding terrorist cells/rightwing dictatorships
  • Illegal influence of elections and media
  • Involvement in drug trafficking/support of drug traffickers
  • Misleading Congress and the American public
  • Covert programs illegally removed from Congressional oversight
  • Infiltration of World Health Organization for clandestine purposes
  • Spying on members of Congress
  • Orchestrating coup d’état (Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba)
  • Patriot Act expansion of third party record searches, secret searches, significant exceptions to Fourth Amendment protections.

The questions not answered by anyone, at least to the general dissatisfaction of many Americans, are:

  • What is the U.S. government entitled to know about its citizens?
  • Under what circumstances are intelligence agencies allowed to know it?
  • What is the U.S. government allowed to do with the information collected on its citizens?

The United States Special Operations Command, established in 1987, adopted the OSS spearhead design as its military branch insignia.

Sources:

  1. Aldrich, R. J.  Intelligence and the War Against Japan: Britain, America, and the Politics of Secret Service.  Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  2. Bartholomew-Feis, D. R.  The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan.  University of Kansas Press, 2006.
  3. Brown, A. C.  The Last American Hero:  Wild Bill Donovan.  New York Times Press, 1982.
  4. Chalou, G. C.  The Secrets War: The Office of Strategic Services in World War II.  National Archives and Records Administration, 1991.
  5. Dulles, A.  The Secret Surrender.  Harper & Row, 1966.
  6. Dunlop, R.  Donovan: America’s Master Spy.  Rand-McNally, 1982.
  7. Smith, B. F.  The Shadow Warriors: OSS and the Origins of the CIA.  Basic Press, 1983.
  8. Yu, M.  OSS in China: Prelude to Cold War.  Yale University Press, 1996

Endnotes:

[1] See also: Behind the Lines.  Colonel Ortiz was anything but entirely covert in his OSS activities; his flamboyant and rascally traits brought him (and his team members) to the attention of the German army and Gestapo officials.  Despite being awarded two Navy Cross medals while assigned to the OSS, Ortiz was never invited to join the CIA after 1947 — which one may understand if they have an inkling about what “secret agent” means.  Apparently, Ortiz did not have that understanding.

[2] See also: In Every Climb and Place.  Before his Marine Corps service, Hayden served on a sailing schooner, earning his master’s license in 1940.  It was this skill set that brought him to the attention of William J. Donovan.

[3] One can make the argument that Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the United States the Vietnam War.


Secret Agent 711

Some Background

In August 1775, following hostilities between the colonists and British troops in Massachusetts, King George III declared the American colonies in rebellion.  The declaration prompted Congress to assemble a Continental Army under General George Washington.  Ten months later, in June 1776, Richard Henry Lee proposed a Congressional resolution calling for independence from Great Britain.

As the independence movement gained momentum, Congress convened a five-member committee to write a formal public statement to justify its declaration of independence.  Committee members included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson authored the first draft, and after making a few suggested changes, a second draft was submitted to Congress on 28 June 1776.[1]  Congress debated the proposed resolution on 1 July.  Two states opposed the resolution, two more signaled indecision, and New York abstained.  Delaware broke the tie vote the next day, and the two states that opposed the resolution shifted to favor it.  The final vote on 2 July was 12 to 0 in favor.

After the vote, a few members of Congress wanted yet another look at the resolution, which resulted in further modifications.  Congress approved the final draft on 4 July 1776.  The Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America went to press on 5 July.  Congress ordered 200 copies.  On 8 July, the declaration was read aloud in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia.  New York agreed to support the statement on 9 July.  The official “original” was signed on 19 July, except that some members were absent, so the signing continued as the remaining members became available until 2 August.

No one in Congress celebrated the Declaration of Independence.  The mood was subdued; everyone understood that they had performed an act of high treason, and everyone realized the punishment for high treason was death.  Benjamin Rush later recalled that as congressional representatives signed the document, everyone believed they were signing their own death warrant. 

We celebrate our Independence Day on 4 July.  One day prior, British General Sir William Howe led the British Army ashore on Staten Island, New York; the hostilities that had begun in Massachusetts continued as part of the New York and New Jersey Campaign (July 1776-March 1777).  Howe drove Washington’s Continentals out of New York but erred by over-extending his reach into New Jersey.  General Howe could not exert complete control over both.  The best he could do and did do was maintain control of New York harbor.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

General Washington

General Washington was unable to hold New York, but neither was he finished with Howe.  Throughout his failed campaign, Washington received unsolicited intelligence reports from individual patriots.  After evacuating the Continental Army from Brooklyn Heights, General Washington asked William Heath and George Clinton to set up “a channel of information” on Long Island. 

Heath and Clinton began looking for volunteers for clandestine operations.  One of these volunteers was Captain Nathan Hale.[2]  Soon after signing on for secret service, the somewhat full of himself Hale traveled to New York City under an assumed name.  Unfortunately, not everyone is well-suited for espionage; Nathan Hale was one of these.  The British quickly unmasked Hale and almost as speedily executed him for high treason.

General Washington learned a valuable lesson from Hale’s execution, not the least of which was that for a secret mission to succeed — well, it must remain secret.  He also learned that volunteer spies simply wouldn’t do.  What he needed was a well-organized, discreet, professionally managed “secret service.”

After Hale’s execution, which historians claim deeply affected Washington, he decided that civilian spies would be less likely to attract attention than military officers.  Washington turned to William Duer to recommend someone to lead this effort in New York City.  Duer recommended Nathaniel Sackett.  However, Sackett was hesitant to take risks, and his intelligence (though worthy in some instances) took too long to produce.  Washington soon replaced Sackett with Captain Benjamin Tallmadge, Hale’s classmate at Yale.

In early 1777, Colonel Elias Dayton of the New Jersey Militia established a spy network on Staten Island.[3]  Colonel Dayton’s system eventually tied in with another, known as the Mersereau Ring.[4]

Following their victory at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, the British occupied the city of Philadelphia on 26th September.  General Washington thereafter focused much of his espionage efforts within the city of Philadelphia.  Washington recruited Major John Clark, a wounded/recovering veteran of the Battle of Brandywine, to accomplish this.

In August 1778, Lieutenant Caleb Brewster of Norwalk, Connecticut, volunteered to provide General Washington with intelligence.  Washington found Brewster’s initial report quite helpful, so to expand Brewster’s usefulness, Washington appointed General Charles Scott as Brewster’s handler and tasked him to find additional spies, if possible.  Captain Tallmadge became General Scott’s principal assistant.  As it happened, both Tallmadge and Brewster were acquainted with Abraham Woodhull of Setauket (Long Island); Tallmadge suggested that Brewster recruit Woodhull to help channel information through the network.

Abe Woodhull was probably an ideal spy because he was a convicted smuggler.  Tallmadge may have reasoned that if the British suspected Woodhull of smuggling, it was unlikely that they would also suspect him of espionage.  Woodhull was in prison when Tallmadge made him the offer: his freedom in exchange for working for Tallmadge.  Once Woodhull agreed to the arrangement, Washington arranged his release from prison with Governor Jonathan Trumbull.  To protect Woodhull’s identity, Tallmadge gave him an alias: Samuel Culper, Sr.

Tallmadge and Scott had differing views about the best way to run an espionage ring.  Scott preferred single-mission agents — men he could send out on a mission, afterward returning to Scott with a full report, and whom he could then assign to subsequent missions.  Captain Tallmadge had a different idea: he wanted stabilized agents to collect information and pass it along (via courier) to Scott’s headquarters.  Both methods were effective, and both ways were hazardous.

After Scott lost sixty percent of his “single mission” agents, whom the British captured and executed, General Washington reasoned that since Tallmadge had not lost a single agent, his method of collecting and transmitting secret information was “best.”  When General Scott resigned his post, Washington replaced him with Tallmadge.

Woodhull/Culper proved his ability in October 1778 by providing Washington with valuable information about British activities in Philadelphia.  To assist him, Woodhull recruited his brother-in-law, Amos Underhill.  Underhill and his wife Mary (Woodhull’s sister) ran a boarding house and pub catering to British soldiers.  British soldiers do two things very well: they drink a lot, and they talk a lot.  Underhill’s initial problem was that Washington thought his initial reports were too vague.  It wasn’t enough to listen to what the British soldiers had to say; Washington expected Underhill to validate what they said, as well.

The process of conveying information to Brewster was dangerous, complex, and time-consuming.  When Brewster had information for Tallmadge, it was hand-carried from Staten Island to Setauket and then from Setauket to Tallmadge’s headquarters at Fairfield, Connecticut — a distance of 188 miles, 30 of it across Long Island Sound.  To accomplish this feat, Woodhull recruited two couriers: Jonas Hawkins and Austin Roe.  Their task was to carry messages between Woodhull and Brewster.  It was up to Brewster to deliver messages to Tallmadge.  Crossing the Long Island Sound in a small boat was no easy task.  Brewster had six “drop” sites.

Mary Underhill (who some claim was actually Anna Strong) assisted her husband by posting pre-arranged signals to indicate which spies had information to submit.  For example, if Mary hung a black petticoat on her wash line, Brewster had arrived in town.  If she hung up some quantity of handkerchiefs on her clothesline, it told the courier which of Brewster’s six drops the information was to go.  Is this true?  We aren’t sure, but it does indicate how intricate the spy network was (and had to be).

The British were many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.  The British knew about Washington’s spying campaign.  They suspected Abraham Woodhull, Amos, and Mary Underhill, and they were keen to capture General Scott.  The British knew; the Americans knew that the British knew, and this made American spycraft all the more difficult because the British didn’t need indisputable proof of high treason.  Reasonable suspicion would be enough to send a spy to the gallows.

Everyone in Setauket with a role in Washington’s spy network became nervous when the British arrested John Wolsey, a known smuggler, and a master of self-preservation.  Sure enough, John Wolsey made a deal with the British.  In exchange for his liberty, he agreed to tell what he knew about Abraham Woodhull.  As it turned out, however, all Wolsey knew about Woodhull was something he’d overheard a lobsterback say … which was that Woodhull was suspected of being involved in a spying ring.

John Graves Simcoe

Wisely, Abe Woodhull was a cautious man who realized that he was operating on borrowed time.  With men like Wolsey running his gob, Woodhull was prudent to worry about his safety.  British Colonel John Graves Simcoe led his Queen’s Rangers to Setauket to look for Woodhull, who at the time was in New York.[5]  In the process of looking for Woodhull, Simcoe arrested his father, Judge Richard Woodhull, and had him tortured, inflicting him with grievous injuries to obtain information about his son.  A loyalist militia officer, Benjamin Floyd, who was married to a member of the Woodhull family, vouched for Abraham, which gave Simcoe pause in his investigation.  Subsequently, Woodhull conveyed to Tallmadge that he was not able to continue operating as a Continental spy.

In a letter to Tallmadge in late June, General Washington suggested considering Mr. George Higday as a possible replacement for Woodhull.  Unhappily for Higday, the British intercepted Washington’s letter, which prompted Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s raid into Tallmadge’s camp.[6]  Tarleton captured several documents, all confirming what the British already knew: Washington had spies.   Mr. Higday’s espionage career was over before it began.

Tarleton’s raid also convinced Abraham Woodhull that his early decision to retire was a wise and prudent course of action.  However, before his retirement, Woodhull did manage to recruit a new spy, a man named Robert Townsend.  Mr. Townsend’s alias was Samuel Culper, Jr.

Robert Townsend had several reasons for joining Washington’s spy network.  He was first of all motivated by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense.[7]  He was also put off by British harassment of his family (because of their religious affiliation) — and because Abraham Woodhull was an excellent salesman.  As a devoted Quaker, Townsend could not participate as a soldier. Ordinarily, this belief system might have also prevented him from joining the spy network. Still, a schism between religious and political Quakers (aided by Paine) pushed Townsend into the “political camp.”[8]  There was one more provocation: Colonel Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers seized the Townsend home and converted it into his headquarters.

Mr. Townsend was a businessman.  He owned a trade goods store and a coffee shop in partnership with Mr. James Rivington.  Mr. Rivington was the publisher of a loyalist newspaper, and Mr. Townsend was one of his regular journalists.  As a merchant, coffee shop owner, and reporter, Townsend had access to numerous British officers and NCOs and their places of patronage.  As a contributor to a loyalist newspaper, Townsend had credibility within loyalist society — such that British loyalists were happy to talk to him.  Both Townsend and Rivington formed the core elements of the Culper Ring in New York City.

Despite the stress of espionage, which produced strained relations within the Culper Ring, the effort produced more information than any other American or British intelligence network during the war.  American espionage focused on British troop movements, fortifications, and operational plans.  For example, the Culper Ring foiled British plans to ambush the French in Rhode Island.  Arguably, this information saved the Franco-American alliance.  Culper also uncovered the correspondence between Benedict Arnold and British Major John Andre, General Clinton’s chief intelligence officer.

To clarify what General Washington wanted from the Culper Ring, he provided them with specific instructions (see a special note below).

Townsend wasted little time energizing his spy activity.  Nine days after accepting Woodhull’s “offer of employment,” Townsend reported that two divisions of British infantry were preparing for an expedition to Connecticut.  In 1780, Townsend discovered a plot by British officials to ruin the American economy by circulating counterfeit currency.  He reported that the British hierarchy was optimistic about an imminent end to the war.  Townsend’s timely reporting permitted Congress to recall all of its money then in circulation.

Throughout his employment, Townsend remained suspicious of everyone and every circumstance.  To safeguard the identity of his spies, Tallmadge utilized several protective measures.  In addition to pseudonyms, Tallmadge also developed a system consisting of seven-hundred sixty-three numbers.  The number 745 represented England; 727 for New York; Robert Townsend was 723, and so forth.

Robert Townsend’s conduct of spycraft was both astute and sensible.  How sensible?  How good was Townsend at keeping secrets?  Townsend died on 7 March 1838.  He was 84 years old.  When he died, he took everything he knew about the Culper Ring with him.  What we know of Robert Townsend was only revealed in 1930 by American historian Morton Pennypacker.  Not even General Washington knew the identities of his spies.

And none of his spies knew that General Washington was Agent 711.

Sources:

  1. Rose, A.  Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.  Penguin Books/Random House, 2014.

Special Note:

General Washington’s Instructions:

  1. Culper Junior, to remain in the City, to collect all the useful information he can — to do this, he should mix as much as possible among the officers and refugees, visit the coffee houses, and all public places. He is to pay particular attention to the movements by land and water in and about the city especially.  How their transports are secured against an attempt to destroy them — whether by armed vessels upon the flanks, or by chains, booms, or any contrivances to keep off fire rafts.
  2. The number of men destined for the defense of the City and environs, endeavoring to designate the particular corps, and where each is posted.
  3. To be particular in describing the place where the works cross the island in the rear of the City-and how many redoubts are upon the line from the river to river, how many Cannon in each, and of what weight and whether the redoubts are closed or open next the city.
  4. Whether there are any works upon the Island of New York between those near the City and the works at Fort Knyphausen or Washington, and if any, whereabouts and of what kind.
  5. To be very particular to find out whether any works are thrown up on Harlem River, near Harlem Town, and whether Horn’s Hook is fortified. If so, how many men are kept at each place, and what number and what sized cannon are in those works.
  6. To enquire whether they have dug pits within and in front of the lines and works in general, three or four feet deep, in which sharp pointed stakes are pointed. These are intended to receive and wound men who attempt a surprise at night.
  7. The state of the provisions, forage and fuel to be attended to, as also the health and spirits of the Army, Navy and City.
  8. These are the principal matters to be observed within the Island and about the City of New York. Many more may occur to a person of C. Junr’s penetration which he will note and communicate.
  9. Culper Senior’s station to be upon Long Island to receive and transmit the intelligence of Culper Junior …
  10. There can be scarcely any need of recommending the greatest caution and secrecy in a business so critical and dangerous. The following seem to be the best general rules: To entrust none but the persons fixed upon to transmit the business. To deliver the dispatches to none upon our side but those who shall be pitched upon for the purpose of receiving them and to transmit them and any intelligence that may be obtained to no one but the Commander-in-Chief.

Endnotes:

[1] The declaration took the form of a grand jury indictment — allegations not proven, and many that history proves were not even true.  In modern times, one popular axiom is that it’s possible to indict a ham sandwich and such was the case of America’s “indictment” of King George II.  The colonist’s real problem, aside from King George insisting on his prerogatives as Great Britain’s king, was the British Parliament, but since a government legislative body cannot be indicted, Jefferson and other members of Congress decided to make their point by indicting the King.

[2] Hale came from a prominent Connecticut family.  He began his education at Yale at the age of 14, attended classes with Benjamin Tallmadge, and figured rather prominently in the college’s debating society.  He graduated with honors in 1773 at the age of 18 years.  When the British executed Hale, he was 21 years old.

[3] Later, Revolutionary War brigadier general, mayor of Elizabethtown, and member of the New Jersey General Assembly.  He was the father of Jonathan, a signer of the U.S. Constitution.

[4] Started in December 1776, this operation focused on intelligence gathering in New Brunswick and New York.  John Mersereau was the primary supervisor of this effort.

[5] Simcoe, from Cornwall, was the only child in his family to survive into adulthood.  He entered British military service in 1770, participating in the Siege of Boston, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia campaigns.  Tradition holds that Simcoe, in ordering his men not to fire on three withdrawing Continental officers, saved George Washington’s life.  He later served as Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor and was responsible for founding Toronto and for establishing Canada’s judicial system (1791-96).

[6] Contrary to how Mel Gibson portrayed him in the fictional film The Patriot, Tarleton was not so much of a scoundrel as he was a fighter.  He never burned down a South Carolina church filled with parishioners, but he did threaten to torch the home of General Charles Lee of New Jersey unless he surrendered to Tarleton’s authority.  At the Battle of Waxhaw, the 22-year-old captain, commanding provincial cavalry, assaulted a superior force of Continentals under Colonel Abraham Buford.  Buford refused to surrender despite the fact that Tarleton gave him that opportunity on two occasions.  With Buford’s refusal, Tarleton’s force of 149 troops attacked Buford incessantly, killing 113 Americans, wounding 203, and taking prisoners of those left alive when Buford finally agreed to surrender.  The Americans called it a massacre; it was no such thing.  It was war.  Tarleton was not the butcher revisionists have claimed.

[7] Paine argued that any Quaker who believed in pacifism at any price was not a true Quaker.

[8] Religious Quakers were among the strongest supporters of the British during the revolutionary war period. 


The Spook

Edward Geary Lansdale

A son of Michigan, Ed Lansdale was born in 1908 and later raised in Los Angeles, California.  He was one of four sons born to Sarah and Henry Lansdale.  After graduating from high school, he worked his way through the University of California (Los Angeles) by writing articles for newspapers and magazines.  He later began work in advertising in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

At the start of World War II, Lansdale joined the U. S. Army Air Corps, where he was subsequently classified as an intelligence officer and seconded to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Lansdale’s OSS assignment eventually took him to the Philippine Islands, but the timing and duration of this assignment are unknown.  During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, U. S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Fertig led the primary resistance movement — but it may be true that Lansdale and the OSS played a role in MacArthur’s return to Luzon.  After leaving the Philippines in 1948, the Air Force assigned Lansdale as an instructor at the Strategic Intelligence School, Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado.  While serving in this capacity, the Air Force advanced Lansdale to a temporary lieutenant colonel.

In 1950, the President of the Philippine Islands, Elpidio Quirino, personally requested that Lansdale return to the Joint United States/Philippines Military Assistance Group to assist the Philippines in combatting the Communist Hukbalahap (also, Huks).  Lansdale, an early believer in psychological warfare, adopted a tactic used earlier by the Japanese during the Empire’s occupation of the Philippines.  In Philippine folklore, Aswangs are blood-sucking demons; Lansdale’s ploy spread rumors in the Philippines about these Aswangs.  Lansdale managed the capture of one of the communist soldiers and drained the blood from his body, leaving his remains where it could be found near a popular pathway.  This ploy seemed to convince many of the Hukbalahap to leave their operations area.  To what long-term effect this ploy had on most Huks in the Philippines is unknown. 

During Lansdale’s time in the Philippines, he became close friends with Ramon Magsaysay, then the Philippines’ Secretary of National Defense.  Some historians suggest that Lansdale had a hand in Magsaysay’s bid for the presidency, which he achieved on 30 December 1953.  Lansdale is also credited with developing civic actions programs and policies designed to help rehabilitate Huks prisoners of war.

Before leaving his assignment in the Philippine Islands, Lansdale served as a temporary member of General John W. O’Daniel’s mission to Indochina in 1953.[1]  As an advisor to French Indochinese forces (counter-guerrilla warfare), Lansdale’s mission was to suggest successful strategies against the Viet Minh (Vietnamese communist guerrillas) — but of course, the French had been fighting Indochinese nationalists for several decades in advance of World War II, so it not clear what contributions Lansdale might have made to the French effort.[2]  

It was a strange set of circumstances that after the OSS helped organize and arm Indochinese guerrilla forces (beginning in 1943), that the U. S. military would then (initially) assist the French in fighting these same guerillas — and even stranger still that the United States would take over that effort after France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

After leaving the Philippine Islands, Lansdale’s next assignment was as a permanent advisor to the Military Assistance Group (Indochina) from 1954 to 1957, heading the military mission in Saigon, South Vietnam.  In addition to directing the training for the Vietnamese National Army (VNA), he helped organize the Caodaist militias.  He instituted a propaganda campaign to encourage Vietnamese Catholics (most of whom lived in North Vietnam) to move to South Vietnam.[3]

While in Saigon, Lansdale ingratiated himself with emerging leader Ngo Dinh Diem.  It was not very soon afterward that Lansdale moved into the Vietnamese White House upon Diem’s invitation.  This may have resulted from the fact that Lansdale helped to foil the attempted coup d’état of General Nguyen Van Hinh.

In one “egg on his face” episode, Lansdale began working with and mentoring Pham Xuan An, a reporter for Time Magazine.  Mr. An, as it turned out, was a highly valued North Vietnamese spy who, in addition to reporting on events in Vietnam, regularly provided helpful information to the government in Hanoi — information he obtained directly from Edward Lansdale.  In the good news department, Lansdale also mentored and trained CIA operative, John Deutch.  Mr. Deutch was one of the so-called Whiz Kids associated with Robert S. McNamara.  Deutch later became Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and, as it turned out, no one killed more troops during the Vietnam War than Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

From 1957 to 1963, Edward Lansdale served in Washington, D. C. first, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and a member of the President’s advisory committee on military assistance, and later as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

In the early 1960s, Lansdale was primarily involved in covert operations designed to topple the government of Cuba, including proposals to assassinate Fidel Castro.  Known as the Cuban Project (also Operation Mongoose), Lansdale’s plan called for an extensive campaign of terrorist attacks against civilians by CIA hired insurgents and CIA covert operations designed to exploit the insurgents’ successes.  The plan received the approval of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and went into effect after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Even today, the U. S. government argues against the notion that the Cuban project (and its methodologies) were extralegal.  We know that along with Operation Mongoose was yet another, darker scheme, dubbed Operation Northwoods.  Northwoods called upon the U. S. military to create a series of incidents involving the loss of American and Cuban exile’s lives through the actions of phony Cuban revolutionaries.  The idea was to sufficiently enrage the American public to demand war against Castro’s Cuba.  Involved with Lansdale was William K. Harvey (CIA), Samuel Halpern (CIA), and Lansdale’s assistant, Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame).  As bad as President Kennedy’s approval, the mastermind for this project was his brother Robert, the Attorney General of the United States.

Major General Lansdale retired from the U. S. Air Force on 1 November 1963.  Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated on 2 November 1963.  President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963.  According to retired U. S. Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, a former subordinate of Lansdale, Edward Lansdale’s fingerprints are all over Kennedy’s assassination.[4]

After he retired from the Air Force, Lansdale returned to Vietnam (1965-68), where he worked in the United States Embassy in a position of ministerial rank — except that no one seems to know what Lansdale’s function was at the Embassy.  Some have suggested he may have been the Dirty Little Tricks Officer.[5]

I leave my readers with the question of whether Colonel Prouty or Dr. Ellsberg have any credibility regarding Lansdale’s or the CIA’s involvement with the Kennedy assassination.  However, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s book titled The Ugly American (1958) may have modeled Colonel Hillandale’s character on Edward Lansdale.  Prouty’s book is no longer in print, but it is available “Online for education purposes at JAG 07146.co.nr.”  The URL co. nr is a “cloaking/masking” protocol.

From my perspective, there is a great danger in organizations that have limited or no oversight by the government (and people) whom they serve.  It is a disaster just waiting to happen (noting that some will argue it already has).  People with peculiar skills will respond to what their bosses tell them is “in the national interests,” and most carry out these assignments without ever questioning the legality or morality of their missions.   

Sources:

  1. Bamford, J.  Body of Secrets.  Doubleday, 2001.
  2. Boot, M.  The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.  Norton & Company, 2018.
  3. Currey, C. B.  Edward Lansdale, the Unquiet American.  Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
  4. Elliston, J.  Psy War on Cuba: The Declassified History of US Anti-Castro Propaganda.  Ocean Press, 1999.
  5. McAlister, J.  “The lost revolution: Edward Lansdale and the American Defeat in Vietnam, 1964-1968, Small Wars and Insurgencies, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] LtGen O’Daniel saw combat service in both world wars and Korea.  Known as an outspoken officer in the same vein as George Patton, Eisenhower nevertheless appointed him to command the Military Assistance Group, Indochina.

[2] Given the sequence of events of World War II, where we find that the entire French army fell to the Germans in only six weeks, the subsequent collaboration with Germany and Japan of the Vichy government, and France’s inglorious return to Indochina in 1946, senior French colonial officials were in no mood to accept the advice of American military officers.  Their only inducement the French had to listen to what American military officers had to say was the monetary and material support offered to them by the U. S. government.

[3] Operation Passage to Freedom changed an important demographic in Vietnam.  Before 1954, most Vietnamese Catholics lived in North Vietnam.  After 1956, Vietnamese Catholics held the popular majority in South Vietnam, 55% of whom were refugees from North Vietnam.  To help facilitate this move, Lansdale air-dropped leaflets into Vietnam showing concentric circles drawn on a map, which suggested that a nuclear strike on North Vietnam may be imminent.

[4] Of course, if that were true, then Lansdale and all his co-conspirators would have to be the best-ever secret keepers in the history of the planet.  In the forward to his second revision of The Secret Team, Prouty claims that the CIA managed to abscond with “at least” 300,000 copies of his book that had been shipped by his publisher to Australia.

[5] Robert S. McNamara got his start as a “dirty trickster” in World War II.  Known as one of the “Whiz Kids,” McNamara moved to the board of Ford Motor Company before being named as JFK’s Secretary of Defense.  His “genius” resulted in significant American and RVN casualties during the Vietnam War.  


Naval Intelligence — Agents of Change

The early days

By 1861, America’s military traditions were already well established.  When America needed an armed force, it recruited one.  When the United States no longer needed an armed force, they disbanded it.  In the minds of our founding fathers, there was no reason to maintain a standing military force.  Why?  Because in the experience of American colonists, the British used its standing army to enforce tyrannical edicts from the Parliament.[1]

By 1875, a decade after the end of the American Civil War, the United States Navy had deteriorated due to the neglect of Congress and the Navy’s senior leadership.  The Navy’s ships were rusting away, its officers had grown apathetic and unprofessional, and (when compared to the other significant navies of the world — Britain, France, Russia, Japan) the US Navy appeared in last place.  It took the United States government another five years to realize that the condition of the Navy demanded a national discussion.  One of the young officers to lead this discussion was Lieutenant Theodorus B. M. Mason.  He was one of the Navy’s early agents of change.

Born in New York in 1848, Theodorus came from a distinguished family.  His father was a prominent attorney and a former colonel in the U. S. Army during the Civil War.  His uncle was Rear Admiral Theodorus Baily.  He adopted Mason’s surname in deference to his maternal grandfather Sidney, who had no male heirs to carry on the family name.

Mason graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1868.  He was known for his intellect, his linguistic ability, and his foresight.  After serving with the Navy’s hydrographic office, he traveled extensively in Europe and South America as a naval observer charged with collecting information about foreign navies.[2]  Mason knew what information was available and how to obtain it. He recognized that for the U. S. Navy to compete with foreign navies, the United States would have to develop capacities in naval science and technology.  Mason became convinced that the U. S. Navy would require a unified intelligence agency to gather, analyze, catalog, and disseminate foreign naval developments to achieve modernization.

From the report, Mason wrote of his travels and discoveries, William H. Hunt, the Secretary of the Navy, on 23 March 1882, directed the establishment of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) with the Bureau of Navigation.[3]  Hunt appointed Mason as its first director.  Mason assumed his new post, Chief Intelligence Officer, in June 1882.  The Navy assigned him to a small office in what was once known as the State, War, and Navy Building, which is now the Old Executive Office Building.

Initially, the heads of the various sections of the Bureau of Navigation paid Mason little mind.  He was a comparatively junior officer, a lieutenant, and the ONI was a fledgling undertaking.  However, Mason began providing information that the various bureaus could use to justify the funds needed to expand and modernize the Navy.

His primary work, however, may not seem like much of an accomplishment today.  Titled Information from Abroad: The War on the Pacific Coast of South America Between Chile and the Allied Republics of Peru and Bolivia, 1879-81, Mason’s work in 1883 was little more than a chronology of events incorporating his and the observations of other naval officers on a singular event.  After 77 pages, Mason concluded, “Since the fall of Lima, there has been no battle of importance; many skirmishes have taken place between portions of the army of occupation and small bodies of Peruvians.  There has also been a large amount of diplomatic maneuvering, which, although belonging to history, conveys no lesson of value to the naval or military student.”

The Navy transferred Lieutenant Mason to other duties three years later, replacing him with Lieutenant Raymond P. Rodgers in April 1885.  In January 1894, the Navy promoted Mason to lieutenant commander and retired him due to ill-health in December.

The War Years

It wasn’t until 1916 when Congress authorized the first significant expansion of ONI, an increase in funding to support domestic security operations in advance of World War I.  Two years into the war, Congress was finally convinced that someone should be looking after America’s ports, harbors, and defense plants.  Germany, by then, had embarked on a significant spying operation in the United States, and subversion and sabotage had become a valid concern.  ONI worked closely with the Departments of State,  War, Justice, Commerce, and Labor to help prevent unauthorized disclosure of sensitive defense information.  The number of ONI agents employed to accomplish such a feat was undoubtedly substantial.

ONI agents continued their counter-intelligence investigations throughout World War II — a mission assigned to its Special Activities Branch.  ONI also expanded its efforts to discover critical intelligence on German submarine operations, tactics, and technologies.  Most of this information came from interrogations of captured German submariners.  Within this period, ONI produced thousands of ship and aircraft recognition manuals for front-line forces.  Also initiated during this period was a sophisticated photo-interpretation effort and a related topographical model section that aided in the planning for combat operations by amphibious planners of the Navy, Army, and Marine Corps.  ONI also established two schools for the training of fleet intelligence officers.

In 1945, the Navy began hiring civilian scientists and technologists to guide advancements in a wide range of fields.  The Sound Surveillance System, acoustic intelligence, the Navy Scientific and Technical Intelligence Center, and the Navy Reconnaissance and Technical Support Center came from this effort.

In 1946, ONI established the Office of Operational Intelligence.  This particular office inherited the mission of the Navy’s Combat Intelligence Division, created by Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King during World War II.  Its “Special Section,” known as Y1, evolved from the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean area (JICPOA) that successfully operated against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War.

After World War II (faced with ongoing budget cuts), the ONI returned to its somewhat abbreviated peacetime mission.  This changed with the beginning of the Korean War in 1950.  ONI began a significant buildup of special agents whose principal mission was the security of Naval facilities and personnel and criminal investigations involving Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

In 1957, ONI incorporated a signals intelligence effort under the Navy’s Field Operational Intelligence section.  This group provided real-time information about the disposition of foreign naval and military forces during the Cold War.

In 1966, a special investigative unit was formed and named the Naval Investigative Service (NIS).  NIS became the primary investigative agency of the Department of the Navy for counter-intelligence and criminal activities.  In 1982, NIS assumed responsibility for the Navy’s Law Enforcement and Physical Security mission.  Following the Beirut bombing in 1983, NIS established the Navy Anti-terrorist Alert Center.  One notable employee of ATAC was a civilian analyst named Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel in 1987.  Pollard was released from prison in 2015 and now lives in Israel.

Following the so-called “Tailhook Scandal” in 1991 (with pressure from the Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee (Senator Sam Nunn)), the Naval Investigative Service was re-named Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).  It concurrently became a federal law enforcement agency under civilian leadership within the Department of the Navy.

Post-Cold War

Between 1988-93, ONI joined the U. S. Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center and the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity supporting domestic maritime and expeditionary and littoral intelligence collection missions.  This newest facility is called the National Maritime Intelligence Center.  In 2009, the Chief of Naval Operations directed the transformation of ONI into a major naval command which included four subordinate components: scientific and technical intelligence, operational intelligence, information services technology, and expeditionary/special warfare intelligence support.

The Navy’s intelligence mission is evolving, providing critical support to national and global governments and industrial partners.  In 2016, the “Information Warfare Community,” which operates under the supervision of the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, became the Navy’s primary conduit for global information systems.  Its primary function is command and control systems, battlespace and adversary management, and power projection.  It is an effort that employs around 52,000 military, civilian, and civilian contract employees in warfare, cryptographic, meteorological, and oceanographic disciplines.  Today, there are five separate organizations within the Office of Naval Intelligence: The Nimitz Operation Intelligence Center, Farragut Technical Analysis Center, Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center, Hopper Information Services Center, and the Brooks Center for Maritime Engagement.

The Office of Naval Intelligence is not without its critics, however.  Those who suspect the existence of a “deep state” within the U. S. government point to former ONI officer Robert Woodward and his journalistic sidekick Carl Bernstein as willing participants of a deep-state plot organized to bring down President Richard Nixon in the so-called Watergate Affair.  If true, it may have been the first time that manufactured materials targeted high-ranking US officials.  Such accusations are easier made than proved, which goes to the secrecy of official intelligence operations and ONI’s long involvement in domestic spying operations.

Giving some credence to the concerns of “deep state” theorists, in the aftermath of President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Director of Naval Intelligence recently warned active duty and retired military personnel that any criticism made by them toward the President of the United States, Vice President, cabinet officials, and members of congress may subject them to court-martial proceedings for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and a warning to civilian employees that they may be censored pursuant to Department of Defense Instruction 1344.10.  It is enough to cause one to wonder how far the role of ONI now extends into matters of America’s Constitutional guarantee of expressing personal opinions.

I have no answers.

Sources:

  1. O’Brien, P. P.  British, and American Naval Power: Politics and Policy, 1900-1936.  Greenwood, 1998. 
  2. “Our Heritage,” The Office of Naval Intelligence online.

Endnotes:


[1] After the revolutionary war, Congress disbanded America’s land and naval forces.  At the end of World War I, the United States demobilized the US armed forces.  President Truman ordered the demobilization of the armed forces in 1946.  Truman saw the error of his ways in late June 1950 when the United States came within a hair’s width of being physically thrown off the Korean Peninsula.

[2] Hydrographic is the study and process of measuring the physical characteristics of waters and marginal land

[3] Secretary Hunt served only briefly as Secretary of the Navy, under President James Garfield.  His one enduring achievement, beyond creating the ONI, was a Naval Advisory Board, which he tasked with reviewing and evaluating suggestions for rebuilding the U. S. Navy.  It wasn’t until 1915 that Secretary Josephus Daniels established a permanent advisory board — a suggestion by famed inventor Thomas A. Edison.  

Our Secret Fighting Women

American intelligence-gathering and analysis before World War II was a function performed by four separate departments: the Navy Department, War Department, Treasury Department, and the State Department.  In the Navy, for example, the Office of Naval Intelligence (established in 1882) fell under the Bureau of Navigation.  ONI’s mission was to collect and record such information as may be useful to the Department of the Navy in both war and peace.  It was a mission that remained unchanged for sixty-two years.  Over time, ONI would expand their activities to include both foreign and domestic espionage whenever such operations were beneficial to the mission of the Navy.  Similarly, the State Department had its cipher bureau (MI-8) (which was shut down in 1929), and the Army had its Signal Intelligence Service.  None of these activities were coordinated, and seldom did the agencies share information between them.

Out of concern for this lack of coordination, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed his friend of many years, William J. Donovan, to devise a plan for a coordinated intelligence service modeled on the British Intelligence Service (MI-6) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).  Donovan called his organization the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Eventually, OSS would manage 24,000 intelligence agents, 13,000 of which were American employees, between 1941-1945.

Donovan was looking for a unique sort of individual — a person with a doctorate who could win in a bar fight.  Some were academics, some were military officers and enlisted men, some were athletes, filmmakers, and a few were convicts.  Donovan employed them as spies, saboteurs, code breakers, analysts, map makers, forgers, and propagandists.  They became expert in penetrating enemy territory by parachute and from the sea.  They kidnapped people, blew up bridges and railroad yards, stole secrets, and put together the networks that did all of those things.

One-third of these people were women.  One of them was an actress named Marlene Dietrich; another was a woman named Margaret Mead, a pioneering anthropologist. Julia McWilliams developed a shark repellent.  Julia is more famously known as Julia Childs.  Another, Jean Wallace, was the daughter of the Vice President of the United States.  Several of these women were killed in the line of duty, such as Jane Wallis Burrell in 1948.

Virginia Stuart served the OSS in Egypt, Italy, and China.  At first, Virginia wasn’t sure what the OSS did, but she wanted to serve her country, and someone directed her to the “Q Building” (OSS headquarters in Washington where the Kennedy Center now stands).  Armed with a bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College, Virginia applied to the OSS in November 1943.  She was naturally adventurous, but there was a war on and most of her friends were participating in it in one form or another.  Her older sister, Edith, had joined the Navy as a chemist.  Virginia thought she might do that as well, but in 1943 the Navy was looking for scientists and medical personnel, not liberal arts majors.  Ultimately, the OSS hired Miss Stuart.  She was simply told, “Work hard, get the job done no matter what it takes, and keep your mouth shut.”

Stuart later recalled that the work in the Secret Intelligence Branch was grueling, the environment uncomfortable, the hours long, and that everyone became addicted to the caffeine in Coca Cola.  Initially, her job included assembling and making sense of hundreds of reports submitted in abbreviated form from secret agents in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  Everyone had a sense of urgency, and everyone realized that the information they were receiving was important, no matter how insignificant it may have seemed when it first arrived — everything from troop movements and decoded radio messages to logistics issues and plans for secret penetrations of enemy held territory.  The longer the war went on, the more information there was to analyze and categorize.  What stood out in Virginia’s memory from those days was that there were no “men’s jobs and women’s jobs.”  There was only the one job, and everyone did it.

All the information was classified, of course, but some of it was more secret than other.  She recalled that “Eyes Alone” material was quickly delivered to Colonel Donovan’s desk.  It was the “most important” because of its sensitivity or timing.

When an opportunity presented itself, Virginia requested overseas service.  After eight months of waiting, she was sent to work in Cairo.  She and three other women dressed in khaki uniforms boarded a ship, along with Red Cross workers and war correspondents.  No one was to know who they were, what they did, or where they were going.  Virginia was going to Cairo because that was the OSS forward headquarters for Middle Eastern operations.

Cairo was a place where one could hear dozens of languages: English, Italian, French, Yugoslav, and Turkish among them.  In addition to military personnel, there were politicians, academics with expertise in the economy, logisticians, and yes — even German spies.  OSS headquarters in Cairo was a converted villa with a secure code room in the basement.  It was a place where newspapers and magazines from around the world were read and analyzed.  The analysis required men and women who were not only fluent in several languages but also familiar with cultural nuances, which made the work even more challenging.  This unusual library of information had a wide range of uses, from people who needed to manufacture official-looking fake documents, to others who were looking for a slip of the teletype (so to speak).  Sometimes, OSS received information coded in classified advertisements.

A year later, the OSS dispatched Virginia Stuart to China.  A week later, Virginia learned that the United States had dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan.  There was no detailed information about the event, of course, and no one was sure what an atomic bomb was.  But while the world was focused on the bomb, secret agents parachuted into Manchuria dressed as Chinese Nationalist officers to conduct guerrilla raids against Japanese occupation forces there, and to help plan for the liberation of Japanese POW camps.  Eventually, Virginia married one of these men, a British-Australian colonel attached to MI-6.  Virginia Stuart, after her stint with OSS, married and raised a family in such places as the Philippine Islands, Honduras, and later became a news anchor in Rhode Island.

The end of the war signaled the end of OSS.  Few of the uniformed services chiefs appreciated Roosevelt’s OSS (General MacArthur and others) who felt that intelligence gathering, and analysis, belonged within their purview.  President Truman, an old Army hand from World War II, agreed with his generals.  Of course, none of these generals (or even Truman) seemed to understand that the OSS provided vital intelligence from a vast network of sources they could not have managed on their own.  Despite the fact that OSS technically worked for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Truman wanted the OSS to disappear.  He made that happen in July 1945.

But not even Truman on his silliest day was stupid enough to do away with the assets created by OSS over nearly five years.  At the end of World War II, the OSS continued to collect valuable intelligence information about the Soviet Union, which almost immediately began working against the interests of the free world.  Over a period of two years, what was once the OSS , transitioned into the CIA, and many of the people who worked for OSS found themselves doing essentially the same tasks for the renamed spy agency.

The contribution of our women to America’s secret service didn’t begin or end with World War II.  During the Revolutionary War, a woman known only to history as Agent 355, served as part of the Culper Spy Ring, and played a pivotal role in the arrest of British spy, Major John Andrew and the infamous traitor, Benedict Arnold.  Anna Smith, living in Long Island, helped communicate information to General Washington through a code system that depended on the way she hung her laundry to dry.[1]  It may not seem like much of an effort, but that is the nature of the clandestine service: vital information in drips and drabs, funneled to the people best positioned to make sense of it.

Women made ideal spies simply because men didn’t think they were capable of it.  Most of these women are unknown to us today precisely because they were very good at what they did, and also because once they had achieved such remarkable results, men simply forgot about them.

During the Civil War, Pauline Cushman, an actress, was a Union spy discovered by the Confederacy.  She was saved from hanging by the arrival of the Union Army mere days before her execution.  Sarah Emma Edmonds also served the Union cause, disguising herself as a male soldier, sometimes as a black man, at other times as an old woman, to spy on the Confederacy.  Harriet Tubman, in addition to helping to free enslaved blacks, served the Union Army in South Carolina by organizing a spy network and occasionally leading raids and spying expeditions.  Elizabeth Van Lew was an anti-slavery Virginian who smuggled food and clothing to Union prisoners and provided information about Confederate activities to Union officials.  It was this woman who cleverly placed Mary Elizabeth Bowser as a spy in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Not all the ladies were in the trenches during World War II, but this one was.  Virginia Hall was an American spy with the British SOE and about as tough as they come.  While on a hunting trip in Turkey, a gun accident caused her to lose her leg.  She named her prosthetic device “Cuthbert.”  In connection with the SOE and OSS, Hall led networks of agents in various specialized missions, rescued prisoners of war, and recruited hundreds of spies to work against the Nazis.  Her quick wit kept her two paces ahead of the Gestapo, who spent a lot of time and effort trying to find out who she was.  Hall was able to outpace the Gestapo because she was a master of disguise, and Germany lost the war knowing that whoever this woman was, she was the most dangerous of all Allied spies.  Virginia Hall is the only civilian woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

Marion Frieswyk was a cartographer, who along with others in the OSS, produced three dimensional topographic maps of such places as Sicily in advance of the allied landings there in 1943.  Marion was a country girl with a knack for numbers.  At the age of 21 years, her ambition was to become a school teacher after graduating from Potsdam Teacher’s College in 1942, but the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii changed her plans.  A college geography professor encouraged her to apply to a summer graduate school course in cartography at Clark University; he told her that the war effort would demand trained map makers.  Out of her class of thirty students, the OSS recruited only two: Marion and a fellow named Henry.  The OSS offered to pay her $1,800 a year and she was soon off to the nation’s capital.

Customized map making was a new innovation in 1942.  The OSS spared no expense sending civilian employees around the world to procure existing maps; geographic researchers and draftsmen transformed these maps into detailed representations of places where the Allies would fight their battles.  As in the case of Sicily, Marion and others produced a number of topographic models —  it was a combination between artists’ studios and woodworking shops, where jigsaws were employed to produce precise 3-dimensional changes in elevation beginning at sea level.  The Sicily map was the first custom made topographic map ever made in the United States.

In 1943, Marion married her classmate from Clark University, Henry, the other student hired by OSS.  She and Henry were married for 64 years.  After the war, when Truman disbanded the OSS, Marion and Henry transferred to the State Department where they worked until the creation of the CIA.  Marion stayed with the CIA until 1952, resigning so that Henry could accept an assignment in London.  In recognition of Henry’s 25 years of government service in cartography, the CIA presented him with the Sicily Map that he had helped produce in 1943.

Most of these stalwart women from World War II have passed on, but courageous, hardworking, thoroughly dedicated women continue to serve the United States in the Central Intelligence Agency.  Gina Barrett, for example, is a 25-year veteran intelligence analyst with the CIA, who wrote the first report warning US officials about Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s — she was one of a team of six other women focused on the Middle East’s merchants of death, but Ms. Barrett is quick to point out that women have always played a role in America’s clandestine services.  Maja Lehnus is another woman, who in over twenty-nine years of CIA service, held six different leadership positions in the field of chemical, biological, and nuclear armaments.  Lehnus is the woman at CIA who does the worrying for things that most people don’t even know about — or even want to know about.

The CIA’s clandestine mission for women include a wide range of projects, from counter-terrorism to field operations, the technical aspects of bombs, and space weapons developments.  Most of these women are married with children and none of them look anything like an Albert R. Broccoli spy.  But the clandestine service is a tough row to hoe and the work can wear anyone down.  One such clandestine professional, whose identity is secret, is an explosives expert.  The job, she says, is unrelenting, and if someone working in this field doesn’t find a way to step away from it, it will eventually kill them.

There are no seductresses at the CIA, reports one woman.  That’s all Hollywood stuff.  There is no erratic behavior.  What there is, and has always been in the American secret services, are women like Virginia Hall, who are prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish their vital (to the United States) missions.

Eloise Page was one of 4,500 women employed by the OSS.  She began her career as a secretary; she retired as the third-highest ranking officer in the CIA’s operations directorate.  In the operations section, she had responsibility for planning and directing covert operations and recruiting foreign spies.  Page was the CIA’s first female station chief.  Suzanne Matthews followed Page’s pathway.  She joined the CIA as a secretary in 1975 and worked her way up to case officer.

Janine Brookner was another of the CIA’s shining stars.  She joined the agency in 1968.  The CIA offered her an analytical position, but she was adamant about wanting an assignment in operations.  Ultimately, as a senior case officer, Brookner infiltrated the Communist Party and recruited a highly placed Soviet bloc agent.  Today, Brookner is a Washington, D. C. lawyer.

Female employees of the CIA continue saving American lives every day.  Completing this daunting task requires constant vigilance and attention to detail.  The demand associated with this work requires compartmentalization, checking one’s emotions, and keeping a cool head under intense pressure.  Currently, women make up around 45% of the CIA’s workforce and 34% of the agency’s senior leadership.  The third and fourth most senior positions in the CIA are held by women.

Currently, there are 137 gold stars affixed to the CIA’s Memorial Wall, signifying CIA personnel killed in the line of duty.  Thirty-seven of these stars do not identify the name of the veterans because their names remain classified.  Eleven of those stars are for women, such as Barbara Robbins who died in Vietnam in 1963,  Monique Lewis who was killed in Beirut in 1983 and  Jennifer Matthews who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.  Some of the women who lost their lives (as with their male counterparts) had a spouse and children at home.  Working insane hours protecting the homeland is one kind of sacrifice — giving up their life for the homeland is the ultimate sacrifice.


Endnotes:

[1] The British had their spies, as well.  Anna Bates disguised herself as a peddler of knives, needles, and other dry goods to the Continental army.  While she was doing that, she took careful note of the soldiers weapons, which the British believed was useful information. 

Operation Ranch Hand

Whoever fights monsters must see to it

that the process does not become a monster. —Nietzsche

Background

The Players

We cannot begin to demonstrate an understanding of history’s great tragedies until we appreciate and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the men who shaped them.  Occasionally, high officials’ statements and behaviors reveal who they were, how they reasoned, and how they arrived at decisions that affected tens of thousands of other human beings.  Of course, people are complex animals, and we are all flawed in some ways.  Knowing that people are flawed should give those of us living in democracies something to think about before choosing our national leaders.

As one example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a man who had no qualms about developing atomic weapons or approving chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, but he was consistently an anti-colonialist and sympathetic to popular independence/nationalist movements. Roosevelt’s compassion, coupled with his moralism, limited his interest in colonialism to work performed by missionaries in far distant places unknown to most Americans.  It was Roosevelt’s anti-colonial sentiments that brought him to loggerheads with other leaders of the allied powers — notably Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

Mr. Roosevelt believed colonialism opened the door to secret diplomacy, which led to bloody conflicts.  These deeply held beliefs created tensions between Roosevelt, Churchill, and de Gaulle.  Both Churchill and de Gaulle intended to re-engage their pre-World War II colonial interests — including those in Southeast Asia and North Africa.

But Roosevelt, the pragmatist, also kept his focus on winning the war against Germany and Japan. To achieve that primary objective, he curbed his anti-colonial sentiments throughout most of the war — with some exceptions.  Roosevelt, for example, did not hesitate to signal his belief that the people of Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) were much better off without French meddling in their internal affairs.  After World War II, Roosevelt intended to “push” France toward an agreement placing its Southeast Asian colonies into an international trusteeship — a first step, Roosevelt believed — toward achieving Indochinese independence.

Unfortunately, Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office on 12 April 1945 — before the end of the Second World War.  Whatever his intentions toward Southeast Asia, it was left unfulfilled.  Upon Roosevelt’s death, Harry S. Truman ascended to the presidency, and Truman was an entirely different man.  Truman did not share Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist sentiments; he was more concerned about maintaining good relations with the United Kingdom and France. As a result, America’s world war allies had little trouble retaining their colonial holdings once the war was over.  When nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh announced Viet Nam’s independence in 1945, Truman ignored him — preferring instead to back De Gaulle.

In fact, Truman developed no distinct policy toward Indochina until around 1947 and only then because of the re-emergence of the Soviet Union and its totalitarian power over most of Eastern Europe and not until Winston Churchill forewarned of a clash between communism and capitalism — his now-famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946[1].  Always “slow on the up-take,” or if not that, then his preoccupation with post-war US domestic policy, the Iron Curtain speech, and George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”[2] nudged Truman’s attention toward the Soviet Union, Europe, and the domino theory of global communism.

Approaching Indochina

The Truman Doctrine led US foreign policy toward two interrelated goals — the first being an ambitious (American taxpayer-funded) program designed to rebuild a massively destroyed Europe as a democratic, capitalist dominated, pro-US collection of nations and a global defense against Soviet-style communism.  The first of these attentions went to Greece and Turkey but soon extended into East and Southeast Asia, as well.  The connection between events in Europe and far-distant Indochina was the re-established colonial empires of Great Britain and France, precisely the clash between French colonialism and the Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, which began in 1945[3].

Chemical Warfare

In 1943, the outcome of the Pacific war was inevitable: Japan would lose.  What remained uncertain was how many allied troops would perish if it became necessary to invade the Japanese home islands.  Encouraged, perhaps, by Italy’s campaign against Abyssinia in 1939, the US Army contracted with the University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign) and a botanist/bioethicist named Arthur Galston to study the effects of chemical compounds (notably, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T)) on cereal grains (including rice) and broadleaf crops.

What Galston discovered was that certain chemicals could be used to defoliate vegetation.  It was from this discovery that the question arose — how best to disperse such chemicals?

Since the beginning of powered flight, highly placed civilian and military officials have debated aeronautics’ utility in conflict.  During the First World War, French, British, and American forces employed airpower to counter enemy aircraft, perform intelligence gathering functions, attack enemy observation balloons, and drop bombs on enemy troop and artillery concentrations.  In the Second World War, the allied powers refrained from using chemical and biological weapons — perhaps out of fear that the enemy would reciprocate its use — and (mostly) confined its lethal air assault to enemy industrial and transportation centers.  There were two exceptions, however.  Fire-bombing destroyed Dresden, Germany[4], Tokyo, Japan[5] — and the civilians who lived in those cities.  It was a travesty surpassed only by the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan[6], in early August 1945 — the point being that aerial delivery of weapons or other means of mass destruction was not a new phenomenon among the world’s first nations.

In early 1945, the US Army tested various chemical mixtures at the Bushnell Army Airfield in Florida.  These tests were so successful that the US began planning to use defoliants against Japan — should it become necessary to invade the home islands.  The people working on the application of chemical warfare did not know about the Manhattan Project.  Because of the use of two atomic bombs in Japan, the allied invasion of the home islands was unnecessary — and neither was the use of herbicides.

Nevertheless, Great Britain and the United States continued their evaluations of defoliants’ use in the years following World War II.  The Americans tested well over 1,100 chemical compounds in various field tests, and the British conducted similar tests in India and Australia.  The first western nation to deploy chemical defoliants in conflict was the United Kingdom during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

By the mid-1950s, events unfolding in Southeast Asia were already leading the United States toward an unmitigated disaster in foreign policy and economic expenditures.  In 1961, given the “success” of the use of defoliants on the Malaysian Peninsula, American and Vietnamese officials began to consider their service in Vietnam, as well.

Ranch Hand

Ta Cu Mountain, Vietnam

Even before President Lyndon Johnson escalated the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, war planners realized that the region’s dense foliage would challenge those involved in ground and air campaigns.  This factor led to Operation Ranch Hand — a U. S. Air Force effort between 1961-1971 to reduce jungle vegetation and deny food sources to North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong insurgents by spraying the dense forests with an estimated 20-million gallons of various herbicides.  The Air Force concoction, code-named Agent Orange, contained the deadly chemical dioxin, later proven to cause cancer, congenital disabilities, rashes, and severe psychological and neurological problems among those exposed to it and their offspring.

Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt accepted an appointment to the US Naval Academy in 1939.  Upon graduation, he was commissioned an Ensign on 10 June 1942.  Upon selection to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), Zumwalt assumed overall command of Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Seven in 1965.  As Rear Admiral (Upper Half), Zumwalt became Commander, US Naval Forces (Vietnam) and Chief, U. S. Naval Advisory Group within the USMACV.  In 1968, he was promoted to Vice Admiral and served as the principal navy advisor to US Army General Creighton Abrams, serving as Commander, MACV.

Model USN Swift Boat

Zumwalt’s command was part of the “brown water” navy, which in his advisory capacity, controlled the Navy’s swift boats that patrolled the coasts, harbors, and river systems of South Vietnam.  Among his subordinate boat commanders was his son, Elmo Russell Zumwalt III (and John F. Kerry).  The brown water navy also included Task Force 115 (Coastal Surveillance Force), Task Force 116 (River Patrol Force), and Task Force 117 (Joint Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force).

In 1968, the United States had been fully engaged in the Vietnam War for three years.  No one wants to fight a never-ending war, not the people who have to fight in it, not the people back home who suffer the loss of loved ones, and not the politicians whose popularity and careers are diminished by unhappy citizens.  American war planners wanted to turn the war over to Vietnamese military officials to decide their fate vis-à-vis the conflict with North Vietnam.  This task of turning the war over to the Vietnamese government was called Vietnamization, first implemented by President Richard M. Nixon.  Nixon, who previously served as Eisenhower’s vice president, wanted the United States out of the Vietnam conflict — but with honor.

To achieve Vietnamization, the “press was on” to move Vietnamese military forces as quickly as possible to the point where they could take over the war, allowing the United States to withdraw their forces.  President Nixon didn’t want to hear any excuses about how or why USMACV could not achieve it.

Admiral Zumwalt related the story of how he attended a briefing with General Abrams in 1968 when the discussion emerged about how soon the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) might assume control of the air war over South Vietnam.  A senior US Air Force officer opined that the VNAF might be ready as early as 1976.  Abrahams threw a fit … Vietnamization was taking too long, and the Air Force didn’t seem to understand that MACV didn’t have eight more years to fool around with the project.  When it was Zumwalt’s turn to speak, he laid out his plan for increasing the pace of Vietnamization among the riverine forces.  This moment was when the Admiral made his fateful decision to increase defoliation along South Vietnam’s inland waterways.  Zumwalt later said that he specifically checked with the Air Force about possible harmful effects of Agent Orange on US personnel; he said, “We were told there were none.”

But in 1988, Dr. James Clary, a USAF researcher associated with Operation Ranch Hand, wrote to Senator Tom Daschle, stating, “When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential damage [to humans] due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide.  However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us was overly concerned.  We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”

Admiral Zumwalt’s son was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1983; in 1985, doctors also discovered stage three Hodgkins (another form of lymphoma).  Elmo R. Zumwalt III died in 1988, 42-years old.  His son, Elmo R. Zumwalt IV, suffers from congenital dysfunction that confuses his physical senses.  In 1985, Admiral Zumwalt told the press, “I do not have any guilt feelings because I was convinced then, and I am convinced now, that the use of Agent Orange saved literally hundreds and maybe thousands of lives.”

The Admiral could not have been more wrong as to the effects of Agent Orange and “saving lives.” The consequences of using dioxin to defoliate Vietnam’s dense jungle ended up killing up to 40,000 American servicemen[7], causing untold sickness and suffering to their offspring and killing as many as four million Vietnamese civilians.  Agent Orange killed his son — and the effect of this incomprehensible decision continues to manifest itself in 2021.  Admiral Zumwalt passed away in 2000 from mesothelioma.  He was 79 years old – he outlived his son by twelve years.

Sources:

  1. Associated Press (Online).  “Elmo Zumwalt, Son of Admiral, Dies at Age 42.”  13 August 1988.
  2. Clark, C. S. and Levy, A.  Sprectre Orange.  The Guardian.com.  2003.
  3. Mach, J. T.  Before Vietnam: Understanding the Initial Stages of US Involvement in Southeast Asia, 1945-1949.  Centennial Library: Cedarville University, 2018.
  4. Stellman, J. M. and Stellman, S. D., Christian, R., Weber, T., and Tomasallo, C.  The Extent and Patterns of Usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam.  School of Public Health, Columbia University, 2002.
  5. Veterans and Agent Orange.  National Academies, Institute of Medicine, Committee to Review Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides, 2012.
  6. Vietnam Express (online). Due Hoang, Hoang Phuong, Dien Luong.  Out of Sight/Out of Mind: Vietnam’s Forgotten Agent Orange Victims, 2017.
  7. Zumwalt, E. Jr., and Zumwalt, E. III.  Agent Orange and the Anguish of an American Family.  New York: New York Times Magazine, 1986.

Endnotes:

[1] On 5 March 1946, then former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe, declaring that “… an iron curtain has descended across the [European] continent.”  It was the opening volley of the Cold War.

[2] George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was one of the US’ foreign policy wise men.  He was a historian and diplomat who advocated a containment policy toward the Soviet Union and helped Truman formulate the so-called Truman Doctrine.

[3] British forces entered Indochina in rather substantial numbers to accept the surrender of Imperial Japanese forces at the end of World War II.  Free French forces re-entered Vietnam soon after and observing the growing discord between French legionnaires and Vietnamese nationalists, and with no desire to be caught between the two, the British forces soon withdrew.  British colonial forces concentrated on their interests in Malaya (which also became a hotbed for communist inspired nationalism), Singapore, and Hong Kong.

[4] Raids conducted by my than 1,400 allied aircraft between 13-15 February 1945, resulting in 25,000 civilian deaths.

[5] Part of Operation Meeting House conducted on 9-10 March 1945 is the single most destructive bombing raid in human history.  It destroyed 16 square miles of central Tokyo and killed about 100,000 people.

[6] Death toll, a quarter of a million people.

[7] Even though these service men and women died from circumstances of their combat service, none of their names appear on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.

The West Florida Expedition

American history is quite fascinating —I would say even more so than the revisionist accounts offered in our public schools and universities over the past sixty years.  Two of my interests are the colonial and early founding periods of the United States.  History isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but there is so much we can learn from it —lessons that would positively contribute to modern society.  Ut est rerum omnium magister usus[1], and if true, if experience is the teacher of all things, then our learning from past mistakes can only aid us in the future.

One of the things I find interesting about the American Revolutionary War is how little attention historians have paid to the British loyalists.  After all, they too were part of that story.

1763 was a banner year for the British because, in that year, England finally triumphed over France after fighting one another to a standstill since 1689.  In the Treaty of Paris of 1763, England acquired Spanish Florida and French Canada.  British divided Florida into two provinces: West and East Florida.  West Florida included the southern half of present-day Mississippi, a rectangular region straddling the Gulf of Mexico from Lake Pontchartrain and Maurepas and the Mississippi River in the west, to the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers on the east.  It extended northward to an imaginary line running east from the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, including the old Spanish port of Pensacola and the former French settlements of Mobile, Biloxi, and Natchez.

In the late 1760s, West Florida was sparsely settled because, except for a narrow strip of land along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, the soil was unsuitable for agriculture, which led settlers to rely on raising livestock.  The British anticipated settling West Florida effortlessly and for reasons of security, they reserved the area west of the Appalachian Mountains for Indians.  British policy at that time intended to avoid confrontations with the Indians by channeling white settlers either to Canada or to one of the two Florida settlements.  The British also decided to offer land to members of the British court as a reward for faithful military service.  As an example, 40,000 acres were set aside for the Earl of Eglinton near the Natchez and Pensacola settlements.  An untended consequence of land grants to noblemen was that they almost immediately began selling these lands, and by every measure, they were quite successful in doing so.

The British accorded settlers of lesser rank, 100 acres to the head of household and 50 acres for each member of his family, including slaves.  The head of a family could also purchase an additional 1,000 acres for a reasonable price —but clear title to this land was withheld until the settlers had cultivated their land for three to five years.  The settlement of West Florida increased steadily, especially in the Natchez area, until in 1773 when the foreign office inexplicably canceled the governor’s authority to grant land.

In 1775, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, the situation in West Florida changed rapidly.  Both Florida provinces were converted into sanctuaries for British loyalists escaping from colonial terrorists.  After 1775, West Florida enjoyed its greatest period of growth, an attraction among sturdy pioneers of Englishmen and Scotsmen.

Who were the loyalists, and why weren’t they interested in freedom from Great Britain?  They were generally older people, conservative by nature, well-established in the colonies with long-standing business interests in England.  Older people tend to resist change and the Revolutionary War period was nothing at all if not an era of momentous changes.  In the minds of British loyalists, a rebellion was not only morally wrong but also unwarranted.

Taxation without representation was a key issue at the outset of the American Revolution.  Parliamentary taxation affected everyone, including loyalists.  There was no overwhelming repudiation of taxes among the loyalists because, in the first instance, Parliament had the right to tax colonists.  Second, the colonists had long benefitted from the security provided by the British Army.  Among loyalists, it was entirely reasonable that Parliament expected colonists to help pay for the costs of maintaining these forces.  The loyalists also had no objection to “quartering soldiers in private homes.”  These were young men from back home who had come to America to protect British citizens from the ravages of the French and Indian attacks, why not give them a nice place to sleep?  Besides, which would be cheaper (tax-wise)?  Quartering soldiers in the homes of citizens, or constructing barracks for the same purpose?  Since everyone benefitted from these tax levies, why object to them? Of course, the British Parliament could have addressed this issue with greater sophistication, but the British people (especially those living in England) were used to an authoritarian legislature.

When the so-called “American patriots” resorted to violence against the Crown and those who remained loyal to Great Britain, the older, conservative, well-settled colonists felt alienated —and with good reason.  The patriots burned down their homes, torched their businesses, and physically and verbally assaulted them.  In many ways, patriot behavior was more like that of  hooligans and domestic terrorists than of good neighbors with interesting ideas about government and society[2].

Many loyalists, at least initially, were fence-sitters.  Among those, optimists who believed that if there was to be a separation from the mother country, it should take place naturally and amicably, under circumstances mutually beneficial to both sides of the Atlantic.  Some pessimists believed that the only possible result of revolutionary thought and action would be chaos, corruption, and mob rule[3].  In either case, when patriots began terrorizing them, they either became apathetic to the cause, or they moved even further to the right.  Some returned to England, others decided to stay in the colonies and fight for their King.  In New York, many loyalists were part of influential families, some of these with unmistakable ties to the French Huguenot-Dutch De Lancey[4] faction supporting the British Crown.  There were also “black” loyalists —slaves who had been promised freedom from slavery by the British government.  Colonial patriots made no such promises, from any quarter —north or south.

There were many prominent families among American patriots[5].  One of these was the family of a man named James Willing … a wealthy Philadelphia family.  His father Charles twice served as Philadelphia’s mayor; his mother was Anne Shippen, the granddaughter of Philadelphia’s second mayor.  James’ older brother was a merchant, a business partner with Robert Morris[6], and a delegate to the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania.  In his younger years, James sought his fortune in British West Florida operating a general store within the Natchez settlement.  The folks of Natchez were happy to live in America, but they were loyalists —and intensely so.  Willing, not being able to share those sentiments, and being rudely vocal about it, soon decided to return to Philadelphia[7].

In 1777, serving as a congressional spokesman, Willing returned to Natchez to convince the residents there to join the American independence movement.  His proposals rebuffed, he returned to Philadelphia with greatly exaggerated claims that the people of West Florida posed a serious threat to the cause of American independence, although he was probably right in thinking that loyalists would interrupt trade on the Mississippi River, a major source of colonial resupply.

Oliver Pollock, meanwhile (an Irish-born colonist with many years devoted to trading with the Spaniards in the West Indies), established a close working relationship with Alejandro O’Reilly[8] and other Spanish-Louisiana officials.  Granted the privilege of free trade with New Orleans, Pollock became a successful businessman, married, and raised his family there.  In 1777, Pollock was appointed Commercial Agent of the United States in New Orleans.  He used his influence and wealth to help finance American operations in the west, including the campaign by Major General (militia) George Rogers Clark[9].  In September 1778, Pollock introduced Colonel David Rogers and Captain Robert Benham to Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  Rogers delivered a letter to Governor Gálvez from Virginia patriot Patrick Henry —a letter that led to Spain to join the war against England.  In the British view, there could be no better example of treason than that.

In 1778, James Willing was calling himself a naval captain[10] in the service of the United Independent States of America[11]  Pollock received a letter from Robert Morris stating that Willing would be leading an expedition against loyalist settlements above New Orleans.  In his capacity as a naval captain, Willing led 29 men of the 13th Virginia Regiment from Fort Pitt and sailed down the Ohio River[12].  Willing’s mission may have been more on the order of moving supplies from New Orleans to Fort Pitt than it was conquering West Florida, but the correspondence Willing carried with him to Florida could be construed as authorization to punish British loyalists.  With his desire for adventure and a somewhat reckless nature, Willing boarded the gunboat Rattletrap[13] with his Virginians, now dubbed “marines.”

Willing and his marines departed Fort Pitt early on the night of 10 January.  A short distance from where the Wabash empties into the Ohio River, the Willing Expedition seized the large bateau[14] belonging to the Becquet Brothers, which was laden with pelts.  They also arrested a man named  La Chance and impounded his cargo of brandy —which Willing and his crew subjected to extensive tests for impurities.  Willing’s notoriety thus established, off they went into the Ohio River and southward.  The commander at Fort Kaskaskia, a Frenchman named Rocheblave, suspected that the Willing Expedition was moving toward Illinois and believed that the sort of insults offered to Becquet and La Chance was the sort of thing frontier settlers could expect from colonial hoodlums should they ever achieve a foothold into the western (French) colonies.

Painting by Charles Waterhouse

By the time the expedition reached the Mississippi River, Willing had added two canoes and ten recruits to his entourage.  One of these was a youngster named George Girty, whom Willing commissioned a second lieutenant.  George was the youngest of four brothers, a family whose only claim to history was that they all became British loyalists.  Historians know that Willing stopped at a Spanish post at the mouth of the Arkansas River, where, having warned the few American settlers living there that their lives were in peril from British loyalists, proceeded on his journey.  The then-petrified settlers ended up petitioning Spanish officials for their protection.

Willing arrived at the Natchez plantation of Colonel Anthony Hutchins[15], a loyalist, on 19 February, promptly arrested him and seized his property —including his slaves.  Willing then divided his force by sending two canoes on a scouting mission further south to the Natchez settlement —a farming community populated by American, English, and French settlers (all of whom lived together in harmony) —and until recent times, the home of James Willing.  The scouting party, well-armed and dressed as hunters, arrested all settlement inhabitants and secured their property.

Willing and his main body arrived the following morning.  According to later testimony, captive townspeople sent a delegation of four citizens to parlay with Willing.  They agreed to surrender and promised their neutrality if Willing restored their property.  Willing agreed, adding these stipulations: (a) that the settlers must agree to re-provision his expeditionary force, (b) that single men join the expedition, and (c) that all married persons relocate to Spanish territory within fifteen days.  From among the single men who joined the expedition, Willing appointed Richard Harrison a lieutenant of marines.

South of Natchez, Willing carried out a campaign of destruction to crops, livestock, and the homes of Loyalist settlers and carried off their slaves (likely sold in New Orleans).  William Dunbar and Frederick Spell, who witnessed Willing’s behavior, suggested in their later testimony that Willing was more interested in enriching himself than he was in any patriotic endeavor (which, by every account, seems to have been the case).  Willing, however, did not molest any “patriotic” Americans.

By this time, the British were aware of Willing’s marauders —which given the expanse of the territory and poor communications back then, is quite amazing.  In any case, the British dispatched their sloop Rebecca (well-armed with sixteen 4-pound and six swivel guns) up the Mississippi to interdict Willing’s campaign.  On 23 February, 18 marines under lieutenants McIntyre and Harrison captured Rebecca, which for a time ended Great Britain’s control of the Mississippi River.  McIntyre and Harrison sailed the vessel to New Orleans as a prize of war.  The ship would be renamed, Morris.

Oliver Pollock established and maintained a close relationship with Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  During a future Spanish campaign against the British, Pollock would serve as Gálvez’ aide-de-camp.  When Pollock received word that Willing was approaching New Orleans, he recruited an additional 40 men to join the expedition and assisted him in transporting “British” property to New Orleans.  Of these 40 men, 26 men took it upon themselves to float downriver to join McIntyre and Harrison.  McIntyre’s group soon came upon the British Brig Neptune and seized her.  Neptune was laden with lumber and a handful of passengers bound for Jamaica.  McIntyre off-loaded the passengers, retained the cargo, and sailed her to New Orleans —the expedition’s second prize.

News of Willing’s expedition quickly spread throughout British West Florida and caused some panic among the loyalists.  They abandoned their large plantations, loaded their slaves, livestock, and valuables on boats and barges, and headed toward New Orleans where they petitioned Spanish officials for protection.  For their part, at least initially, Spanish officials were intent on remaining neutral in the conflict between the British and Americans, so they graciously received these refugees and accorded them Spanish hospitality.  Governor Gálvez similarly welcomed James Willing, which in large measure as a result of Oliver Pollock’s efforts.

Willing and his men were granted freedom of the city, provided with housing, and they were allowed to auction the property taken from loyalists, including their slaves[16].  The precise amount of the profits gained by Willing’s auction is unknown, but some estimates ranged as high as £60,000.00.  While appreciative of the courtesy and hospitality accorded to their subjects, British officials strongly protested the fact that Gálvez extended those same courtesies to James Willing, who in their view was nothing more than a pirate.  Neither were the British pleased about Willing’s auctioning British property.

Gov. Gálvez ignored British protests, and the longer he did so, the louder their protests became.  Within a short time, British petitions for redress were filed almost every day.  Finally, Gálvez appointed a commission to consider the merits of British complaints.  Until mid-March, Gálvez remained unconcerned with British protests.  But then came the arrival of the British sloop Sylph under the command of Captain John Ferguson.  In addressing the problem, Ferguson was simple and direct:

Having the honor to command one of His Britannic Majesty’s ships in this river, and having information that your excellency has received into your government a body of armed men, enemies to my Sovereign and that you have suffered them from the Spanish Territory to commit depredations on this River by forcibly seizing upon the vessels, property, and persons of British subjects, in violation of the Treatise of Peace, the Law of Nations, and the Rights of Men.  I cannot help looking at such conduct on your part, as a tacit if not an open declaration of war against the King, my master.

Governor Gálvez answered Ferguson with equal fervor[17].  He had no obligation (he said) to protect British citizens residing on British soil but (pending the report by his commission), Gálvez offered to return British goods and property seized by Willing.  This decision came as a blow to the Willing/Pollock clique.  They offered a stout defense of their activities, particularly as it related to the capture of the two British ships.  Neptune, argued Willing, having been seized on open water in British territory, was a  lawful prize of war.  Gálvez remained inflexible; Neptune must be returned.  When it appeared that Morris (formerly Rebecca) seemed more secure, Oliver Pollock proceeded to refit and man her.  William Pickles was selected to serve as Morris’ Captain, and Robert Elliott was chosen to serve as Commanding Officer of Marines (Daniel Longstreet was appointed to serve as Marine First Lieutenant)[18].

In April, Captain Ferguson and Sylph was relieved by Captain Joseph Nunn, commanding HMS Hound.  Nunn continued to press Gálvez on the issues raised by Ferguson; Gálvez continued to resist all British suppositions and remained firm with the Americans.  Nevertheless, believing that the British would initiate military action, Governor Gálvez requested reinforcements from the Viceroy of New Spain and began working on New Orleans defenses.  He also demanded that every British/American person living in New Orleans take an oath of neutrality or leave the city.  A few British departed the city, but most remained.  Americans were unanimous in their acceptance.

Gov. Gálvez felt better once the American and British had offered their oaths respecting Spanish neutrality.  Captain Nunn, on the other hand, did not feel better.  In his view, Gálvez had openly demonstrated his support for the colonial rebellion, and this placed Spain in opposition to the British Crown.  It wasn’t enough to cause Captain Nunn to initiate war with Spain, of course, but Gálvez’s cozy relationship with the colonists did prompt the British into reasserting their authority on the Mississippi River.

Before dawn on 19 April, Nunn sent a force of fifty men to recapture Fort Bute at Manchac (115 miles north of New Orleans) which had been seized by Willing’s expedition.  British riflemen killed two men and a woman and wounded ten others.  Fourteen Americans were taken, prisoner.  Willing was, by this time, concerned about retaining control of Natchez, which led him to dispatch a force of marines under Lieutenant Harrison to observe whether Natchez loyalists were keeping their oaths of neutrality.

Meanwhile, Colonel Hutchins had violated his parole by returning to his plantation.  In Natchez, Hutchins agitated among the citizens and urged them to take up arms against American colonists.  We do not know what Hutchins told these people, but we do know that he alarmed them to the point of organizing a stout defense at a location known as White Cliffs.

En route to Natchez, Lieutenant Harrison was forewarned by a man named John Talley of Colonel Hutchins’ mischief.  Harrison sent Talley ahead to offer assurances that his intentions were peaceful.  Hutchins’ work was well done, however, and upon Harrison’s approach, loyalist gunfire inflicted a heavy toll on the marines.  Harrison lost five men killed with several more wounded and captured; Harrison returned to New Orleans with only a few of his remaining force.

British West Florida Governor Peter Chester (—1799), with service between 1770-81, encouraged British settlers to return to their homes and “restore yourselves to that full allegiance and fidelity which you owe to your sovereign and country.”  And, he added, that should these citizens not comply with Chester’s advice, then they would be judged guilty of criminal neglect of their solemn duty.  With a British army garrison of  110 men from Pensacola guarding Fort Bute at Manchac, a British ship with a crew of 150 men, and 200 British militia protecting Natchez, loyalist settlers finally felt secure.  Thus renewed, British presence also stopped the flow of goods between New Orleans and Fort Pitt.

The Willing Expedition had aroused British loyalists along the river to such extent that Willing could no longer return to Philadelphia via the Mississippi.  And, the longer Willing remained in New Orleans, the less Gálvez and Pollock wanted to deal with him.  Gálvez was highly incensed when Willing circumvented the governor’s prerogatives by issuing a proclamation to Americans living in New Orleans.  The proclamation not only violated Willing’s oath, a condition of his being allowed to remain in New Orleans, it was also a violation of Spanish sovereignty.  But if the rift between Willing and Gálvez was significant, the break with Pollock was even worse.  With some justification, Willing criticized Pollock for his poor administration and questionable financial accounting[19].  Willing’s unpaid marauders were displeased to the point of deserting in large numbers.  It was only the consistent discipline and fair treatment of Lieutenant Harrison and Lieutenant George that kept most (not all) marines on duty.  In any case, Pollock was anxious to be rid of Willing and did not hesitate to express his annoyance with Willing in his reports to Congress.

Hoping for James Willing’s departure from New Orleans was one thing; witnessing his departure was another.  Effectively, Captain Willing had become a prisoner in New Orleans, but he had no one to blame but himself.  It was his actions that caused the British to block the Mississippi.  Willing had but two options for returning to Philadelphia: an overland march, or by sea.  Willing had no interest in walking back to Pennsylvania.

By mid-June, Oliver Pollock decided he’d had enough of James Willing and formally petitioned Governor Gálvez to allow work to proceed on Morris so that it might carry Willing and his men back to Philadelphia.  Without much consideration, Gálvez consented and the ship’s refit was soon started.  Unhappily for both Gálvez and Willing, the refit project experienced several delays.

Fed up with life in New Orleans, Lieutenant George and Lieutenant Harrison requested the governor’s permission to leave New Orleans via the overland route.  Governor Gálvez gave his consent conditionally: George and Harrison had to give their oath not to cause further dismay to any British subject.  Having offered their oaths, the officers soon departed.  After a year of overland travel, the marines finally returned to Fort Pitt.  After the marine detachment was officially disbanded, George accepted an appointment as a captain of an artillery in the Continental Army.

Accompanied by Lieutenant McIntyre, James Willing finally departed New Orleans in mid-November carrying dispatches for the Continental Congress.  The ship, however, was captured by a British privateer off the coast of Delaware and Willing was taken as a prisoner to New York where he remained until exchanged for British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton.  Some historians contend that Willing spent two years as a prisoner of war.  If this is true, when one considers his many depredations imposed on Mississippi River settlements, then a reasonable man might conclude that his internment was warranted.

James Willing died at his home in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania in 1801.  He was 51 years old.  For additional insight into the corruption of early-American officials, see also:  James Wilkinson, Image of Respectability.  The amount of dishonesty during the Revolutionary and early founding periods of the United States could lead one to conclude that as despicable as James Willing was, he had much in common with more than a few of our founding fathers.

Sources:

  1. DuVal, K. Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.  Random House, 2016.
  2. Eron, R. Peter Chester, Third Governor of the Province of West Florida Under British Domination 1770-1781.  Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1925.
  3. Haynes, R. V. The Natchez District, and the American Revolution. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011.
  4. James, A. J. Oliver Pollock, Financier of the Revolution in the West.  Mississippi Historical Review, 1929.
  5. Smith, C. R. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975. 

Endnotes:

[1] Attributed to Julius Caesar, De Bello Civille.

[2] The same thing is happening today within the so-called Progressive Movement; modern conservatives (the classic liberals of the colonial era) are being regularly attacked because of their values.  Progressivism, as it turns out, is not very enlightened.

[3] It is impossible to say the pessimists were completely wrong about the level of political corruption in America.

[4] Followers of Oliver and James De Lancey.  Oliver was a wealthy merchant, politician, and British Provincial soldier; James was his nephew.

[5] Modern leftists define “patriotism” as an anti-government “far right” movement.  In 1775, it was a far-left movement.

[6] Robert Morris, Jr., (1734-1806) was an English-born financier who served in the Pennsylvania legislature, the Second Continental Congress, and the United States Senate.  He was a signer to the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the U. S. Constitution.

[7] According to his “friends and neighbors” in Natchez, Mr. Willing drank too much, talked too much, and thought too little.  This may be a fair assessment.

[8] O’Reilly (1723-1794) was born in Ireland became the Inspector-General of Infantry in the Spanish Empire, served as Captain-General and the second Spanish governor of Louisiana, and the first official to exercise power in Louisiana after France ceded it to Spain.  He was later made a count of Spain but known to creoles as “Bloody O’Reilly.”

[9] The older brother of William Rogers Clark.  A surveyor and militia officer who became the highest-ranking officer of the Revolution in the western frontier.  Most of his accomplishments occurred before his 40th birthday; subsequently, his drinking and indebtedness destroyed his reputation.  When Virginia refused to pay him for his Revolutionary war  expenses, he turned his attention toward the Spanish as a source of income, but mostly through questionable land speculation schemes.  His is not one of the great American stories of our founding years.

[10] James Willing is not listed as a commissioned officer of the Continental Navy.

[11] The title claimed was something Willing made up.  There is an organization today with a similar title claiming to consist of ten states, five provinces of Canada, and Guam.  ISA announced its independence in 2007 where its officials all wear tin foil hats.

[12] What the Continental Congress did not want was a sizeable expedition to West Florida to attack Pensacola and Mobile, an ambitious plan that had the support of Benedict Arnold.  Congress decided instead on a more modest expedition and placed Willing in charge of it.

[13] I’m not sure how to respond to questions about the naming convention involve with this vessel, but Rattletrap was purchased from John Gibson for 300 pounds in Pennsylvania currency.  It was a galley-type vessel with ten oars, and she/it was armed with two ¾-pound swivel guns.

[14] A long, light, flat bottom boat with a sharply pointed bow and stern.

[15] Colonel Hutchins was a retired British Army officer whose grant of land for military  service was 250,000 acres.  His home was located at White Apple Acres, which he occupied in 1773.  He served as a representative representing the Natchez district in the provincial assembly in Pensacola in 1778.  At times during the Willing Expedition, Hutchins was the de facto governor of the Natchez district.  He remained active in political and military affairs in present-day Mississippi for many years.

[16] Despite Spanish law, which forbade commerce with foreigners.

[17] The British were hardly in a position of strength in West Florida.  Eventually, Gálvez would seize both Pensacola and Natchez (1779).

[18] Both Robert Elliott and Daniel Longstreet’s names appear in the lineal list of officers of the Continental Navy and Marine Corps.

[19] Pollock was, as previously stated, a businessman whose every action was motivated by profit.  He is not remembered as a man having an abundance of scruples.

RIVER FIGHTS: Vietnam War

USNFVSome Background

Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (Indochina) (USMAAG Indochina) became USMAAG (Vietnam) and with this transition, the United States became even more deeply involved in the affairs and prerogatives of the South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam) regime.  Wisely, President Eisenhower firmly resisted the urgings of some advisors to send in troops, but he did expand the role of military advisors and in time, all US armed services were represented on the USMAAG (Vietnam) staff.

In 1960, newly elected John F. Kennedy approved the USMAAG’s request for increases in the size of the South Vietnamese Army (also, Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN) and an increase in the number of military and civilian advisors.  As Henry Bohn told us in 1855, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  John Kennedy began excavating a hole our government couldn’t stop digging.

Lay of the Land

The Mekong Delta extends from Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City) south and west to the Gulf of Thailand and the border with Cambodia.  Its area extends nearly 29,000 square miles and it is home to an estimated 15 million inhabitants.  In all, the Mekong Delta constitutes about a quarter of the total land area and half the population of the former Republic of Vietnam.  The Delta is a flat alluvial plain created by the Mekong River, a land surface covered by rice paddies, which makes this region one of the world’s most productive rice-growing areas.  It is by far the most important agricultural region in Vietnam.

In terms of overland communication, the Mekong Delta was an unmitigated disaster, as the region is intersected by a complex network of waterways and inundated by heavy rain and seasonal floods.  In 1960, there was but one major hard surface road, which extended from Saigon to Ca Mau. Secondary roads were either poorly surfaced or unattended.  While the land facilitated air combat operations, poor road systems, rice paddies, canals, wide ditches, and rivers complicated ground operations.  In contrast, the waterway system was very sophisticated, and the US MAAG realized early on that if the US intended to pacify the Mekong Delta (also, IV Corps Tactical Zone, or IV CTZ), it would have to consider implementing riverine operations.

Most Vietnamese in this area are concentrated along waterways that constitute the principal transportation routes, on average, around 400 people per square mile.  Typically, Vietnamese homes are surrounded by dense trees, shrubs, and bushes —cultivated for fruit, shade, or decoration.  The vegetation was pleasing to look at, but it also gave protection and concealment to communist insurgents.  When planning for operations in the IV CTZ, US military officers wanted to take the war to the enemy but do so without endangering local inhabitants.  With its population density, it was nearly impossible to move friendly forces without their being observed by unfriendly eyes.  The enemy always seemed to know when Uncle Sam was coming for a visit.

Vietnam’s Delta seacoasts have an extensive network of mangrove swamps.  Vegetation on the coastal mudflats is dense, root structure high, and tangled, which makes access difficult and cross-country movements challenging.  Rice paddies are separated by thickets of trees in varied patterns.  Large cultivated plantations are marked by rows of palm trees, many of which border deep ditches or wide canals.  Operational planners for riverine operations had to factor in water, vegetation, terrain, and the influence of sea tides; it also involved guesswork.  There was no way to accurately predict travel or operational times. 

The Enemy

The Mekong Delta (IV CTZ) was rife with communist insurgents … estimated at around 84,000 men in 1966.  Of those, around 20,000 were trained and well-armed combat troops with about 51,000 part-time guerrillas.  In 1966, there were no North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces operating in IV Corps.  Logistically, Viet Cong forces relied on support from local populations and whatever could be provided from North Vietnam.  Cambodia, bordering IV CTZ, was a haven for supplies moving down from the north.

Friendlies

ARVN forces in IV CTZ were subdivided into three divisional tactical zones: in the north, the 7th ARVN Division at My Thơ, in the center, the 9th ARVN Division at Sa Dec, and in the south, the 21st ARVN Division at Bac Lieu.  In total, around 40,000 men, including five ranger battalions and three armored cavalry squadrons.  Regular forces were augmented by Regional, Popular, and Irregular troops, and the National Police[1].  The conventional wisdom (back then) was that anyone joining Regional or Popular Forces organizations was “just asking for it” (VC assassination).  Unsurprisingly, both groups had high desertion rates, and the thing that made irregular troops so irregular was that one could never find them when they were needed.

Vietnamese naval forces in the 4th Naval Zone evolved from the French Dinassauts and included six river assault groups and eleven coastal groups that formed the so-called Junk Fleet.  Assault groups fell under the IV CTZ Commander; their primary mission was supporting ARVN riverine operations.  Each group could lift an ARVN infantry battalion.  In 1966, these units were used in their primary role about 10% of the time.  The reason for this was that the ARVN battalion commanders preferred airmobile operations; they were more fun and had greater visibility for purposes of promotion.

US Forces

United States Navy advisors entered the Mekong Delta in 1957 to replace the withdrawing French.  By 1966, the military advisory effort infused the entire RVN military structure.  In total, around 2,700 officers and enlisted men representing the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force were assigned to corps, division, and provincial organizations, and the IV CTZ Area Logistics Command.  The USN Advisory Group (RVN) provided advisors to the Vietnamese Navy’s six river assault groups and eleven coastal groups.

In 1965, the U. S. Army’s 13th Combat Aviation Battalion was assigned to the Delta to support ARVN operations; by August of that year, the battalion operated four assault helicopter companies and one air reconnaissance company.  By mid-1966, naval forces included TASK FORCE 115 (also, MARKET TIME) and TASK FORCE 116 (also, GAME WARDEN).  The mission assigned to Market Time was interdiction of coastal areas to prevent resupply of VC forces by sea.  Game Warden was tasked with interdicting enemy lines of communications and assisting ARVN forces in repelling enemy attacks on river outposts of Regional and Popular Forces.  Despite the optimism of the American administration, which predicted a communist free Mekong Delta by mid-1965, about one-third of all communist attacks in South Vietnam in 1966 occurred within the IV CTZ; Viet Cong forces controlled about 25% of the population of the Delta.

To the Vietnamese high command in 1966, the question of whether a province was “pacified” was entirely political.  The American reality was that the South Vietnamese government-controlled, in total, only about four percent of the land in IV CTZ.  ARVN commanders bragged that they controlled these areas but if true, it was only during hours of daylight; the Viet Cong controlled the night.

Riverine warfare is an extension of sea power.  The Navy’s control of the sea enables it to project its strength ashore, including inland waterways, into the heart of the enemy territory.  None of the Navy’s resources operate inside a vacuum; the Navy works as a team.  In this example, blue water ships, amphibious forces, and its aviation arm all supported riverine operations.  It was Vietnam’s communist insurgency within a vast inland waterway that led the Navy to reexamine its previous successes in riverine operations.

A key strategy in confronting and then defeating a guerrilla force is isolation and interdiction.  US strategy in Vietnam involved denying guerrilla forces freedom of movement, access to the general population, the ability to withdraw into remote sanctuaries to regroup, and the ability to resupply.  U. S. Naval forces in Vietnam played a key role in achieving all these objectives.  Coastal surveillance programs formed a tight barrier against the infiltration of personnel, arms, and supplies from the sea.  Taking surveillance one step further, the rigid control of fishing areas diminished the insurgent’s ability to feed himself, and river patrols established protocols for the inspection of junks and sampans, which were the primary method of transporting people and goods over hundreds of miles of inland waterways.

No less important in combatting guerrilla forces is gathering intelligence, which is often a slow, painstaking process.  One must first locate the enemy before he can be eliminated.  Finding the enemy was often facilitated by nurturing relationships with local inhabitants, which was also a key element in riverine operations.

Highly mobile and well-armed riverine forces coordinated their activities with ground and air forces to interdict guerrilla activities.  The Navy’s shallow-draft patrol craft seized the initiative in carrying the fight to enemy sanctuaries far up the rivers and into canals —areas that had not been previously penetrated by French or ARVN ground units.  To achieve these goals, the Navy employed a variety of combat and combat-support organizations, each with unique but well-coordinated missions: River Patrol Force, Mobile Riverine Force, Coastal Surveillance Force, Naval Advisory Group, and strike campaigns dubbed OPERATION SEALORDS[2].

An Imposing Environment

As previously explained, riverine operations assume many shapes because inland waterways form unique challenges.  Vietnam’s inland waterways were at least a bewildering maze of interconnecting systems, so the Navy implemented a wide range of strategies to address them —made more difficult after the NVA began infiltrating South Vietnam in 1968.  At that time, the US Navy began looking for more than increasingly dispirited guerillas; they were looking for hard-core NVA regulars, as well.  The Mekong Delta was a paradise for guerrilla operations, which the NVA demonstrated could be just-as-easily implemented by regular forces.  Thick vegetation along the waterways limits visibility and offers excellent opportunities for ambush; floating vegetation and heavily silted waters concealed mines and other explosive devices.  Command detonated mines often signaled the beginning of hellacious firefights —some of these taking places within 50-75 feet of opposing forces.

There are three distinct regions within the Mekong Delta: Plains of Reeds, northwest of Saigon, which during seasonal floods lies beneath six feet of water, the Lower Mekong, which is a vast rice-growing region and the location of the imposing Ca Mau forest, and the mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Mekong adjacent to the Rung Sat (Forest of Assassins) Special Zone (RSSZ), which includes the main shipping channel to Saigon.  In the mangrove swamps, tides are extreme and vegetation so thick that men on the ground lose sight of each other four feet apart.

OPERATION JACKSTAY

On 26 February 1966, Viet Cong forces ambushed the SS Lorinda, a Panamanian-flagged coastal freighter on the Lòng Tàu River, about 18 miles south of Saigon.  The attack wounded six crewmen and caused the ship to veer off course and run aground.  This was not a trend the Americans could allow to develop.  Accordingly, Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) ordered a punitive raid against insurgents operating within the shipping channel approach to Saigon.

Navy and Marine Corps operational planners put together a blue water force off the coast of Vietnam, the first major U. S. Navy riverine operation in the Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ); it marked a major turning point in the unfolding saga of projecting American sea power from the high seas and coastal waterways into the vast waterways of the Mekong Delta.   Before this, the Navy’s participation in the river war was limited to inshore operations conducted by Swift Boats and Coastal Patrol Boats assigned to the Vietnamese Navy and their U. S. Navy advisors.  From this point forward, the Navy became increasingly involved in the river war.  The operation was designated JACKSTAY.

JACKSTAY underscored the versatility made possible by the domination of the wetlands, whether offshore or in-country.  The operation, conducted in two phases, was planned to decimate the Viet Cong in the RSSZ, a 400-square mile area of swamp particularly suited for clandestine operations.  The region of the RSSZ had harbored communist insurgents for well over a generation; it was where the Viet Minh/Cong manufactured weapons, where they treated their wounded, trained recruits, and stocked their supplies from North Vietnam.

1:5 Unit PatchJACKSTAY was a two-phased operation plan[3] that called for an assault on the Long Thanh Peninsula (RSSZ) by the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) from ships operating off-shore: the USS Princeton, USS Pickaway, USS Alamo, USS Belle Grove, and USS Merrick.  USS Robison, GAME WARDEN swift boats, and MARKET TIME patrol boats provided naval gunfire support.  Air groups from USS Hancock provided helicopter lift and close air support.

The operation kicked off on the morning of 26 March 1966 with preliminary naval bombardments by Robison and aircraft from Hancock.  Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) swimmers, preparatory airstrikes by Seventh Fleet carrier-based aircraft, and naval gunfire all supported the operation. Throughout, amphibious craft and coastal surveillance craft provided surveillance and blocking operations against Viet Cong escape.  The long inland reach of U. S. Navy sea power quickly adapted to operational complexities.

A Marine rifle company landed via surface craft near Dong Hoa on the western end of the peninsula with two additional companies executing a vertical assault at the center and on the eastern end.  The Marines encountered only scattered small arms resistance and soon established 21 four-man listening posts beyond their night perimeter.  During the night, VC attacked one of these posts initiating a firefight that resulted in two Marine KIAs and three enemies dead.  That same night, VC ambushed PCF-31[4] about one mile from Cần Giờ on the Long Thanh Peninsula, seriously injuring one crewman and severely damaging the patrol boat.

On 28 March, Marines made another unopposed surface assault on the Soài Rạp River, this time targeting an enemy logistics area on the Vam Sat River (linked to the headquarters element on the Soài Rạp River) and destroyed a cache of weapons that included over 1,000 grenades.

Higgins BoatFollowing airstrikes from the Hancock and naval gunfire from USS Henry County, USS Washoe County, and Ontos[5] fire from the deck of Henry County on 31 March, an 18-boat convoy entered the Vam Sat River.  Led by two Vietnamese-manned Higgins Boats[6], the convoy included two Vietnamese LCCPs rigged with chain drags and grapnels for minesweeping, and armored LCM-6 (equipped with mortars and automatic weapons), seven LCMs, a rifle company of Marines in two LCVPs, two LCPLs providing additional gunfire support, two LCM-3 salvage boats.  Helicopter gunships provided air cover.  Commander Derwin T. Lamb, USN commanded the convoy from the open deck of an LCPL positioned directly behind the Vietnamese minesweepers.  Captain John D. Westervelt, USN commanded the overall landing operation from an overhead helicopter.

As Lamb’s convoy approached the first bend of the Vam Sat River, Viet Cong command-detonated a crude electrical mine halfway between Lamb’s command LCP and the minesweepers.  An explosion reminiscent of Confederate torpedoes from a hundred years before reverberated across the water.  The craft escaped damage because they wisely hugged the shallows rather than navigating from the center of the channel.  The explosion signaled the commencement of intense small arms fire from the thick foliage on both banks.  Lamb led the convoy through the withering fire while all boats opened with their firepower.  Helicopter gunships strafed and rocketed VC positions about 100-yards inland, preventing the VC from bringing heavier guns to bear.  A mile further downriver, enemy fire became sporadic.

After landing a Marine rifle company in the heart of the dismal mangrove swamp, Lamb moved his convoy back up-river in the same formation to land two additional companies of Marines, who immediately disappeared into the thick underbrush.  When the Marines had completed their mission, LCMs (also, “Mike” boats) churned their way to shore, crashing their way through the overhanging tree limbs and into the dense undergrowth. Lowering the ramps cut an opening through the rotted vegetation, making it easier for the Marines to re-board.

During recovery operations, the convoy again ran into ineffective small arms fire.  The open LCMs, each carrying 60 Marines, may have been vulnerable targets were it not for the work of the gunships overhead and the fact that the VC riflemen were poor shooters.

JACKSTAY concluded on 6 April with the destruction of arms factories, training camps, a headquarters complex, and a makeshift hospital.  Large amounts of rice and other foods were captured, along with 60,000 rounds of ammunition and 300 pounds of gunpowder.  Sixty-three enemies were killed in the combined assaults, while American Marines lost five men killed in action.  Subsequently, Viet Cong activity decreased in this area of the Delta.

The results of JACKSTAY were far more significant than the 53 confirmed Viet Cong dead or the tons of material destroyed or captured.  Its success was laudable, of course, but so too was the projection of naval power into the heart of an enemy sanctuary.  As the Navy’s initial combined riverine operation, JACKSTAY served as a loud knock on the door to an enemy that had had its way in the RSSZ for far too long.  The message was unmistakable: the VC could run, and the enemy could hide, but they would not be able to elude the powerful arm of the United States Navy-Marine Corps team.  Ultimately, after scurrying around like rats, the communists would only die tired.

In the middle of JACKSTAY, on 1 April 1966, Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward[7], USN assumed duty as Commander, U. S. Navy Forces, Vietnam (COMUSNAVFORV).  The purpose of NAVFORV was to consolidate several U. S. Navy programs under a single component command of the USMACV.  In addition to supervision of the support commands at Saigon and Da Nang, and the Navy Construction (Seabee) battalions, Ward assumed responsibility for missions assigned to the Naval Advisory Group, Coastal Surveillance Forces, and River Patrol Forces.  Mobile Riverine Force (TASK FORCE 117) was added in 1967.

Sources:

  1. Sherwood, J. D.  War in the Shallows: U. S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965-1968.  Washington, D. C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, Department of the Navy, 2015.
  2. Marolda, E. J.  Riverine Warfare: The U. S. Navy’s Operations on Inland Waters.  Washington, D. C.: U. S. Navy Historical Center, 2006
  3. Fulton, W. B.  Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington, D. C.: Department of the Army, 1985.
  4. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  5. U. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  6. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants: PT Boats, Subchasers, and the Brownwater Navy, an Illustrated Design History.  1987.
  7. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  8. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] Referred to as “White Mice” owing to their uniforms.

[2] SEALORDS was an acronym for Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River, and Delta Strategy.  SEALORDS was a joint operational concept involving US and RVN forces conceived by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt who at the time served as Commander, Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV).  Its intention was to disrupt enemy supply lines within and around the Mekong Delta.  The program was turned over to the Republic of Vietnam Navy (RVNN) in 1971.

[3] Operational planners realized that the insurgent force within the RSSZ was too large for a single battalion operation, so the purpose of JACKSTAY was limited to disrupting Viet Cong operations and a demonstration to the enemy that the US was well aware of their presence and that US/RVN forces could penetrate their sanctuary at will.

[4] PCF-31 (Patrol Craft, Fast) (also, Swift Boat) were 50’ aluminum boats used in patrolling Vietnam’s extensive waterways, part of the so-called Brown Water Navy.

[5] Officially, Allis-Chalmers Rifle, Multiple 106mm Self-propelled M50 light armored tracked anti-tank vehicle with service between 1956-1969

[6] Designed by Andrew Higgins based on watercraft used for operating in swamps and marshes in Louisiana.  Higgins produced nearly 24,000 of these boats, designated Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP), during World War II.  Variants of the Higgins Boats were created and designated for special purposes, such as LCU, LCI, LCA, and LCG.

[7] Admiral Ward was assigned to head the Naval Advisory Group, United States Military Assistance Command (Vietnam) on 31 July 1965.  The Naval Advisory Group was dissolved and renamed U. S. Naval Force, Vietnam on 1 April and Admiral Ward became its first commander.  During his assignment in Vietnam, Ward was instrumental in developing riverine and coastal interdiction strategies.  Admiral Ward served in the submarine service for most of his career beginning in 1931.  He retired from active duty in 1973, choosing not to accept a promotion to Vice Admiral to be with his cancer-stricken wife.  Admiral Ward passed away in 2005.

Diminished Honor

Occasionally, one wonders, “What in the hell is the matter with people?”  I have to say that the American navy has a rich history of honor, sacrifice, and fortitude, but there are a few blemishes, as well —which is true within all our military branches.  Our military is representative of our society —its strengths and weaknesses.  There is no justification for dwelling on them, but they do present important lessons and we either learn from them or repeat them to our sorrow.

Two disgraces stand out.  The first involves Rear Admiral (then Captain) Leslie Edward Gehres, USN (1898-1975) whose primary contribution to the Navy was his toxic leadership while in command of the USS Franklin (CV-13) (1944-1945).  Gehres assumed command of USS Franklin at Ulithi, relieving Captain J. M. Shoemaker.  Under Shoemaker, USS Franklin had come under attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft.  At the change of command ceremony, Gehres told the ship’s crew, “It was your fault because you didn’t shoot the kamikaze down.  You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless.  You don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew.”  The vision of this takes us to the film Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart—a psychopath placed in command of the fictional destroyer, USS Caine.  One can only imagine how Captain Shoemaker felt having to listen to Gehres’ tripe on his last moment of command.

Gehres was raised in Rochester, New York and Newark, New Jersey.  He enlisted in the New York Naval Militia in 1914.  His unit was activated for World War I service and Gehres was assigned to USS Salem, USS Massachusetts, and USS Indiana.  Subsequently, Gehres attended the Reserve Officer’s Course at the USN Academy.  He was commissioned an ensign on 24 May 1918.  Gehres received a regular commission in the Navy in September of that year while serving aboard USS North Dakota in the Atlantic.  He was assigned to flight training at Pensacola, Florida and received his designation as a Naval Aviator in August 1927.

In November 1941, Gehres commanded Fleet Patrol Wing 4.  He spent most of World War II in the Aleutian Islands.  His subordinates referred to him as “Custer” because of his illogical tactics and erratic behavior.  Despite a rather poor reputation among his subordinates, Gehres was advanced to the rank of Commodore —the first Naval Aviator to achieve this rank.

USS Franklin
USS Franklin

In November 1944, he took a reduction in rank designation in order to assume command of USS Franklin.  His remarks at the change of command ceremony must not have done very much for crew morale.  In 1945, Franklin was assigned to the coast of the Japanese homeland in support of the assault on Okinawa.  Ship’s aircrews initiated airstrikes against Kagoshima, Izumi, and southern Kyushu.  At dawn on 15 March, the ship had maneuvered to within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland and launched a fighter sweep against Honshu Island and Kobe Harbor.  It was a stressful time for the crew, who within a period of six hours, had been called to battle stations on six separate occasions.  Gehres finally allowed the crew to eat and sleep but maintained crewmen at gunnery stations.

A Japanese aircraft appeared suddenly from cloud cover and made a low-level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs.  Franklin received a “last minute” warning of the approaching aircraft from USS Hancock, but Gehres never ordered “general quarters.”  One-third of the crew were either killed or wounded.  It was the most severe damage of any surviving USN aircraft carrier in World War II.  As a result of officer and crew activities, ten officers and one enlisted man was awarded the Navy Cross —one of those being Gehres.

(Chaplain) Father Joseph T. O’Callaghan refused the Navy Cross for his participation in the aftermath of the Franklin bombing.  Some speculated that the priest turned down the award because his heroic actions in the aftermath of the bombing reflected unfavorably on Gehres leadership as Commanding Officer.  President Truman intervened, however, and Father O’Callaghan was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 January 1946.  True to form, Captain Gehres charged crewman who had jumped into the water, to avoid death by fire, with desertion.  Gehres charges against crewmen were quietly dropped by senior naval commanders in the chain of command.  Captain Gehres, while advanced to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), was never again assigned to a position of command.  By 2011, Gehres was universally excoriated for significant deficiencies in leadership.  Admiral Gehres became a study of poor leadership —but one wonders why the Navy promoted him to flag rank.  His behavior in command of USS Franklin became the very definition of “toxic leadership.”  Indeed, it was.

Charles B McVay III
Captain Charles B. McVay III

A second failure in navy leadership involved the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III (1898-1968).  Captain McVay was a highly decorated navy officer in command of USS Indianapolis (CL/CA 35) when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea on 30 July 1945.  Of the 1,197 crew, only 317 survived the sinking.  Of all ship’s captains in the history of the US Navy, McVay was the only officer ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in a combat action.

At the time, USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser (formerly the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, 1943-1944), was on a top-secret mission and under the direct authority of the President of the United States.  Its mission was to deliver two atomic bombs to Tinian Island.  Because the mission was top secret, speed was of the essence and to prevent attention to her course, no escorts were authorized.  This was a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Captain McVay, wounded, ordered his crew to abandon ship.  Of the 897 (approximate) crewmen who went overboard, 317 survived massive shark attacks over a period of five days.

Why was Captain (later promoted to Rear Admiral) court-martialed?  The Navy accused him of hazarding his ship by not following a zig-zag course through the Philippine Sea.  He was found “not guilty” of a second charge of “failing to order abandon ship in a timely manner.”  The fact was, however, that the Navy failed the USS Indianapolis on several fronts.  First, the Navy refused to provide the cruiser with escort ships, to which it was entitled during war.  Second, the Navy delayed its rescue of the crew (owing to the secret mission assigned to the ship) and no report of an overdue ship was made, again owing to the nature of its secret mission.

A navy court of inquiry recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet disagreed, but he was overruled by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King [1].  The Japanese commander of the submarine that sank Indianapolis was called to testify at McVay’s court-martial.  He stated that given the proximity of Indianapolis to his submarine, zigzagging wouldn’t have made any difference —Indianapolis was dead the minute the torpedoes were fired.  Ultimately, Admiral King ordered any punishments to be set aside.

Captain McVay suffered for the remainder of his life over the death of his crew, but not a single man lost was the result of McVay’s competence.  After the loss of his wife to cancer in 1967, Charlie McVay took his own life in 1968.  This too was a failure of Navy leadership.  McVay was a good man chastised for no good reason other than as a scapegoat for poor Navy leadership.

Sources:

  1. The Day the Carrier Died: How the Navy (Nearly) Lost an Aircraft Carrier in Battle. James Holmes, National Interest Newsletter, 28 April 2019
  2. Stanton, D. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. Reed City Productions, 2001
  3. Hulver, R. A. and Peter C. Luebke, Ed. A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis.  Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] According to author Richard F. Newcomb (Abandon Ship), Admiral King’s insistence that Captain McVay appear before a court-martial was because Captain McVay’s father, admiral McVay (II) once censored King, as a junior officer for regulatory infractions.  According to Newcomb, Admiral King never forgot a “grudge.”