Marine Glider Pilots

On 20 May 1941, German forces launched an airborne invasion of the Island of Crete.  It was the first airborne invasion in history.  German casualties at the end of the first day were massive.   Greek and allied forces in defense of Crete were confident they could hold off the German Luftlandeschlacht.  Those defenders were wrong.  On the second day, German airborne units seized the airfield at Maleme, and from that base, pushed the defenders entirely off the island.  It wasn’t long after that when the Secretary of the Navy telephoned the Commandant of the Marine Corps and asked, “Dude, how cool was that?”

The Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb,[1] had already announced his decision in October 1940 to designate one battalion of each infantry regiment as “air troops.” Marine Corps planners envisioned that these “air troops” would fly to their destinations.  Holcomb further imagined that one company would be trained parachutists, and the remaining two companies would e “air-landed” troops.  The verbiage was confusing, but this was the language used in 1940: air-troops vs. air-landed-troops.  One problem that went undiscovered until well-into pre-combat training was that the United States lacked enough aircraft to accomplish vertical assaults.  Another pinch of sand in the “para-Marine” concept was landing Marines in dense jungle terrain.  Oops.

After 1941, the subject of glider aircraft was always associated with the Marine Corps’ concept of airborne assault forces, which originated from “high level” interest after the successful German airborne invasion of Crete.  Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was in awe of the concept.  He directed General Holcomb to study the issue and determine whether it held any promise for amphibious operations.  Because the German’s operation in Crete involved gliders carrying 750 troops, the Commandant was also asked to consider glider operations.

Apparently, what the Commandant meant by “air troops” in 1940 was parachutists, and what he meant by “air-landed” troops were Marines landing near the battle area in aircraft.

As for the suitability of such aircraft, it was the duty of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics to study the feasibility of such operations and for procuring suitable vehicles to facilitate such tactics.  Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) would only recruit men for such service once the Navy decided they were both feasible and practical for projecting naval power ashore.  When the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Commandant how he intended to go about staffing a glider program, General Holcomb opined that he would find second lieutenants to volunteer for pilot training.  He would select co-pilots from among the noncommissioned officer ranks.  I can almost see the CNO’s eyebrows fluttering before he artfully changed the subject to another pressing issue.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Aeronautics, which had already undertaken gliders’ study, found Secretary Knox’s suggestion underwhelming.  In 1940, Naval Aviation had far more significant problems to deal with than glider feasibility.  Besides, the Navy had already studied (and shelved) the possibility of using gliders as flight training vehicles.  They determined that gliders did not contribute as much to flight training as engine-powered aircraft.  In any event, the Chief, Bureau of Aeronautics advised the CNO that glider design studies were underway, noted that these projects incorporated both land and sea-based gliders.  He had serious reservations about the practicality of gliders in any capacity.

Nevertheless, CMC issued his call for volunteers in July 1941, advising all officers (second lieutenant through captain) that he needed 50 officers and 100 NCOs during the fiscal year 1942 to undertake glider training.  Initial training would occur at civilian schools, restricted to officers only until the Marine Corps could establish a glider school for enlisted men.  HQMC anticipated the need for 75 gliders capable of transporting ten combat loaded troops and two pilots —judged sufficient to transport one airborne battalion.  Such a project would challenge any early-war aeronautical industry but made even more perplexing because the largest glider manufactured in the United States in 1941 was a four-seat model not intended for people wearing combat gear.  Europeans had developed larger gliders, however, so American builders knew that it was doable.

Seeking to provide its unwanted assistance to the Bureau of Aeronautics, HQMC identified “desirable” features of the aircraft in its design: For instance: (1) The ability to take off from land or water; (2) Capable of transporting equipment, including light vehicles, 37-mm anti-tank guns, and if possible, light tanks[2]; (3) Configured for static line paratroop jumping; (4) Machine gun mounts for self-defense while airborne, and (5) a weight capacity of 12 men, each weighing 250 pounds in combat gear.  It is difficult to keep from laughing.

The Navy’s BuAer evaluated two prototypes, both of which fulfilled the Marine Corps’ requirement.  One of these was an amphibious, float-wing model available for production and open to bids.  The second glider was a twin-hulled seaplane glider whose plans were still on the drawing board the day before yesterday.

Glider pilot training presented unique problems.  When HQMC learned that the Army had enrolled officers in a soaring school in Elmira, New York, The Commandant directed First Lieutenant Eschol M. Mallory to evaluate this training.  By the way, Mallory was a Marine Corps Aviator who had certain biases against the idea of glider aircraft.  While in Elmira, Mallory learned that there was a second school in Lockport, Illinois.  Taking it upon himself to investigate both facilities, Mallory wrote a report for the CMC recommending that (1) glider training be restricted to qualified naval aviators because of (a) control problems, (b) navigation issues, and (c) because night/instrument flying precluded safe flight operations with novice pilots on the stick.  Additionally, in recognizing that 150 glider pilot trainees could not be pulled from existing resources, small as they were, Mallory recommended that should the CMC decide to proceed with the program, that (a) novice pilots be sent to the Lewis School outside Chicago and (b) that experienced pilots be sent to the Motorless Flight Institute at Harvey, Illinois.

The process of glider development was, from this point on, somewhat convoluted.  A series of conferences in 1941 to evaluate the progress of glider adaptation to Marine Corps combat service seemed favorable.  By October, the HQMC position on glider utilization had been fully developed and enunciated by the CMC.  Planners actually envisioned that gliders would be outfitted with outboard motors so that they could maneuver inside lagoons and other protected areas.  Of course, a few questions remained, such as the location of operating facilities where they would not interfere in regular aviation operations.

The CMC, who had earlier resisted the creation of commando battalions, was now on record as fully supporting the notion of glider operations within parachute battalions.  In retrospect, the situation illustrated senior leaders’ inability to foresee all possible tactical situations and the impact of their reluctance to conduct an adequate study, feasibility assessment, or experimentation and training.

Vernon M. Guymon

In November 1941, four Marine Corps officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Vernon M. Guymon[3], enrolled in the glider pilot’s course at Motorless Flight Institute.  All of these officers were qualified naval aviators.  Guymon had been awarded the Navy Cross for his role in the air evacuation of sick and wounded Marines during the Nicaragua intervention in 1929.  Eight additional officers reported for training at the Lewis School.  All officers graduated shortly after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  But to maintain their proficiency, they had to fly —and at this early stage, there was still no glider aircraft in the Marine Corps aviation inventory.

In early January 1942, the Director of Aviation at HQMC indicated some hesitance in proceeding with the program.  First, he recommended a “temporary allowance” to form a glider detachment instead of a permanent glider organization.  The CMC concurred, and on 15 January, approved the temporary assignment of 14 officers and 56 enlisted men to the newly created Glider Detachment.  The manufacturer delivered one and two-man gliders to the Marine Corps during mid-March; the first 12-man gliders’ delivery was promised a short time later; it was a promise unfulfilled.  On 16 March 1942, the CMC requested the CNO to approve the formation of Marine Glider Group (MGG) 71, which would consist of an H&S Squadron 71, and Marine Glider Squadron (VML) 711.  The CNO approved the requested table of organization.

Activation of MGG 71 took place at the Marine Corps Air Station, Parris Island, South Carolina.  Initially, the group was equipped with three N3N-3 trainers, one SNJ-2, one J2F-3, one JE-1, and seven (7) two-man gliders.  Two of these gliders were kept in reserve.  HQMC assigned Lieutenant Colonel Guymon as Group Commander.

N3N-3 Trainer

By the summer of 1942, Guymon believed that training in two-man gliders was a waste of time.  Since all glider pilots (so far) were qualified naval aviators, the only training these pilots needed was transitional flying —best achieved in the 12-man gliders.  Colonel Guymon’s point was moot, however, because the Marine Corps still did not have 12-man gliders.  A search for a suitable glider base was undertaken and eventually selected at Eagle Mountain Lake, Texas.  HQMC considered additional sites, but none ever developed as glider bases or training facilities.

Two-place Glider

MGG-71 departed MCAS Parris Island on 21 November 1942 and arrived at Eagle Mountain Lake two days later.  Training continued even though the 12-man gliders still had not been delivered.  In February 1943, HQMC ordered the glider program’s suspension until the Marine Corps could satisfy the Pacific theater’s more pressing needs.  At HQMC, the Plans and Operations Division and Aviation Division jointly concluded that parachute battalions and glider squadrons were impractical in the Pacific War’s island-hopping campaigns.  CMC ordered the glider program terminated on 24 June 1943.  The Navy Department reassigned all USMC Glider aircraft to the U. S. Army; the Eagle Mountain Lake facility transitioned to a night fighter training base.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. Jr., S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II. History and Museums Division, HQMC, Washington, 1972.
  2. Sherrod, R. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  3. Grim, J. N. To Fly the Gentle Giants: The Training of US WWII Glider Pilots.  Bloomington: Author House Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas Holcomb (1879-1965) served as the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps (1936-1943).  He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 13 April 1900.  Holcomb was awarded the Navy Cross medal, four awards of the Silver Star Medal, and the Purple Heart.  Holcomb was a descendant of Commodore Joshua Barney of the Continental Navy.

[2] Proving that not every Marine officer was a genius unless one officer intended to defeat the program on the drawing board.

[3] Vernon Melvin Guymon (1898-1965) was a highly decorated Marine Corps mustang officer who retired as a Brigadier General in 1949.  Throughout his 30 years of service, he was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, and two Purple Hearts.  While serving as a gunnery sergeant, Guymon was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in December 1918.  After service in the so-called Banana Wars in the early 1920s, he applied and was accepted for flight school.  He was designated a naval aviator on 15 November 1926.  Following the deactivation of MGG-71, Guymon was assigned to MAG-12 in the Pacific Theater, where he served as the Group Commander and later as Chief of Staff, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing.  Brigadier General Guymon retired from active duty on 1 March 1949.

Admiral of the Navy

Some background

As with most military officers of the 19th century, George Dewey was born into a prominent family that offered him the resources and support that he needed to achieve great success in life —and George Dewey did exactly that.  George’s father Julius was a physician in Montpelier, Vermont; an astute businessman (one of the founders of the National Life Insurance Company), and a devoted Christian.  George had two older brothers and a younger sister—all of whom received a good education.  When George reached his fifteenth birthday, his father sent him to the Norwich Military School (now Norwich University), where he studied for two years.

In 1854, George received an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy; it was a time when the cadet corps was small —averaging only around one-hundred midshipmen per class.  Of course, the naval and military academies aren’t for everyone; each class experienced a significant attrition rate, which made the graduating class about a small percentage of its freshman populations.  George’s graduating class advanced fourteen young men, with George finishing fifth.  From then on, George Dewey served with distinction on several ships.  At the beginning of the American Civil War, Dewey served as an executive lieutenant on the USS Mississippi, a paddle steamer frigate assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron and later participated in operations at New Orleans, Port Hudson, and Donaldsonville.  In 1864, Dewey was transferred to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron for service on USS Colorado under Commodore Henry K. Thatcher.  Colorado took part in the two battles at Fort Fisher (Wilmington, North Carolina).  It was during the second battle that Dewey’s tactical ability and courage under fire led to favorable mention in the New York Times.

Following war time service, Dewey followed the normal progression of a naval officer.  Promoted to Lieutenant Commander, Dewey served as the executive officer[1] of the USS Colorado, served at the USNA at Annapolis, and as a shore survey officer with the Pacific Coast Survey.  While serving in this billet, George lost his wife due to complications of childbirth.

After four years of survey work, Commander Dewey received orders to Washington where he was assigned to the Lighthouse Board.  It was an important assignment and one that gave him access to prominent members of Washington society.  By every account, Dewey was popular among the Washington elite.  The Metropolitan Club invited him to apply for membership; it was a leading social club of the time.

In 1882, Dewey assumed command of USS Juniata with the Asiatic Squadron.  Promoted to Captain two years later, he assumed command of USS Dolphin, which was one of the original “white squadron” ships of the Navy[2].  In 1885, Dewey was placed in command of USS Pensacola, where he remained for three years.  Pensacola was the flagship of the European squadron.  From 1893-96, Dewey served as a staff officer at Naval headquarters.  He was advanced to Commodore[3] in 1896.

When the navy began looking for a new Asiatic Squadron commander, no one seriously considered Commodore Dewey because he was too junior in rank.  As it turns out, though, Dewey’s Washington-area assignments and his membership in the Metropolitan Club paid off.  Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt interceded with President McKinley for Dewey’s assignment as Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Squadron.  It was a fortunate turn of events for the United States.

Dewey assumed command of the Asiatic Fleet in January 1898 and departed for Hong Kong to inspect US warships at the British colony.  Upon arrival in Hong Kong, Dewey learned of the destruction of USS Maine in Havana Harbor.  Even though skeptical of the possibility that the United States would go to war against Spain[4], Dewey readied his squadron for war.  Washington dispatched USS Baltimore to Hong Kong and Dewey purchased the British colliers Nanshan and Zafiro, retaining their British crewmen.

Spanish-American War

At the time Congress declared war against Spain, the United States military was a shamble.  The Army was barely capable of confronting hostile Indians in the American west, much less a major European power.  The Army was understrength, underequipped, undertrained, and worse than this, an incompetent officer corps led it.  The Navy was in a rebuilding process (thanks to Roosevelt), and the strength of the Marine Corps was small and widely distributed throughout the world.  The only edge the United States had against Spain was that the Spanish military was in far worse shape.

When the United States declared war, the United Kingdom quickly asserted its neutrality.  As a neutral power, the British governor ordered the US fleet out of the harbor.  Dewey removed his squadron into Chinese waters near Mirs Bay, north of Hong Kong.

The congressional declaration came on 25 April, retroactive to 21 April.  Five days before the Congressional declaration, however, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered the formation of an expeditionary battalion of Marines.  By 21 April, the First Marine Battalion[5] was already embarked aboard ship and headed for Key West, Florida for staging and final preparations for war.  Meanwhile, the US Army was still trying to figure out how to organize regiments for duty in the field.

On 27 April, Dewey sailed from Chinese waters aboard his flagship USS Olympia with orders to attack the Spanish Fleet at Manilla Bay.  Three days later, the Asiatic Squadron was poised at the mouth of Manilla Bay.  He gave the order to attack at first light on the morning of 1 May 1898.  Dewey’s squadron soundly defeated the Spanish in a battle that lasted only six hours.  The Spanish fleet was either sunk, captured, or scuttled; fortifications in Manilla were rendered moot.  Only one American sailor died in the assault, an older chief petty officer who suffered a heart attack.  Owing to his success at Manilla, Dewey was advanced to Rear Admiral on 1 May 1898. 

The U. S. Coast Guard Joins the Fight

At the time of the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, US Coast Guard Revenue Cutter McCulloch was at sea on an extended shakedown cruise from Hampton Roads to her assigned station at San Francisco.  On her arrival in Singapore orders were received to proceed with all possible speed to Hong Kong and report to Commodore Dewey for further duty.  The ship arrived on 17 April and sailed with the fleet for Mirs Bay and a week later, to Manila.  While a smaller vessel and not built for naval service she was a very welcome and valuable addition to the Asiatic Squadron.  McCulloch performed excellent patrol and dispatch services throughout the period of hostilities and until November 1898 when she resumed her voyage to San Francisco.

On 29 June 1898 McCulloch received a signal from Olympia; which read “Spanish gunboat sighted bearing north-west apparently attempting to reach Manila, intercept and capture.”  McCulloch broke her record getting under way and set a course to get between the gunboat and the foreign shipping of Manila.  The unidentified ship changed her course to meet the cutter head on flying a flag at the fore, a pennant at the main, and a flag at the gaff, all of which were indistinguishable because of the light.  However, upon closing with the ship, McCulloch discovered that she was flying a white flag at the fore. After heaving to, a boarding officer discovered that the ship was the Spanish gunboat Leyte, which had escaped during the early morning of 1 May.  Leyte had remained in hiding in one of the numerous rivers emptying into the bay but could neither escape to sea or avoid the attacks of the Filipino insurgents and so her commanding officer decided to surrender.

McCulloch’s prize crew hauled down the Spanish flag and raised the US flag.  The prize crew promptly proceeded to Olympia and anchored off her starboard quarter. McCulloch accompanied her and sent a whale boat to the Leyte to take her commanding officer and the prize master to the flagship.

That morning, McCulloch had refueled in a manner customary to the Coast Guard, but not to the Navy.  Moreover, a heavy rain squall had kicked up a choppy sea.  When the whale boat came alongside Olympia, the prize master and captured Spanish captain mounted the gangway and were promptly escorted to Admiral Dewey, who was sitting, as usual, in a wicker chair on the quarter deck.  The prize master saluted and said, “Sir, I have to report the capture of the Spanish gunboat Leyte.  I herewith deliver the officer commanding on board.”  If the prize master anticipated a hero’s welcome, he was disappointed.  Admiral Dewey looked up sharply and said, “Very well, sir … and I want to tell you that your boat’s crew pulls like a lot of damn farmers.[6]

From that wicker chair on the quarterdeck there was very little that went on in Manila Bay that escaped Admiral Dewey’s sharp eyes.  His tongue was known as rapier sharp[7].

Philippine Occupation

All was not going well for the Americans in the Philippines.  With the defeat of Spain, Philippine nationalists revealed themselves and they were not entirely pleased about having to exchange one colonial master for another.  In 1895, Emilio Aguinaldo joined other nationalists seeking to expel Spanish colonials and achieve national independence through armed force.  While Dewey was attacking the Spanish from the sea in 1898, Aguinaldo was attacking them from land.  Initially, Dewey and Aguinaldo enjoyed a cordial relationship, but within six months, Dewey was threatening to shell Aguinaldo’s forces in order to allow the unopposed arrival of US Army forces under the command of Major General Wesley Merritt[8] who was tasked to take formal possession of Manilla on 13 August 1898.

In May, Major General (of volunteers) Elwell S. Otis, U. S. Army was dispatched to the Philippines with reinforcements for Merritt.  In late August, Otis replaced Merritt as Commander, Eighth Army and military governor of the Philippines.  As the military governor, first Merritt and later Otis were supreme in all matters ashore.  Because the Philippine Islands was America’s first extraterritorial possession, there was an associated learning queue; mistakes were made, and occasionally, American arrogance got in the way.

Of issues pertaining to jurisdiction and policy in the Philippines (generally) and to the local vicinity of Manila (particularly), there was no single point of view and not all questions were settled to everyone’s satisfaction.  Under these circumstances, there were occasions when someone stepped on someone else’s toes  Admiral Dewey had wanted to subdue Manilla, but in lacking enough land forces to achieve it, had no other option than to wait for the arrival of the US Army.

The affairs of the newly acquired territory were conducted by a joint board in which Admiral Dewey and General Otis were its most influential members. Meetings were held on shore and were usually agreeable affairs, but not always.  Admiral Dewey had little patience for long-winded discussions; on one occasion, having listened to blather long enough, stormed out of the meeting and returned to his ship.

In order to properly police the Pasig river and the adjacent back country it was necessary to have an efficient riverine force.  This duty fell to the Army.  Four vessels were so employed: the Oeste, a large tug given to the Army by the Navy; the Napindan, the Covadonga and the larger Laguna de Bay, which served the river patrol’s flagship.  The two latter-named boats were chartered or commandeered vessels.  Laguna de Bay had sloping casemated upper works and looked like a small edition of the confederate Merrimack [later, CSS Virginia].  All four vessels were protected with boiler plate and railroad iron.  This small fleet was manned by the 3rd US Artillery[9].

Occasionally this non-descript collection of river boats, which were mission-sufficient (but far from “ship shape”) would come out of the Pasig river for a turn in the bay on some business or other.  Now, since the waters of the bay were within Admiral Dewey’s domain, each time one of the river craft went beyond the lighthouse Dewey became apoplectic with rage and would order them back.  It happened too frequently, which prompted Dewey to send Otis a terse note warning him that the next time he found a river craft operating in the bay, the Navy would sink it.  The river craft never again reappeared in Manilla Bay.  General Otis was the better man in this instance by not challenging Dewey’s warning.

Admiral Dewey was ordered back to the United States on 27 September 1899.  Upon arrival, he received a hero’s welcome, which involved parades in New York City and Boston.  By an act of congress, Dewey was promoted to the special rank of Admiral of the Navy in 1903, his date of rank retroactive to 1899.  The congressional act provided that when such office became vacant, upon Dewey’s death, the office would cease to exist.  He was, therefore, the only officer of the United States Navy to serve in that rank, one he retained until his death on 16 January 1917.  George Dewey served as a naval officer for 62 years.

Sources:

  1. Adams, W. H. D.  Dewey and Other Great Naval Commanders, a Series of Biographies. New York: G. Routledge, 1899.
  2. Albion, R. G.  Makers of Naval Policy 1798-1947. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980.
  3. Barrett, J. Admiral George Dewey: A Sketch of the Man. New York: Harper, 1899.
  4. Dewey, G.  Autobiography of George Dewey, Admiral of the Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987.
  5. Ellis, E. S. Dewey and Other Naval Commanders. New York: Hovendon Press., 1899.
  6. Love, R. W. Jr.  History of the U.S. Navy, 1775-1941. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] Second in command.

[2] The squadron of evolution (white squadron) was a transitional unit in the late 19th century.  It was composed of protected cruisers (Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago) and dispatch boats (Dolphin and Yorktown).  Bennington and Concord joined the squadron in 1891.  USS Chicago served as the squadron admiral’s flag ship.  Having both full rigged masts and steam engines, the White Squadron was influential in the beginning of steel shipbuilding.

[3] In 1896, Commodore was a one-star rank junior to Rear Admiral.  In 1899, the navy abandoned the rank (revived during World War II) and used it exclusively as a title bestowed on US Navy captains placed in command of squadrons containing more than one vessel or functional air wings not part of a carrier air wing.  Today, the equivalent rank for commodore is Rear Admiral (Lower Half), and even though such persons wear two stars of a Rear Admiral, they are equivalent to the one-star rank of brigadier general in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

[4]  Dewey believed there was little to gain from a war with Spain.  Dewey had a short view of the situation because there was much at stake in this conflict.

[5] Five days before the declaration of war, Acting Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered Major General Charles Heywood, Commandant of the Marine Corps, to organize one battalion of Marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron.  The battalion was named the First Marine Battalion and placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, a 40-year veteran of service as a Marine.

[6] It is the responsibility of seniors (officers or enlisted men) to lead and mentor their subordinates.  There can be little doubt that Admiral Dewey was an irascible fellow; I have worked under such men myself.  But I believe Dewey’s snappishness resulted from his own training, his uncompromising insistence that subordinates exhibit pride in their seamanship and strive for perfection in the art and science of the naval profession.

[7] Story related and passed down from Captain Ridgley, U. S. Coast Guard, who at the time served aboard McCulloch.

[8] Merritt served in the Civil War as a cavalry officer with additional service in the Indian wars and the Philippine-American War.  After Dewey’s destruction of the Spanish Fleet, Merritt was placed in command of the newly formed Eighth Army Corps.  Merritt, with all available troops in the United States, departed for the Philippines form San Francisco in early June 1898.  In August 1898, Merritt became the first American military governor of the Philippine Islands.

[9] It was no small matter to train artillerymen to operate water craft.

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.

RIVER FIGHTS: The Middle Years

War with Mexico

The US Navy added to its growing experience in inland operations during the Mexican War.  When hostilities began, Commodore David Conner, commanding the Home Squadron, blockaded the Mexican Gulf Coast.  The blockade forced the enemy to use inland waterways and overland routes to move supplies.  San Juan Bautista, 74 miles up the Tabasco River from Frontera, was a distribution center for contraband war materials.  The river had ample depth to accommodate large vessels but there were significant obstacles in planning for an assault.  The river’s current was strong, dense vegetation provided good cover for riflemen and snipers.  The river also took a sharp (and hazardous) “S” bend (called the Devil’s Turn) and there were two strategically placed forts guarding the approaches to San Juan Bautista.   Normally, sailing vessels alone would have little chance of success —but at this time, the US Navy was incorporating steam engines into the fleet.  The Home Squadron had several small steam-powered ships of war.

On 23 October 1846, a naval expeditionary force under Commodore Matthew C. Perry crossed the sand bar at Frontera and seized the town with little to no resistance.  Then, with three steamers and four other vessels, proceeded upriver to San Juan with a 200-man landing party.  The journey took around 33 hours.  Anticipated resistance 9 miles below San Juan never materialized because the Mexican garrisons fled as soon as they could see the American ships closing for action.

Arriving at San Juan before noon on 25 October, Perry demanded the town’s surrender.  When the Alcalde[1] returned an insolent reply, Perry fired on the central flag staff, destroying it.  Perry spared the town but to keep shipping out of the hands of insurgents and gun runners, he seized two Mexican steamers, five schooners, and several smaller craft.  When Mexican riflemen opened fire on Perry’s squadron, Perry had his cannon rake the streets, which effectively ended all interest in firing on the Americanos.  Neither of the two towns was occupied, but Frontera was blockaded for six months.  When the blockade was lifted, Mexican smugglers began their activities anew.

In mid-June 1847, Commodore Perry was ready to ascend the Tabasco River for the second time.  This time, Perry assembled a larger force.  An advocate of naval infantry drill and landing party training, Perry formed a naval brigade of 2,500 officers, seamen, and Marines.  Captain J. Mayo was appointed to command the brigade.  Perry’s squadron included four small steam warships, six schooners, bomb brigs, and numerous ships’ boats.

At the first elbow of the Devil’s Turn, lead ships encountered small arms fire from dense chaparral banks.  Ships’ fire silenced the shooters, but obstructions had been placed in the river around the turn.  Well-manned breastworks on the shore provided a Mexican firing platform.  After reconnoitering the obstructions, Perry landed his brigade for the nine-mile march overland to San Juan.

While Perry led his naval brigade through the swamps and  jungle, Lieutenant David Dixon Porter[2] assumed command of the flotilla and worked his ships through the obstructions.  Perry’s combined force successfully routed 600 Mexican troops at Accachappa and moved on to Fort Iturbide situated just below San Juan.  Fort Iturbide had a battery of six guns and 400 infantry troops.  Porter led the flotilla into Mexican fire and then, under the protective cover of ship’s cannonade, he released a landing party to assault the fort.  The Mexicans broke before the charge.  When Perry and the brigade arrived, the American flag was already flying above the fort.

In two separate instances, Perry demonstrated the value of coordinated tactical inland penetrations.  The operation against San Juan Bautista was a valuable lesson for the US Navy; it would come in handy again in the not-too-distant future.

The Rude War

The U. S. Navy’s main advantage over the Confederate States of America in 1861 was that the south had no navy at the beginning of the Civil War.  Accordingly, the Union navy had, and retained, its control of the sea at all stages of this conflict.  The U. S. Navy implemented three broad strategies: (a) naval blockade of southern coastal regions, (b) amphibious assault and capture of port cities and strong points, (c) splitting the Confederacy along the Mississippi River (and tributaries) and seizing inland waterways to crush Confederate resistance.  The Union navy’s effective 3,000-mile blockade and the imbalance of opposing naval forces resulted in its ability to focus on coastal and inland riverine operations[3].

Commander John D. Rodgers, placed in overall charge of riverine operations for the navy, selected vessels and readied a force under Army control in northwestern waters with its headquarters near Cairo, Illinois (at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers).  From this location, Union vessels could influence river traffic in Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri.  Rodgers purchased and converted river steamers into wooden gunboats: Tyler, Lexington, and Conestoga.  Through the War Department, Rodgers contracted for seven additional gunboats (named for the cities they would defend).  These “city class” vessels became the backbone of the river fleet.  They were 175-feet long, had a 50-foot beam, and the top deck was shielded with heavy armor.  Thirteen guns included old-fashioned 42-pounders (supplied by the Army), and 8-inch and 32-pound navy guns.

While the city class boats were under construction, the wooden gunboats made significant contributions to the Union effort.  These former sidewheelers, unarmored and vulnerable, could not have challenged a seagoing warship or stout fortification but they did achieve good results.  In a nation with few and exceedingly poor roads, they controlled the river highways.  Moreover, they provided mobility and speed of movement of troops and supplies, surprise attack, and flexibility in strategy and tactics, and rapid exchange of information between and among field commanders.

Strong southern sentiment permeated the Ohio and Mississippi river systems.  One effect of the gunboats was that they discouraged secessionists and gave confidence to Unionists.  Fence-sitters stayed out of the way.  Alfred Thayer Mahan[4] was convinced that the riverine force was of inestimable service in keeping alive attachment to the Union and preventing secession by Kentucky and Missouri.

The Battle of Belmont (Missouri) was joined on 7 November 1861, the first combat test in the Civil War for Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant.  On 6 November, Grant moved his 3,000 troops by riverboat from Cairo to assault the Confederate outpost near Belmont, which was across the river from the rebel stronghold at Columbus, Kentucky.  Grant and his men went ashore on the Missouri side and marched overland to Belmont.  Grant succeeded in surprising and over-powering the Confederates[5], but they were quickly reorganized and reinforced by Major General Leonidas Polk.  Grants victory was short lived as Polk endeavored to cut off Grant’s withdrawal.  It was only through the gunboats that Grant and the Union survivors made good their escape[6].

River gunships were effective, but they could not aggress rebel fortifications.  This mission would fall to the semi-ironclad ships ordered by Rodgers, who was replaced by Flag Officer[7] Andrew Hull Foote, U. S. Navy.  Foote is remembered as an aggressive officer who, along with Grant, combined their forces to attack and defeat Fort Henry.  There could be no question among Confederate officers that they had no answer to the Navy’s riverine warfare strategy.

Damn the Torpedoes

As the Mississippi River Flotilla steadily beat the CSA Army and Navy into submission, Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut[8] prepared for service in the Gulf of Mexico.  During his assault of New Orleans, Farragut moved his entire fleet up the Mississippi River to contest the heavy guns at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philips.  During the five-day bombardment, Farragut employed a mortar flotilla built especially for riverine operations.  The rebels put up an exceptional defense of New Orleans but were eventually overpowered by Farragut’s relentless assault and the threat of Union guns over New Orleans’ levees convinced the citizens to submit to Union authority.  What made Farragut’s victory sweet was that New Orleans was the only southern city with a chance of matching the Union’s overwhelming riverine forces.

Meanwhile, behind Foote’s gunboats, one catastrophe after another descended upon the Confederates, whose armies could not match the Union advantages in riverine operations, which were expanded into the Tennessee River and down and across the state of Mississippi.  Rather than arteries of life for the Confederacy, they became highways of death.  Advancing behind the gunboats, Grant’s army cut off western Tennessee.  More than any other factor, gunboats were the deciding factor at the Battle of Shiloh.

From New Orleans, Farragut’s heavy ships, while suffering much damage in the restricted and turbulent Mississippi, forged ahead to Vicksburg, a mighty fortress with batteries situated high on the bluff where Farragut’s guns could not effectively reach.  And, with Confederate forces numbering around 33,000, it would take more than Farragut’s 3,500 men to defeat that fortress.  Eventually, after a siege lasting a year, Vicksburg did fall to Grant’s army of  77,000 men.  Confederate casualties numbered 32,687 (3,202 killed, wounded, or missing in action, 29,495 surrendered).

Thus far, the Navy demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of naval warfare on inland waters.  The Navy’s ability to control the sea made riverine warfare possible.  The Navy’s exercise of its control made riverine warfare flexible.  Seagoing ships were adapted to fight in lakes and rivers to oppose shore batteries.  The Navy learned not only how to build riverine vessels, it learned how to fight them through an appreciation for local environments and conditions and devising appropriate circumstantial responses.

In 1898, the U. S. Navy-Marine Corps was ready for the Spanish-American War.  The U. S. Army was not.  A few years later, the Navy dusted off the lessons it learned from previous periods and addressed head-on the challenges associated with the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion.  In the Philippines, riverine warfare facilitated an end to the violence.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, a flotilla of shallow draft gunboats protected American life and property in war-torn China.  Along more than 1,500-miles of the Yangtze River, riverine patrols faced hostile Chinese war lords, snipers, and bandits; landing parties were kept on a moment’s notice for intervention or defense.  Natural dangers, such as swift currents, fast rising tides, and navigational obstacles were as formidable as any encountered by Commodores Barney, Perry, or Farragut.

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

[1] Mayor.

[2] Porter was a rather extraordinary naval officer from a prominent American family.  Porter began his naval career at age 10.  In 1824, after receiving a reprimand, Porter’s father resigned from the US Navy and accepted Mexico’s appointment as their navy’s commander-in-chief.  David Dixon Porter became a midshipman in the Mexican navy at age 12.  In 1829, Porter received an appointment to the USNA.  He was then 16 years old and a bit too salty for the culture of the Academy.  Were it not for the intervention of Commodore James Biddle, Porter would not have received his commission in the US Navy.  The second naval officer to achieve the rank of admiral, Porter served with distinction for over  62 years.

[3] There is no intent to suggest that the Confederate navy didn’t offer considerable challenges to the Union navy … only that it lacked the experience and traditions of the US Navy.  The CSA navy made a gallant attempt to offset its disadvantages with technological innovation (iron clads, submarines, torpedo boats, mines) and a stout defense of ports and harbors.  In February 1861, the CSA navy had a total 30 vessels; 14 of these were seaworthy.

[4] Mahan was a Navy captain (advanced to rear admiral after retirement) and historian who is generally regarded as the most influential American strategist of the 19th century.  He served as president of the Naval War College and became a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt.

[5] Grants men were so elated by their victory that they began celebrating and drinking strong beverages.  To regain control over his men, Grant ordered the rebel camp set afire.  Unbeknownst to Grant, wounded rebel soldiers were burned to death inside medical treatment tents.

[6] Grant suffered 607 casualties (120 KIA, 383 WIA, 104 captured or MIA), the Confederates 641 (105 KIA, 419 WIA, 117 captured or MIA).

[7] Flag Officer was an impromptu rank.  Foote was promoted to captain in 1861.  When assigned to command the Mississippi River Squadron, which technically came under the War Department, he was advanced to flag officer (equivalent to Commodore) in recognition of his authority and responsibility.  Foote was a heroic officer with long distinguished service.  In 1862, Foote was promoted to Rear Admiral.  He died unexpectedly while on active service in 1863.

[8] Farragut was the adopted brother of D. D. Porter.  He was the nation’s first rear admiral, first vice admiral, and first full admiral in the U. S. Navy.  In April 1862, Farragut captured New Orleans, which gave the Union control of the lower Mississippi.

RIVER FIGHTS: The Early Days

The purpose of the United States Navy is to defend America’s shores; the best way of doing that is by prosecuting war in the other fellow’s backyard.  American sea power achieves its greatest advantage by keeping an enemy’s main force away from America’s shore.  Our Navy controls the oceans for America’s use; it denies to our every foe access to the oceans and skies.  The enemy’s coastline is America’s naval frontier.  Our history over the past few hundred years tells us that our Navy’s strategy has worked out quite well for the American people.

The U. S. Navy is no one-trick pony and naval warfare isn’t confined to vast oceans or hostile coastlines.  Whether projecting naval power at sea, in the air, or ashore, the Navy is prepared to employ the full spectrum of its arsenal: surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, naval guns, sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and shallow draft watercraft.  And then, whenever our enemies need a real ass­-kicking, the Navy asks for a handful of Marines.

Our understanding of the past helps us to better serve the future.  Naval technology in our early days was somewhat limited to ships of the line, cutters, barges, experimental submarines, and small boats (craft suited to rivers and estuaries).  Today we refer to combat operations on rivers as “Riverine Warfare,” and the US Navy has been doing this since the Revolutionary War.  In the modern day, watercraft intended for this purpose is designed and constructed for a specific operational environment.  In earlier times, watercraft used for riverine operations involved whatever was readily available at the time. 

Revolutionary War

The first significant example of riverine operations occurred on Lake Champlain in 1775-76.  Lake Champlain is a 136-mile long lake with connecting waterways north into Canada and southward toward New York City.  They were waterways that offered a prime invasion route to early settlements and colonies and involved a bitter struggle through the end of the War of 1812.  Our revolutionary-period leaders understood that the British would attempt to separate New England from other colonies by controlling Lake Champlain waterways.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seized Ticonderoga on 19 May 1775 and Crown Point a few days later.  These were audacious operations that provided American patriots with badly needed cannon and munitions.

Arnold made a bold move to control Lake Champlain.  He hastily armed a captured schooner, pressed north to St. John’s on the Richelieu River, and in a pre-dawn riverine raid, surprised the British garrison.  He captured a 70-ton British sloop, seized numerous small boats, and helped himself to military stores, provisions, and arms before returning to Lake Champlain.  In one  stroke, the Americans had gained control of Lake Champlain, which thwarted British plans for their upcoming campaign season.

Arnold’s success at St. John’s was followed up with failure at Quebec, which precipitated the American evacuation of that city.  British and American interests initiated a vigorous ship/boat-building effort on Lake Champlain.  In the British mind, control of Lake Champlain had not been finally settled, but they did look upon Arnold as someone who needed their close attention.  For the British to utilize the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River highway to split the colonies, they had to first dispose of Arnold’s naval force.

From their base at St. John’s, the British rapidly constructed 29 vessels (some had been built in England and assembled in St. John’s).  The British squadron included Inflexible, Maria, Carleton, Thunderer, Loyal Convert, twenty gunboats, and four long boats.  Under Captain Thomas Pringle, the squadron commander, were 670 well-trained sailors and Marines.  In total, Pringle commanded 89 6-24-pound cannon.

The arms race of 1776 was on.  Spurred by the restless driving force of Benedict Arnold, the Americans sought to keep pace with the British at their Skenesborough shipyard, near the southern end of Lake Champlain.  They worked with scant resources, green timber, and a hastily assembled force of carpenters.  Drawing on his own experience as a sailor and his newly acquired knowledge of the waters in which he would fight, Arnold prepared specifications for a new type of gondola particularly suited to his task.  He wanted a small vessel of light construction that would be fast and agile under sail and oar. He hoped to offset the disadvantages of restricted waters with greater maneuverability against the slow moving, deeper draft British ships whose strength he could not match.

In all, Arnold fought fifteen American vessels, including the sloop Enterprise, the schooners Royal Savage, Revenge, and Liberty, eight of his newly designed gondolas, and three galleys.  He manned his squadron with 500 men from troops made available to him by General Philip Schuyler and from whatever was available from along waterfront taverns. With pitch still oozing out from the planking in his ships, Arnold, now a brigadier general, set a northward course.  On 10 October, Arnold stationed his flotilla west of Valcour Island where the water was deep enough for passage yet narrow enough to limit British access.  Pringle’s main failure was in conducting a proper reconnaissance of the area, so his fleet sailed past Valcour Island under a strong north wind, which required that he return direction from a leeward position.  The battle raged for most of the afternoon.  Arnold expended 75% of his munitions and his ships were badly cut up.  Taking advantage of the north wind and a foggy night, Arnold slipped through the anchored British ships and escaped.  By the 13th, British ships began to overhaul Arnolds fleet, or ran them aground.  Arnold managed to escape to Ticonderoga with six ships and the loss of (an estimated) 80 men.

Having regained control of Lake Champlain, the British quickly seized Crown Point.  General Horatio Gates and Arnold prepared to defend Ticonderoga but the British instead returned to Canada and went into winter quarters.  Circumstantially, Arnold had been thoroughly beaten on the “inland sea” but had scored a strategic victory.  A British advance southward was delayed for another year and the Continental Army had additional time to build its strength.

During the War of 1812, restricted naval warfare was again seen on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.  This strategy also focused on inland waterways.  Initially, the British controlled the Great Lakes, which facilitated their capture of Detroit and the invasion of Ohio.  In September 1812, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, USN took command of the lakes along the Erie-Ontario frontier in order to thwart a British invasion from that direction.  Both sides strengthened their positions.  Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, USN assumed command of all naval activity on Lake Erie, under the direction of Commodore Chauncey from Lake Ontario.  Commanding British naval forces was Commodore R. H. Barclay, RN operating on Lake Erie.  Barclay and Perry both began vigorous ship-building programs; neither side could well afford men or supplies, so corners were cut whenever possible.  Barclay had an advantage over Perry in ships, but through remarkable leadership and effort, Perry closed that gap.

On 10 September 1813, Perry joined Barclay in a desperate battle.  Perry had nine ships to Barclay’s six and an advantage in weight of broadside.  Barclay’s guns had a greater range, however, and Perry was always in danger of being destroyed.  In fact, Perry’s star came very close to setting on Lake Erie.  One of his two heavy ships failed to close with the British, rendering Perry’s flagship Lawrence a shamble.  Decks ran red with blood; 80% of his crew became casualties; defeat seemed inevitable—but not to Master Commandant Perry.  Embarking with a courageous boat crew, he rowed across the shot-splashed water, boarded the uninjured Niagara issued his orders, and steered the ship to victory.  Within a few short months, Perry had assembled a fleet, gave the United States control of Lake Erie, the upper lakes, all adjacent territory, and guaranteed to the United States its freedom of movement on these vital waterways.  Through Perry’s efforts, the United States also laid claim to the Northwest Territory.

Commodore Joshua Barney distinguished himself during the War of 1812, as well.  See also: The Intrepid Commodore.

In the defense of New Orleans, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson demonstrated keen insight and raw courage against attacking British ships.  Patterson correctly predicted that the British would assault New Orleans rather than Mobile and further, that their advance would be along the shortest route, through Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchartrain.  He deployed a riverine force of five gunboats, two tenders, and his two largest ships as a means of forcing the British to delay their arrival in New Orleans.  In doing so, he gave General Andrew Jackson time to complete his defensive works in Chalmette.  See also: At Chalmette, 1815.

The shoreline of the modern United States is 12,383 miles.  Even in America’s early days, the US shoreline was a considerable distance to protect and control.  Before and after the War of 1812, buccaneers, filibusters, and other intruders plagued the United States.  Using longboats, the Navy hunted down pirates through coastal estuaries, Caribbean inlets and lagoons, or waging guerrilla war against hostile Indians.  Their mission took sailors and Marines into the dank and dangerous swamps and bayous of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Whether employing large ships, ironclads, tin cans, rafts, or canoes, the Navy proved time and again that it had flexibility and adaptability in riverine operations, which has become part of the Navy’s proud heritage. 

The Pirates

Pirates had long infested the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, fueled in no small measure by the rapid growth of American commerce.  In the early 1820s, pirates attacked merchant ships nearly 3,000 times.  The associated financial losses were staggering; murder, arson, and torture were commonly inflicted upon American seamen.  Commodore James Biddle, USN, took on the pirates, filibusters, and free-booters.  In command of the West Indies Squadron, Biddle mounted raids in open longboats, manned by sailors for days at a time in burning sun or raging storm.  He reached into uncharted bays, inlets, and small but treacherous rivers—to locate, close with, and destroy the buccaneer menace.

Biddle utilized his heavy ships as the backbone of his riverine force and as sea-going bases for smaller craft.  This strategy steadily reduced piracy through such stellar efforts of Lieutenant James Ramage, USN and Lieutenant McKeever, who commanded the Navy’s first steamship to see combat action on the high seas, USS Sea Gull.  McKeever levelled the pirate base at Matanzas, Cuba in April 1825.  When buccaneers realized that their occupation was becoming less profitable and increasingly hazardous, they started looking around for other work.

Swamp Wars

Between 1836-42, Seminole and Creek Indian wars in the Florida Everglades produced a conflict uncannily like that waged in Southeast Asia 125 years later.  In 1830[1], the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to remove Florida tribes to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River.  Shockingly, many of these Indians refused to cooperate with the Congress.  Unsurprisingly, a band of Seminoles attacked and massacred a US Army detachment under the command of Major Francis Dade.  The event occurred in Tampa in December 1835.  Almost immediately, the US government moved more soldiers into Florida and Commodore A. J. Dallas’ West Indies Squadron landed parties of Marines and seamen to add weight to the military presence there.

The frustration of fighting a shadowy enemy who was completely at home in the swampy wilderness and rivers in West Florida prompted the Army to ask for naval assistance delivering supplies, establishing communications, and mounting operations along the Chattahoochee River.  One of the first naval units assigned was led by Passed Midshipman[2] J. T. McLaughlin.  In addition to his duties, McLaughlin served as Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant Colonel A. C. W. Fanning.  McLaughlin was seriously wounded by Indians at Fort Mellon in February 1837.

As the pace of war quickened, the Navy’s riverine force grew.  The Navy purchased three small schooners in 1839, which operated in the coastal inlets to chart the water, harass the Indians, and protect civilian settlements.  In addition, McLaughlin, then a lieutenant, commanded many flat-bottomed boats, plantation canoes, and sharp-ended bateaux which he used to penetrate the Everglade Swamps.  In effect, McLaughlin commanded the “mosquito fleet,” a mixture of vessels manned by around 600 sailors, soldiers, and Marines.

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

[1] In 1830, Democrats controlled the US House of Representatives.  Another shocker.

[2] In the 19th century, this term was used to describe a midshipman who had passed the examination for appointment to ensign but was waiting for a vacancy in that grade.  A passed midshipman was also occasionally referred to as a “sub-lieutenant,” but neither of these were ever official naval ranks.

Alamo of the Pacific, Part II

Wake Island Prisoners of World War II

—By James W. Wensyel

Early on the morning of December 8, 1941[1], Wake Island hummed with activity. For months, the wishbone-shaped Pacific atoll of three small islands–Wake, Wilkes and Peale–less than 10 miles long and barely above sea level, had been the site of construction work. Working feverishly to complete an airstrip and defensive fortifications were 449 U.S. Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion, commanded by Major James P.S. Devereux; Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-211, equipped with 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats, led by Major Paul A. Putnam; 71 Naval personnel; a five-man Army radio detachment, commanded by Captain Henry S. Wilson; and 1,146 American civilian construction workers of the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases Company, managed by Dan Teters –all under the overall command of Commander Winfield S. Cunningham.

War with Japan was imminent, and an airstrip on Wake, about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, would allow American heavy bombers to strike the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. And, if Guam were lost to the Japanese, Wake would be one of the closest American outposts to the Japanese mainland. Each day work began early and finished late. There were no other diversions on the tiny, barren atoll, and the defenders all realized that war could begin at any time.

Around 7 o’clock that morning an Army radio technician on Wake picked up a radio alert from Hawaii: ‘Hickam Field has been attacked by Jap dive bombers. This is the real thing.’ Devereux shouted for his bugler, Alvin J. Waronker, and soon the clear notes of ‘General Quarters’ sounded across the atoll.

At 8:50[2] the Marines raised the American flag on its staff, something Marines did every morning all over the world, and Waronker began to sound ‘To the Colors.’ In the past he had had trouble with the bugle call, never getting it quite right, but this time he did not miss a note, and for several minutes all activity stopped as each man stood at attention and saluted the flag. Devereux recalled: ‘The flag went up, and every note was proud and clear. It made a man’s throat tighten just to hear it.’ Not long after the flag raising, 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 Nell bombers crossed Wake in three V-formations. Soon their fragmentation bombs, accompanied by a steady drumming of machine-gun fire, tore the island to pieces. For Wake’s defenders, the war had begun.

Japanese land-based aircraft from Roi in the Marshalls, later joined by aircraft from approaching Japanese carriers, pounded the atoll day after day. Before each attack, a dwindling number of American Wildcat fighters rose to meet them. At 3 a.m. on December 11, a Japanese invasion task force commanded by Rear Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka, consisting of a light cruiser, six destroyers, two troop carriers and two armed merchantmen, confidently approached Wake’s beaches. Marine gunners let them close to 4,500 yards before their 5-inch naval guns opened fire. Their patience was rewarded with the sinking of one Japanese destroyer and damaging of the cruiser and three additional destroyers. Kajioka retreated, now knowing that Wake would not be taken without a fight.

By the 21st, the last of the Wildcats had been destroyed in dogfights over the atoll. With nothing left to fly, Putnam’s aviators were assigned duty as riflemen. Japanese airplanes now roamed over the island at will, pounding American positions in preparation for a renewed attempt to seize the atoll.

In the dark, rain-swept early morning hours of December 23rd, Kajioka returned, his fleet bolstered by four heavy cruisers and various other warships, including landing craft, to assault Wake’s beaches with more than 900 well-trained infantrymen of the Special Naval Landing Force. At 2:35 a.m., the first Japanese landing barge ground ashore. Soon a desperate battle was being fought across the atoll between groups of men fighting with rifles, bayonets, grenades and fists. The Americans fought hard, but more Japanese landed and pushed them toward the island’s center. Teters’ civilian construction workers, many of whom had manned anti-aircraft guns earlier in the fight, now took up rifles and grenades to fight beside the American servicemen.

At dawn, Devereux and Cunningham, separated but talking over the single phone line between the islands, took stock of the situation. The American flag still flew from a battered water tower, the highest point on Wake, but Japanese flags fluttered everywhere else. Reports from the three islands were discouraging; there were simply too many Japanese and too few Americans. Cunningham radioed Pearl Harbor: ‘Enemy on island. Issue in doubt.’

Meanwhile, enemy planes continued bombing and strafing while Japanese ships, beyond the range of the few remaining shore batteries, shelled pockets of American resistance. Devereux, unable to contact his remaining strongpoints, had no idea what was happening a few yards beyond his own command post. Later he would reflect: ‘I tried to think of something …we might do to keep going, but there wasn’t anything …We could keep on expending lives, but we could not buy anything with them.’

Cunningham, as the ranking officer, made the inevitable decision to surrender. The naval commander phoned Devereux to tell him the depressing news. The major gulped, then quietly agreed, ‘I’ll pass the word.’

Devereux and Sergeant Donald R. Malleck, who carried a white cloth tied to a mop handle, then walked across the island, ordering surviving Americans to lay down their weapons. Stunned defenders threw away rifle bolts, destroyed delicate range-finding instruments, drained hydraulic fluid from recoil cylinders and then surrendered. Eighty-one Marines, eight sailors and 82 civilian construction workers had been killed or wounded.

The Japanese, however, paid a heavy price for their victory. The fight for Wake Island had cost them two destroyers and one submarine sunk, seven additional ships damaged, 21 aircraft shot down and almost 1,000 men killed.

Enraged by their losses, the Japanese treated their prisoners —military and civilian— brutally.  Some were stripped naked, others to their underwear.  Most had their hands tied behind their backs with telephone wire, with a second wire looped tightly from their necks to their wrists so that if they lowered their arms, they would strangle themselves. Personal valuables were taken, and wounds ignored.

The prisoners were then jammed into two suffocating concrete ammunition bunkers. Later they were herded to the airstrip and made to sit, naked, on the blistering hot concrete. When the Japanese set up machine guns nearby, most of the prisoners expected to be executed. That night, bone-chilling winds replaced the heat. The prisoners sat there, still waiting for food, water or medical treatment. The unfortunate prisoners remained sitting on the airstrip for two days. Finally, they were given food, much of it spoiled by the heat, and water, contaminated from being placed in unclean gasoline drums. Piles of assorted clothing seized earlier were placed before them; an individual had little chance of finding his original clothing. Marines found themselves in civilian dress, civilian workers in Marine khaki. Private First Class Carl Stegman, Jr., was dressed in a bloodstained shirt, ill-fitting Marine trousers and a pair of sneakers.  Lieutenant John Manning would begin his captivity in a pair of Marine trousers and two oversized, hip-length rubber work boots.

After returning his prisoners’ clothes, Kajioka, resplendent in white dress uniform and gleaming samurai sword, read a proclamation to the assembled prisoners. When he concluded, a Japanese interpreter informed the Americans that “the Emperor has graciously presented you with your lives.”  To which a resolute Marine croaked, “Well, thank the son of a bitch for me!”

During the next 10 days the prisoners were given small amounts of food taken from the remaining stores on the island. They cared for their own wounded with whatever supplies they could obtain.

On January 11, 1942, Kajioka informed the prisoners that they would soon be transferred. This was alarming news because although they had been poorly treated by their captors, both sides had come to some accommodation with one another. Now all that would change.

The next day most of the prisoners were taken to the merchant ship Nitta Maru.  Before boarding, however, they were forced to run a gantlet of cursing and spitting Japanese sailors who struck them with clubs, fists and heavy belts. Crowded into the ship’s hold, they next confronted a Japanese officer who shouted the rules that would govern them.

Thousands of miles from home, crammed into Nitta Maru‘s dimly lit hold, with several buckets for toilets, no heat or ventilation and confronted by brutal guards, the prisoners’ future was bleak. Even so, they were luckier than the 380 prisoners the Japanese kept on Wake to rebuild the island’s defenses. Those unfortunates would slave away until October 1943, when, in retaliation for the strikes on the island by a U.S. Navy task force and fearful of an Allied invasion, the Japanese garrison murdered them all.

It took Nitta Maru six days to reach Yokohama, Japan. During that time the prisoners never left the ship’s hold and were given only tiny amounts of food.  Not understanding Japanese was no excuse for prisoners who failed to instantly obey their captors’ shouted orders. Beatings were commonplace.  In one instance a Japanese guard thought he saw PFC Herman Todd talking without permission.  The private was ordered to jump up and grab an overhanging beam. As Todd hung suspended above the deck, a Japanese bayonet was thrust at his stomach while a Japanese petty officer beat him with a pick handle.

Once they had reached Yokohama, eight American officers and 12 enlisted men were sent to a prison camp in Japan while the remainder of the men continued on to Shanghai, China.  On the voyage to China, Lieutenant Toshio Sato, commander of the Japanese guard detachment, selected five Americans, three seamen and two Marines, at random, blindfolded and bound them, and took them on deck. There, surrounded by 150 Japanese sailors, the Americans were made to kneel. Sato then read to the Americans in Japanese: “You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed … as representatives of American soldiers.”  The bewildered, frightened Americans understood none of his speech.  Perhaps it was just as well, for when Sato finished speaking the five unfortunates were beheaded.  Their bodies were then used for bayonet practice before being thrown overboard.

After landing at Woosung the prisoners were forced to march five miles to what the Japanese called the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp —seven gray, ramshackle single-story buildings with no fresh water or plumbing and limited electricity. To deter escape, the camp was surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences and four constantly manned guard towers.

The prisoners were housed in large, open rooms called sections. Within each section 36 men slept shoulder to shoulder on wooden pallets. Although the temperature seldom exceeded 20 degrees, most of the men wore ragged garments and many had no shoes. There was no heat. In the cold, crowded rooms disease spread quickly. Enforcement of prison rules was simple —if any man in a section misbehaved, all were punished.

At Woosung the Japanese commissary routinely issued food for only 300 prisoners. Rations provided only about 500-600 calories per man per day.  Each of the Wake prisoners would lose at least 60 pounds during his captivity at the prison.

The Americans would never forget Woosung.  The bleak loneliness, bitter cold winds whistling through their flimsy huts, wormy stone-studded rice and dawn-to-dusk work made a lasting impression.  The excesses of the Japanese guards only added to their misery. Although a few of them adopted a live-and-let-live attitude toward the Americans, most of the guards were brutal.

The worst of the Japanese at Woosung was Isamu Isihara, a civilian interpreter who enjoyed beating the helpless Americans.  Although he was a civilian who had once driven a taxi in Honolulu, Isihara wore a samurai sword and insisted that the prisoners treat him as an officer.  Without reason or warning he would fly into a rage, and the prisoners dubbed him the ‘Beast of the East.’

Sergeant Bernard O. Ketner later recalled: “I was severely beaten by Isihara. He struck me four times … with a saber.  Later … the sentry held a bayonet against my abdomen [while] they beat me with their fists … I was kicked in the testicles twice.  Isihara spit in my face and called me a white American son of a bitch.  I was then thrown into the brig for four days, two of which I was given no food.”

When the former British governor general of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, refused to salute him, Isihara tried to behead Young with his sword.  Finally, Japanese military officers took the sword away. Instead, Isihara resorted to a leather riding crop with a leaded handle that could be used as a blackjack.

Commanding the Woosung prison camp was Colonel Goichi Yasue, notorious for his violent and unpredictable temper.  He organized the prisoners into 10-man’shooting squads,’ explaining that if “one-man escapes, the other nine die.”

Yasue, whom the Marines called ‘Useless,’ died in March 1942, and was replaced by Colonel Satoshi Otera, dubbed ‘Handlebar Hank’ by the Marines for his moustache. Otera, more concerned with his personal comforts than with his duties, could also be very harsh. In one instance he discovered a hole in a 100-pound bag of sugar and in retaliation denied all of his prisoners food for 72 hours.

The Japanese captors’ attitude toward their prisoners was based on Bushido, the code of the samurai warrior. Bushido taught blind loyalty to the emperor and a disregard for death. A soldier should die before surrendering. Those who surrendered to the enemy surrendered everything, even their lives. Thus, the prisoner became the slave of his captor, to be spared or killed as the captor wished.  As an interrogator explained to the prisoners, “You gave up everything when you surrendered. You do not even own the air that is in your bodies—you are the slaves of the Japanese.”

At Woosung life became a war of wills.  Devereux recalled: “The main objective of the Japanese … was to break our spirit, and on our side was a stubborn determination to keep our self-respect whatever else they took from us.  That struggle was almost as much a part of the war as was the battle we fought on Wake Island.”

Colonel William H. Ashurst, Commander of the Marine Detachment captured at the U.S. Legation at Tientsin, his executive officer, Major Luther A. Brown, and Devereux ensured that their fellow Marines would never succumb to their captors.  Ashurst and Brown, using Brown’s battered copy of the Army field manual, The Rules for Land Warfare, repeatedly confronted Japanese officers with their violations of the Geneva Convention of 1929, prescribing proper treatment of prisoners of war.

Devereux insisted on the same military discipline found at a stateside Marine base. He also insisted that the Marines exercise every day, despite their weakening bodies. Some hated him for maintaining such practices, but later, when they saw that they were winning the mental battle with their captors, most respected him for leading the way.

Despite the terrible conditions inflicted on them, American prisoners saluted their officers, maintained their chain of command, and walked with pride and dignity. They held their own religious services and, using fellow prisoners as instructors, began a series of classes —including history, English, photography, beekeeping and navigation.  They leveled a field for softball and soccer and began a vegetable garden.

Occasionally they scored small victories against their captors that encouraged them to fight on.  Put to work repairing roads, the prisoners instead widened or deepened potholes or loose-packed the dirt so the holes would soon get worse. Assigned to clean weapons, they polished the metal until it was too thin to be safely fired, lost parts, hid bearings, loosened bolts or substituted incorrect parts.

Survival was never easy.  Soon after their arrival at Woosung, the prisoners began to die of illness, untreated battle wounds and malnutrition.  Others died more violently. In June 1942, a young Japanese sentry playfully pulled the trigger of his rifle, and Lonnie Riddle, a civilian construction worker, fell dead at his feet.  Two months later Seaman Roy K. Hodgkins was electrocuted while trying to recover a softball from beneath an electrified fence.  Later, Marine Corporal Carroll W. Boncher died when he accidentally fell against the same fence.

After nearly a year at Woosung, the Americans were moved to another prison camp at Kiang Wang.  By now they were hardened to days with little or no food, brutal guards and backbreaking work, but it all became even worse upon their arrival at Kiang Wang, which Devereux called “the worst hellhole in our captivity.”

At Kiang Wang, Japanese engineers ordered the Americans to build what they described as a playground complex for Japanese children.  The prisoners were forced to engage in a year-and-a-half’s labor to complete the complex, which they called the “Mount Fuji Project.”  Divided into six-man work teams, the prisoners first cleared an area 600 feet long by 200 feet wide, all by hand. Each team had a few crude spades and perhaps a mattock.  They were forced to remove the soil in large woven baskets slung on their backs.

When they had cleared the large area, they began to build an earthen mound 45 feet high, a miniature Mount Fujiyama.  As it grew, the prisoners laid a narrow-gauge railroad track up its slope.  Then they pushed small mine cars, loaded with dirt and stone, to its summit.

When American officers realized that the ‘children’s playground’ really was to be a large rifle range for the Japanese army, they protested, citing Article 31 of the Geneva Convention forbidding prisoners of war to work on military projects.  Otera, however, dismissed their complaint with a sharp retort, “Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention.”

By the summer of 1943, as a result of their sparse prison diet and 12-hour workdays, the prisoners were living skeletons, plagued by dysentery, tuberculosis, pellagra, influenza and malaria.  Month after month of hunger, cold, pain, bone-weary fatigue, loneliness and despair were severely trying the prisoners.  Despite the privation, there was only one rule –survive.

Many prisoners remembered that only the occasional delivery of packages of food, medicine and clothing from home, and the personal, and dangerous, intervention of two men saved their lives.

Loved ones heard little from the prisoners but continued sending them packages and letters.  Most mail got as far as the prison camp but never reached the intended recipient.  Japanese guards pilfered the packages or kept them in supply rooms for months before delivering them to the prisoners.  By September 1943, an estimated 1,000-1,500 pieces of mail had reached the prison camp, but only 719 of them had been given to the prisoners.  Christmas mail arrived on December 23, 1943 but was not delivered until April 12, 1944.  Mail that did reach the men, however, kept them apprised of the war’s progress.  Although Japanese censors read each letter and would not deliver obvious reports of Allied victories, some cleverly disguised messages slipped through.  In one case, the prisoners learned of the American victory at Midway Island. ‘Uncle Joe and Uncle Sam met at the halfway house and had one hell of a fight.  Uncle Sam won,’ read the letter.

Critical to the Americans’ survival was the intervention of Edouard Egle, a Swiss representative of the International Red Cross.  Because they saw their Shanghai War Prisoner Camp as a model for the world, the Japanese allowed Egle far greater access to the American prisoners there than other camps.  Egle was a very competent, compassionate man.  Between 1942 and 1945, he constantly risked Japanese retaliation by insisting upon providing medical and dental help for the prisoners and by supplying them with food and medical packets.  Although Japanese guards looted the packets, enough got through to help the Americans survive.

Egle also provided clothing for the ragged prisoners (critical during the bitter-cold winter months), some heating stoves, books, seeds and livestock for the prisoners’ farm.  Learning that four American doctor-prisoners, aided by a kindly Chinese doctor, had set up a small hospital in the prison compound and were performing surgery with razor blades, closing incisions with common thread or fishing line, and treating dysentery with grains of burnt rice scraped from cooking pots, he provided them with medical instruments and other desperately needed supplies and equipment.

In March 1944, with the prisoners’ situation desperate, Egle personally delivered six food parcels and a pair of coveralls, a cap and a pair of boots to each prisoner.  For some of the men it was their first change of clothing in two years.

The prisoners also remembered the kindness of an American civilian, ‘Shanghai Jimmy’ James, a Minnesotan who, at the outbreak of the war, owned four American-style restaurants in Shanghai that the Japanese somehow allowed to continue operating for some time.  At Christmas 1942, Shanghai Jimmy provided a Christmas tree with trimmings, cigars, cigarettes and a hot turkey dinner for the Woosung prisoners, a tremendous boost to both health and morale.  He continued to send food, medicine and other help to the prisoners until he, too, was interned in the prison camp.

In the spring of 1945, the Americans’ lot improved.  The prisoners received a shipment of food and medical packets, and the Mount Fuji Project finally ended.  More important, their captors saw that the war was winding down.  The Allies’ drive across the Pacific was nearing Japan, and American warplanes had begun bombing Shanghai. The Japanese now knew that the war would soon end, and the Allies would be the victors.  The guards now made the occasional friendly gesture to their prisoners.

Japanese frustration at the course of the war and at the prisoners’ continuing resistance, however, still made life hazardous and uncertain. The Kiang Wang prison was located between two military airfields.  American airstrikes against these facilities endangered their countrymen.  Sometimes Japanese guards, angered at the bombing, took out their frustration on the prisoners.  On January 20, 1945, for example, when prisoners cheered U.S. North American P-51 fighter planes shooting down a Japanese plane, furious guards bayoneted three of them[3].

While listening to a clandestine radio, the prisoners learned that the Allies were nearing Japan. Then Boeing B-29s, en route to bomb Japanese installations around Shanghai, appeared overhead.  On another occasion, American fighter planes buzzed the prison compound, so low that the prisoners reveled in the pilots’ waves of encouragement.  The Americans were getting too close for the Japanese, who were not about to release the Kiang Wang prisoners. On May 9, 1945, they loaded them aboard a train for a five-day trip to Fengtai, eight miles southwest of Peking. During the long train trip from Kiang Wang to Fengtai the only successful escape occurred. Five Americans —two Marines captured from the legation at Tientsin, two Wake Island Marines and one Marine pilot— jumped from the prison train.  Finally found by Chinese Communist troops, they walked for 42 days through more than 700 miles of occupied China before reaching friendly territory and freedom.

The Fengtai prison, a large brick warehouse surrounded by a moat, barbed wire and guard towers, held more than 1,000 prisoners in an area 200 yards long by 146 yards wide. Prisoners slept on Fengtai’s hard concrete floor and used a single spigot for water.

Fortunately, the Americans’ stay in Fengtai was brief.  On June 19, they again were crowded into boxcars for another hard ride, this one to Pusan, Korea, where they were held in shacks, stables and warehouses until a ship could be found to carry them across the Tsushima Strait to Japan.

At dusk on June 28, the prisoners boarded a small coastal steamer for the hazardous 12-hour trip across the strait to Shimonoseki, on the southwestern tip of Honshu.  At Shimonoseki they were crowded into another train.

Seeing the mass destruction American bombers were wreaking everywhere on the Japanese homeland while riding on the train, one Marine exclaimed, ‘I never saw such destruction in all my life.’  They were in Osaka during a B-29 raid and, while changing trains in Tokyo, narrowly escaped death or injury when an angry civilian mob attacked them as their Japanese guards looked the other way.

At Osaka some of the prisoners were diverted to a prison camp at Sendai.  Most of them, however, continued to the northern tip of Honshu, where they were ferried across narrow Tsugaru Strait to Hakodate, site of the group’s final prison.

Hakodate’s guards were brutal.  A Marine recalled: ‘The Japanese required every prisoner to stand up and bow or salute every member of the guard whenever they passed by.  If the prisoner was … slow … the guards beat him.  Prisoners were beaten because they could not understand the Japanese language….’

Most of the prisoners worked 12-hour shifts in a coal mine; others worked in a lumberyard.  Some Marine prisoners labored in an iron mine seven days a week, with a daily ration of three small bowls of rice and soybeans or a small teacup of soup made from weeds.  Civilian foremen beat prisoners to encourage better production or, it seemed to the Americans, for the fun of it.  In one instance, three Japanese civilians were beating Marine Sergeant Bernard H. Manning when PFC Norman H. Kaz interfered. Japanese guards then beat Kaz senseless before tying him to a pit timber at the bottom of the mine shaft.  Then, for two weeks he was beaten every day, emerging with a pair of black eyes, a broken nose and several teeth knocked out.

After they had been at Hakodate for several weeks, however, the Americans noticed that the attitudes of their guards and civilian supervisors changed. The brutal interrogations and beatings ended, prisoners were fed a bit better, and their captors even began to smile cordially at them. One day a Japanese guard explained to one of the prisoners, “Very soon we will all be friends again.”

In late July 1945, Japanese officers treated American officers to a formal dinner at which they offered many toasts to their guests, bowed often and professed friendship with the Americans.  Finally, a senior Japanese officer stood and proposed a toast to “everlasting friendship between America and Japan.”  The other Japanese smiled, nodded and waited for an appropriate response from the Marines.

The American officers sat quietly for a long moment, the gaunt, haggard men looking uncertainly at each other. Then, Major Luther A. Brown, for so long a thorn in his captors’ side, stood, looked about and said matter-of-factly, “If you behave yourselves, you’ll get fair treatment.”

There were other encouraging signs.  On August 15 a mine official suggested that Leonard Mettscher work in another part of the mine because it would be “less dangerous there.”  And on the same day, the prisoners’ work ended early, an unprecedented gesture.  From scraps of a Japanese newspaper they also learned that the Soviet Union had entered the war, attacking Japanese-held Manchuria.

The next day the prisoners woke to find their prison unguarded. Fearful of reprisals by local civilians, the Americans stayed inside the camp.  Later that day, Japanese boy-soldiers, so small that the tips of their bayonets stood high above their heads, appeared at the camp’s perimeter, apparently more intent on protecting the prisoners from civilian assault than in preventing their escape.  That night the prisoners’ rations were increased.

On the 17th they learned about the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  On the 23rd several Marines scaled the prison’s fence and ventured around the nearby village.  Seeing them, young Japanese guards begged them to return to the safety of the camp. The following morning, a Japanese army colonel assembled the prisoners to announce that Japan had surrendered to prevent further bloodshed.

The prisoners now decided to wait for the U.S. Army’s arrival rather than wander around the countryside of a defeated nation.  On August 28 and 30, B-29s parachute-dropped 55-gallon drums crammed with food, medicine and clothing to the war-weary prisoners, a sure sign that their rescue was near.  Many of the men, so long deprived of adequate food, became sick from the feast that followed.

On September 1, Hakodate’s prisoners used colorful cargo chutes to fashion an American flag and, using a Japanese bugle, for the first time in three years, nine months and 21 days Marines sounded ‘To the Colors’ as they hoisted their makeshift flag above the prison camp.  Cautiously, more adventuresome Americans now began to explore the area outside their prison.  On September 9, during the last airdrop of clothing and provisions, a parachute bearing a fuel drum packed with supplies malfunctioned, killing a Marine and two Army prisoners.  They were the last Wake Island prisoner casualties of the war.

Several days after these final tragic deaths, troopers from the 1st Cavalry Division reached Hakodate. For the prisoners there the long war was at last over.

This article was written by James W. Wensyel and originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of World War II magazine.  For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine!

Endnotes:

[1] Date/Time variation is accounted for by the International Dateline.

[2] Colors are raised each morning at 0800, without variation.

[3] It is certain that had the situation been reversed, the Americans would have done the same.

Building the Hive

Nothing happens in war without logistics.”

—Field Marshal Sir William Slim, British Army

USN 001

Some Background

Navy ships cannot remain at sea forever.  Shortly after the establishment of the U. S. Navy, senior officers began planning for ports and facilities that would enable the Navy to build and maintain its vessels, warehouse stores and ammunition, and where the navy could develop training programs for the rank and file.  Included was the requirement to hire civil engineers capable of overseeing its base construction efforts.  The Navy’s first hire was a man named Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architect.

Latrobe was the son of a Moravian[1] minister of French descent in Yorkshire, England, educated in England and Germany.  A widower, he migrated to the United States with his two young children in 1786.  Latrobe found the profession of civil engineering and architecture in America barely adequate but left it in the hands of careful, thoughtful, professional men.  Latrobe’s building standards dominated in the United States until the American Civil War.

In 1804, the U. S. Navy appointed Benjamin Latrobe Engineer of the Navy Department[2].   Latrobe immediately began drafting plans for the construction of the Washington Navy Yard[3].  In 1809, Latrobe drafted plans for additional navy yards in New York and at Norfolk, Virginia.  Despite his contributions to the emerging Navy Department, Mr. Latrobe was never an employee of the Navy Department; he was a civilian architect contracted by the Navy Department.  The Navy Department did not implement his plan for New York and Norfolk until long after his death.

In 1826, Congress approved funding for the construction of two dry docks (in Boston and Norfolk); the Navy appointed a noted Bostonian engineer to design and construct them.  His name was Loammi Baldwin, a descendant of Deacon Henry Baldwin, an original settler of North Woburn, Massachusetts.  Between 1826-34, Baldwin served as Superintendent of Dry Docks and Inspector of Navy Yards.  Like Latrobe, Baldwin was a contract employee with no official position within the Navy Department.

William P. S. Sanger (1810-1890) was also from Massachusetts.  In 1826, Sanger was apprenticed to Baldwin to learn the trade of civil engineering[4]; between 1827-1834, Sanger represented Baldwin during his absences at the construction of the dry dock in Norfolk, Virginia.  Although Sanger was only a temporary employee initially, he would later play a central role in the development of civil engineering in the Navy and the creation of the Navy Civil Engineering Corps.  In 1836, Sanger was appointed to serve as Civil Engineer for the Navy and assigned to the staff of the Board of Navy Commissioners, a board of three Navy captains who served as the Secretary of the Navy’s principal advisory staff.

Sanger W P S 001
William P. S. Sanger

When the Navy Department reorganized in 1836, the Board of Navy Commissioners was replaced by five bureaus intended to oversee various aspects of naval operations.  The bureau system remained in place for the next 124 years.  The first of these was the Bureau of Navy Yards and Docks, which may serve to illustrate the importance placed on yards and docks by the Navy hierarchy.  Along with this emphasis, the Navy required someone to oversee yards and docks programs, which was never an easy task.  Although the Navy Civil Engineer Corps wasn’t established until 1867, Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur appointed William Sanger Civil Engineer of Yards and Docks in September 1842.

On 2 March 1867, the Navy established its Civil Engineer Corps and charged it with responsibility for constructing and repairing all buildings, docks, and wharves servicing U. S. Navy ships.  Civil engineers would supervise a naval architecture, direct the activities of master builders, and oversee public works initiatives.  Civil engineers were not required to wear a navy uniform until 1881 officers.  From then until today, Navy civil engineers have worn their unique service insignia[5].

In the early 1900s, civilian construction companies worked on a contract basis for the United States Navy.  On the eve of World War II, the number of civilian contractors working for the navy at overseas locations numbered around 70,000 men.  What made this particularly significant was an international agreement making it illegal for civilian employees to resist any armed attack.  To do so would classify them as guerilla fighters and this, in turn, would subject them to summary execution.  This is what happened when the Japanese invaded Wake Island[6].

The concept of a Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) was envisaged in 1934 as a war plan contingency, a concept that received the approval of the Chief of Naval Operations (then, an administrative post rather than an operational one).  In 1935, Captain Walter Allen, a war plans officer, was assigned to represent BuDocks on the war planning board.  Allen presented the NCB concept to the War Planning Board, which included it in the Rainbow Plan[7].

A major flaw in the proposal for NCBs was its dual chain of command; military control would be exercised by line officers of the fleet, while construction operations would fall under the purview of officers of the Civil Engineer Corps.  The plan for NCBs also ignored the importance of military organization, training, discipline, and creating esprit de corps within the force.  Last, at least initially, NCB plans focused almost entirely on the construction of training stations within the Continental United States (CONUS) with little attention to the deployment of NCBs to overseas locations.

Rear Admiral (RAdm) Ben Moreell was a leading proponent for Navy Construction Battalions (CBs, also Seabees).  In December 1937, Moreell became Chief, Bureau of Yards and Docks.  RAdm Moreell (1892-1978) graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering in 1913.  He joined the Navy at the beginning of World War I.  Owing to his educational specialty, the Navy offered him a direct appointment to Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Civil Engineer Corps.  Moreell was assigned to the Azores, where he met and was befriended by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Early in his career, the Navy recognized Moreell for his exceptional ability.  While serving as a lieutenant commander, Moreell was sent to Europe to study military engineering design and construction.  In 1933, he returned to the United States to supervise the Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland.

Moreell B 001In December 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the advancement of Lieutenant Commander Moreell to Rear Admiral, by-passing commander, and captain, and appointed him to head the Bureau of Yards and Docks while concurrently serving as Chief of Civil Engineers of the Navy.  With great foresight, Moreell urged the construction of two giant drydocks at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and initiated Navy construction projects on Midway and Wake Island.  The Pearl Harbor project was completed in time to repair navy ships damaged during the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941 and the Midway project was completed in time to play an important role in the Battle of Midway.

By summer 1941, civilian construction crews were working on Guam, Midway, Pearl Harbor, Iceland, Newfoundland, and Bermuda.  Adm. Moreell took the decision that the navy needed to improve its project supervision.  To accomplish this, he requested the establishment of Headquarters Construction Companies, each containing two officers and 99 enlisted men.  The mission of the construction companies involved the conduct of drafting, surveys, and project inspections.  RAdm. Chester W. Nimitz, then serving as Chief, Bureau of Navigation, authorized the 1st Headquarters Construction Company on 31 October 1941; recruitment began in the following month.  The first recruit training class, quite remarkably, began at Newport, Rhode Island on 7 December 1941.

On 28 December 1941, RAdm Moreell requested authority to commission three Naval Construction Battalions.  Approval was granted on 5 January 1942 and a call for qualified recruits went out almost immediately.  The 1st Naval Construction Detachment was organized from the 1st Headquarters Construction Company, which was then assigned to Operation Bobcat in Bora Bora[8].  The Detachment was tasked to construct a military supply base, oil depot, airstrip, seaplane base, and defensive fortifications.  In total, 7 ships and 7,000 men were assigned to the base at Bora Bora.

The 2nd and 3rd Construction companies formed the nucleus of the 1st CB Battalion at Charleston, SC; these were soon deployed as the 2nd and 3rd Construction Detachments.  The 4th and 5th companies formed the 2nd CB Battalion and deployed as the 4th and 5th Construction Detachments.

Seabees 001The dual chain of command issue was finally resolved when Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox gave full authority over the Seabees to the Civil Engineer Corps.  Construction Battalions were officially recognized as Seabees on 5 March 1942.

To safeguard the location of projects in furtherance of advanced base construction, the Navy coded each project.  They were either Lion, Cub, Oak, or Acorn.  Lion 1-6, for example, primarily involved fleet bases projects.  Cub projects numbered 1-12 involved secondary fleet base projects.  Oak and Acorn projects were airfield construction programs.

In the Atlantic, the Seabees’ most complex task was preparation for the Allied landing at Normandy.  Subsequent operations took place along the Rhine and some of these involved “front line” work. 

The Navy-Marine Corps Team

USMC SealMarine Corps historian and author Gordon L. Rottman observed, “…one of the biggest contributions the Navy made to the Marine Corps during World War II was the creation of the Seabees.”  The Marine Corps, in turn, had a tremendous influence on Seabee organization, training, and combat history.

When Seabees first formed, they did not have a functional training facility of their own.  Upon leaving Navy boot camp, Seabee trainees were sent to National Youth Administration camps spread over four states.  To solve this problem, the Marine Corps created tables of organization that included NCBs.  It was through this process that Seabee companies were organized, equipment was standardized, and combatants received intensified military training through various regimental combat and advance base structures.

Early on, the Marine Corps’ requested one Seabee battalion in general support of an Amphibious Corps.  This was initially denied, but before the end of the year, Seabee Battalions 18, 19, and 25 were supporting advanced Marine forces as combat engineers, each of these being attached to composite engineer regiments (the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Marines).

In 1944, the demand for increased infantry caused the Marine Corps to deactivate its engineer regiments, but each Marine division retained a Seabee battalion in general support.  For operations on Iwo Jima, the 133rd and 31st Seabees were attached to the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions.  During the 5th Marine Division’s post-war occupation of China, the 116th Seabees accompanied them.  The 83rd, 122nd, and 33rd Seabees supported the III Amphibious Corps.

Navy Seabees were no “one-trick pony.”  In addition to combat engineering, they also participated as Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), and Underwater Demolition Teams (UTDs), the forerunner of the Navy Seals organization.

The difficult we do now; the impossible takes a little longer.

During World War II, Seabees constructed 400 advanced bases across the Pacific to Asia, and from the Caribbean and Atlantic to African and European shores.  They frequently landed with assault forces, bringing with them skills in demolition operations, including places such as North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, Southern France, at Normandy, and operations crossing the Rhine River into Germany.  They were builders and fighters.  In the Pacific region, they constructed 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammunition magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals —and all of it completed in the heat of battle.

Service Partnerships

On 27 October 1943, Allied forces landed on the Treasury Islands group, which were part of the Solomon Islands.  US and New Zealand forces assaulted entrenched Japanese troops as part of an effort to secure Mono and Stirling Islands so that a radar station could be established on the former, with the latter a staging area in preparation for the assault on Bougainville.  By taking the Treasury Islands, Allied forces would isolate Bougainville and Rabaul and eliminate the Japanese garrison.  On 28 November, Fireman First Class Aurelio Tassone, U. S. Navy Reserve, assigned to the 87th Naval Construction Battalion, created a legendary figure of the Seabees astride his bulldozer rolling over enemy positions.  According to the Naval History and Heritage Command …

Tassone-Turnbull 001Petty Officer Tassone was driving his bulldozer ashore during the landing of the Seabees when Lieutenant Charles E. Turnbull, Civil Engineer Corps, USN, told him that a Japanese pillbox was holding up the advance of the landing force from its beachhead.   While Lieutenant Turnbull provided covering fire with his carbine, Tassone drove forward using his front blade as a shield against sustained Japanese automatic weapons fire.  Tassone crushed the pillbox with the dozer blade killing all twelve of its Japanese defenders.  For his courage under fire, Tassone was awarded the Navy Silver Star medal.

During World War II, Seabees earned five Navy Cross medals, and the nation’s third-highest award for exceptional combat service, 33 Silver Star medals.  They also paid a heavy price: 18 officers and 272 enlisted men killed in action.  An additional 500 Seabees died as a result of non-combat injuries while performing hazardous construction operations.

During the Korean War, 10,000 World War II Era Seabees were recalled to active service.  They served during the landing at Inchon and participated in combat activity elsewhere, performing magnificently as combat engineers.  While Seabees were fighting in Korea, others were constructing an air station at Cubi Point, Philippine Islands —a massive undertaking that necessitated the removal of a two-mile stretch of mountain foothills, which, after having removed 20 million cubic yards of soil, became a project equivalent to the construction of the Panama Canal.

Seabees deployed to Vietnam twice during the 1950s.  In June 1954 they supported Operation Passage to Freedom; two years later Seabees were deployed to map and survey the roads in South Vietnam.  In 1964, Seabees constructed outlying operational bases and fire support bases near Dam Pau and Tri Ton.  Beginning in 1965, NCB personnel supported Marines at Khe Sanh and Chu Lai.

Shields Marvin CM3 USN
CM3 Marvin Shields, USN

On the night of 9 June 1965, the unfinished Army Special Forces camp at Dong Xoai was mortared and attacked by the 272nd Viet Cong Regiment, an assault by an estimated 2,000 communist troops.  The Special Forces camp fell to the enemy the next morning.  Having been wounded by mortar fire during the assault, Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin G. Shields fought alongside his Special Forces counterparts helping forward positions in the resupply of much-needed ammunition.  Wounded for a second time by shrapnel and shot in the jaw on 10 June, he helped carry wounded soldiers to safer positions, including the fallen commanding officer.  After four more hours of intense fighting and greatly weakened by the loss of blood, Shields volunteered to help Second Lieutenant Charles Q. Williams, destroy an enemy machine gun outside the perimeter, which was threatening to kill everyone in an adjacent district headquarters building.  During this fight, Williams was wounded for the third time, and Shields for the fourth time, shot in both his legs.  Although evacuated, Shields died on the aeromedical evacuation helicopter.  Petty Officer Shields became the first and the only Seabee to receive the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life beyond the call of duty.  Shields and Petty Officer William C. Hoover lost their lives and seven additional Seabees received wounds that required medical evacuation during this battle.

More than 5,000 Seabees served in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq War.  Since 1990, Seabees have provided vital construction skills in support of civil action programs across the globe, including the Middle East, the Philippine Islands, and in response to natural disasters inside the United States.  At the present time, there are six active-duty Navy Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCBs), split between Atlantic and Pacific fleet commands.

There is no question whether the United States will again face a significant national emergency.  When that happens, we can only hope (and pray) that we will still have available to us a lethal and exceedingly competent Naval Mobile Construction Battalion: America’s Fighting Seabees.

Sources:

  1. Historian, Naval Facilities Engineering Command. History of the Seabees.  Washington, 1996.
  2. Huie, W. B. Can Do!  The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1997
  3. Huie, W. B. From Omaha to Okinawa, The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012
  4. Kubic, C. R., and James P. Rife. Bridges to Baghdad: The U. S. Navy Seabees in the Iraq War.  Thomas Publications, 2009
  5. L. Germany First: The Basic Concept of Allied Strategy in World War II.  US Army Center of Military History, 1960
  6. Olsen, A. N. The King Bee.  Trafford Publishing, 2007

 Endnotes:

[1] Moravia was a crown land of the Bohemian Crown from 1348 to 1918, an imperial state within the Holy Roman Empire from 1004 to 1806, and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1804-1867.

[2] At this time, the Navy Department consisted of the Secretary of the Navy, three clerks, and the Chief Engineer.

[3] Navy officials ordered the Washington Navy Yard fired to keep it out of the hands of the British invaders in 1814.  The essential design of the navy yard remains a Latrobe design and the main gate on Eighth Street is the original base entry point.

[4] In 1826, the only formal training in engineering was the US Military Academy.  All other training was informally achieved through apprenticeships.

[5] It was never clear that the Act of 2 March 1867 intended civil engineers to serve as commissioned officers; the wording is too brief and vague for an adequate conclusion, but as the act stated, “… shall be appointed by the president …” the Secretary of the Navy assumed that his civil engineers should be commissioned as officers of the U. S. Navy.  The Secretary did not implement this interpretation until 1 January 1869, but dates of rank were backdated to 13 March 1863.

[6] When the Japanese invaded Wake Island on 23 December 1941, 70 civilian construction workers were killed when they took up arms against the Japanese.  After the fall of the island, 1,104 civilian construction workers were taken into captivity and forced to perform labor in the construction of Japanese defensive positions.  Of these, 180 died in captivity believed starved and beaten to death by brutish Japanese guards.

[7] American war planners realized that the United States faced the possibility of war on multiple fronts, against a coalition of enemies, the Joint Planning Board of the Army and Navy developed a new series of war plans.  They were called the Rainbow Plans … color-coded plans drawn up previously.

[8] An island in the leeward group of the western part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia.

The Admiral Who Knew …

USN 001Military and naval officers serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.  The President nominates officers for advancement (confirmation is required by the United States Senate), and depending on their seniority, it is the President who approves their assignments [1].  Whenever an officer cannot, in good faith, serve the President, two things must occur: an officer with integrity must either resign his or her commission, or the President must relieve them from their duty assignment and send them away (either into retirement or reassign them to another duty). Generally, there are two reasons for presidential dismissal: insubordination, or professional disgrace (such as suffering considerable losses in war) [2].

James O. Richardson was born in Paris, Texas.  He entered the United States Naval Academy in 1898 and graduated fifth in his class in 1902.  His first assignment placed him in the Asiatic Squadron where he participated in the Philippine Campaign with later assignment to the Atlantic Squadron. Between 1907-09, while serving as a lieutenant, he was assigned command of the torpedo boats Tingey and Stockton, and later commanded the Third Division of the Atlantic Torpedo flotilla.  Between 1909-11, he attended the Navy’s post-graduate Engineer School, then served as an engineer on the battleship USS Delaware.  He was promoted to lieutenant commander and received an assignment to the Navy Department where he was charged with supervising the Navy’s store of fuel.

Richardson 001Promoted to commander, Richardson served as a navigator and executive officer of the battleship USS Nevada between 1917-19. Between 1919-22, Richardson was assigned to the Naval Academy as an instructor.  In 1922, the Navy assigned Richardson command of the gunboat USS Asheville.  Under his leadership, Asheville was dispatched to Asiatic waters where he also commanded a division of ships assigned to the South China Patrol.  After his promotion to Captain, Richardson was reassigned to Washington from 1924-27, where he served as Assistant Chief, Bureau of Ordnance —afterward commanding a destroyer division of the Atlantic Squadron and then returning to Washington for service with the Bureau of Navigation.

In 1931, Captain Richardson took charge of the new heavy cruiser USS Augusta and commander her for two years.  After attending the Naval War College (1933-34), he was promoted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half) and rejoined the Navy Department as its budget officer.  His first command as a flag officer was the scouting force, cruiser division, Atlantic Squadron.  He then served as an aide and chief of staff to Admiral J. M. Reeves, Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet, and afterward as Commander, Destroyer Scouting Force.  In 1937, he became Assistant Chief of Naval Operations under Admiral William D. Leahy.  In this position, he coordinated the search for Amelia Earhart and dealt with the Japanese attack on the USS Panay.  In 1938, Richardson assumed the duties as Chief, Bureau of Navigation and aided in the development of Plan Orange [3].  In June 1939, Admiral Richardson took command of the Battle Force, US Fleet, with temporary promotion to the rank of admiral.

In January 1940, Richardson was assigned as Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet [4].  According to journalist John Flynn [5], Admiral Richardson was one of the Navy’s foremost flag officers —a man who had made the study of Japanese warfare his life’s work and an outstanding authority on naval warfare in the Pacific and Japanese naval strategy.

One will note that in the 1930s, the European powers were moving rapidly toward another world war and Japan was rapidly increasing its power and prestige in Asia.  The Sino-Japanese conflict in Asia continued unabated.  In the United States, resulting from a lack of attention and funding, the army and navy were in a shamble.  For the navy specifically, new ships, while ordered, were still under construction.  In 1937-38, the United States was not ready for either of the world’s emerging conflicts; should something happen before new ships came online, the USN would have limited effectiveness in a two-ocean war.  The organization of the United States fleet in 1939 reflects the Navy’s overall unreadiness for war.  To correct this deficiency, the Navy began to re-commission ships from the mothball fleet, some of which were turned over to the British as part of the Lend-Lease Program.

In this environment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet to move the Pacific Fleet from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  His purpose in making this decision was to “restrain” Japanese naval activities in the Pacific Ocean Area.  Roosevelt made this decision without asking Admiral Richardson (who not only had responsibility for the US Fleet, but also a broad base of knowledge about Japanese naval warfare) for his opinion.  Admiral Richardson was not a happy sailor.

Admiral Richardson protested Roosevelt’s decision.  He not only took his concern directly to the president; he went to other power brokers in Washington, as well.  Richardson did believe that advance bases in Guam and Hawaii were necessary, but inadequate congressional funding over many years made these advance bases insufficient to a war time mission.  Richardson firmly believed that future naval conflicts would involve enemy aircraft carriers; to detect these threats, the US Navy would require an expanded surface and aviation scouting force.

Richardson 002Admiral Richardson was worried because he realized how vulnerable the US Fleet would be in such an exposed, vulnerable, and exposed location as Pearl Harbor.  Moreover, he knew that logistical support of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would be a nightmare, made worse by slim resources and an inadequate logistical organizational structure.  Admiral Richardson believed that Roosevelt’s decision was impractical and strategically inept —that Roosevelt had no business offering US naval support to Great Britain when in fact the US Navy was barely able to stand on its own two feet.  It was also true that the Navy had little in the way of adequate housing, materials, or defensive systems at Pearl Harbor.  What Admiral Richardson wanted was to prepare the fleet for war at San Diego.  Then, once it was ready for war, the Navy could return to Pearl Harbor.

Most of the Navy’s admirals agreed with Richardson —the Pacific Fleet should never berth inside Pearl Harbor where it would become a sitting duck for enemy (Japanese) attack.  Admiral Richardson believed that Pearl harbor was the logical first choice of the Japanese high command for an attack on the United States because Pearl Harbor was America’s nearest “advanced base.”  Since the 1930s, the US Navy had conducted several training exercises against the Army’s defenses at Pearl Harbor; in each episode, the Navy proved that Pearl Harbor did not lend itself to an adequate defense.  Richardson communicated this information to President Roosevelt.

He also informed the President that, in his studied opinion, the United States Navy was not ready for war with Japan.  When Richardson’s views were leaked to the Washington press, President Roosevelt fired him.  On 1 February 1941, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel replaced Richardson as Commander, US Pacific Fleet, and Admiral Ernest J. King replaced Richardson as Commander of the US Atlantic Fleet.  Fired by the President of the United States, Richardson reverted to Rear Admiral and served as a member of the Navy General Board until his retirement in October 1942.

Admiral Richardson predicted war with Japan and where the Japanese would strike.  What the admiral knew ended up getting him fired from high command.  It is my opinion that Admiral Richardson’s story tells us much about Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sources:

  1. Richardson, J. O. On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor: The Memoirs of Admiral J. O. Richardson, as told to Admiral George C. Dyer, Vice Admiral, USN (Retired).  Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, Washington, DC, 1973
  2. Steely, S.  Pearl Harbor Countdown: The Biography of Admiral James O. Richardson.  Gretna: Pelican Press, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] Permanent flag rank ends at major general/rear admiral (upper half).  Advancements beyond major general/rear admiral (paygrade 08) are temporary assignments (lieutenant general/general, vice admiral/admiral).  A major general who assigned as a corps commander will be temporarily advanced to lieutenant general for as long as he or she serves in that billet.  Should this officer retire from active service after three years, he or she will revert to permanent grade of major general (although he or she may be entitled to a higher rate of pay on the retired list under the “high 36” pay scale for flag rank officers).

[2] The first officer charged with treason was Brigadier General Benedict Arnold of the Continental Army.  During the War of 1812, Brigadier General William Hull, US Army, was court-martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy.  Hull was sentenced to death, but President Madison remitted the sentence owing to his former “good” service.  President Lincoln fired several generals for their failure to win battles, Franklin Roosevelt fired several, Harry Truman famously fired Douglas MacArthur, Jimmy Carter fired Major General John K. Singlaub, George Bush fired three generals, and Barack Obama fired several.

[3] Plan Orange was a series of contingency operational plans involving joint Army-Navy operations against the Empire of Japan.  Plan Orange failed to foresee the significance of technological changes to naval warfare, including submarine, the importance of air support, and the importance of the employment of aircraft carriers.  Part of the navy’s plan was an island-hopping campaign, which was actually used during World War II.  Note: the Japanese, who were obsessed with the “decisive battle,” ignored the need for a defense against submarines.

[4] The organization of the U. S. Navy has changed considerably since the 1900s.  In 1923, the North Atlantic Squadron was reorganized into the US Scouting Forces, which (along with the US Pacific Fleet) was organized under the United States Fleet.  In January 1939, the Atlantic Squadron, US Fleet was formed.  On 1 November 1940, the Atlantic Squadron was renamed Patrol Force, which was organized into “type” commands: battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and training/logistical commands.  Then, early in 1941, Patrol Force was renamed US Atlantic Fleet.  The Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet exercised command authority over both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.  At that time, the Chief of Naval Operations was responsible for navy organization, personnel, and support of the fleet—and administrative rather than having any operational responsibility.

[5] The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor, 1945.

The Intrepid Commodore

Joshua Barney c. 1800I initially introduced my readers to Commodore Joshua Barney while recounting the Battle of Bladensburg, which occurred in 1814.  His command of the Marines at Bladensburg (where the President of the United States placed himself under Barney’s command) piqued my interest in this heroic figure from America’s past.  As it turns out, Commodore Barney was not simply a highly skilled naval officer, he was gutsy, determined, and resourceful, as well.

A son of Baltimore, Maryland [1], Joshua Barney (1759-1818) initially went to sea at the age of 12 in 1771.  Four years later, he served as second-in-command to his brother-in-law aboard a merchant ship involved in European trade.  When the brother-in-law died, Barney assumed command of the ship and navigated the ship to Nicard Occitan (Nice).  There is much about his early years that we do not know, but he did marry twice and had children with both his wives.

Beginning in 1776, Barney served as a commissioned officer in the Continental Navy, the master of the Hornet, and at the time, the youngest commander of a Continental warship.  In this capacity, he participated in the raid on New Providence, in the Bahamas, under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins.  The Navy promoted him to lieutenant in recognition of his gallantry in the action between Wasp and the British brig [2], HMS Betsey.  Later, while serving aboard Andrew Doria, he played a prominent role in the defense of the Delaware River.  The British took Barney as a prisoner (and exchanged him) on several occasions during the Revolutionary War.  In 1779, the British held him at the Old Mill Prison at Plymouth, England until he escaped in 1781.  Barney wrote a memoir about his adventures, published in 1832 by his relatives, long after his death.

In April 1782, the Navy placed Barney in command of the Pennsylvania ship Hyder Ally.  During the Battle of Delaware Bay, Barney captured the better-armed HMS General Monk.  Monk was renamed General Washington and Barney was rewarded by giving him command of that ship.  With orders to deliver dispatches to Benjamin Franklin in France.  Barney’s return voyage to the United States carried news of peace with Great Britain and the end of the Revolutionary War.

After the war, Barney joined the French navy.  The French appointed him to serve as a squadron commander with the rank of captain.  From June through October 1796, Barney commanded the frigate [3] Harmonie, which was serving on station in the Caribbean and Chesapeake Bay.  As the Napoleonic Wars did not begin until 1803, it does not appear that Captain Barney served under the French flag at that time.

The United States had no interest in becoming involved in the Napoleonic Wars, but the loss of commercial ships to British raiders, the illegal impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, and the insult to national pride eventually brought the United States back to war with Great Britain in 1812.  Even so, the United States was ill-prepared for another war, either on land or at sea.  Were it not for the fact that the British were fully engaged with France in Europe, it might have gone very badly for the fledgling United States in the early days of this conflict.  The Royal Navy was, at that time, the strongest navy in the world.  In comparison, the United States Navy was but a flea on the backside of a rogue elephant.

Without a navy of any substance, the United States began to construct, commission, and capture ships to serve as warships.  One of the more successful privateers was Joshua Barney of Baltimore, Maryland, who in 1812 was 53 years of age and living near Elk Ridge, Maryland.  Because he had served under a foreign flag as a naval commander, the US Navy denied Barney command of a United States Navy ship; instead, the Navy offered him command of the privateer schooner Rossie.  As a privateer, Barney excelled.  On a single voyage, Barney captured four ships [4], eight brigs, three schooners [5], and three sloops [6], a total value of around 1.5 million pounds.  By December of 1812, the Royal Navy was rampaging the Chesapeake Bay, blockading ports and taking what they wanted from shoreline villages and towns.  Their first defeat came at the mouth of the Elizabeth River when the Royal Navy failed to seize Norfolk, Virginia —but as an act of revenge, the British sacked the town of Hampton.  The American army’s commitment to operations in Canada left the Chesapeake Bay undefended, allowing the British navy to invade the American shore with impunity.

Despite its few resources and very little money, the United States government resolved to do something.  This is when Captain Barney stepped forward with a plan to defend the Chesapeake.  In those days, it was easy for a citizen to approach the President of the United States.  Barney drew up his plan and delivered it personally to President Madison.  It was as detailed a plan as anyone had ever seen, including sketches of gunboats that were like river-barges [7], equipped with oars and light sails, and armed with one large gun.  As Barney envisioned it, these small vessels would be manned by local men, would draw attention to themselves but they would also be proficient in keeping an eye on the British navy.  With a shallow draft, the barges would be able to withdraw close to shore where the British could not follow.  One of Barney’s selling points was that the barges were relatively inexpensive to build and, once the war was over, the vessels could go on the block for commercial use.

President Madison was suitably impressed.  He appointed Barney as Commander of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.  Construction of the barges began in earnest and bounties were offered to entice men who would otherwise have served as privateers, or enlisted men in the land forces.  News of the flotilla quickly spread, and this prompted the British to construct barges of their own on tangier Island.  Within a short time, Barney had seven (7) 75’ barges, six (6) 50’ barges, two gunboats [8], one row galley [9], a lookout boat, and his flagship USS Scorpion [10].

With eighteen vessels (but scant supplies), Barney led his flotilla from Baltimore to attack Tangier Island and destroy the British efforts there.  With the discovery of British reconnaissance troops near St. Jerome’s Creek, Barney decided to attack these men.  The surprise was that a British warship was in hiding not far distant, causing Barney to make a rapid withdrawal into the Patuxent River.  British captain Barrie, in command of HMS Dragon, blockaded the mouth of the Patuxent River and waited for reinforcements from HMS Jaseur and HMS Loire.  Barney continued his withdrawal to the shores of St. Leonard’s Creek.  Initially, with the realization that the British out-gunned him four to one, Barney saw little chance of besting the British, but his position offered an excellent defense.  We remember this three-day battle as the Battle of the Barges.  The conflict ended in a draw, but Barney did not lose a single man to British fire, while the Royal Navy suffered numerous casualties.

In August of 1814 48-British ships arrived in the Chesapeake with a contingent of 5,400 soldiers under the command of Major General Robert Ross.  These troops landed at the little down of Benedict and began their march northwards.  Admiral Sir George Cockburn, serving as overall commander-in-chief, sailed up the Patuxent River … altogether setting into motion the Battle of Bladensburg —the defense of the City of Washington.  Given the timidity of the undisciplined American militia, all that really stood between General Ross’ army and Washington was Commodore Barney and around 500 sailors and Marines.  Of course, we know that it was a futile defense and Barney was (once more) captured by the British.  Although seriously wounded, Barney was well-treated by the British, who congratulated him on his gallantry under fire.  Before his capture, Barney ordered his flotilla burned to keep them from falling into the hands of the British; the remnants of this force remain at the bottom of the Patuxent River today.  With the peace came Barney’s release from captivity and he returned to his home in Anne Arundel County.

The wound he received in 1814 eventually killed Commodore Barney, who at his death was only 59 years old.

Sources:

  1. S. Naval History and Heritage Command, Joshua Barney, online resource.
  2. Barney, M. A Biographical Memoir of the Late Commodore Joshua Barney From Autographical Notes and Journals in Possession of His Family and Other Authentic Sources.  Gray and Bowen, publishers, 1832.
  3. Shomette, D. Shipwrecks on the Chesapeake.  Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishers (1982)
  4. Ellis, J. J. His Excellency, George Washington.  New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2004

Endnotes:

[1] When Baltimore was still an American city.

[2] A brig is a two-mast square rigged ship.

[3] A frigate in the age of sail was a warship built for speed and maneuverability and could be a vessel of several sizes.  Their principle batteries could be placed on a single deck, or on two decks with smaller guns.  They were generally two small to stand in the line of battle.  They were full rigged with square sails on three masts and mostly used as escort ships and patrolling.  They usually carried 28 guns.

[4] In context, ship meaning ships of the line or full-rigged vessels with three or more full-rigged masts.  Ships of the line were generally categorized as first, second, or third-rate vessels (more than 64-guns).  Fourth-rate ships came into being in the mid-18th century (50-60 guns).

[5] A schooner is a fore and aft-rigged vessel with two or more masts, of which the foremast is shorter than the main.

[6] Sloops were fore-and-aft rigged vessels with a single mast.  They were later powered warships between corvettes and frigates in overall size.

[7] Essentially, shoal-draft flat bottom boats normally constructed as river or canal transport of bulk goods.

[8] Gunboats were of various sizes and armaments with a single mast.

[9] An armed craft that used oars rather than sails but was often fitted with sails in addition to its oars.

[10] Scorpion was a self-propelled floating artillery battery, sloop rigged with oars.  As part of the Chesapeake Bay flotilla, Scorpion was commanded by Major William B. Barney, Commodore Barney’s son.

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.”