Monday, April 24, 2017

Fifty Years Ago: A Barracks Ship from Newport News Becomes a Flagship in Vietnam

Consider the barracks ship. Boxy and somewhat nondescript, they are fixtures along the waterfronts of shipyards that service US Navy vessels around the world. They provide berthing, messing, and other miscellaneous functions for the crews of vessels being commissioned, decommissioned, or undergoing major overhaul or rehab work during their life cycle. While this isn't exactly a Cinderella story, fifty years ago a self-propelled barracks ship, a variety of Landing Ship, Tank (LST) built too late to take part in World War II, was plucked from obscurity in Newport News, Virginia, to become an unusual kind of flagship nearly 9,000 miles away.

Somewhere in the Mekong Delta, Riverine Amphibious Assault Force (Task Force 117) flagship USS Benewah (APB-35) of the Mobile Riverine Force supports combat operations led by Armored Troop Carriers (ATCs) passing to her starboard. Both Benewah and the smaller ATCs used during the war in Vietnam were modified from vessels and landing craft built for the Second World War two decades before. (US Navy Photo by Chief Journalist R.D. Moeser/ NHHC image)
As the US Navy became more deeply involved in defending the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, also known as South Vietnam) from its communist northern neighbor fifty years ago, Naval Forces Vietnam had to contend with a riverine type of combat environment on a scale not seen since the Civil War. While the Navy’s research and development emphasis had been going into defeating an increasingly sophisticated Soviet blue water threat, a decidedly low-tech brown water infiltration of the RVN by communist guerrillas was continuing apace, complicating American efforts to bring stability to the country.
The Mekong Delta, situated south of South Vietnam's capital, Saigon, comprised most of the southernmost portion of the country. (
By 1966, after several years of a enforcing a blockade and patrolling the main waterways along the RVN’s 1,200-mile coastline, it was becoming clear that this approach was insufficient in defeating enemy National Liberation Front (Viet Cong, or VC) insurgents, who were using the Mekong Delta, home to over a third of the country's population, as a base of operations. A more integrated approach between the US Army and Navy was called for, and coordination would begin at the top. Gen. William Westmoreland, Commander of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and Rear Adm. (Upper Half) Norvell G. Ward, Commander, US Naval Forces Vietnam (COMNAVFORV), conceived of a strike force to take the fight to the VC in their innumerable hiding places within the delta: the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF). Within the MRF, the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division would work hand-in-glove with the Sailors of the Riverine Assault Force manning hundreds of small riverine craft.  

In his book War in the Shallows: U.S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965-1968 (2015), historian Robert Sherwood of the Naval History and Heritage Command wrote:
The MRF kept enemy forces in the [Mekong] delta on the defensive and allowed MACV to focus forces in other areas of the country, secured the vital and populous “bread basket” of South Vietnam, and provided essential backup to the three ARVN divisions there. In many respects, it served as the cornerstone for General William Westmoreland’s southern flank.
Although a shore base called Dong Tam (which roughly translated into “united hearts and minds” in Vietnamese) was created for the MRF from land dredged from the delta, the joint operation’s emphasis on mobility necessitated forming mobile bases closer to the action, where front lines were constantly in flux.  As during the Civil War a century before and the First World War 50 years later, the Navy would have to press whatever vessels were on hand into action. Unlike both earlier wars, during which civilian vessels were modified for dangerous war deployments, there was a ready resource for the MRF at depots and shipyards around the country. Ships originally built to support amphibious landings during World War II were pressed into service as the massive counterinsurgency effort in the Mekong Delta got underway, involving up to 30,000 Sailors at its height.  

The Landing Ship, Tank (LST), first produced in 1942, with the last decommissioned in 2002, could deliver much more than tanks. All manner of vehicles, even railroad cars, were delivered by the lumbering, flat-bottomed marvels. Some of the over 1,000 LSTs built during the 1940s were modified during construction to such an extent that their classification changed. Becoming anything from battle damage repair ships (ARBs) and landing craft repair ships (ARLs) to even mini aircraft carriers, LSTs and their derivatives were some of the most versatile ships ever built for naval service. Built too late to see any action during WWII, the self-propelled floating barracks ship USS Benewah (APB-35), named for a county in Northwest Idaho, more than made up for it after arriving fifty years ago in Vietnam to become a flagship in the Navy’s first “great green fleet.”  

After two decades of serving miscellaneous support roles for the Navy Reserve and the Seabees, Benewah could be found serving as a barracks ship, temporarily housing the crews of new ships being built at Newport News Shipbuilding, near the mouth of the James River in Hampton Roads. In July 1966, as the MRF was in its formative stages, Benewah was reacquired by the Navy and sent to Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for conversion to a brigade command ship. In addition to new quad-40 mm cannons and 3-inch guns, along with .50 caliber and 7.62mm machine gun mounts, her onboard medical facilities were greatly enlarged, and as a finishing touch, a large helicopter platform was installed above it. She was recommissioned on January 28, 1967, and sent to Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia, for training.
The chief's lounge aboard USS Benewah (APB-35) was a place for senior Navy NCOs to relax between operations against communist insurgents in the Mekong Delta, and sported a rather large television (for its time). (NHHC image
Although she emerged in fighting shape, Benewah’s haze gray finish did not exactly befit her role in a venture that would place Soldiers and Sailors on equal footing. This would be remedied during a stopover in Pearl Harbor en route to Vietnam, where she was painted olive green. The  MRF’s new 328-foot long flagship arrived on April 23, 1967, and immediately began operations as a mobile support base for over 1,000 Soldiers, Sailors, and a variety of assault craft belonging to the Riverine Amphibious Assault Force (TF-117).  Benewah was far from just a place for MRF members to shower, sleep, and get a bowl of ice cream. Her Joint Tactical Operations Center monitored and jammed enemy communications while directing assault operations along the delta's 3,000 nautical miles of waterways.    
Benewah is shown here with an assortment of assault craft including ATCs, with one, an ATC(H) equipped with a helicopter pad, and river monitors on the Soi Rap River in October 1967. (US Navy Photo by Photographer's mate 2nd Class C.B. Hall/ NHHC image
Benewah was ultimately joined by several other self-propelled barracks ships modified for MRF service such as USS Colleton (APB-36), USS Mercer (APB-39), and USS Neuces (APB-40). They served as the core of a formidable Mobile Riverine Base fielding 3,600 Soldiers and Sailors and their heavily-armored monitors, Armored Troop Carriers (ATCs), and river patrol boats (PBRs) as they fought to stem the insurgency.  

By late 1970, the war in Vietnam, which saw that the reemergence of monitors in riverine combat operations for the first time since the Civil War, and the reappearance of trench (or immersion) foot as an endemic condition for the first time since the First World War, was over for Benewah. After roughly three and a half years of frontline combat service, earning 11 battle stars in the waters of both Vietnam and Cambodia, the former flagship, one of the most decorated of the entire war, was transferred to Naval Base Subic Bay.  Benewah was decommissioned there in 1971 and subsequently transferred to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which made an unsuccessful attempt to convert her into a hospital ship. She now rests on the sea floor somewhere off the archipelago after being sunk as part of an artificial reef.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: A Submarine is Lost,Yet its Legend Persists

By Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Oberleutnant Hans Sanger was the highest ranking of 29 Kriegsmarine personnel whose bodies were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean after the destroyer Roper (DD-147) sank their Unterseeboote (U-Boat) early on the morning of April 14, 1942.  They were buried at Hampton National Cemetery the following evening, where they remain to this day. (M.C. Farrington)  
Shortly past midnight on April 14, 1942, USS Jessie M. Roper (DD-147), a WW1-era Wickes-class destroyer, made radar contact with a suspected German submarine operating on the surface. “The night was clear, with many stars visible; the sea was very nearly calm,” noted the Roper’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Hamilton W. Howe. The destroyer continued a nearly due south pursuit of the target it was now tracking off the North Carolina coast. The crew of Roper was ordered to general quarters as the old destroyer closed the distance with the unknown target. When the ship was approximately 700 yards from the still unidentified vessel, a torpedo was observed passing Roper close down the port side, immediately making clear the severity of the pursuit. 

ABOVE: A sketch from an after-action report by Lt. Cmdr. H.W. Howe, who would later be awarded the Navy Cross for his actions against U-85. (War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942) BELOW: A painting of U-85 turing sharply to starboard in an attempt to evade Roper.  (Robert Hurst via

When the distance between the vessels was only to 300 yards, the unknown vessel “cut sharply to starboard.” The darkness was suddenly pierced by Roper’s 24-inch searchlight as it illuminated the hull of U-85 as the submarine attempted to evade the rapidly approaching destroyer. As the two vessels circled each other like boxers in a ring, the combat became a race to see who could man their guns faster. As crewmen poured from hatches aboard U-85, Chief Boatswain's Mate Jack Edwin Wright aboard Roper responded with accurate .50 caliber machine gun fire, sweeping the U-boat deck of would be assailants. Shots were then fired from Roper’s starboard 3-inch guns, and despite numerous misfires, Coxwain Harry Heyman, Roper's junior gun captain, scored a hit just aft of U-85's conning tower. "This hit undoubtedly contributed markedly to the final destruction of the submarine," Howe wrote in his after-action report.

A sketch from an after-action report by Lt. Cmdr. H.W. Howe.  Drawn the day after the battle, it shows the frantic 20-minute engagement. (War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942)
A combination of this hit, and likely the remaining U-boat crew scuttling the ship, culminated in the rapid sinking of U-85, the first German submarine sunk by the United States Navy in World War II. Roper circled back through the last location of the U-boat where it proceeded to deploy 11 depth charges into the water. The action from the first spotlight contact aboard Roper to sinking had taken less than 20 minutes. The victorious destroyer remained on station until morning but was unable to stop and render aid to any possible survivors, as Howe feared that U-boats operated in pairs and his ship could be in danger if it slowed. The bodies of 29 German sailors recovered afterward became the first foreign combatants interred in American soil since the War of 1812.

USS Roper as seen from above in this 1942 photograph.
The starboard, aft 3-inch gun struck the fatal blow to U-85.
Notice the abundance of depth charges on the stern as well
as amidship. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Sometimes a myth surrounding a ship is harder to destroy than the ship itself. Case in point: A U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article by Parke Rouse Jr., from June 1982 contains what today might be called, “fake history.” 

Rouse claimed that when some deceased submarine crewmembers were recovered, they were “wearing civilian clothes with their wallets filled with U.S. currency and identification cards,” inferring that their mission was clandestine in nature. This is only partly true. German U-boat sailors often wore civilian clothing in conjunction with their military issued gear for comfort and functionality. The reports compiled by the Navy on April 15 and 17, 1942, described the type of clothing that was recovered as a mix of civilian and military garments. The reports also listed the pocket contents recovered from the crew. While identification tags and currency were recovered, there were zero instances of U.S. currency or identification documents being found.

Rouse's article also states, “They had been preparing to row ashore in a rubber raft when the submarine was discovered.” There is no mention of a raft in Howe’s after action report, nor was a raft documented as having been recovered by the Navy. Also the submarine was 14 miles from the coast when sunk, a long distance to row at night with no coast visible. It is safe to say this bit of information can hold no credence and after scrutiny, ought be discarded unless some primary documentation can be found supporting the claim.

Although some military intelligence was gathered from the 29 recovered crewmembers inspected at Naval Operating Base Norfolk after the battle, much of what they carried, such as this photograph, was personal in nature. (War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942
Of the German bodies hauled aboard Roper, Rouse wrote, "Two were officers, [and] one of them the U-85’s captain.” This is categorically false. Naval intelligence officers positively established the identities of all 29 bodies. The original Navy report of April 15 states that it was believed that one of the bodies recovered may have been of the captain, but eventually only one casualty was identified as an officer: Oberleutnant Hans Sanger. The body of the U-85’s captain, Oberleutnant (possibly Kapitanleutnant at time of sinking) Eberhard Greger, has never been recovered. Once we put the various pieces together, it is safe to state that U-85 was not involved with any type of spying operation.
Among the personal pictures found among the belongings of the ill-fated submarine crew is this image of U-85 taken sometime before her fourth and final war patrol (War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942),  To the right is a photograph by Brett Seymour of the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center, taken from a similar viewpoint in 2009, which shows a possible penetration of the pressure hull from USS Roper’s gunfire. The wreck of U-85 is considered a war grave by both the United States and Germany. (Courtesy the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))  
Among the articles recovered by the Navy in the flotsam was the diary of Erich Degenkold, a sailor aboard the U-85. In it he records a short statement describing each day. The night before he was killed, his final entry ominously foreshadowed the events that would soon unfold. “American beacons and searchlights visible at night.”
After the 29 bodies recovered from U-85 were brought back to Hampton Roads aboard USS Roper, they were transferred to Naval Operating Base Norfolk (now known as Naval Station Norfolk) aboard USS Sciota (ATO-30). After an intelligence investigation was conducted on the evening of April 14, 1942, Sailors at a hangar at nearby Naval Air Station Norfolk prepared to transport the bodies to Hampton National Cemetery. (National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Still Picture Branch via NOAA)
Sailors from Naval Operating Base Norfolk (now known as Naval Station Norfolk) move a box containing the body of a U-85 crewmember to a truck during the transport of the deceased sailors from Naval Air Station Norfolk to Hampton National Cemetery. According to an intelligence report dated April 17, 1942, the US Naval Hospital in Portsmouth did not have enough caskets for such a large mass-burial, and neither did local funeral businesses. The Veterans Administration in Kecoughtan (Hampton) came through, however, and supplied enough caskets and shipping boxes to ensure a proper burial. (NARA Still Picture Branch via NOAA)
On the evening of April 15, 1942, 29 sailors from U-85 were buried Hampton National Cemetery, Hampton, Virginia, with military honors. Fifty-two prisoners from Fort Monroe, Virginia, prepared the graves, and Soldiers from the fort acted as pallbearers. At 8 pm, the burial service was read by a Catholic chaplain, followed by the Protestant chaplain, Lieutenant Junior Grade R.A. Lundquist. A firing party of 24 Sailors from the Naval Operating Base fired three volleys, and Taps was sounded. The event attracted dozens of onlookers outside the cemetery walls. (NARA Still Picture Branch via NOAA)
The area of the Hampton National Cemetery containing the U-85 graves, as it looks today.  Union soldiers from nearby Fort Monroe were some of the first to be buried at the cemetery in Hampton, Virginia, but it is also the final resting place for Confederate soliders from the Civil War, as well as German and Italian prisoners from World War II. (M.C. Farrington)  
--For additional information about the USS Roper and U-85 please visit the NOAA website, and the Naval History and Heritage Command website. Special thanks to the folks at who maintain an excellent website full of links to primary sources about U-85 and many other German submarines. Several artifacts from U-85, including an enigma machine, can be seen on display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in North Carolina.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

One Century Ago: Execute War Plan Black

President Woodrow Wilson. (Harris & Ewing 
Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and 
Photographs Division)

On the morning of April 6, 1917, the United States House of Representatives voted for war with Germany by a margin of 373 to 50.  Just after noon, the war resolution was sent back to the Senate, which had passed it 82 to 6, two days before.  The Senate then forwarded it to the White House, where at 1:13 pm, President Woodrow Wilson signed it. 

Five minutes later, the following message was transmitted from the communication office of the Navy Department building to every ship and station:

Sixteen Alnav. The President has signed act of Congress which declares a state of war exists between the United States and Germany. 131106                                                      SECNAV

Launched from Newport News Shipbuilding on March 16, 1915, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) is shown in this photograph signed by Raymond A. Spruance, who was serving aboard her when war was declared against Germany in 1917.  He would later achieve worldwide fame for his leadership against the Japanese during the Battle of Midway in 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command Image
The Navy's five flagships, including the Atlantic Fleet's USS Pennsylvania (BB- 38), then received an additional message:
Flag Sigcode. Mobilize for war in accordance Department's confidential mobilization plan of March 21.   Particular attention invited paragraphs six and eight.  Acknowledge.

Josephus Daniels

Henry T. Mayo, seen here before his promotion to vice admiral in 1916 (Navsource/ Bill Gonyo)
Aboard Pennsylvania, which had returned on April 6 to Hampton Roads from the Carribean, Admiral Henry T. Mayo knew exactly what to do.  

Weeks before President Wilson's war message to the Congress on April 2 that percipitated the vote, it was clear that war would be declared against Germany.  Two months had passed since the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans, followed swiftly by the breaking of diplomatic relations, and it had been a month since the contents of the Zimmermann Telegram had become public knowledge across the country.  Nevertheless, Wilson had been sworn in for his second term as president on March 5, in part because of the success of the slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War."

"I can't keep the country out of war," he confided to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels during the campaign. "They talk of me as though I were a god.  Any little German lieutenant can put us into the war at any time by some calculated outrage."  Yet Wilson publically appeared to adhere to the idea that he could avoid all-out war by pursuing "armed neutrality;" putting defensive weapons upon American merchant vessels.  Behind the scenes, however, Daniels surmised that "it was evident that 'armed neutrality' in itself was insufficient, valuable as it was."
President Woodrow Wilson (left) meets with his cabinet in this undated photograph probably taken during World War I.  Josephus Daniels is seated three places to Wilson's left on the far side of the table. (Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress,  Prints and Photographs Division)
Daniels would later recall March 20, "the Day of Decision," as "the most important cabinet meeting of the Wilson administration, in fact without a doubt the most important of our generation."  During that meeting, Daniels had become the last of President Wilson's 10 cabinet members to vote for war. After the meeting he recalled the Atlantic Fleet to Hampton Roads from training in the Caribbean and convened the General Board, along with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William S. Benson, soliciting every measure that needed to be taken to protect American shipping bound for Europe. Daniels incorporated their recommendations into an amended version of War Plan Black, the official war plan against Germany originally adopted in 1913, and disseminated it to the fleet the following day.  

Officers of the Wadsworth crew, shown here after Joseph Taussig's promotion to commander in May 1917.  The officers in the front row are (from left), Assistant Surgeon Chester O. Tanner, Lt. John H. Falge, Cmdr. Joseph K. Tausig, and Lt.j.g. Ernest W. Broadbent. The officers standing behind Taussig on either side are unidentified. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
On April 6, 39-year-old Lieutenant Commander Joseph Taussig, commander of the six destroyers of Division Eight, Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet, awaited orders at one of the locations specified on Daniels' mobilization plan of March 21, known as "Base Two." 

Taussig had been in command of the Destroyer Wadsworth since her commissioning in Boston on July 23, 1915, and had transferred from Division Six to his present command in Hampton Roads a year later.  

In his diary, Taussig recorded that he had received the mobilization message from USS Pennsylvania at 7:00 pm on April 6, and pondered its meaning:
We are now wondering what the future has in store for us- how will we operate- and how will the fleet take any real active part in the war? It is the general impression that the fleet will remain at home and that the cruisers and destroyers will patrol the coast.  
Only one week later, Taussig would receive a late-night phone call at his home in Norfolk. "Captain, this is [Lieutenant Junior Grade John] Falge. I have bad news for you. We have received orders to leave at daylight for New York to fit out for long and distant service. I think we are going abroad"

Friday, March 24, 2017

One Century Ago: The President's Words of War

By Reece Nortum
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator
President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to declare war on Germany on April 2, 1917. Two days later, SS Marguerite was sunk in the Mediterranean by German u-boat U-35, while SS Missourian was sunk by u-boat U-52. In total, 19 US merchant vessels were sunk by German u-boats since 1917 began. (Library of Congress)
When hostilities broke out between several nations of Europe in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson was quick to declare America’s intent to stay neutral and called on all Americans to remain impartial in thought as well as in action. However, the United States found it increasingly difficult to remain in a neutral state due to incidents like the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915, which killed 124 Americans. After the attack on the British liner Sussex the following March, during which more Americans were killed, the Germans pledged to cease attacking ships without warning after Wilson had threatened to sever diplomatic relations. The pledge did not extend to the activities of German agents ashore. On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom ammunition depot in New Jersey, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, was blown up by German saboteurs. 

Early 1917 brought new attacks by Germany against America and their interests, mainly because of the German navy’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, which resumed on February 1. This led to the sinking of the American cargo ship Housatonic on February 3. The furious President broke off diplomatic relations with Germany the same day. Meanwhile, British Intelligence had decoded and informed the U.S. government of a secret message sent by the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador to Mexico. The “Zimmermann Telegram” proposed a Mexican-German alliance if the United States were to enter WW1 against Germany. Zimmermann promised Mexico financial and territorial rewards for its support, including Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Zimmerman Telegram appeared in America’s newspapers on March 1, provoking a great storm of anti-German sentiment among the U.S. population. President Wilson was to finally deliver his war message to Congress on April 2, 1917. German submarine warfare had continued, resulting in the sinking of additional ships, and the terrible loss of American lives.
“Crime by Moonlight,” painted by H.R. Butler, shows a German U-boat sinking an Allied vessel during World War I. (Naval History and Heritage Command via Flickr)
Wilson’s words to Congress brought to light many of the injustices done to America and its people. He said, in part:

It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of, but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the same way. There has been no discrimination. The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and a temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion. 

Four days later, Congress overwhelmingly passed the War Resolution, which brought the United States into a war of unprecedented dimension.