Saturday, November 22, 2014

Florida's Unplanned, Uncertain Sojourn

One-hundred-fifty years ago this week, Confederate States Navy Lieutenant Thomas K. Porter, the man who had surrendered CSS Florida after a pre-dawn raid a month and a half earlier, beheld her sorry state on the James River while he was being transferred to Boston as a prisoner of war.  “She had lost her jibboom[sic] by a steam tug running into her,” Lt. Porter reported after his release to his erstwhile commanding officer, Charles M. Morris.   
On November 19, 1864, the Army troop transport Alliance, according to one witness, “thumped the Florida pretty hard, two or three times.  She swung around for and aft and did the Florida considerable damage,” while getting underway.   
Five days after the collision, Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the US Navy’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, ordered Florida be taken about 1,500 yards further up the James and put beside another former Confederate warship, the ironclad USS Atlanta.  Until then, the prize steamer had been anchored above the remains of USS Cumberland, famously sunk by CSS Virginia during the Battle of Hampton Roads more than two-and-a-half years earlier.  

Union officers made it clear to the Confederate lieutenant that he would in all likelihood never see Florida again.
Lt. Porter wrote, “A Lieutenant-Commander told me that if the United States Government determined to give her up, the officers of the navy would destroy her.” 
Back in Brazil, United States Minister J. Watson Webb had known of the plan to attack CSS Florida.  After all, he had told USS Wachusett’s commander Napoleon Collins, among other Union captains on the hunt for “rebel cruisers,” that they were to attack or “run down” any they found in Brazilian ports.  Webb claimed that he “would make it all right with Brazil,” believing he had reached an understanding with their minister of foreign affairs.  Webb had also written to Secretary of State William H. Seward in May 1863 that, “…if we should sink these Pirates in Brazilian waters, the government of Brazil would secretly rejoice over the act, and be content with a handsome apology.”  
But taking the raider back to America as a prize?  That had not been part of the plan and the operation exposed senior US officials to charges of hypocrisy that were hard to refute.  In the end, the American Secretary of State merely claimed the operation had not been authorized to begin with, and that the blame for the Florida imbroglio rested with those responsible for carrying out the operation.
In his protest against the Florida seizure, the Brazilian charge d’affaires to the United States in Washington cited as a precedent the American government’s demands that the French release HMS Grange after the frigate L’Embuscade seized her in Delaware Bay in 1793.  The CSS Florida case was more egregious however because of assurances made by the United States Consul in Bahia, Thomas F. Wilson, that Brazilian neutrality would be respected, only to have the diplomat board the offending warship just before the attack and sail away with the prize. 
Seward, while claiming the Florida was, “…like the Alabama, a pirate belonging to no nation or lawful belligerent,” yielded to the Brazilians that “…the capture of the Florida was [an] unauthorized, unlawful, and indefensible exercise of the naval force of the United States within a foreign country in defiance of its established and duly recognized government.”  As a consequence, Seward announced that Consul Wilson, the man most responsible for persuading Napoleon Collins that he should make the attack, would be dismissed, and that “[President Lincoln] will suspend Captain Collins, and will direct him to appear before a court-martial.” 
After Florida's bow sustained substantial damage in a collision with US Army transport Alliance as it was getting underway on the morning of November 19, she was moved from her original position (in red) to a new position (in blue) about 1,500 yards upriver near what was then Camp Butler (in purple) on the 24th.    
As for acceding to demands to return the Confederate vessel to Brazil, her first commander John N. Maffitt wrote the following account of the conundrum after conducting a personal fact-finding mission years after the war:
Mr. Lincoln appeared exceedingly mortified and confused on receiving protests from the different representatives of the Courts of Europe denunciatory of this extraordinary breach of national neutrality.  Mr. Seward, with his usual diplomatic insincerity and Machiavellian characteristics, prevaricated, while he plotted with a distinguished Admiral as to the most adroit method of disposing of this elephant.  During an interview between Mr. Seward and Admiral Porter, the former exclaimed, “I wish she was at the bottom of the sea” 
“Do you mean it?” exclaimed Porter.
“I do, from my soul!” was the answer. 
“It shall be done” replied Porter.  
Next week: A Sinking, an Investigation, and a Trial

Monday, November 17, 2014

Attack on USS Panay

As mentioned previously, the Topps Civil War News trading cards were not the only ones to portray events of war.  The brainchild of the Bowman Gum Company, the 1938 Horrors of War card series covered some of the recent conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Second Sino-Japanese War. While most of the events depicted on the cards had little to do directly with the U.S., one event in particular breaks this mold.  Four cards were used to show the attack on USS Panay on December 12, 1937.
Card #9-Panay being attacked by airplanes. In the foreground is a Japanese boat that later came and raked the wreckage with machine guns.
 USS Panay was a gunboat designed to patrol the Yantze River in China. The mission of this gunboat and others like it was to protect U.S. interests and citizens residing in the area. This had been a standard part of American and British foreign policy for decades. Panay had been commissioned in 1928 in Shanghai. 
By December 1937 the Japanese and Chinese had been fighting for nearly five months. As Japanese troops headed toward the capital city of Nanking, Panay was ordered to help evacuate American citizens there, including some journalists.  By December 11, the situation was too dangerous to stay near Nanking, so Panay headed upriver on the Yangtze, escorting some American owned Standard Oil tankers.  The convoy anchored on the river after traveling nearly 30 miles away from the besieged city.
The crew was enjoying a relaxing afternoon when they heard the sound of planes.  Many people, both crew and passengers (evacuees) came to the deck to see about the commotion. The Japanese navy planes, having heard reports from the Japanese army of Chinese troopships escaping from Nanking on the river, started their bombing run on the convoy.  The first ship to be attacked was Panay. A bomb almost instantly incapacitated Lieutenant Commander James Hughes, the CO of the vessel. Very quickly, their machine guns were soon answering back at the Japanese onslaught, but to little effect.  
Card #40-Machine gunners attempt to fire on the Japanese planes. The guns were positioned to fight against threats on the riverbanks, not planes, which put the ship at a disadvantage. The two machine gunners are portrayed almost exactly as seen in Universal Newsreel cameraman Norman Alley’s footage of the attack.
Card #53-Lt. Cmdr. Hughes and QMC Lang are wounded.
The Japanese planes also attacked the oil tankers, eventually sinking three of them. With Panay taking on water, and many wounded onboard, the order was given to abandon ship was given less than half an hour after the aerial assault began. 
Card #54- Boats evacuating Panay are strafed by Japanese planes. This happened multiple times, but there were no casualties from the strafing. 
USS Panay sinking in the Yangtze River.
The survivors of the attack regrouped on land and headed overland to get to safety and find help for the wounded.  This trek took several days, with the uncertainty looming over them of whether the U.S. was at war with Japan.  One of the items carried out with them was the film shot by news cameraman Norman Alley.  The survivors eventually reached the gunboat USS Oahu and some British gunboats who were searching for them.  The final toll from the attack included three dead and forty five wounded.

While an incident involving loss of life had occurred a few months previously, the event regarding Panay had much more publicity and more controversy surrounding it as a U.S. Navy vessel was sunk. To this day there is still debate on whether the incident was intentional or not.  The Japanese government quickly apologized and claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity.  There are many questions which arise from some of their claims however, including the claim that the pilots (and later the Japanese army boat) did not realize Panay was an American ship.  The selection of the only armed ship in the group as the primary target, along with the fact that there were large American flags painted on the ship, fed allegations that this attack was intentional.  In addition, there were some British ships which were also attacked the same day.  Yet the pilots were young and inexperienced, so perhaps they were simply overeager to fight the Chinese.  As in any war, confusion is present, and the Japanese military branches were notorious for bad communication.  With this in mind, there could be some truth to there being miscommunication between Japanese army intelligence and the navy pilots.

Even if there was inter-service confusion within the Japanese military, the footage that Norman Alley took contradicted some of the official Japanese claims.  When the film was to be released to the American public, FDR had the most sensitive parts (showing the planes at low altitude where they would have easily seen the American flags) cut out.  For by this time, the Japanese government had already officially apologized and paid over two million dollars in damages.  The situation had been diplomatically resolved and there was fear that evidence contrary to the Japanese claims would provoke a national uproar.  Even with some of the footage removed, the video helped turn many people against the Japanese and raised sympathy for the Chinese side of the struggle.  It would be only four short years before Japanese naval planes bombed US Navy ships on another December day. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Florida’s Fractious Final Voyage

Despite the peaceful depiction of Florida (left) and Wachusett in this contemporary illustration from Harper's Weekly, on its voyage to Hampton Roads from Brazil, Florida was missing its mizzenmast (the mast closest to the stern) after an initial attempt to sink the vessel.     
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago this week, the former CSS Florida, a cruiser less than three years old yet a shell of the dreaded rebel commerce raider it had been, arrived in Hampton Roads shadowed by its captor, the sloop of war USS Wachusett.
After leading the successful capture of Florida in the “neutral” port of Bahia, Brazil and successfully delivering her as a prize back to the United States, one would think Wachusett’s commanding officer Napoleon Collins might have been in a celebratory mood over his achievement.  The U.S. Navy’s official records show, however, that he was a man with an axe to grind.  Mistakes made during the sneak attack on the commerce raider followed by accusations and recriminations made along the 1,400 mile journey to Hampton Roads brought Commander Collins and a principal officer under his command to the point that each threatened to fire upon the other before reaching home waters.  
According to Collins’ account, the trouble started before the journey even began.  
In a report to Washington dated October 31, 1864, detailing the seizure, Collins mentioned two problems he encountered during the pre-dawn attack on October 7.  The first was an “unforeseen circumstance that prevented us from striking [Florida] as intended.”  The Union sloop of war dragged its anchor across the harbor as it made for the slumbering rebel raider.  Collins had intended to stealthily cast away the anchor chain, slip her moorings and strike a decisive blow.  He wrote later, “…it was my intention to strike her full speed amidships, without firing a shot of any kind or a loud work being spoken, and if we succeeded in sinking her to back off and go quietly to sea.”
Dragging her anchor along, however, Wachusett could only manage a glancing blow at less-than-optimal speed, taking down Florida’s mizzenmast and main yard, leaving the ship crippled, yet still very much afloat.  
With a Brazilian navy corvette nearby preparing to intervene, the entire plan had to be changed.  
After the half of Florida’s crew on duty during the attack either surrendered, escaped or were shot in the attempt, Collins ordered a prize crew dispatched to take over the raider.  They would have to deal with managing a ship deprived of its aft sails at the very moment they would have to escape the now non-neutral harbor under fire from Brazilian warships and shore batteries and then sail their prize all the way back to America.  Collins chose Lieutenant Commander Lester A. Beardslee to lead the prize crew.
There seemed to be no alternative.  If Collins broke off the engagement and withdrew at this point, Florida, although damaged, would be retaken by her captain and the members of her crew who had been on liberty and who were no doubt converging on the port in the early dawn, drawn by the sounds of snapping timbers and cannon fire.  
This leads us to the second problem mentioned in Collins’ report, which concerned the use of two of Wachusett’s 32-pounder guns to answer the Confederates’ small arms fire.  Collins claimed they were fired “contrary to my orders.”  

During their first stop en route, Wachusett put into the tiny island of St. Bartholomew for provisions and to transfer 19 of their 70 prisoners over to the Union sloop Kearsarge while Florida remained offshore.  Collins later claimed that, despite having given the lieutenant commander strict orders not to let Wachusett out of his sight, Beardslee had by that evening somehow managed to drift over 20 miles from the five-mile-long island.  Furious at what he regarded as Beardslee’s disregard of his orders, Collins was overheard by one of the prize crew officers threatening to shell Florida with one of his 100-pounder rifled guns.  
The following day, the acting ensign returned and told Beardslee about the claim that he had disobeyed orders and that Collins had contemplated shelling him.  In response, Beardslee fired off a letter to the commander denying he had gone further than nine miles and requesting a court of inquiry be convened upon their return to investigate not only the validity of that charge but the conduct of the entire operation.  “I feel very confident that a court bringing out all the facts connected with the Florida since the day she arrived in Bahia will find little to censure in my conduct,” he wrote, “unless the capture itself be declared wrong [emphasis added].” 
“Should the Wachusett at any time begin firing at this United States steamer,” continued Beardslee, “I should most certainly be led to the belief that the Confederates aboard of[sic] the Wachusett had captured the vessel and that my duty to my country called upon me to destroy her.”  He added, ominously, “I shall most certainly return a shell from the Wachusett with both broadsides of this ship, which are in readiness, and if I shall have made a mistake none of us will live to rectify it, as I shall sink this ship, if I can not the Wachusett.”
Perhaps under the assumption that an investigation would indeed be forthcoming, Collins then wrote directly to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles from Hampton Roads two days after their arrival on November 12 requesting Beardslee be court-martialed on eight different counts, including failing to detach the anchor chain from his ship despite assurances it had been done, firing the broadside without permission,  sending the “improper letter” to him (which he enclosed), repeating his intention to call for a court of inquiry upon their return, and even “charging me by implication with cowardice.”
Of course a court of inquiry would be convened and a court martial conducted in the months to come, but not because of the nearly fratricidal feud between the two officers.  More on that next week…

Thursday, November 6, 2014

USS Augusta (CA-31) in Shanghai, 1937

This image from the 1938 Horrors of War trading card series shows a highly stylized depiction of a tragic event that occurred aboard the Newport News-built light cruiser USS Augusta (CL/CA-31) on August 20, 1937.  A Chinese anti-aircraft shell fell onto the deck amid a group of sailors, killing one and wounding several others. As the flagship of the Asiatic fleet, USS Augusta had put in at Shanghai to observe the Sino-Japanese hostilities and to protect American interests there. The cruiser had sailed to Shanghai a few days after Chinese and Japanese forces started to battle for control of the city near the middle of August. 
Fighting was confused as there were neutral elements in the city (particularly the International Settlement). A few days prior to the errant shell, some Chinese planes had dropped bombs near Augusta, but they exploded harmlessly in the water. Another trading card shows sailors from Augusta helping American refugees flee to a civilian ship that would take them away from Shanghai. The small boat they were on was apparently peppered with shrapnel from bombing attacks on nearby Japanese warships.
The light cruiser stayed on station in Shanghai for several months, observing the fighting, sending intelligence reports to Washington on the Japanese navy, and protecting American interests. Augusta would still be moored there in December, 1937 when survivors of the USS Panay incident spent Christmas on the ship. For more on the Panay, check back for our next blog post. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pulp Fiction in "Civil War News" Trading Cards

In 1962, during the Centennial of the Civil War, the Topps Trading Card company released a set of 88 cards with graphic depictions (very loosely) based on the war.  The set was officially titled "Civil War" but because the back of each card looked like an old newspaper with the heading "Civil War News," this latter name stuck.  Aimed at young boys, the images of battle were done in a very vivid and overtly gory way, sensationalizing the war. Images of stabbing, point blank cannon fire, and blood were fairly commonplace.  In this manner it was a throwback to the popular "Horrors of War" series in 1938 which focused on recent conflicts of that time (Spanish Civil War, Ethiopian War, and Sino-Japanese War).  

Topps enlisted pulp artist Norm Saunders (who also did Mars Attacks) to help with the images, while Topps creative editor Len Brown did the text. In an interview many years afterward, Brown describes the battle cards as "phony."  The disregard for historical accuracy is readily visible when looking at them as many details in the text or pictures are clearly fabrications.  Brown affirmed this when he spoke on making the cards: "We'd dream up a scene, some gory scene...from there it was dreamland...I'm sure kids thought this was the real history.  And we had teachers writing us, thanking us for teaching kids history." 

Of interest to this blog are a few cards that portray naval battles. There are three images that depict the Battle of Hampton Roads, which is more than any other battle in the series, even Gettysburg.  Whether this is owing to the importance of the battle or because the cards are earlier in the set is unclear. 
Card #7 from the series shows USS Cumberland being attacked by CSS Virginia. 121 Cumberland sailors died on March 8, 1862. 
Card #8 inaccurately shows the attack on the USS Congress (Virginia did not ram it). In an uncommon nod to accuracy, the artist placed what appears to be CSS Patrick Henry in the background. 
Card #10- Note the inaccuracies such as the gaping hole torn in the armor and giant gun port. 
Other naval battles are also displayed in pulp fashion.  One humorous example is the CSS Hunley's attack on USS Housatonic seen below (card #59).  The Southern Cross is prominently displayed on the side of the vessel, visible underwater to the viewer.  The text on the back of the card claims that this attack happened in the afternoon (instead of night), and that the submarine rammed the ship when it could not fire its (non-existent) guns.  Truly Brown was not lying when he claimed to be in "dreamland" while developing this trading card set.   

Another example of ignoring facts for the sake of a good picture (and sales) is card #69, showing the aftermath of the battle between USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama.  Sharks are seen attacking the Alabama's crew as they flounder in the water.  In actuality most survivors were picked up by the Kearsarge, although Capt. Semmes and some other officers escaped on the British yacht Deerhound.  Any that were lost in the water died from drowning, not sharks. 
In contrast the card (#76) depicting Adm. Farragut's USS Hartford fighting CSS Tennessee at Mobile Bay seems fairly tame and loosely based on previous paintings ("August Morning with Farragut" by William Heysham Overend). 
When examining this series, it is important to remember that these cards were ultimately designed to tap into the market created by the Centennial events.  Yet for all of their countless ahistorical shortcomings, the cards probably helped spark interest in the Civil War among the young male segment of the population during the 1960's.  Regarded as collector's items these days, the "Civil War News" series is a very interesting piece of cultural history. 

(Excerpt of Brown's interview can be found in Baetens, Jan. "Civil War News: How Pop Culture Rewrites History." Journal of American Culture, (1997), 1-6.)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Casualty of Leyte- October 25, 1944

In quiet repose within the collection of the museum rests the pristine model of a feared and deadly class of enemy warship.  Its namesake, IJS Mogami, slipped beneath the waters of Surigao Strait, Philippines, at a little after 1 pm local time, October 25, 1944.  After being rendered dead in the water by American shells and bombs overnight, it was scuttled with a Type-93 “Long-Lance” torpedo by destroyer IJN Akebono during the retreat from the Battle of Surigao Strait, part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf.   

Both the model and the real Mogami began construction at the Kure Naval Arsenal almost 13 years before the battle, ostensibly under armament and displacement limits set by the London Naval Treaty of 1930.  Although Japan was a signatory to the treaty, which set displacement for cruisers at 10,000 tons, the Mogami-class “light-cruisers” not only weighed in at more than 13,000 tons when launched, but were designed from the beginning to be upgraded with heavier deck guns.  The design emphasizing such heavy armament on a relatively light hull resulted in warpage and stability issues during trials, to the extent that she and her sister ship Mikuma, both launched in 1934, had to return to the dry docks at Kure for an extensive refit.

Here we see turret three as it would have appeared until the end of the decade, like the four others of Mogami, equipped with three 155 mm guns each (Only the third and fourth turrets were equipped with rangefinders).  The turret rings were conveniently designed for swapping-out with turrets housing two 203mm guns each, which was accomplished before the war with America began.  

Mogami and Mikuma scored their deadliest victory against American and Australian (and, ironically, Japanese) forces when they helped sink the Newport News-constructed heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) and light cruiser HMAS Perth (D-29) in the Battle of the Sunda Strait (depicted above) on the night of February 28-March 1 1942.  After-action analysis determined that torpedoes from Mikuma and destroyer IJS Fubuki also sank or disabled four of the Japanese troop transport vessels the Allied ships were trying to attack in the first place.  

The sister ships encountered further misfortune when attempting to escort Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo’s invasion force to Midway Island in June 1942.  In the ensuing debacle, Mogami collided with Mikuma on June 5 when the latter executed an emergency turn before the former could respond.  Mogami’s bow was crushed, cutting its top speed by over half, and one of Mikuma’s main fuel tanks was punctured, leaving an oil slick any aircraft could follow, and follow they did.  

Over the next 24 hours, Marine, Army, and finally Navy planes followed the trail.  Dive bombers from USS Enterprise (CV-6 ) and Hornet (CV-8), both made in Newport News, left Mikuma a smoking ruin after five direct hits set off unexploded ordnance, particularly the Type-93 torpedoes.  Although the most advanced torpedo in the world at the time in terms of range, speed, and firepower, the Long Lance would ultimately prove fatal to three of the four ships of the class because of the compressed oxygen they carried.  
Mogami would have suffered the same fate had it not been for its damage control officer, Lieutenant Commander Masayushi Saruwatari, who ordered all remaining torpedoes and depth charges jettisoned after the collision when it became clear that aerial attack was inevitable.  The dive bombers only scored two significant hits, but one forced Saruwatari, in his words, to take the “apparently unmerciful step” of sealing off the sickbay to keep a conflagration there from spreading to the rest of the ship.  Those within not killed by the bomb perished in the flames. “I trembled with great sorrow toward them,” recalled Saruwatari. 

Mogami survived to fight another day, but when it did resume the fight, it had undergone quite a metamorphosis.  After essential repairs at the island of Truk southwest of Midway, Mogami made it back to Sasebo on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu in August 1942 where engineers worked feverishly to reinvent the warship to cope with a combat environment drastically changed from the one it was designed to fight in.  Mogami’s fourth and fifth turrets ( the "light cruiser" kind shown in the model above, the heavy cruiser replacements in the illustration immediately below) were removed and a flight deck and rail system supporting up to 11 reconnaissance floatplanes was installed. 

Its dual 25mm anti air emplacements (on either side of the searchlight in the photo above) were replaced with 10 triple-mount 25mm guns along with an air-defense radar.  During two subsequent refits back in Kure, four more triple-mount and 18 more single-mount 25mm AA guns were installed along with two more radar targeting systems.  By the time it was assigned to help repel the American invasion of the Philippines as part of the Southern Force, the “aircraft cruiser” Mogami had more than 17 times the number of 25mm anti-aircraft guns than it had at the start of the war.  
But in the end, Mogami and 192 of its crew of 850 would perish in the last sea battle decided by old-fashioned gunplay.  Four well-placed 8-inch shells lobbed by Rear Admiral Jessie Oldendorf’s task group defending Leyte destroyed Mogami’s bridge and its air defense center.  As the surviving vessels of the Southern Force attempted to withdraw back through the strait amid the smoke and darkness, the cruiser IJN Nachi collided with the crippled Mogami.  This time, there was no time to jettison the volatile torpedoes and five exploded, knocking out Mogami’s starboard engine.  More 6 and 8-inch shells rained down from the pursuing cruisers USS Denver (CL-58), USS Louisville (CA-28), and USS Portland (CA-33), and the cruiser’s port engine then failed.  Now adrift in the morning light, Mogami was hit by two 500-pound bombs from a group of 17 TBF Avengers which attacked shortly after 9 am.  The crew started abandoning ship around two hours later, and two hours after that, Akebono struck the final blow. 
Coincidentally, at almost the same time on October 25, Mogami’s sister ship Suzuya also succumbed after aerial attack by the planes of Task Unit 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”) off Samar.  The ship sustained no direct hits, but indirect damage caused its Long Lance torpedoes to explode.  The final ship of the class, IJS Kumano, survived the Battle off Samar despite sustaining the loss of her bow to a torpedo from USS Johnston (DD-557), but she was sunk exactly one month later by aircraft from the Newport News-made USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) as the ship underwent repairs in Dasol Bay, around 175 miles north of Manila.

The model remains an intricately-fashioned but mute reminder of the grand plans and desperate measures other navies have undertaken to win supremacy of the seas, only to be stopped by the mighty United States Navy.
(Sources: Gordon W. Prange, Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon, Miracle at Midway (New York: McGraw-Hill), 339-340; "Japan's Light/Heavy Cruiser Mogami,"; combined  Special thinks to HRNM Registrar Katherine Renfrew)

Friday, October 24, 2014

5-Inch Guns at the Battle of Leyte Gulf

On the morning of October 25, 1944, the escort carrier group “Taffy 3” was surprised by a large Japanese force which included cruisers and the heaviest battleship in the world, the Yamato.  This small group of escort carriers and “tin can” destroyers was all that stood between the Japanese and the American invasion force at Leyte in the Philippines.  In part of what was to be called the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a handful of destroyers and destroyer escorts protected “jeep carriers” (CVEs) in a suicidal run against a vastly superior Japanese force.  The names USS Johnston (DD-557), USS Hoel (DD-533), USS Heermann (DD-532) and USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) are among those of naval lore for their actions in this battle as they tried to screen the carriers. Of note in these tales of bravery are the stories of the men who kept firing their comparatively small five inch guns against heavily armored Japanese vessels after their ships had been severely damaged or they were out of ammunition.  
Note the five 5-inch turrets on the Fletcher-class destroyers.
The 5-inch gun was not the main weapon in a WWII-era USN destroyer’s arsenal. That honor belonged to the Mk 15 torpedo.  A Fletcher-class destroyer usually mounted ten, while a destroyer escort such as Samuel B. Roberts had three. Yet after these were fired, they could not be reloaded at sea, and the 5-inch guns became a ship’s primary weapon. The Mk 30 single mounted 5-inch/.38 caliber gun was the largest cannon on these ships. Widely regarded as the best dual purpose gun in WWII, it was put on almost everything afloat in the U.S. Navy.

During the battle, the heaviest guns that the escort carrier group Taffy 3 had at their disposal were the 5-inch ones. Besides the destroyers’ guns, each CVE had a single 5-inch gun in an open mount.  As the group desperately tried to run from the shocking appearance of the Japanese fleet, American sailors and pilots tried to throw everything they could to delay the onslaught.
 The Mk 30 5-inch gun fired a round which weighed 55 lbs.  For comparison, the 16-inch guns on an Iowa-class battleship fired shells weighing 2,700lbs, and the Yamato fired shells weighing over 3,000lbs out of her 18.1-inch guns. In addition, the small shells fired by the American destroyers could not penetrate the armor on the heavy cruisers that were at the front of the fleet overtaking the American carriers.  Even with these facts, the small ships, led by Johnston, engaged the heavier Japanese ships, firing hundreds of shells during the course of the battle.  Samuel B. Roberts reportedly fired over 600 rounds in just over a half hour, which is astounding as there were only two guns onboard the ship.  Numerous Japanese ships were hit in the barrage flying from the guns of the American ships.  The accuracy of the destroyer’s gunfire was helped by the proximity of combat, the superior American radar guided fire control system, and the sheer size of their foes.

In this David versus Goliath drama, the courage and determination of the “small boys” proved decisive in slowing down and confusing the Japanese fleet.  In the end, the Japanese admiral called off his fleet and Taffy 3, as well as the invasion fleet, were saved.  The men on the destroyer screening force paid dearly as several ships were lost, but their sacrifice helped prevent further disaster. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Battleship Gunnery at the Battle of Surigao Strait

This gunnery trophy plaque off USS West Virginia (BB-48) hangs in our World War II gallery. As can be seen on the plaque, West Virginia won it five times in the first ten years after it was commissioned in December 1923. Although the plaque dates from the interwar period, the sailors of West Virginia lived up to their ship’s tradition during WWII. Built at Newport News right after WWI, it was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. Rebuilt and brought back into service, the ship was part of the invasion fleet at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Sailing alongside it were several other survivors of Pearl Harbor, including other Newport News-built battleships USS Maryland (BB-46) and USS Pennsylvania (BB-38).

In October 1944, the Japanese launched an all-out naval assault on the invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf. Their plan had multiple moving parts which led to problems. The Japanese divided their fleet into three sections. First a diversion force in the north would draw the main American force (under Halsey) away from the invasion fleet. Then two fleets would deploy in a pincer formation to attack the vulnerable landing and supply ships. The southern force (divided into two parts) was to head through the Surigao Strait.

Navy planes spotted and attacked the first part of the southern force under Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura on the morning of October 24 as it cruised south of the Philippine island of Negros. The detection of this force allowed Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, in charge of bombardment/fire support for the invasion fleet, to set a trap for when the enemy force entered Surigao Strait that night. First the Japanese fleet had to make it through PT (patrol torpedo) boat attacks, then a crossfire of more torpedoes launched from destroyers, before having to deal with both a line of cruisers and a line of battleships, which would be maneuvering in the classic naval tactic of “crossing the T.” This tactic would allow for the greatest number of guns to bear on the Japanese while their return fire was largely limited to the lead ship. Besides West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the American battleship force included two other Pearl Harbor survivors: USS Tennessee (BB-43) and USS California (BB-44). The sixth battleship included in the force was the Newport News-built battleship USS Mississippi (BB-41), which was doing escort duty near Iceland when the war started.

As the Japanese fleet headed into Surigao Strait, the torpedoes from the PT boats missed, but the destroyers had much better success. The U.S. destroyers were deadly with their torpedo attack, as they sank the battleship Fuso (one of two in the first striking force) and a destroyer, crippled another destroyer, and damaged another destroyer enough that it limped back the way it came. The flagship Yamashiro was also damaged but continued on toward the strait, along with the cruiser Mogami and a remaining destroyer. The second half of the Japanese force (under Adm. Shima) was nearly 30 miles behind, as strict radio silence had prevented close coordination. 

As opposed to their predecessors who earned the gunnery plaque, the sailors onboard West Virginia were aided by a new fire control radar system (Mk 8) which enabled them to detect the enemy at a great distance. In the early morning hours of October 25, the ship’s radar picked up the Japanese force at 42,000 yards (nearly 24 miles, or the length of 140 football fields). By the time they had approached to 30,000 yards, the gunnery crews had a firing solution, and when the Japanese ships approached to about 26,000 yards (nearly 15 miles) away, the 16-inch guns opened fire shortly before 0400 on October 25.
Mogami was badly damaged at the Battle of Midway, so the two aft turrets were removed and it was converted to an “aircraft cruiser.”
Yamashiro was the focus of most of the fire emanating from the American battleships and cruisers. It was hit numerous times and quickly caught on fire. In addition to the gunfire pouring in, the Japanese battleship was struck by more torpedoes, and it sank less than 30 minutes after West Virginia opened fire. Mogami was also badly damaged and on fire. In roughly 15 minutes of engagement, the U.S. battleships alone fired 285 (16 or 14-inch) armor piercing shells. West Virginia expended near half of the armor piercing ammunition, firing 93 rounds from its eight 16-inch guns. The old battle wagons resurrected from Pearl Harbor had exacted their revenge on the Japanese navy.

Shima’s force arrived too late to assist Nishimura’s ships and quickly fled the scene. Some U.S. cruisers and destroyers pursued them, sinking another destroyer and causing fatal damage to Mogami. The Japanese thrust from the south had utterly failed, but the northern part of the pincer was still a major threat, although Adm. Halsey inexplicably ignored it. The consequences of this decision would be readily apparent when the sun came up east of Samar on October 25, 1944. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Wide View (Part One)

The sweeping view from the clock tower of the Pennsylvania Building taken in 1919 (top), then known as the Officer's Material School, contrasts with the digital composite taken from the same vantage point last week (below).

The museum is lucky enough to have a number of panoramic photographs in the collection – photographs much longer than they are tall.  These unique prints were made by either swing-lens cameras, where the lens rotated while the film remained stationary, or 360-degree rotation cameras, where both the camera and the film rotated.  Photographers made “panoramics” of ships, groups of people, banquets and other subjects that lent themselves to the wide-angle format. The first mass-produced American panoramic camera, the Al-Vista, was introduced in 1898, and the format became quite popular during the first several decades of the Twentieth Century.

Naval subjects lent themselves readily to this popular art form. The museum collection contains examples of panoramic photos that celebrate ships, buildings, and sweeping views of the Naval Station like the image above. This particular image was taken from the clock tower of the museum’s former home, the Pennsylvania Building, in 1919.

There are some notable features in the photograph.  The administration complex is on the extreme left, a stately group of buildings from the Jamestown Exposition twelve years earlier.  Two of these, N-21 and N-23, survive today.  New barracks roll across the complex in the left center of the print. The waterfront, stretching across the right background, has yet to be extended by the extensive dredge and fill operations that occurred.  Probably the most recognizable feature to modern eyes is the graceful Dillingham Blvd, lined with Exposition state pavilions.  The waterfront is directly across the street – today a golf course and much more occupies that area.

The G.L. Hall Optical Company of Norfolk produced this image, and many others like it.  Mr. G. Leslie Hall opened the business in 1901 as a manufacturer of lenses and eyeglasses.  A 1922 article in The Optical Journal and Review described the company’s headquarters on Granby St: “The building is three stories high and the layout embraces the optical store and display room in the front [and] the photographic department in the rear, for the company handles, in addition to its optical operations one of the largest Kodak stores and developing and printing plants in the south.”  At some point the firm abandoned panoramic photograph production, although the company is still to be found in the Norfolk City Directory of 1949/50. Besides his optical business, Mr. Hall served the city in a variety of capacities, including the presidency of its chamber of commerce and the chairmanship of its Office of Price Administration, the World War II price control agency.

(This blog post was written by HRNM Curator Joe Judge.  Special thanks to Terri Davis of Naval Station Norfolk Public Affairs and Andy Meagher, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Mid-Atlantic)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

USS Fanning and the Sinking of U-58

USS Fanning at Queenstown, Ireland. Note the "Dazzle" camouflage. 

In November 1917, USS Fanning (DD-37) became the first U.S. Navy ship to sink a submarine in combat. The ship was named after Lieutenant Nathaniel Fanning, who sailed with John Paul Jones aboard the Bonhomme Richard in the famous battle against the Serapis. Commissioned in 1912 at Newport News, USS Fanning was based in Norfolk for the majority of time prior to the onset of intensified hostilities in World War I. When two German Auxiliary cruisers visited Norfolk in 1915, Fanning acted as their escort while they sailed in United States territorial waters.  

When the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, the war in the Atlantic was already in full swing. German U-boats had been engaging Allied ships in the Atlantic since September of 1914 when U-21 sank HMS Pathfinder. German submarines had exacted a toll on the Allies by sinking over five million tons of supplies worldwide by the time the United States formally entered the war.  As part of the U.S. Navy’s expanding operations against the U-boat threat, USS Fanning’s base was transferred from Norfolk, VA, to Queenstown, Ireland, to serve as a convoy escort. 

While the ship was escorting an allied convoy with USS Nicholson on November 17, Coxswain Daniel David Loomis spotted the periscope of U-58. Fanning quickly maneuvered into position to attack the U-boat and launched three depth charges into the water. Nicholson also engaged U-58 by firing an additional charge into the water. The bombardment forced the submarine to the surface and both ships fired on it with their 3” deck guns, Nicholson landing at least one hit. The German boat attempted to return fire unsuccessfully and surrendered after about thirty minutes. U-58’s diving planes had been disabled by the gunfire and it could no longer be controlled. 
The crew of U-58 emerges from the damaged sub to surrender to USS Fanning on November 17, 1917.
Fanning quickly captured the German crew as they scuttled and abandoned their stricken boat. Thirty eight of the forty crew members were captured, including four officers. Two members of the German crew had been killed during the battle. Fanning and Nicholson suffered no casualties during the engagement. Coxswain Daniel Loomis and Lieutenant William O. Henry, both from Fanning, each received the Navy Cross for their contributions during the battle. Fanning continued to serve effectively as a convoy escort and rescue ship throughout the war. Decommissioned on November 24, 1919, Fanning was transferred to the Coast Guard for service until being sold for scrap in 1934.

(This blog post was written by HRNM Educator Joseph Miechle.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Capture of CSS Florida, October 7, 1864

USS Wachusett rams CSS Florida at daybreak, October 7, 1864 (Century Magazine)
US Navy ships based in Hampton Roads today routinely make port calls around the world, but their journeys in times of war or peace usually begin and end in their home port.  During the Civil War, however, those working aboard Confederate commerce raiders could claim no such luxury; every port in their homeland was sealed off by Union warships.      
The Confederate strategy to attack Union commercial shipping with privateers and commerce raiders, called guerre de course, was often employed by weaker naval powers (including the United States).  But the strategy came with more than its share of vulnerabilities.
The commerce raiders’ dependence upon using the ports of neutral powers for operations not only hobbled their ability to take on essential provisions and make needed repairs, but an adversaries’ disregard of neutrality also made possible the capture of one of the Confederacy’s most important raiders: the cruiser CSS Florida.  Like the famous CSS AlabamaFlorida wreaked havoc on Union shipping over two extended cruises, accounting for 60 of more than the 200 merchant ships lost to raiders during the Civil War.  More than just a naval victory, the ship’s capture 150 years ago is also a controversial example of the American diplomatic corps’ role in armed conflict. 
Built as Oreto in a Liverpool shipyard, Florida would have never seen action if American consular authorities had achieved their aims early on.  After its arrival at Nassau in April of 1862, Samuel Whiting, the United States Consul, immediately recognized Oreto as a possible blockade runner and demanded the ship’s seizure, claiming that it was being armed in a neutral British port, and thus was in violation of the Foreign Enlistment Act.  After the Royal Navy briefly complied with the request, the British governor C.J. Bayley intervened and ordered her release, pointing out that Oreto was registered as a British vessel, flew the British flag, and carried no armament.  Nevertheless, the vessel was seized two more times in Nassau as the British civil and military authorities of the colony struggled amongst themselves as to whether the American diplomats were right about the ship.  Bayley finally decided that a trial by an admiralty court was in order. 
Despite a litany of sworn statements from American officials attesting to the nefarious nature of the ship, the British attorney general in Nassau, G.L. Anderson, stuck to the defense throughout the trial that although Oreto was designed like a warship, it was simply not a warship due to the fact that no weapons were aboard.  It was also a fact that Anderson had been quoted in public that his sentiments were with the Confederacy, but no matter.  His nakedly legalistic defense won the day and Oreto was released on August 7, meeting a British schooner loaded with arms and ammunition two days later near deserted Green Cay north of Nassau.  Ten days after that, with guns loaded and ready for action, Oreto was officially christened Florida and commissioned into the Confederate Navy. 
During two eventful cruises capturing 38 enemy vessels, CSS Florida paid call on the ports of officially neutral but friendly ports in Cuba, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the Portuguese island of Madeira, the French island of Martinique, Spain, and Brazil, and even a lengthy yard period in France, all the while under the vociferous objections of American diplomats, who would simultaneously demand the ship be detained while frantically trying to summon the nearest Union warship.   In almost every case, the US Navy arrived too late.  But after 61 days at sea over the summer of 1864, Florida’s luck ran out in the port of Bahia, Brazil, where it had arrived on October 4 to take on coal and provisions, as well as make some needed repairs to its boilers.  Waiting in the harbor was USS Wachusett, commanded by Napoleon Collins, who dispatched a boat pretending to be from HMS Curlew in order to ascertain the ship’s identity.  He readied the ship for a fight, yet took no immediate action as Florida settled in.
Florida's commanding officer, Confederate Navy Lieutenant Charles Manigault Morris, assured the president of the province that he would respect Brazilian neutrality and take no action against the larger Federal ship across the harbor.  In response, the president told Morris that Thomas F. Wilson, the United States Consul at Bahia, had pledged that Wachusett would also respect the port’s neutrality.  This was a pledge Wilson would later deny making.
The plan to attack Florida while in a neutral port did not originate with the US Navy.  It was actually hatched by US Minister to Brazil J. Watson Webb and Consul Wilson, after securing the advance approval of Secretary of State William H. Seward.  Seward had encouraged Ambassador Webb: “If nations shall in violation of our right suffer their ports to become bases for the operations of pirates against us we shall adopt such remedies as the laws of self defense allow.”  For his part, Collins was just as reluctant at first to violate neutrality as his Confederate adversary and said as much during his first meeting with Wilson.
On October 5, the day after Florida’s arrival, Consul Wilson attempted to deliver two letters challenging Florida to fight Wachusett, but the Confederate lieutenant refused to even read them.  With several tubes being removed from the boilers of his cruiser and half his crew on leave, Morris would have none of this Federal pugnaciousness. 
After a second contentious meeting with Collins on the afternoon of the 6th, the Consul finally persuaded him to summon his officers for a vote, and with the exception of one, all decided that attacking the ship outweighed all other considerations.  After having committed his diplomatic office to the destruction or capture of Florida, Consul Wilson elected to stay aboard for the duration of hostilities.
As it happened, the Confederate commander was not aboard Florida when Wachusett approached at full steam on the morning of October 7, ramming the smaller commerce raider on the starboard quarter, cutting down her bulwarks and carrying away her mizzenmast and main yard.  The most the stunned crew of Florida, only half of whom were aboard, could answer with were a few pistols.  None of her larger Parrott Rifles were even loaded.  Collins thought he might have put Florida in a sinking condition and he backed his ship off.  The crews began to exchange small arms fire and Wachusett delivered two broadsides.
At this point Collins demanded Florida’s surrender.  This left the difficult decision to submit or fight in the hands of Confederate Lieutenant T.K. Porter, commanding the ship in Morris’ absence.  After conferring with the other officers present, Porter boarded Wachusett to present his sword and ship’s ensign to Collins.   
Collins took his prize in tow and made his way quickly out of the port.  He was hurried along by the Brazilian gunfire from the harbor forts.  The Brazilians missed their mark and Collins escaped.  Brazilian and international outrage was swift and severe.  Consul Wilson wisely escaped with Wachusett, as the citizens of Bahia sacked the American consulate the next day.  No matter, the captured Florida was on her way to Hampton Roads.
Despite the fact that the American diplomats goaded him into capturing Florida, Napoleon Collins was nevertheless court-martialed under pressure from Brazil and sentenced to be dismissed from the service.  In reality, he remained active in the Navy, rising to the rank of rear admiral in 1874.