Saturday, September 14, 2019

Named for a Mythical Land to Fight Against Japan, This Carrier Barely Functioned off Vietnam

A U.S. Marine stands guard at Shangri-La, Maryland after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, rested and tanned after a four week vacation at the 23,000-acre presidential retreat, returned to the White House.  His residence was a guarded secret until he was safe back in Washington, all traces of his bronchitis from which he suffered during the winter months having disappeared, May 7th, 1944.  Roosevelt gave the property its name shortly after its opening in 1938, but after President Dwight David Eisenhower renamed the retreat, officially known as Naval Support Facility Thurmont, Maryland, in 1953 after his grandson, it has been known as Camp David.  (Office of War Information Collection 208-PU-Folder 3/ National Archives and Records Administration via NHHC Photo Curator/Flickr)
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was particularly enamored of the name Shangri-La, the mysterious Himalayan kingdom that sprang from the fertile British imagination of James Hilton in his 1933 book Lost Horizon.  Roosevelt named his retreat northwest of Washington, now known as Camp David, after it shortly after its opening in 1938.  In the wake of the successful Doolittle Raid in April 1942, FDR made the tongue-in-cheek claim to a reporter that the 16 B-25s that had humiliated the militarists in Tokyo had been launched from Shangri-La. 
During USS Shangri-La's launching ceremony at Norfolk Navy Yard (now known as Norfolk Naval Shipyard), Portsmouth, Virginia, sponsor Mrs. Josephine Doolittle, wife of Major General James Doolittle, christens the Essex-class carrier as Rear Admiral Felix X. Gygax, commandant of the yard, strains to hold a radio microphone close to capture the sound of the champagne bottle breaking against the ship's bow.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Of course USS Hornet (CV 8), the true source of the raid, was sunk by the Japanese only about six months later, but her home shipyard, Newport News Shipbuilding, quickly replaced her by renaming what was to have been USS Kearsarge, launching the new Hornet (CV 12) on August 30, 1943.  But a movement was already afoot to bring FDR's mythical launching place to life.  And so it was that USS Shangri-La (CV-38) became the first (and only) US Navy aircraft carrier with a completely made-up name.  She was launched on February 24, 1944, and commissioned on September 15 of the same year.  

From an assortment of commissioning-day photographs contained in E.G. Hines' book Shangri-La to Bikini in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum files, (upper right) Rear Admiral Felix X. Gygax, USN, Commandant of the Norfolk Navy Yard, congratulates Captain James D. Barner upon becoming the carrier's first commanding officer.
Shangri-La also had the distinction of being the first carrier made from the keel up at Norfolk Naval Shipyard (then known as Norfolk Navy Yard), over two decades after the collier Jupiter was converted there into the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1).  She was the twelfth of 24 Essex-class carriers and the first of three that would slide down the ways into the Elizabeth River from Norfolk Naval Shipyard, as well as the only one of the three to take part in combat operations against the Japanese before the war ended.
USS Shangri La (CV 38) off Fort Monroe, ¾ view of stern of the aircraft carrier at an altitude of 500 feet. Photographed by Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia, November 5, 1944. (U.S. Navy photograph 80-G-2898781/ National Archives and Records Administration via NHHC Photo Curator/Flickr)
Vought F4U Corsairs are loaded aboard Shangri-La at Naval Operating Base Norfolk (now known as Naval Station Norfolk) just before her maiden voyage to the Pacific in January 1945.  An assortment of Navy and even Army aircraft, including a P-51 Mustang and B-25 Mitchell bombers, were tested on her flight deck while underway in Chesapeake Bay in November 1944. (From the book Shangri-La to Bikini in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum files)
After making it all the way back to Hampton Roads after the war, Shangri La was recalled to the Pacific to take part in Operation Crossroads, the Able and Baker atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, principally by launching radio-controlled F6F Hellcat drones on missions over the testing area to collect radioactive particles. "The planes were intensely radioactive but their survival of the extreme heat and electromagnetic disturbances was almost phenomenal," wrote journalist E.G. Hines, who covered Shangri-La's first two years of operations. 

After an extensive conversion at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the 1950s, Shangri La became the first carrier with an angled deck for jet operations. 

The word Shangri La has for four score and six years held a place in the Western lexicon, as one wikipedian put it, as “synonymous with an earthly paradise” and “a permanently happy land, isolated from the world.”  By the time the quarter-century-old carrier took part in the Vietnam War, however, those who served aboard what was then simply known as the "Shang" would only have agreed with the "isolated from the world" part.
USS Shangri-La (CVS 38) cruises toward Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, on February 11, 1970. Known to her crew as the "Shang," the anti-submarine carrier was working up for her last deployment before her decomissioning.  Her last cruise, with assigned Carrier Air Wing 8 (CVW-8), was to Vietnam and the Western Pacific from March 5 to December 17, 1970. Although nominally redesignated as an anti-submarine carrier (CVS) on June 30, 1969, the Shang still operated as an attack carrier (CVA).  (Wikimedia Commons)
“Nothing worked but the crew,” recalled HRNM docent Jim Reid, who served aboard Shangri La as the ship's aircraft handling officer in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1970. 

He elaborated:
It was either cry or laugh, when someone in the crew had a cruise patch made up titled "CASREP-70," listing the major casualties that were reported during the cruise: Lost a screw while launching strikes; Dead in the water; Evaporators never able to provide enough water; Reefers burned up losing all perishable food; Lost steering while in a turn (prompting the recommendation that we fire off two aircraft each time we passed through the launch heading); Port catapult cold cat shots; Liquid oxygen plant inoperable; Contaminated jet fuel; Aircraft elevator cables parted; TACAN[the system giving carrier range and bearing to aircraft] failure; and one story that the radar antenna fell and landed on Primary [Flight Control].   
Lieutenant (Junior Grade) William Belden ejects from his Douglas A-4E Skyhawk attack aircraft (Bureau # 150117) as it rolls into the carrier's port catwalk after suffering a brake failure following recovery on July 2, 1970. Lt. j.g. Belden ejected safely and was rescued by Shangri-La's helicopter. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
"On one wild afternoon," wrote Reid in a short memoir, "an A-4E landed, on fire, [someone] having forgotten to put on a fuel cap. All of the yellow shirts worked to put out the fire after pulling the burning craft clear of the landing area.  A second A-4 landed, experienced brake failure and taxied over to the port side of the cat walk[sic].  The aircraft hung over the side but the pilot ejected into the water.  The safety photographer on the bridge took a series of shots that made Stars and Stripes as well as newspapers around the world." Reid added that "the tail of the A-4 that hung over the side and the nose of the one that was on fire were joined to make one good A-4." 

After, to put it mildly, a very challenging deployment to Yankee Station, Shangri La returned to Mayport, Florida, where she was based for over a decade, and was later taken to Boston and decommissioned on July 30, 1971. 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Recent Reads: The Mystique Nautique

A Review of Men at Sea

By Riff Reb's, Translated by Joe Johnson. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019.

By M.C. Farrington
Historian, Hampton Roads Naval Museum
and Elizabeth Bentley
Contributing Writer

There is an allure to the sea; a timeless draw to its depths. The promise of bounty and adventure as limitless as the eternal horizon propelled ancient Phoenicians and Polynesians into vast tractless expanses millennia Before the Common Era. This calling approached its zenith during the Age of Sail, when a bevy of small European powers became global empires following the exploration, expropriation and exploitation their mariners' mastery of the sea made possible. But there has always been a darkness behind the draw. For time immemorial until the present day the sea has been wild and untamed frontier; an uncertain, occasionally violent veil between the worlds of the free and the slave, the living and the dead.

French artist Riff Reb's has sifted through a plethora of literature in this vein, carefully choosing the choicest cuts that compose Men at Sea, emblematic of the steady march towards the sea he has been on during his third decade as an illustrator. Although at 116 pages it is a short book, it is nonetheless an ambitious sampler that punches above its weight, both introducing the unfamiliar to this particular genre and breathing new life into the selected works for those already well versed in them.

It would be interesting enough just to glance through this collection of stories just for their artistic merit. Riff Reb’s visual style blends angular masculinity with azure, jade and crimson-hued terror to create sailors who navigate unceasingly changing and terrible seas. However, the addition of excerpts and truncated passages, from writers well known and not, cements the legitimacy of the graphic novel itself. The stories lend context to the style, motion and color of each frame. Without the addition of literary excerpts from masters, this could be dismissed as just a highly sophisticated comic book, but by channeling these great stories, it becomes something different.

The binding theme weaving together the eight varied tales, interspersed by seven double-page excerpts, can only be described as anxiousness; an anxiousness laid bare in words and augmented by the uncomfortable imagery Reb’s has created. This anxiousness tirelessly churns up the characters and narrative devices; relationships, women, abandonment, enslavement, unknown and known creatures, ghosts and other paranormal sightings, loss of identity, and death. In fact, death seems to loom in the corners of every panel as it is given form by the text to the side. And the main character of these stories in aggregate? The sea itself. It is the obsession that is loved and despaired of in every story.

The characters are so inextricably linked to the sea that they all become part of it as they go from one existence to the other. None so much so as the first story, The Sea Horses, based on William Hope Hodgson’s story of the same name, with a style reminiscent of Jamie Hewlitt (Gorrilaz) but decidedly true to the deep well of material from which Reb's drew. Hodgson’s story of a young boy and grandfather living on the sea immediately sets the landscape as brutal and unforgiving. The characters immediately talk of violent death and the dangers of the nearby water. Hodgson’s own experiences of childhood death and the rigors of his own life at sea informs the tone of this somber yet fanciful tale.

Homer’s The Odyssey is the next work to be illustrated. This classic story relates the narrator’s regret of ignoring Circe’s warnings as he watches his men be sacrificed to the creatures of the deep waters. The haunting cries from his man are both a plea for rescue and accusation as they call out to Ulysses. 

The next story, a jarring switch from the previous two stories, is The Galley Slaves. These panels are based on the novels of Pierre Mac Orlan. Pierre Mac Orlan, a nom de plume, famously used his real name, Pierre Dumarchey, to pen pornographic stories, specifically dealing with flagellation and sadomasochism. The Galley Slaves is not one of his more scandalous writings, yet it is more sexually charged and violent than the other stories in Men at Sea. The jarring difference in tone regarding the sailors in this story is that they are not beleaguered friends and foes of the ocean but convicts who find delight in a death. The gender and sexual tension of the sailors is translated into murder but the loss of autonomy to gaining a taste of it again is the real theme of this strange tale. In contrast, Mac Orlan’s The Far South, which appears later in the book, is an adventure story and keeps with the straightforward themes of fear of death and isolation. This story seems to follow in the original tone of the stories where the hero is the sailor.

The stories progress to Kernok the Pirate by Eugene Sue. As one of the many literary excerpts that get a single complex panel treatment by Reb’s, it is darkly comic and cruel.  Kernok the Pirate was originally published in 1830, when the July Revolution took place that overthrew Charles X and the Bourbon.  Sue, who had joined the Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis, who pledged under the Bourbon King of France, Louis XVIII, fought to help the Spanish Royalists restore King Ferdinand VII of Spain to reinstate his absolute power which had been rescinded by the Liberal Triennium. The anti-Spanish sentiment alongside the frustration of ever changing political climes leads to Kernok and his dark sense of humor regarding the detestable actions of men on the sea.

Malgorn the Whaler is a break from of the anxiety of hopelessness and death that has been the tone of the panels so far. Emile Condroyer’s prose waxes poetic as the third person narrator describes the awe that mixes with the anxiety of battling creatures of the sea. Condroyer’s approach falls into a more normative style of tales of the sea, which is why Reb’s illustration seems considerably more muted and more conservative than his other visual narration.

Marcel Schwob’s The Three Customs Officers brings the reader back to the mystery and horror of life on the sea. Schwob’s love of French slang in the dialogue provides humor to this dark tale. The three officers find themselves enmeshed in the paranormal and dreams which would be typical of Schwob. The Symbolist Movement, which favors dreams, visions, and associated powers of imagination, heavily influenced his work and those of his contemporaries. The ghostly visions and untimely deaths in the tumult of the sea that trapped and transported the hapless officers who fell to their own foibles made for a wonderful ghost tale.

B. Traven’s The Death Ship, Joseph Conrad’s A Smile of Fortune, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Sinking Ship are all stories that share the common link of labor, ethics, and incompetence of authority.  The Death Ship is a direct criticism of the lack of ethical considerations for the sailors who work to keep ships going without fanfare or respect.  Conrad’s A Smile of Fortune is a short musing on a sea captain’s desire for another man’s wife while stopping at a port. The captain navigates the deaths and misfortunes of the land-bound but is now reconsidering his life at sea after seeing a mysterious, beautiful woman.

Stevenson’s The Sinking Ship is an absurdist tale of a captain who endlessly bloviates while real action has to be taken to save sailors’ lives. This is another example of dark humor in the face of death. The sailors, when faced with musings on nonsensical directives given from the philosopher captain, begin to follow their own nonsensical rules, mostly involving earthly pleasures they were so long denied. The result is comical a tragedy for them all.

Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea is a part of the Romanticism movement and during his exile his works explored the past and nature in contrast to the ongoing Industrial Revolution which, seemed to destroy the lyrical lives of men who lived by the sea. This excerpt is an ode to the fearful beauty of the sea and the deadly treasures beneath.  Jack London’s approach to the harrowing tales of the sea relies more on experience than imagination as he draws from his time as a sailor in Japan. The story is fraught with anxiety and suspense as it tells of the experience of being on ship during a typhoon. The story stands on as the true testament on surviving the sea.

Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne are linked in their tales of sea suspense and fantasy. Edgar Allen Poe’s featured story is A Descent into the Maelstrom. This tale of a man’s story of terror and survival of the capricious weather and sea is a great example of Poe’s style and tone. Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pim of Nantucket was the inspiration for Reb’s next selection, Jules Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery. This fanciful story of a ship stranded in ice is fanciful and amusing in the style of Verne but it is does touch on the sailors anxiousness over the many dangers and unexpected occurrences in the sea. This story does seem to give the reader a break from the high level of stress in the other stories and present some whimsy which can be taken as wink from Reb’s himself.

No less an authority than retired Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO supreme commander and chairman of the board of the US Naval Institute, praised Men at Sea for making these classic seafaring stories, some of which he referred to when teaching his students, so accessible. We could not agree more. For those without the time to leisurely dine on a surfeit of great sea literature, Dead Reckoning, a new imprint of the Naval Institute Press, has delivered a sumptuous yet svelte sampler of the meatiest morsels for American readers drawn to this rarefied kind of darkness.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

As HRNM Turns Forty, A Docent Remembers 25 Years of Service

Docent/ˈdōsənt/ noun 1. A college or university lecturer or teacher. 2. A person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery. Source: Merriam-Webster

J. Huntington "Hunt" Lewis as Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge in the HRNM gallery. (Courtesy of Hunt Lewis)
By J. Huntington Lewis
HRNM Docent & Contributing Writer

I think I can speak best to the pleasures that I have enjoyed as a docent with the Hampton Roads Naval Museum over the past 25 years.


When I began training as a docent, the museum was in the process of moving from the Pennsylvania House on Naval Station Norfolk to Nauticus, which had yet to be open. Our class of docents numbered around twenty. From March through April of 1994, we trained two days a week. One day was spent in formalized training; the other spent visiting other museums in the area. These were pre-[Battleship]Wisconsin days, and we developed a real comradeship, and we spent many years together.

Giving tours to visitors.

During our training period, we had no museum filled with artifacts for us to give practice tours, but we did have a diagram of where the artifacts would be located in the relocated museum at Nauticus together with a “script” listing the text contents of the new label plates. I knew that once the museum reopened, visitors might ask me questions to which I didn’t have ready answers. So from the “script” and the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, I developed a pocket notebook that I refer to for on-the-spot answers. That development was the geneses of my knowledge of naval history and my confidence as a docent.

When asked during training what our preferences as a docent would be, I indicated a preference to work with the library or newspaper because I had always been more at ease with the technical aspects or things than interacting with people. But when the museum had its “soft opening” on May 1, 1994, a month before the official opening of Nauticus on June 1st, the museum was packed with visitors and every docent had to be out on the floor, and I found I enjoyed giving tours. When I am not on the floor, I’m still not much of a people person and not given to small talk, but on the floor I’ve become an outgoing person, to the extent that I’ve participated in the museum’s Speaker’s Bureau and do costumed interpretation, even hamming the latter up a bit.

Working with kids.

There were the third grade "Life at Sea" and fifth grade "Blacks in Blue" programs. For the third grade program, the Norfolk City School system sent all their third graders to Nauticus. Each day the students were divided into four groups, which rotated through Nauticus and the museum. So each morning, we had four "Life at Sea" presentations to give. Usually there were enough docents that a single docent would not have to do more than two presentations, but sometimes I had to do three and even all four.

The reactions of the kids were the fun part. When I talked about discipline and the "cat-o-nine tales", I would tell the class that a young man was caught washing his hands in the scuttlebutt, which was their drinking water. I would ask the children, “How many lashes do you think he deserves?” Some would say five or ten or maybe fifty, but then a youngster would pipe up and say a thousand. My response would be "You don't like him very well, do you?”

Then when talking about recreation–checkers, music, mending clothes–we would mention smoking, a very bad habit that you should never do, and then I would pass around a plug of tobacco saying “It smells like dirty armpit, doesn't it? “ Occasionally a kid wouldn't touch it or throw it away.

The fifth grade program for the Norfolk City School System was similarly organized. The museum presented the participation of blacks in the US Navy by highlighting noted characters followed by a “fun” exercise in which the students acted as a anti-aircraft gun crew. They were shown silhouettes of enemy and U.S. aircraft and told they needed to memorize those silhouettes because they might see one or more might be attacking their ship. Then a docent would “fly in” two larger silhouettes constructed in three dimensions one following the other. One of the silhouettes would be enemy, the other American. The class would then be asked “Which one would you shoot down?” The class usually identified the enemy, but I had to tell one teacher she shot down the American aircraft.

Research and being able to help visitors with their questions.

During my early years at the museum, one of my greatest joys was talking to World War II vets and pulling their ship’s histories for them. Again time tells and that opportunity has become rarer. One vet that I remember was a merchant mariner that had three ships torpedoed out from under him. He remembered being sheltered at one of the downtown Norfolk hotels, but remembered little about the hotel. Fortunately, he has written his name and address in Raleigh in our guest book which I retrieved after he and his wife had departed. I was able to dig up information on that hotel, and since my wife and I were shortly going to Raleigh to visit her family, I took the information with me and gave it to the vet in his retirement home. Other research has given me friends as far away as Germany and Australia. Friendships that I still maintain via the internet.

A chance to be creative.

Back in 1999, the museum director asked me if I could prepare a small entry for the Navy newspaper The Flagship. The entry would be the size of a small advertisement and would be sponsored by the Museum and The Flagship. This led to a 16-year effort of preparing weekly “Moments in Naval History.” These entries were historical (commemoration of battles), little known facts about the Navy, and if all possible I would give them a humorous twist. This obviously required a lot of research and gave me a chance to be creative at the same time.

In summary, I can only say that these years with the museum have been the most satisfying and enjoyable years of my life.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Recent Reads: From Hampton Roads to Tokyo Bay in the 1850s

A Review of To My Dearest Wife, Lide: Letters from George B. Gideon Jr. during Commodore Perry's Expedition to Japan, 1853-1855

M. Patrick Sauer & David A. Ranzan, Eds., Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019

Commodore Matthew C. Perry, USN, landing at Yokohama, Japan on March 8, 1854, with 500 men, amid pomp and ceremony to receive the answer to President Millard Fillmore's letter which he has personally delivered earlier. (Artist: W. Peters. Lithograph by Sarony & Co., New York. Naval History and Heritage Command image)
By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Historians, scholars, and interested individuals owe a great debt to authors who toil to bring to life previously inaccessible or obscure primary sources. Patrick M. Sauer and David A. Ranzan are two such individuals who accomplish just that through their work in To My Dearest Wife, Lide: Letters from George B. Gideon Jr. during Commodore Perry's Expedition to Japan, 1853-1855. Sauer and Ranzan’s editorialization of the correspondence of Second Assistant Engineer George B. Gideon Jr. to his wife Eliza (Lide) Ward that occurred during Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s auspicious expedition to Japan stand as an example of important, relevant, and superlative historical scholarship.

Gideon, through recently uncovered correspondence, provides a rare first-person account of Perry’s Expedition to Japan, which normalized trade relations between the isolated island nation and the United States. Perry’s Expedition stands as an important chapter in the Opening of Japan, during which the Japanese ended their relative seclusion from the international world and began their rapid transformation from an insular island nation to a world power that threatened to dominate the Pacific 75 years later.  As such, Sauer and Ranzan add texture and enrich the historical knowledge base on this important event through their work in To My Dearest Wife, Lide.

Gideon witnessed a remarkable amount of notable world events during his nearly three-year voyage aboard the USS Powhatan, a sidewheel steam-powered frigate, which left Hampton Roads bound for Japan on February 13, 1853.  Gideon comes through as relatively pensive through his correspondences to Lide and he choose to include accounts and ruminations on occurrences both mundane and momentous such as the Taiping Rebellion in China, steam engineering, the quality of food, the leadership abilities of officers, the Crimean War, and life at sea. Of particular interest to many scholars will likely be Gideon’s account of the signing of the Convention of Kanegawa and his interactions with the Japanese people.

Gideon witnessed remarkable events such as the first burial of an American in Japanese soil, a ceremonial sumo wrestling match, and the aftermath of a devastating tsunami. Of equal interest to many individuals will be the insight into the Victorian world provided by Gideon’s letters as they reveal much about the social nature of the Antebellum American Navy and the gender dynamics of Victorian marriages.  Interestingly, Gideon, despite witnessing sights not seen by any American, was often far more preoccupied with declaring his love and affection for Lide or offering commentary on a particular shipmate or officer.  All in all, the information included in To My Dearest Wife, Lide is a wealth of knowledge on a variety of topics.

The scholarship and methodology employed by Sauer and Ranzan is appropriate and logically sound. The authors endeavored to transcribe as much of Gideon’s original wording and phrasing as possible and only editorializing where necessary. Many of their changes do little to alter the original text such as changing Gideon’s quotation marks for ship names to italics or providing a correct date in brackets where Gideon errs. In addition, the authors dutifully include a multitude of endnote citations that provide convenient and welcome clarifications on events, individuals, ships, and occurrences that Gideon mentions in his letters. However, the authors notably omit an unknown number of passages which the editors deem “…do not contribute to the overall story.” While space concerns are important, especially with a writer as prolific as Gideon, the voice of Gideon is somewhat muted by the necessary editing of his letters. To be fair, this is no fault of the editors and is merely a product of the realities of print scholarship. For the vast majority of readers, the text included in To My Dearest Wife, Lide is more than an adequate portrait of Gideon’s voyage.

Overall, To My Dearest Wife, Lide is an excellent primary source relating to Perry’s Expedition. Sauer and Ranzan provide a window into a Victorian Era world of discovery, intrigue, violence, innovation, and romance. Scholars and anyone interested in a primary source relating to Perry’s Expedition, Victorian era social dynamics, naval engineering, gender, and the Antebellum Navy will find To My Dearest Wife, Lide a stimulating, useful, and fascinating read. Sauer and Ranzan should be credited as exemplars of editing and publishing a primary source account for their astute methodology and attention to capturing the original voice of the author.