Thursday, December 18, 2014

Museum Profile: Lee Martin, Resident Model Shipwright

Model shipwright Lee Martin pauses while constructing the brig Alexander at his work table in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's main gallery.  
No museum dealing with naval history is complete without its models of those tall sailing ships of old.  Yes, it would be nice to have full-size ships like the battleship Wisconsin, located just outside our museum, to help illustrate each part of the story we tell about the Navy in Hampton Roads.  But we just don’t have room for more than one of those.  This is where people with a passion for model shipbuilding make all the difference; people like Lee Martin.
Lee has been the resident model shipbuilder for the Hampton Roads Naval Museum for about two and a half years now.  He learned about the museum’s need for a model shipwright (a person who builds, repairs and/or designs model ships) while a member of the Hampton Roads Ship Model Society, which meets at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News.  He now volunteers his time doing live demonstrations of his art at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
Lee Martin trims mahogany floorboards for the deck of a brig originally conceived by the model’s makers as the Blue Shadow, but, Martin said, there is no historical authenticity to the name, concluding that “they made it up.”  He has “rechristened” his current project the Alexander, representing a brig built in Baltimore around 1780
Like any other experienced shipwright, Lee possesses knowledge of the arcane terminology and specialized techniques of a bygone era that he enthusiastically shares with visitors, fellow volunteers and staff members.  Talking to Lee, and watching him work, his love of model ship building is obvious.  This could lead one to think he must have spent most of his life working on or around ships.
You would be wrong.
This specialist in centuries-old building techniques actually spent most of his life at the forefront of high technology as a Navy civilian working in computers.  He started out programming IBM mainframe computers in the 1970’s for the F-14 Tomcat fighter program and ended his career helping the military develop aircraft inventory and maintenance programs for desktop computers.  So, with all this time working with computers and military aircraft, why the interest in model shipbuilding?  Like so many who have a love of similar art forms, Lee's answer is simple: “I just always had an interest in model ships."
One of the ships Lee is currently working on is HMS Bellona.  The 74 gun “Ship of the Line” was so successful for the British Navy it became the prototype for a whole class of ships known as the Bellona class.  “Ship of the Line” referred to warships usually having 50 guns or more.  They were the battleships of their time.  Lee expects to spend over 800 hours building the model, which means it will take some time to complete, as he only works on it when he can.  He is also working on another ship, the US Navy Brig Alexander, within the museum gallery.
Lee Martin trims mahogany floorboards on the foredeck of his latest creation, the brig Alexander.
For the museum visitor who wants to see the model ship building process first hand, Lee sets up a work table inside the museum where interested visitors can watch and ask questions.  Lee enjoys answering visitor questions, demonstrating the tools and techniques of the trade and showing photographs of other ships he has worked on. 
The schooner Black Prince
Just putting together a ship from a kit isn’t good enough for a passionate model shipwright like Lee.  He does research to find out as much as possible about the ship and orders special woods from different suppliers to get just the right look.  With no photographs of ships in the 1700’s, and changes being made to ships throughout their life, we don’t always know exactly what a ship looked like. According to Lee, “You have to take written descriptions from the time period and compare them to similar ships of the era that we do know what they looked like.”  Only then can you get an accurate model.

If you can’t get by the museum on a day Lee is here, a completed example of his work is on display just inside the entrance.  The schooner Black Prince was a privateer commissioned by the American government during the Revolutionary war.  Privateers were privately owned ships contracted by governments to attack enemy shipping, both military and commercial.  The Black Prince and her sister ship the Black Princess were ships Benjamin Franklin bought from the French and had outfitted as Privateers.  It took Lee over 450 hours, spread over almost two years, to complete this ship.
As a volunteer, Lee doesn’t have a set work schedule, but he usually shows up every other Thursday.  So, if you want to watch him creating one of his works of art and ask him questions, which he enjoys answering, stop by the museum often.  You can also call ahead to find out when he will be here at (757) 322-2987.  And as usual, entrance to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum is always free.
Story by Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator Jerome Kirkland

Friday, December 12, 2014

Remembering USS San Diego at Christmastime

USS San Diego as Pacific Fleet flagship before the American entry into the war.  Note the Christmas tree on her forecastle. (NavSource Online. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Collection of Thomas P. Naughton, 1973)

United States Ship San Diego was the only large man-of-war lost by the United States Navy in World War One. 
USS San Diego was first commissioned as USS California on August 1, 1907. (NavSource Online/ Collection of Darryl Baker) 
San Diego was one of the Pennsylvania-class cruisers and displaced approximately 15,000 tons fully outfitted.  Her main batteries were comprised of four 8-inch rifles and between twelve to fourteen 6-inch rapid fire guns.  Along with twenty-two 3 inch guns and various other secondary armaments, the ship was outfitted with two 18-inch submerged torpedo tubes.  She also wore a belt of armor six inches thick and up to nine inches thick in the conning tower.  On September 1, 1914, she was renamed San Diego in order for her name to be given to a new, larger vessel.


California sailed as part of President Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” during the Pacific Ocean portion of the voyage. (NavSource Online)

San Diego photographed from an airplane in San Diego harbor, California. (Naval Historical Center photograph. Collection of Thomas P. Naughton, 1973)
On July 29, 1917, three months after the United States declared war on Germany, San Diego entered the Atlantic Ocean bound for Hampton Roads. She briefly served as the flagship for Cruiser Force, Atlantic Fleet, and on August 19, 1917, Captain Harley H. Christy was given command.  San Diego held a perfect record with all the ships she was assigned to escort through the submarine-infested North Atlantic without mishaps.

On the morning of July 19, 1918, she was bound from the Portsmouth Naval Yard to New York where it was to undertake yet another convoy escort voyage.  Many of the Sailors on board, wanting to take advantage of their limited time in New York, had already changed into their liberty uniforms.  Sometime around 10am, a lookout aboard the ship spotted what was believed to be a periscope in the water.  The gun crews quickly responded by firing at the object until it was no longer observed.  This marked the first time San Diego fired her guns at a suspected enemy force.

The cruiser continued to steam toward New York making approximately 15 knots in a zig-zag style pattern when at 11:05 am the ship was rocked by a massive explosion on the port side.  Capt. Christy was in the wheel house when hit and assumed the ship had been torpedoed.  He sounded the ship to quarters and ordered gun crews to fire on anything resembling a periscope in the water.  Twenty-two year old Sailor George F. Jarrett recalled, “After we were hit there was a great outburst of firing.  Every gun on the boat began to shoot at targets in the water, in case there might be a submarine.  There was a constant rattle of shots for several minutes.  I saw a barrel blown to pieces, but do not know whether the sub was hit or not.” 

Crew members abandon USS San Diego after striking a mine believed to be from the German submarine U-156 off Fire Island, New York, on July 19, 1918. (Painting by Francis Muller, Naval Historical Center Photograph, courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC.)

Capt. Christy ordered the ship to shoal water immediately, however the blast had disabled both engines and the areas below the water line were rapidly filling with water.  Approximately ten minutes after striking the mine, the ship began to list to port.  The captain issued the order to abandon ship with the exception of the gun crews who stayed in position to continue to engage any suspected enemy submarines.  The larger boat cranes were non-operational due to failed electrical winches.  The life rafts, whale boats, and dinghies were launched by hand.  These, along with mess tables, benches, hammocks, and lumber, comprised the floating equipment upon which the crew abandoned ship. 

The officers and men left the ship in expert order while the gun crews continued to engage targets until the list on the ship was such that the starboard guns were pointing up into the air and the port guns were below the water line and rapidly flooding.  The crews fired an additional 20 to 30 shots at mysterious targets in the ocean until they too were forced to abandon the ship at their captain’s orders.  True to naval traditions, Capt. Christy remained on board the ship until the end and was reportedly the last person into the water.  The cruiser is reported to have floated bottom-up briefly before slipping beneath the sea. 

George Dewey Neal, serving on board
San Diego when it sank, recounted his ordeal once the ship sank.  “There were not enough life rafts so some had to hold on to the rafts.  We were in the water some four hours when a freighter came by and picked us up.  They carried us to New York where we were put on a battle ship.  We went from there to Norfolk, VA.  I was in Norfolk when the Armistice was signed.” 


Initial reports of the sinking of
San Diego by the New York Times estimated “probably 40 lives lost.”  The official Navy investigation, however, concluded that only six sailors were killed and three to six more injured.  Three sailors were killed immediately upon the explosion.  C.E. Sims was on the bridge when the explosion occurred and later recalled the following, “…the smokestacks broke loose, one of them fatally crushing a sailor in the water.  Another crew member died when a life raft fell on his head.  A sixth sailor drowned after becoming trapped inside the crow’s nest.”

U-155, like U-156, was a large-cargo-carrying submarine before the war and was pressed into service with the Kaiserliche Marine in February 1917.  Unlike U-156, she survived the war and is seen here on display in London after the German surrender in 1918. (Wikipedia) 
The official Naval Court of Inquiry concluded that the sinking of San Diego had been caused by an external mine, probably laid by the German U-Boat U-156.  The U-boat is credited with sinking 36 vessels in the Atlantic before she succumbed to the same fate as San Diego.  The submarine is assumed to have struck a mine and went down with all hands somewhere between Scotland and Norway.  

San Diego is currently a popular dive site as she rests just 11 miles from Fire Island inlet, Long Island, New York in approximately 115 feet of water.  The cruiser rests upside down and many of the 3-inch guns can still be seen protruding from their mounts, just as the gunners left them in 1918. 


Pencil drawing of USS San Diego as she appears today off Fire Island, New York (njscuba.net) 
Story by Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator Joseph Miechle. 




Saturday, December 6, 2014

At Dawn, They Didn’t Sleep

Members of the Arizona dance band pause at Bloch Arena, Pearl Harbor, during the Battle of Music semifinal held November 22, 1941.  From the left, they are Musician 2nd Class Curtis Haas, Musician 2nd Class Gerald Cox, Musician 2nd Class Ernest Whitson Jr., Musician 2nd Class Frank Floege, Musician 2nd Class Clyde Williams, Musician 2nd Class Bernard Hughes, Musician 2nd Class Alexander Nadel, Musician 2nd Class Charles White, Musician 2nd Class Robert Shaw, Musician 2nd Class Harry Chermucha, Musician 2nd Class William Moorhouse, Musician 2nd Class Emmett Lynch, Musician 2nd Class Wayne Bandy, Musician 2nd Class Jack Scruggs, Musician 2nd Class James Sanderson, and Musician 1st Class Frederick Kinney. (Official US Navy Photo by Tai Sing Loo)
It had been a long, exhausting, but ultimately successful Saturday night for the band members of USS Arizona (BB-39).  Although denied the top spot during a naval band competition ashore at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, they were still authorized by the ship’s captain to sleep in late the following morning. 

It was a sleep that they would never awaken from, the morning of December 7, 1941.  

This story has been told in one form or another for decades.  One version has them winning the competition that evening, with the trophy from that long-ago event residing today at the US Navy School of Music at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  The trouble begins when one looks for the trophy there.  It is not.  The difficulties continue when searching for evidence of the story’s veracity in primary sources, eyewitness accounts or oral histories.  As with many apocryphal stories related to epochal events in our nation’s past, hard evidence remains elusive.   

Despite this lack of contemporaneous evidence, the story has persisted in secondary sources, popping up in dozens of books and television news accounts about the attack.  It even became part of the official narrative given to visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial, where it caught the attention of Molly Kent, a self-described “legal secretary, artist, author, and homemaker for her husband and their 3 children,” who also happened to be the sister of one of the band members, Musician 2nd Class Clyde Williams.  

“We all looked at each other, because we knew better,” said Kent, 92, from her home in Kansas City.  Her family had seen the original Navy press release quoted by the Associated Press on April 1, 1942, which said, “On Dec. 7 they went to their battle stations, one of the most hazardous on the ship—down below passing ammunition to the guns above.” 

Forty years later, watching the story with her mother, the entire tenor, not to mention facts, of the story had changed. 

And she didn’t like it.  

“I couldn’t stand to have the boys remembered that way,” said Kent.  “If it was true, fine.  I wish that they would have been asleep and farther from their battle station. Then maybe they would have had a chance to survive.” 

She had pondered writing a book about her brother for years.  The experience that day in 1982 crystalized her aspiration not just to tell the band’s story, but to straighten out the distortions she felt were becoming rampant. 

“I wanted to be correct,” Kent said, “even if the truth was not necessarily what I thought.”   


Despite having no background in historical research or journalism, Kent had something in her possession journalists and historians did not: A large collection of official correspondence and private letters her mother had collected over the years since Clyde Williams’ death.  Thanks to the families of other family members, she spent years expanding the trove beyond just those of her brother to everyone in the band.  Along the way she conducted dozens of interviews and making connections, gaining allies in veterans organizations and the Navy musician community.  

They helped her ultimately retrace the band’s steps, from their hometown lives, to auditions at the US Navy School of Music when it was still located at the Washington Navy Yard, five-weeks of basic training at the Norfolk Training Station, back to the School of Music in 1940 and formation from January through May 1941, then their assignment as an ensemble band to USS Arizona, where they arrived on June 17.  


Personal correspondence from the men showed that they, like most of the enlisted crew, were required to sleep in hammocks, which they were only allowed to use from after the evening prayer at 7 pm until 5:30 am.  Tables stowed in the overhead during that time would be brought down to use during the day.  Because December 7 fell on a Sunday, reveille was called at 6 am.  The Japanese planes began the attack by targeting aircraft parked at Wheeler and Hickam fields at 7:55 am, followed by the first radio messages to all US forces in the area that an attack was in progress and that this was not a drill.  Smoke from the attack on the airfield on nearby Ford Island could also be seen from Arizona’s quarterdeck, from where any all hands messages would be passed over the battleship’s announcing system.  First, a fire and rescue call was sounded, followed immediately afterward by Arizona’s air raid alarm as other ships on Battleship Row began taking bomb hits from high-flying bombers and low flying Japanese aircraft began strafing Arizona’s decks.  The shore patrol and other details mustered near the quarterdeck to assume their watches, as well as off-duty personnel waiting to go on liberty, scattered as word was then passed for all hands to get below the armored deck. 



At approximately 7:56, the first 1,763-pound armor-piercing bomb hit Arizona about 70 feet directly aft of the quarterdeck on the starboard side after a glancing blow against the number four turret, setting the captain’s pantry afire and filling the captains and admiral’s spaces with smoke on the second deck directly below.  Had Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh been asleep at the time, perhaps he would have been killed, but he was not there.  If Van Valkenburgh had granted permission for the musicians to sleep past reveille, they would have been safe in their hammocks in the main enlisted berthing amidships, over 200 feet away.  



Under the schedule maintained that morning, the band would have in fact been fairly close to that first explosion.  They would have gathered at the quarterdeck at 7:45 am in preparation for the colors ceremony to be held on the fantail precisely at 8, and according to multiple eyewitness accounts they were assembled on the fantail when the attack began.  Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Tom White, an Arizona survivor, reported in his after action statement that he returned to the ship during the attack using one of USS Nevada’s motor whaleboats and raised the flag.  This seems to suggest that the flag had been attached to the staff at the stern and that the ceremony had begun, but it had not been completed.

Although general quarters was not called until just before 8 am, apparently delayed by that first bomb strike and momentary chaos that followed, eyewitness testimony collected in the weeks and months after the attack make it clear that the crew did not stand around or cower until being told what to do, much less sleep.  Along with other members of the crew who were caught on the main deck, the band dropped what they were doing and rushed to their battle stations at the moment they realized they were under attack.  Musicians aboard other vessels on Battleship Row preparing for colors also reported hurriedly stowing their instruments anywhere they could as they ran, or even throwing them overboard, as they made their way to their general quarters stations.  For the Arizona musicians, their destination would have been the ammunition hoists on the third deck, just aft of the number two turret.   

 A couple of minutes after the first hit, another bomb did strike farther forward on the port side, but it was on the boat deck three decks above the main berthing, over a smaller enlisted berthing area and one of the battleship’s 5-inch guns. 

Yet another armor-piercing bomb hit just off the starboard side of the number two turret at approximately 8:10, touching off the explosion of the forward magazines.  Most of the force was channeled fore and aft by the thick armor belt and plating on the upper deck, pancaking transverse bulkheads foreword and aft of the magazines, killing nearly 1,000 men in an instant, and causing the forward two turrets and forward upper deck to collapse into the void left by the detonation.  By the time that occurred, even taking opening and closing watertight hatches into consideration, the Navy musicians could have reached their battle stations two decks down and under the forward end of their berthing area, where they would have been when the magazines exploded.  



“To a man,” according to the Navy press release, “the Arizona’s band was killed when the battleship’s magazine exploded.”   But even the original press release was not entirely accurate, however, for three of the band members’s bodies were found in the water after the attack.  It is entirely possible that as they were making their way from the fantail to their battle stations up forward, the first bomb struck and the force of the explosion knocked their bodies overboard.  

The destruction was so complete that morning, however, that verifying this narrative beyond a shadow of a doubt is impossible.  Even today, secondary sources, not to mention eyewitness accounts recorded only days after the attack, disagree on the specific details, such as the times bombs struck or when announcements were made.  This provides fertile ground for false stories to germinate.  

As for the naval battle of the bands, formally known as The Battle of Music, 1941, the second semifinal round of the competition did take place on December 6, but Arizona’s band did not compete that evening.  It had won the first round on September 13 against three other bands, but they came in second behind the Marine Barracks Band during the first semifinal round on November 22.  The final round, scheduled for December 20, never took place.

Lastly, the grand prize trophy was ultimately awarded posthumously to the Arizona band after the final round was cancelled.  It is now at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, inscribed with the names of the winning band members:    

Frederick William Kenney
Wayne Lynn Bandy
Oran Merrill Brabbzson
Ralph Warren Burdette
Harry Gregory Chernucha
Gerald Clinton Cox
Frank Norman Floege
Curtis Junior Haas
Bernard Thomas Hughes
Wendell Ray Hurley
Emmett Isaac Lynch
William Moore McCary
William Starks Moorhouse
Alexander Joseph Nadel
Neal Johnson Radford
James Harvey Sanderson
Jack Leo Scruggs
Robert Kar Shaw
Charles William White
Ernest Hubert Whitson, Jr.
Clyde Richard Williams

Special thinks to Molly Kent, author of USS Arizona’s Last Band: The History of US Navy Band Number 22 (Kansas City: Silent Spring Publishing, 1996), Librarian Russ Girsberger of the Naval School of Music, and Volunteer Coordinator Tom Dandes of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sesquicentennial of a Sinking

A contemporary illustration shows a whaleboat from USS Atlanta (foreground) returning to the ironclad at about daybreak, November 28, 1864, following the unsuccessful effort to save the prize steamer Florida.  Although the broken mizzen mast is shown correctly, the former Confederate commerce raider actually had two funnels, and her jib boom had been lost during a collision on November 19.   
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, anyone gazing over the James River from Newport News Point looking for the recently captured prize cruiser Florida would have seen only its fore and main masts jutting out of the water.  To the men who had spent years scouring the seas looking for the elusive Confederate commerce raiders, there must have been something satisfying about seeing her consigned to the river bottom.  To her former crew who by this time had either arrived back in England from Brazil or were prisoners near Boston, the image of the wreck in the northern press might have appeared tragic.  The northern press, however, treated the sight as both emblematic of the Confederacy’s folly and the Union’s supremacy.  

Symbolism aside, Florida had been a captured enemy warship, and even if international opinion at the time favored her return to the Brazilian port from whence she was taken, she should have remained in place, well-guarded and maintained, as negotiations continued.


By order of Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Florida had been well-guarded, placed 1,200 yards away from the former Confederate ironclad USS Atlanta on November 24, 1864, with the instruction to "always have steam up, make sure deck pumps are working in case of failure of steam."  There was also a signaling plan in place in case things went awry.  But after things did go awry, starting with a sudden increase of water within Florida's engine compartment late on the evening of November 27, she was settling on the bottom of the James by 7:30 the following morning.   

Had the sinking actually been the accidental outcome of a well-intentioned yet insufficient effort?  Or, rather, had things gone exactly according to plan?

Surviving documents from the period show both the former and the latter.  

Let’s look at the first one.  Within the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Acting Master Jonathan Baker, who had been put in charge of Florida on November 18, described the circumstances of the sinking in an initial report to Rear Adm. Porter: 


This morning at 1:30 the engineer in charge reported that he could not keep her clear; that the water was gaining constantly.  I called all hands and rigged the deck pumps and commenced bailing, and signalized to the U.S.S. Atlanta for assistance.  Her commander with two boats came to me, and did all in his power to keep her afloat, but in spite of all our efforts the water kept gaining on us, till, finding that our utmost endeavors were unraveling, I gave orders that all the property belonging to the crew should be put into the boats and sent to the Atlanta.
At 7:15 I got a tugboat alongside for the purpose of towing her into shoal water, but she was settling so rapidly that I considered it dangerous to make fast, and at 7:30 she went down in 9 fathoms water.


The papers of John N. Maffitt, who had captained CSS Florida through her first and most successful cruise, offer an alternative explanation for the sinking; one that does not appear on any official government record, investigative document or piece of diplomatic correspondence.  But if true, the account of what really happened, supposedly given to Maffitt after the Civil War by none other than Porter himself, stands as a fascinating example of the deficiencies official records pose to those seeking the truth.

Maffitt wrote:


Admiral Porter placed an engineer in charge of the stolen steamer, his imperative instructions being, “Before midnight open the sea cock, and do not leave that engine-room until the water is up to your chin.  At sunrise that rebel craft must be a thing of the past, resting on the bottom of the sea.”

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.  
 

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.)