Monday, September 21, 2015

USS Nashville (PG 7) and the Building of the Panama Canal

Five weeks before USS Maine (ACR-1) exploded in Havana Harbor, USS Nashville (PG-7) is seen in her peacetime color scheme at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

By Elijah Palmer 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

A small model of USS Nashville (PG-7) resides in the museum's Steel Navy exhibit.  Sharp eyed visitors might pick out some of the ship's crew on deck, as well as the ship's mascots.  However, many might not know about the important role it played in the building of the Panama Canal.

The desire to build a canal in Central America was not new by 1903, but by that year the United States viewed the need as urgent. An example of the convenience and military advantage that might be had with a canal was evident in the high speed run of USS Oregon (BB-3) from California to Cuba (14,000 nautical miles) in 66 days during the Spanish-American War.  A canal would have significantly shortened that trip, and others like it. 

USS Nashville (PG 7) painted in gray, somewhere on the Great Lakes between the Spanish-American War and its supporting role in the Panamanian "revolt," as American ships of this era were typically painted white during peacetime. (Chuk Munson Collection via NavSource Online)

The United States had guaranteed joint sovereignty over any canal going through Central America in treaties with both Columbia and Great Britain regarding potential canals in Panama (controlled by Columbia) and Nicaragua respectively. The treaty with Columbia originated in 1846, evincing that this concept was not a new one. As one of the terms of this treaty, the United States had helped Columbia put down the numerous revolts and revolutions that occurred nearly yearly in Panama during the latter half of the 19th century. 

A French company had first undertaken a canal project in Panama during the 1880s, but it failed due to the high costs, both monetarily and in lives, particularly deaths from yellow fever.  Once Theodore Roosevelt (a huge proponent of naval seapower) became president, the United States he bought the French property and pushed heavily for a treaty allowing for construction, offering to pay a large down payment as well as annual fees.  Columbia, however, wanted more money from the United States as well as from the French, and refused. 

Quickly following these discussions, Panama seized the moment and revolted again.  Unlike previous times, the United States supported their revolution.  USS Nashville was sent to block Colombian troops at Colon, Panama, arriving on November 2, 1903.  At stake was preventing troops on either side from utilizing the Panama Railroad, but as largely there were not many armed Panamanian rebels yet, keeping the railroad neutral was really meant to keep the Colombian soldiers at bay.  On November 4, 1903 the Colombian commander demanded use of a train or Americans would be killed.  The Americans were heavily outnumbered, but were fortified in a stone shed as well as being supported by the guns of the shallow-draft Nashville, which was able to come very close to shore.  After several tense hours, the Colombians backed down and decided to negotiate. 
Nashville's shallow draft is visible from these plans. The ship was ideally suited for traversing rivers and shallow bays on gunboat duty (Transactions of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Vol. 2, 1894 via NavSource Online)
Within the next two days, the American naval presence was increased with the arrival of the Newport News-built auxiliary cruiser USS Dixie and the protected cruiser USS Atlanta (of ABCD fame), both of which brought hundreds of Marines.  Colombia quickly came to realize that the United States was serious about their support for the newly formed Republic of Panama as the American government recognized the country on November 6, 1903.  The rights to the canal zone were quickly ceded to the United States, in exchange for American support of Panamanian independence from Colombia. 

Nashville played a key role in this instance of "gunboat diplomacy" which gave the U.S. Navy a central role in international affairs for years to come.  .

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Announcing our First Artifact of the Month: "Admiral Byrd's Bird"

The new Artifact of the Month display debuts this week at the front of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) gallery in an initiative to give visitors the chance to discover rarely-seen items from the museum's collection that for various reasons are not part of the permanent exhibit.  This inaugural display commemorates the little-known role played by a veteran U.S. Navy explorer in countering Nazi rivals as they attempted to claim territory for the Third Reich at the bottom of the world during the prelude to World War II.  

In 1939, Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd (seen at left as a commander in 1926 wearing a cold-weather mask developed for flying over the arctic), was appointed head of the United States Antarctic Service (USAS) by President Franklin Roosevelt and given orders to halt Nazi exploration in Antarctica and establish permanent bases there.  Among the biological specimens brought back by USAS members in 1941 was the Gentoo Penguin now featured in the museum's "Artifact of the Month" display (Charles Nusbaum Collection/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum)  
Alarmed by reports that Nazi explorers had staked claim over more than 200,000 square miles of Antarctica during the "German Antarctic Expedition of 1938-39," the Third Reich's first conquest of territory outside Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a way to stem Hitler’s expansionism by mounting the first official U.S. government expedition to the continent.    

Although other American explorers were preparing for their own private expeditions, retired Navy Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, already world famous for his Arctic and Antarctic exploits, stood out from the rest.  Roosevelt called the admiral for a private White House meeting to inform him of his intention to establish a permanent American presence on the continent, and on July 7, 1939, designated Byrd commanding officer of the United States Antarctic Service (USAS), which was supported by the Navy, Interior, State, and Treasury Departments.  

Original photographs from the expedition, including the bark USS Bear with penguins in the foreground, grace the Artifact of the Month display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in downtown Norfolk, Virginia (Charles Nusbaum Collection, HRNM). 
The USAS expedition of 1940-41 would be the first official American mission to establish a permanent presence in Antarctica, but it would be Byrd’s third expedition to the continent.  His first expedition in 1928 and a long-duration stay from 1933 to 1935, five months of it spent alone, had been the largest undertakings of their kind up to that point.  Before President Roosevelt put the might of the Federal Government at his disposal, Byrd had been preparing yet another large privately funded expedition.  Because his private journey of discovery had become a government operation, the native Virginian actually sold his own flagship, the former whaler USS Bear (AG-29), to the Navy for a dollar before sailing from Norfolk.  The cutter USMS North Star, based in Seattle, was the Department of the Interior’s contribution to the mission.  The 59 USAS members wintering over also had three aircraft, two light Army tanks, two light tractors, and 130 dogs for transportation. 

Within the new Artifact of the Month display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, an optimistically-rendered promotional illustration of the experimental mobile base Snow Cruiser is shown with an actual photograph from the expedition showing the behemoth vehicle being unloaded from USMS North Star upon reaching the Antarctic  (Charles Nusbaum Collection, HRNM). 
The technological marvel of the expedition was supposed to be the 55-foot-long, 33.5-ton multi-wheeled mobile base and laboratory called the Snow Cruiser that had been custom made for the USAS.  Unfortunately, its weight and lack of power proved too much for the vehicle to be of any practical use to the USAS team and the one-of-a-kind vehicle was soon abandoned.    

HRNM Exhibit Specialist Marta Joiner arranges the new Artifact of the Month display on Monday, September 14, 2015, at the front of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, on the second level of Nauticus (Photo by Public Information Officer Susanne Greene, HRNM).
Although the USAS only undertook one season of research and exploration out of the two that were planned (possibly in part because their Nazi rivals never came back to defend their Antarctic “colony”), they established two bases, one of which became the oldest permanent U.S. research station in Antarctica.  Lessons learned during the USAS expedition also laid the groundwork for Operation Deep Freeze, which ensured a year-round Navy presence in Antarctica that lasted from 1955 until 1997.    

Despite the political and even military overtones of the USAS expedition, its chief accomplishments were scientific.  Among the specimens collected by USAS staff biologists were bird eggs and the skeletons of Wedell Seals.  Chief Mess Specialist Charles Nusbaum of Portsmouth, Virginia, accompanied Byrd on his historic mission to deny the Nazis a foothold in Antarctica, bringing back the intriguing artifacts, including the Gentoo Penguin, featured in HRNM's first Artifact of the Month exhibit. 

"Museum staff members are eager to share individual pieces from our collection that can tell a story on their own," said Hampton Roads Naval Museum Director Elizabeth Poulliot.  "We also want visitors to examine our new accessions.  The Artifact of the Month display gives people a chance to go behind the scenes to discover individual treasures not normally on exhibit," continued Poulliot.  "As is the case with most museums, our institution does not have enough space to exhibit everything.  Artifact of the Month ensures visitors see something new every return visit." 

Byrd’s USAS expedition to the Antarctic stands as the largest undertaking of its kind against fascism.  His next expedition in 1946, intended to both counter Soviet designs on Antarctica and train for a possible polar war with this new adversary, was known as Operation Highjump and still holds the record as the largest single expedition to Antarctica ever conducted, with 4,700 personnel and 13 ships involved. 

Indiana Jones, eat your heart out.