Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Hurricane Maria Resurrects Ghosts of Wars Past

Although news reports about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, which recently made its closest approach to Hampton Roads, frequently center upon the destructive winds and tidal flooding that such a storm can bring, this week it has come to light that there were other less-recognizable threats unleashed by the storm as it made its approach to North Carolina's Outer Banks.  On Monday, beachgoers found a barnacle-encrusted sea mine near the town of Avon on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and another one was discovered nearly 80 miles north in Corolla, just south of the Virginia state line.

An object (above) presumed to be a sea mine was found near Avon on Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the morning of September 25, 2017, and another one was found near the town of Corolla about 80 miles north on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that same morning. They were subsequently turned over to military explosive ordnance disposal technicians.  Thankfully, the Corolla mine turned out to be a training target.  (National Park Service)

During the last century, mines have posed some of the gravest enemy threats to shipping in our home waters.  During both World Wars I and II, German submarines deployed mines along the Mid-Atlantic.  It was an effective, albeit unpredictable tactic.  The Naval History and Heritage Command is currently helping lead an effort to survey USS San Diego, which ran afoul of a suspected mine off the eastern end of Long Island on July 18, 1918. We are also approaching the 99th anniversary of the second such incident that took place during the First World War, not far off the eastern seaboard. On September 29, 1918, the battleship Minnesota (BB 22) ran into a mine only 20 miles off the coast of Delaware.

Photographed in 1911 by O.W. Waterman of Hampton, Virginia, the battleship Minnesota (BB 22) appears somewhere in Hampton Roads, flying the flag of Rear Admiral (Upper Half) Aaron Ward, Commander, Battleship Division 3, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
Built at Newport News Shipbuilding and commissioned on March 9, 1907, just in time for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exhibition and the epic circumnavigation of the globe with the Great White Fleet that followed, the veteran of the 1914 Vera Cruz expedition was assigned to Battleship Division 4, mainly to provide practical gunnery and engineering training for the tens of thousands of new recruits the Navy was taking in during World War I.  She was sailing off the Delaware Breakwater when she struck a mine that had been deployed earlier by U-117

Miraculously, only three days after striking a mine off Fenwick Island on the Maryland/ Delaware border on September 29, 1918, USS Minnesota (BB 22) was safely ensconced in a dry dock at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the serious damage that had been inflicted by a to her bow by a German mine could be ascertained.  She would remain there for five months. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph
Despite sustaining heavy flooding to her bow, there were no casualties and the battleship was able to make it to Philadelphia under her own power.  She would remain at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for five months, during which time the war ended.  In January 1919, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels visited the battleship and personally commended 27 crew members for their "courage and efficiency." After leaving Philadelphia, Minnesota would do her part bringing thousands of American soldiers home from Europe. 
Several thousand troops from Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's celebrated "Rainbow Division" (42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Army National Guard), crowd the decks of USS Minnesota (BB 22) upon their return to New York from France in 1919. (Donation of Dr. Mark Kulikowski, Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
The Minnesota incident of 99 years ago ended happily, but it stands out as the exception and not the rule in the long, violent history of what was originally called the "torpedo" by its inventors during the American Civil War. Although enemy mines did the worst damage to American vessels during both Twentieth Century wars, not to mention in the Middle East during the latter part of the century, it should not be forgotten that American-made mines were also deployed in large numbers along our coasts, particularly during the Second World War.  Although intended to protect American merchant vessels and warships from the enemy submarine threat, they too caused damage to American shipping when merchant vessels strayed off course or their captains and pilots did not possess the latest information.  

While waiting for a harbor pilot to arrive on the "dark and stormy night" of February 16, 1942, the one-year-old, 554 foot-long tanker SS E.H. Blum of the Atlantic Refining Company, described as "one of the largest and finest tankers in the world" in the War Record of the Fifth Naval District, was ripped in two after drifting into a Navy minefield only 950 yards off the Cape Henry lighthouse.  On June 11, the SS F.W. Abrams of the Standard Oil Company "through a combination of unfortunate circumstances which included bad weather, a misconception of escort duties, and lack of proper navigational information, strayed into the Hatteras Mine Field and was eventually lost."  

Just three days later, on June 15, two American ships and one British vessel ran into a German minefield within sight of Virginia Beach that had been set by U-701, killing 17 on the British vessel, HMT Kingston Ceylonite, and one on SS Robert C. Tuttle.   

The heavily damaged Esso tanker SS Robert C. Tuttle appears in dry dock at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in July 1942.  After preliminary repairs, she was towed to Newport News for completion. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
Despite a concerted effort to sweep the area for German mines, SS Santore encountered another of U-701's mines while assembling to leave Hampton Roads in Convoy KS-511 on June 17, listed to port, and quickly sank, taking three crew members with her.  

Before the month was over, the 7,256-ton Norwegian passenger-cargo vessel MV Tamesis became the second ship sunk by the "friendly Hatteras Mine Field."  The American tug Keshena became its third victim on July 19 while attending to the Panamanian-flagged J.A. Mowinckel, that had itself been damaged by torpedoes and mines.  Three were killed in the tug's engine room.

Whether the mines that emerged from the depths off North Carolina this week present a renewed threat from a past war has yet to be ascertained, but one thing is for certain: the story of mines off the East Coast is far from over.  

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