Thursday, May 19, 2022

HMS Queen Elizabeth Repairs During World War II

By Thomas Grubbs
HRNM Volunteer

For many years now, Great Britain has been one of the United States’ closest allies. This special relationship dates to the dark days of the Second World War. The history of the Lend Lease Act requires no repetition here nor does the general history of the Second World War. However, large scale material aid to the United Kingdom included more than just providing armaments and raw materials: it also took the form of maintenance services.
HMS Queen Elizabeth during the Second World War (Imperial War Museum)
On the morning of December 19, 1941, a massive explosion ripped through the keel of the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, moored in the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt. The limpet mine responsible, planted by Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat of the Regia Marina (Italian Navy) riding on a human torpedo or maiale, would inflict severe damage on the capital ship, rendering it crippled. Additional maiale launched at the same time sank the battleship Valiant, destroyer Jervis, and the tanker Sagona. This attack, eliminating the only operational capital ships in the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet, would drastically change the balance of power in the region for nearly a year.
Maiale human torpedo of the type used to attack HMS Queen Elizabeth (Wikimedia Commons)
Temporary repairs in Alexandria’s floating drydock took six months, restoring this valuable and desperately needed capital ship to seaworthiness. But battle worthiness would require the attentions of a fully equipped naval dockyard. Unfortunately, no such yard was immediately available: England’s yards were clogged with battle-damaged escorts from the Battle of the Atlantic, while new construction of desperately needed cruisers and destroyers took up any additional capability. Simply put, there was no room to repair this battleship. Fortunately, a powerful new ally had joined the struggle on England’s side: the United States.
HMS Queen Elizabeth repair trails – Norfolk Navy Yard, June 1943 (Image from Historic Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives, NNSY Historian Marcus Robbins)
The Queen Elizabeth’s epic voyage, taking from June to September 1942, crossed the Indian and Pacific Oceans, passed through the Panama and Suez Canals and ended in Norfolk Navy Yard, now Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Even though the massive dockyards bulged with new construction, including nine Essex-class aircraft carriers, the Norfolk Navy Yard possessed sufficient industrial might to repair and modernize Queen Elizabeth over the course of the next ten months, completing the task in June 1943. The powerful warship, equipped with the latest in radar and AA protection in addition to its powerful 15-inch guns, would join the British Far Eastern Fleet for the rest of World War Two, protecting Royal Navy aircraft carriers raiding occupied Japanese territory in Indochina and what is now Indonesia before being decommissioned in 1946 and scrapped two years later.
HMS Queen Elizabeth damage, shown in Dry Dock #3 at Norfolk Navy Yard, September 1942 (Image from Historic Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives, NNSY Historian Marcus Robbins)
The United States became known as the Arsenal of Democracy during the greatest conflict the world has ever seen. What is not as well-known is the support and repair services offered to its allies during the war. A friend helps you move, a good friend brings beer and pizza to the move, and a great friend moves your battleship for you.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

In the Collection: Rear Admiral Napoleon Collins' Sword

By Nick Wieman
HRNM Intern
Commander Napoleon Collins, circa 1864 (Wikipedia)
Napoleon Collins was born in Pennsylvania on March 4, 1814, and commissioned as a midshipman in the United States Navy in January 1834. After an “arduous but undistinguished” career in the Navy, then-Commander Napoleon Collins lucked into a chance to make his mark in September of 1864 while in command of USS Wachusett. While re-coaling in the Canary Islands, he was informed that the Confederate commerce raider CSS Florida had recently refueled there as well and was bound for the Port of Salvador in Bahia, Brazil. Intent on destroying the dreaded Confederate commerce raider, Collins set sail for Bahia.

Wachusett beat Florida to Bahia by about two days, anchoring outside the Brazilian harbor on October 2, 1864. In the dead of night on October 4, sentries aboard Wachusett spotted a ship pulling into port, later confirmed to be Florida. Collins messaged Florida’s commander, Lieutenant Charles M. Morris, formally requesting a naval duel outside Brazilian territorial waters. There was established precedent of respecting neutral nations’ territorial sovereignty; Captain John Winslow, of USS Kearsarge, had waited to engage CSS Alabama until after the latter ship had left French waters. Morris rebuffed the invitation, citing Collins’ disrespect of the ship and its crew in addressing the ship as “the sloop Florida” rather than the proper CSS Florida. He announced his intention to stay in Bahia for as long as necessary, and that he would neither “seek nor avoid a contest with the Wachusett” but that at a later date he would “use his utmost endeavors to destroy her.” Morris’ arrogance would prove to be his undoing, as it only served to reinforce Collins’ desire to see Florida sunk, maritime law be damned.

On the evening of October 6, Morris and several officers went ashore to spend the night in Bahia, alongside roughly half the crew who had been granted liberty, leaving Florida under the command of his First Lieutenant. Not anticipating any action from Wachusett and obliging maritime law to disarm in a neutral port, he removed the shot from Florida’s guns and allowed the ship to lose its steam.

At precisely 3:00 am on October 7, Collins made his move. Having pulled out of the harbor to give Wachusett sufficient clearance and time to build up a good head of steam, Collins ordered Wachusett to charge at the anchored Florida at full speed, intending to ram the ship with enough force to sink it. Wachusett struck Florida on the starboard quarter, tearing down the mizzenmast and main yard and crushing the ramparts, but the ship had not received a fatal blow, disabled but otherwise afloat. Rather than finish it off with cannon, Collins instead took the opportunity to seize Florida as prisoner. After securing the surrender of Florida’s remaining crew, he secured a towing hawser to the ship and towed Florida out to sea, briefly pursued by a Brazilian corvette. Captain Morris, running from the hotel where he had been staying, reached the dock just in time to see his ship being towed away over the horizon.
Cutting out the Florida from Bahia, Brazil by USS Wachusett (Frederick Gutekunst)
Collins arrived in Hampton Roads on November 12, 1864, Florida in tow, to a jubilant reception from the public and an awkward reception from Secretary of State William Seward. Collins had broken international law by seizing the ship in neutral waters, and it was feared that to make peace with the Brazilian government, Florida would have to be returned to Bahia, and by proxy the Confederate Navy. When the formal diplomatic protest arrived, Seward assured the Brazilian government that Collins had acted without authorization, and that he would be suspended and court-martialed. However, Florida could not be returned to Bahia as requested, as the ship had been accidentally struck by a transport ship early on November 28, while anchored off Newport News, and sunk. Whether it was an accident or Florida had been intentionally sunk is unknown.

Collins would indeed be court martialed within six months of the incident and sentenced for dismissal. However, the verdict was set aside by Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, and Napoleon Collins was restored to duty. He continued serving in the Navy until his death in 1874, having been promoted to Rear Admiral in command of the South Pacific Squadron in Peru.
Obverse view of Napoleon Collins’ sword, with included scabbard (HRNM)
Rear Admiral Napoleon Collins' personal effects had remained with his family until recently, when they were donated to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum by his great-grandson Grant Collins. Along with his uniform jacket, naval officer’s fore-and-aft, belt, and epaulets, one of the most striking artifacts is his officer’s sword. Once as essential to a nobleman’s or gentleman soldier’s attire as his uniform, the sword has served as a symbol of military authority for thousands of years worldwide, and the United States is no exception. While the increasing proliferation of firearms in the 18th and 19th centuries restricted the sword’s practical usage on land to the cavalry, it retained its value aboard ships as one of the weapons of choice for boarding parties until the late 19th century, where the close quarters of the ship made it much more practical than a rifle in combat. Even if the sword has been replaced in the hands of the infantry, it remains an essential part of the officer’s uniform for ceremony.
"N.P Ames/Cutler/Cabotville” (HRNM)
Rear Admiral Napoleon Collins’ sword is an N.P. Ames Cutler Model 1841 Naval Cutlass, produced by the Ames Manufacturing Company in Cabotville, Massachusetts. The sword is in very good condition overall, albeit with some discoloration from age.
Liberty pole and eagle with shield (HRNM)
Both sides of the blade feature ornate foliate (leaf patterns) running down its length. Beginning from the tip of the blade going down, we find a bald eagle charged with an escutcheon (heraldic shield) emblazoned with stripes under the chief (upper half of the shield), like the Great Seal of the United States. Below it is a continuation of the foliate, here featuring a trellis crossed with two naval cannons. The center of the blade features a prominent etching of a boy atop a pole, capped with a banner or pennant. This most likely depicts a “liberty pole,” a classic symbol of republicanism dating back to the late Roman Empire, and which was a common sight in the lead-up to the American Revolution as a symbol of protest against British rule. Just above the grip is the manufacturer's inscription, “NP Ames/Cutler/Cabotville,” placing its date of manufacture between 1841 and 1848. Below this inscription, closest to the hilt, is a sunburst-like ray pattern.
“United States Navy” (HRNM)
Beginning just past the tip of the blade, we find more foliate. Then, there’s stylized etching of a ship at sea, with the aft of the ship facing outwards judging by the windows of the cabin, with a prominent wake. After this is a prominent “United States Navy” inscription, flanked on either side by a pair of sunburst-esque ray patterns. After these sunbursts, there is a prominent ship’s anchor nestled in foliate, which continues down the length of the blade to the hilt.
Grip and eagle-head pommel (HRNM)
The grip is made of an off-white material, possibly ivory or whalebone, that has probably yellowed with age. The grip is carved with symmetrical lines on either side, a semi-circle with lines radiating from a central point, and an arrow-like pattern closest to the crossguard. The pommel is carved prominently in the shape of a stylized eagle’s head. Included with the sword is a black leather scabbard with two large brass mounts on the throat of the scabbard and its midsection. Both brass mounts are etched with an anchor design.

Both sword and scabbard are in good condition, albeit affected by the elements and the passage of time. The brass and steel have become discolored with a dark patina, particularly on the edges of the blade and the manufacturer’s inscription. The ivory grip has discolored into a sort of creamy yellow and may be coming unglued from the rest of the hilt; the brass at the base of the blade is also faintly discolored with yellow patches. It should be noted that this sword model was produced with a large folding guard, embossed with a foliate pattern. While it is unknown whether this particular sword was manufactured with a folding guard, the geometric indentations on the base of the hilt seem to indicate that something could have slotted in.

While the sword itself was not used by Collins during the incident, that he retained possession of the sword altogether is a testament to the nation’s support for his actions outweighing legalities. Under other circumstances, the seizure of another nation's vessel in international waters would have spelled the end of his career, perhaps even imprisonment. However, dispatching one of the feared Confederate commerce raiders that had claimed so many Union merchant ships in the Atlantic proved that the government and the public were willing to overlook such transgressions in the pursuit of victory over the secessionists.

Primary Sources
-Report of Lieutenant Morris, C.S. Navy, late command C.S.S Florida, of the seizure of that vessel by U.S.S Wachusett. October 13, 1864, Bahia. Naval History Heritage Command
-Report of Commander Napoleon Collins. U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S Wachusett, of the seizure by that vessel of C.S.S Florida. October 31, 1864. U.S.S Wachusett. St. Thomas, West Indies. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series 1, vol. 3. Washington. Government Printing Office. 1896.
-"The Capture of the Florida." New York Times (1857-1922), Nov 9, 1864.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr.

By Paul Stillwell

Reviewed by Lee Duckworth
HRNM Docent
Paul Stillwell’s biography of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. is a book 40 years in the making and finally published in 2021. It details the life of Lee and focuses on his leadership experiences in the Second World War. Lee’s early life is unremarkable, other than the fact that he was an expert marksman. This shooting ability figures prominently during his time at the US Naval Academy (1904-1908) and participation in the 1920 Olympics. After graduation, Lee had assignments to various ships, including a battleship, cruiser/receiving ship, gunboat on the Yangtze River Patrol, and submarine tender. Stateside, his earliest shore duty was with the Bureau of Ordnance and later with the Fleet Training Division of the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations, where he made his reputation as a gunnery and fire control systems expert.
Lee as a US Naval Academy midshipman in 1908 (NHHC)
The author cites numerous examples of Lee’s ship-handling and tactics abilities that further his career as a surface warfare officer. Interestingly, Lee never had command of a battleship but was commanding officer of two destroyers. Two additional tours in Washington, D.C., with the Fleet Training Division (OPNAV 22) solidified his position as a gunnery expert, and his pioneering efforts in development of a Combat Information Center (CIC) set the stage for the major portion of the book and his career: World War Two.

The author details Lee’s preparations and conduct in battle in the Pacific during his three years as “Battleship Commander” and highlights three decisive battle opportunities. At Guadalcanal, Rear Admiral Lee was commander of a task force consisting of two battleships and four destroyers. The November 14-15, 1942, night battle was the first time his units had operated together, and Lee had no opportunity to publish a formal Operations Order, nor was there any common doctrine. U.S. Navy forces opened the battle and had the advantage of radar, but in short order the destroyers at the head of Lee’s column were out of action. The battleship USS South Dakota sustained significant damage and was also out of the fight. Through Lee’s perseverance, the Japanese battleship Kirishima was sunk and a few hours later the Japanese forces withdrew. Lee’s utilization of radar in this battle proved to be the deciding factor and the turning point in the six-month fight for Guadalcanal. He later received his third star and was assigned as Commander, Battleships Pacific Fleet, where he was responsible for fleet battleship doctrine and procedures.
ADM Raymond Spruance, VADM Marc Mitscher, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, and VADM Willis Lee in Feb 1945 (NHHC)
The second opportunity for Lee came on June 19, 1944, at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The officer in tactical command urged Lee to pursue the Japanese fleet at night and force a surface action. Lee declined, reasoning that there was a lack of training in fleet tactics at night. Although senior US Navy admirals were disappointed, they took no action against Lee. It is ironic that the man who—two years earlier—led a night engagement successfully with a unit that had never operated together would not enter this fight. Lee neglected to take action that could have destroyed a major portion of the Japanese fleet.
VADM Lee in 1944 or 1945 (NHHC)
The final opportunity for Lee to see major combat was on October 24-25, 1944, at Leyte Gulf. The failures at this battle are well-known, especially regarding Admiral William Halsey. Lee was designated commander of Task Force 34 with four fast battleships, seven cruisers, and nineteen destroyers. The battleships had all operated together under Lee a month earlier, practicing tactical exercises. But most of Halsey’s task force, including Lee’s ships, went north in search of Japanese aircraft carriers. Lee sent two messages to Halsey, stating Task Force 34 should remain to cover the San Bernardino Strait, but received no reply. Lee’s battleships went far north of the strait and, when finally detached from the rest of Halsey’s ships, returned too late to face the retreating Japanese navy. Lee could have applied more pressure to make sure Halsey was aware that there was no U.S. Navy coverage at the strait. As a three-star admiral and the officer designated to take over if something happened to Halsey, Lee bears some responsibility for the failure.
RADM Lee receiving the Navy Cross from Admiral Halsey after the Battle of Savo Island in 1942 (NHHC)
Research for Battleship Commander began more than 40 years ago, but little recent research is evident. It is a fair, balanced view of Lee’s life and highlights his superb reputation as a marksman, ship handler, and loyal shipmate. In summary, the author concentrates on Lee’s lasting accomplishments in improving the Navy’s readiness in the areas of shipboard radar, fire control systems, anti-air gunnery, proximity fuses for 5-inch projectiles, and perhaps most important, the development of the CIC concept. VADM Lee is indeed worthy of the title “Battleship Commander,” given his recognized leadership during three years of intense fighting at sea in WWII. I recommend this book, filled with vignettes from family, friends, and shipmates, to learn more about the battleship admiral who spent three years in the Pacific during WWII, and whose total focus was on the readiness of the US Navy.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Patrol Craft on the Rivers of Vietnam

By CAPT Alexander Monroe, USN (Ret.)
HRNM Volunteer

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum displays a boat company builder’s plate and an American flag with bullet holes in its exhibit, “The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea: The U.S. Navy in Vietnam.” These artifacts, talismans of a war fought fifty years ago, demonstrate the contributions of the riverine Sailors in Vietnam. Crews of the fast-moving river boats interdicted transfer of Viet Cong war supplies and personnel. Concurrently, they improved the health, welfare, and safety of innocent civilians in their area of operational responsibility.[i] They carried out these duties admirably, enduring lengthy repeated patrols which were generally tedious but could be interspersed with moments of terror and stress.[ii]
The unit patch of River Patrol Section 531, known as The Delta Dragons, on organizational clothing of former Engineman Second Class James Lawrence “Larry” Weatherall, USN, of PBR 105. (Courtesy of Larry Weatherall)

Unit patch of Task Force 116, The River Patrol Force, South Vietnam, 1967 (Courtesy of Larry Weatherall)
By the summer of 1965, it seemed clear that South Vietnamese Navy (VNN) forces would be unable to control the waterways of the Mekong River Delta or the Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ).[iii] This yielded a new objective: “for the U.S. Navy to develop a plan to cover 500 miles of major waterways to check day traffic and establish a delta wide curfew at night.” The result was the December 18, 1965, establishment of Task Force 116 (River Patrol Force) in Operation Game Warden.[iv]

The goal of U.S. Navy involvement in riverine operations was to supplement the offshore interdiction of insurgents and their supplies and equipment by clearing the Viet Cong (VC) from havens from which they could attack South Vietnamese cities, impose taxes on inhabitants, and terrorize innocent civilians in a rich, fertile land that produced the most rice in the country. An early measure, using propeller-driven 36-foot LCPLs initiated by Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward, was ineffective because of slow speed of the craft and lack of protection from Viet Cong fire. The fiberglass PBR emerged. Its two 216 horsepower diesel engines powered a water jet propulsion system, and it was equipped with a Raytheon pathfinder radar set and provided armor around the Boat Captain (Coxswain’s) operating position. It could operate in nearly all inland waters. It responded with alacrity to even slight manipulation of the helm and did not rust. Apart from problems removing flotsam from the water jets and at times removing snakes, it was simple to operate and maintain.[v] PBRs were armed with twin .50 caliber machine guns forward and a single aft and an M60 machine gun amidships. There was a grenade launcher, 4 M16 small arms, and a .45 caliber pistol carried by the Boat Captain.
Former Engineman Fireman (ENFN) Larry Weatherall standing beside Raytheon Pathfinder radar onboard the PBR at Joint Base Little Creek/Fort Story, November 9, 2021 (Photo taken by CAPT Alexander Monroe, USN (Ret.))
Crewing a PBR required a First Class Petty Officer, usually drawn from a deck rate such as Boatswain’s Mate, Quartermaster, or Signalman to serve as Boat Captain; a Gunner’s Mate Third Class; an Engineman Third Class; and an ordinary seaman. If petty officers were unavailable, strikers might be used. Sometimes, a Vietnamese police officer or interpreter might be assigned. The crews were cross-trained. All hands learned how to operate, how “to drive the boat, how to clean weapons and break them down.” Operation and maintenance of the boat’s engines and steering gear was the responsibility of the Engineman or Engineman striker. River sections, later called “divisions,” each consisted of ten PBRs under the command of a U.S. Navy lieutenant and contained 42 enlisted personnel.
PBR 105 underway in the Ham Luong River, South Vietnam. The crewmembers from bow to stern are: GMSN Richard McMurry, QM1 Robert Fellman, SN Kenneth Bowman, and ENFN Larry Weatherall. (Photo courtesy of former Gunner’s Mate Seaman David Wilkinson)
PBR operations were carried out to remove Viet Cong influence from the Mekong River delta and contiguous areas by aggressive daylight and night patrols, each consisting of two to three PBRs. Patrols were an exhausting 10 hours in length, excluding transit time to the area under surveillance. In June 1967, the Navy made 639 daylight patrols and 701 at night. As a result, the PBR crews detained 84 individuals and seized 25 surface craft.[vi] Boat captains cruised along inland rivers and inlets from which VC forces emerged to extort “taxes” and otherwise harry indigenous craft and their operators engaged in innocent passage. In the daytime, PBR crews stopped and made fast to the craft being searched, inspecting all river craft traffic to establish the identity and bona fides of its operators. Crews removed suspected VC insurgents and transferred any contraband to the closest South Vietnamese police activity or VNN installation. The effort could be tedious, though in some cases PBRs were taken under sniper fire from VC hideouts ashore without crew members being able to identify its source. The bullet-riddled flag on display from PBR 109 was discovered at the end of its patrol. No patrols were routine and hostilities could emerge without warning.[vii] At the end of each patrol, the craft was cleaned of debris, rearmed, and refueled for the next patrol.
GMSN David A. Wilkinson displays a VC flag he seized from a captured VC watercraft in the Ham Luong River. (Courtesy of Larry Weatherall)
Night evolutions were different because traffic on the rivers was forbidden, and craft sighted were presumed hostile. In some cases, boat captains shut down engines and drifted with radar energized and starlight scopes in use, hopeful that they might detect illicit camps and traffic and destroy it. This was not foolproof, and in one case glowing light was found to be fireflies. On October 31, 1966, Boat Captain Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams and the crew of PBR 105 discovered a large concentration of VC insurgents attempting to cross the Mekong River about 10 miles west of My Tho. He began an attack at dusk which continued into full darkness. In addition to pressing the attack in his boat, he requested and received assistance from HAL-3 (Helicopter Attack Light Squadron Three). These Sailors and aviators stopped the crossing, destroyed multiple VC watercraft, and killed a large number of insurgents. Williams earned the Medal of Honor for this action. A key feature of his performance and that of all PBR boat captains and patrol officers was the necessity of making tactical and weapons employment decisions rapidly under duress. Very few commanding officers of Seventh Fleet ships could do that. This combat regimen continued day in and day out until individual personnel were rotated out of theater, medically evacuated, or killed. It was, as Captain Thomas Glickman observed, “a strange way to fight a war.”[viii]

The PBR crews faced certain hazards. One great danger emerged because VNN shore bases were infiltrated by VC insurgents.[ix] By June 1967, it was reported that, “Viet Cong were keeping detailed records on the movements and habits of various PBRs in an attempt to discern patrol patterns that could be used in planning ambushes.” For that reason, “external hull numbers and identifying marks were removed from all PBRs.” Were it not for that order, the builder’s plate for PBR 105 might never have come to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
PBRs moored alongside USS Harnett County (LST 821). There are no hull numbers on the craft, to counter VC efforts to hinder PBR operations. (Courtesy of Larry Weatherall)
The effectiveness of PBRs is set forth in operations reports and other publications of Commander Naval Forces Vietnam. The foreword of the June 1967 Historical Supplement mentions, “pressure along Viet Cong (river) crossing routes and ‘tax collection’ sites.” On two occasions, the 13th and 15th Delta inhabitants pointed out two Viet Cong cadre members. Also on the 15th, a sampan owner complained that 2 VC “tax collectors had confiscated 6 of 40 bags of rice he was taking to a nearby rice mill.” When PBR crews apprehended the men, the owner pointed out, “one of the detainees attempted to bribe the patrol officer with 700 piasters (about $6.00) and a watch.” On June 23, two women, one in the last stages of pregnancy and her midwife, hailed the crew of PBR 138 in the Co Chien River seeking assistance in reaching a hospital at Vinh Long, 17 miles upriver. The lady delivered a baby boy without complications on board and was put ashore at Vinh Long to be taken by ambulance to the hospital.[x] The gratitude is evident in a letter reproduced in the October 21, 1967, issue of the “Jackstaff,” signed by 25 operators of motorized sampans on the Ham Luong River, patrolled by PBRs. The signers noted, “In the beginning the VC had set up their check points and collect [sic] money from us and we were oppressed.” They went on to say, “Since the day of PBR activities on the Ham Luong River, the VC’s heartless actions were put to an end, and we have had peace of mind in our daily work.” The signers of the letter stated that they understood the necessity for the inspections and praised the courtesy of the PBR crews.
Photograph of “Grateful for PBRs,” from “The Jackstaff,” Naval Forces Vietnam, October 21, 1967. This page expresses civilians’ thanks for the PBR patrols, and courtesy of the crews who carried out a needed task.
The flag and builder’s plate on display at the naval museum are thus a powerful and lasting tribute to those who served so ably and well in the service of the United States Navy on a hostile foreign shore. They did so despite a deeply divided national view of the Vietnam War.

Author’s Note: Many thanks to Larry Weatherall and David Wilkinson for their help with this post.

[i] “Boy’s Harelip Corrected Through Navymen’s Help, Jackstaff, Naval Forces Vietnam, May 19, 1967, 4, which shows a photograph of Lieutenant Charles D. Witt and the 14 year old boy whose deformity was completely corrected; “Navy Surgical Team,” Jackstaff, JOC Ted Jorgenson, Naval Forces Vietnam, June 30, 1967, 4; See Also COMNAVFORVN Ltr FF-5/03:gem, 5750, Serial 0603 of 9 August 1967, which reports the May 24th, 1967 death of Lieutenant Witt in an ambush and other matters to include Operational Tempo (OPTEMPO).
[ii] Interview with former Engineman Second Class James Lawrence “Larry” Weatherall, USN, at Joint Base Little Creek/Fort Story, November 9, 2021. Larry Weatherall has been instrumental in restoring the PBR on static display at Joint Base Little Creek/Fort Story.
[iii] Ibid., War in the Shallows, 91-3.
[iv] Ibid., War in the Shallows, 95-6.
[v] Ibid., War in the Shallows, 104-110.
[vi] Monthly Historical Supplement (June 1967), U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam Ltr FF5-16/03:gem 5750 Serial 0702, 17 Sept 1967, 4.
[vii] Ibid., River Patrol Force, 14.
[viii] Ibid., River Patrol Force, 15
[ix] Monthly Historical Supplement (May 1967), U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam, Chronology, vi.
[x] Ibid., Historical Supplement (June 1967), 11.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Memories of USS Cumberland (Part 3 of 3): A Living Spirit: Cumberland in Song

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator

In the previous two parts of our March series about USS Cumberland, we have looked at reporting, perceptions, and poems about the Battle of Hampton Roads and sinking of Cumberland. In today’s third and final part, we briefly examine how music has served to keep Cumberland’s memory alive in national consciousness. As we saw in part two, poetry can be set to music, like Longfellow’s “The Cumberland,” but lyrics were also newly composed and brought Cumberland’s tale to audiences both across the nation and time. Today we will focus on two examples that were written within a year after the battle. These songs are titled “The Cumberland’s Crew,” and “The Good Ship Cumberland.” “The Cumberland’s Crew’s” author is unknown, while “The Good Ship Cumberland” is by one E.F.M. whose exact name remains unidentified.

Songwriters produced a wealth of music during the American Civil War. Songs served to entertain, inspire, and sustain the troops as well as the civilian populations. Tunes were sung from the stage to the campfire by professional musician and enthusiast alike. Many of these songs have no known attributable artist, having been written and performed by anonymous sailors, soldiers, and civilians from opposing sides. Many of these songs can be found in two of the larger folk music indexes compiled during the 20th century. The “Laws” Index (named for the creator of the index and folk music scholar, George Malcolm Laws), contains 2,576 unique English language song listings, with many sub-listings for similar songs. A second index called the Roud Folk Song Index (after creator Steve Roud, also a folk music scholar), contains a more comprehensive set at around 25,000 unique listings. Both songs featured here have individual listings on both indexes.
“The Cumberland’s Crew,” Published by H. De Marson, NYC c. 1863 (Library of Congress)
Our first song, “Cumberland’s Crew,”[i] recounts the battle between USS Cumberland and CSS Virginia on March 8, 1862. The opening stanza invites the listener:

Shipmates, come gather and join in my ditty
Of a terrible battle that's happened of late
When each Union tar shed a tear of sad pity
When he heard of the once-gallant Cumberland's fate

O, the eighth day of March told a terrible story
And many brave tars to this world bid adieu,
Our flag it was wrapped in a mantle of glory
By the heroic deeds of the Cumberland's crew

Already, the listener is primed for a tale of struggle and defiance, and the rest of the song plays out much like one might expect. The familiar encouragement from the acting captain, Lieutenant George Morris, is echoed when he says, "’Boys, of this monster, now, don't be dismayed. We've sworn to maintain our beloved Constitution, and to die for our country we are not afraid.'" The battle commences, and Cumberland and Virginia fire on each other, with Virginia’s iron plating largely rendering Cumberland’s guns ineffective. Meanwhile, fire from Virginia takes a terrible toll on Cumberland’s crew, even before the ship is rammed. The song doesn’t specifically mention the ramming and sinking, but the final two stanzas make clear that the crew will not surrender and will go down fighting by saying:

Now, the pride of our Navy can never be daunted,
Though the dead and the wounded our decks they did strew
"We'll die at our quarters or conquer victorious:''
Was answered in cheers by the Cumberland's crew.

"We've fought for the Union, our cause it is glorious.
To the Star Spangled Banner we'll ever prove true.
We'll be wept for by Columbia's brave sons and fair daughters
And never forgotten," sang the Cumberland's crew.

The ending to the song serves two purposes. First, it commemorates the bravery of the crew, who refused to surrender to the ironclad Virginia. Second, it inspires both combatants and civilians to continue to support the “glorious” Union cause. It’s important to note here that different performers and printings of folk songs will include slight variations in the lyrics, as well as a wide variety of instrumentation and musical arrangements, often being set to the tune of other traditional folk music. This is certainly the case with our second song, “The Good Ship Cumberland.”
“The Good Ship Cumberland,” Published by A.W. Auner, Philadelphia c. 1863 (Library of Congress)

“Good Ship Cumberland”[ii] is the earliest title for a song that can be more widely found under the names, “The Cumberland and the Merrimac[k],” “The Cumberland,” or even “The Merrimac.” Despite the different title and arrangements, lyrically they are the same song. As with “Cumberland’s Crew,” “Good Ship Cumberland” begins with an invitation to “all ye merry sailors, and all ye landsmen too,” and unfurls the story of battle between Cumberland and Virginia in much the same way as “Cumberland’s crew.” There are a few marked differences, however, between “Good Ship Cumberland,” and “Cumberland’s Crew.” First, “Good Ship” includes the demand for Cumberland’s surrender, and Morris’ alleged reply:

In vain we poured our broadside into her ribs of steel,
Yet still no breach we made in her, or damage did she feel;
Then to our bold Commander the rebel Captain spoke—
Haul down your flying colors, or I'll sink your Yankee boat!

Our Captain's eye did glisten, and his cheek grew white with rage,
And to the Rebel pirate in a voice of thunder said,
My men are brave and loyal, my flag shall ever stand—
Before I'll strike my colors you may sink us and be damned!

Second, the song includes the ramming of Cumberland by Virginia, and third, when it becomes apparent that Cumberland is sinking, Morris offers the crew the opportunity to escape, saying, “I'll go down with flag a flying into a watery grave, but you, my gallant comrades, may seek your lives to save.” Morris did not, in fact, go down with the ship, but the sentiment is conveyed nonetheless. To Morris’ offer the crew replies:

They swore they'd never leave him, and manned their guns afresh,
And poured broadside after broadside, till the water reached their breasts;
And as she sank far down, far down, in the briny deep
The stars and stripes were flying from the maintop's highest peak.

This final line provides the final major difference between the two tunes, presenting the listener with the image of Cumberland’s flag still flying even as the hull and many of the crew rest at the bottom of the James River. As discussed in the two previous posts, this image was a focal point for participants, writers, and the public alike.

 “The Loggers,” an image depicting loggers in Michigan during the 1880s-90s, Detroit Publishing Co. c. 1890 (Library of Congress)
After Union victory in the American Civil War, sailors and soldiers from both sides returned to civilian life and sought employment anywhere they could. They carried with them the stories, memories, and importantly the songs they learned and sang during the war. Printings of songs like “Cumberland’s Crew” were disseminated widely and have been found as far away as England and Ireland. In the United States, these songs were commonly heard in lumber camps in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, as well as from sailors and shipping laborers throughout the Great Lakes region. As Civil War veterans aged, these songs were passed down and eventually found their way into the repertoire of professional folk musicians. This interest in folk music intensified and reached its zenith between the late 1940s-1960s, during a period known as the American Folk Music Revival. Many renditions of Cumberland songs date from this period; the version found in endnote ii by Warde Ford is off the album Wolf River Songs, released in 1956. Another musically different version was performed by Ellen Stekert and released on the album Songs of a New York Lumberjack in 1958.[iii]
Sketch of USS Cumberland by Alfred R. Waud, c. 1861 (Library of Congress)
Versions of these songs are still performed 160 years after the Battle of Hampton Roads, with some groups giving them a bit of an updated flavor.[iv] Though the sound of more recent recordings might be different, the words and message remain largely the same. Hearing songs from the past that continue to be performed today provides us with a closer connection to what a Civil War contemporary might have felt or believed, and how the battle between USS Cumberland and CSS Virginia took on meaning far beyond the sinking of one ship. Music drives this home, perhaps even more so than articles and poetry. What each of the media we have considered over the past three posts share is the reminder that the Battle of Hampton Roads and sinking of USS Cumberland took root in the contemporary public consciousness. And, like Cumberland’s flag flying on her mast, the legacy of the ship and crew’s struggle is still visible today, 160 years later.

[i] A version of “Cumberland’s Crew,” performed by the 97th Regimental String Band, and played on contemporary instruments can be heard at
[ii] A version of “Good Ship Cumberland” Performed by Warde Ford (under the title “The Sinking of the Cumberland”), can be heard at Notice that the first stanza is omitted in this version.
[iii] A version of “Good Ship Cumberland” (under the title “The Cumberland and the Merrimac”), performed by Ellen Stekert can be heard at
[iv] A version of “The Cumberland’s Crew”, performed by Smokey Bastard, 2008 can be heard at

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Memories of USS Cumberland (Part 2 of 3): The Poets

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator

In part 1 of our series about the sinking of USS Cumberland during the Battle of Hampton Roads, we looked at how the public perceived the loss of Cumberland in the accounts of newspapers, witnesses, and participants. Today, we will explore how writers of the day retold the event in poetry. In addition to many other poets, literary titans Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Herman Melville produced works about USS Cumberland. The poetry written soon after the battle established the well-known narrative. However, while a few names become synonymous with brave words and actions, every work celebrates the courage and commitment of Cumberland’s crew and seeks to preserve their deeds for future generations. Links will be provided at the end to the full texts of each of the three poems discussed.
Portraits of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (left) and Herman Melville c. 1860 (Library of Congress)
It is no surprise that the two most famous poets to pen works about the struggle between Cumberland and Virginia are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Herman Melville. In fact, both authors titled their pieces “The Cumberland.” Longfellow’s “Cumberland” was first published in the December 1862 edition of Atlantic Monthly. While Longfellow wrote many pieces about the sea, ships, and sailing, he never served aboard a naval vessel. His personal experience of fighting vessels came from his childhood and his proximity to the September 5, 1813, battle between USS Enterprise and HMS Boxer off the coast of Portland, Maine, where he and his family were living at the time. He later penned a poem recounting the event, titled “My Lost Youth.” Longfellow’s “Cumberland” is written from the point of view of a Sailor aboard the ship during the battle. This anonymous Sailor recounts Virginia’s approach up the Elizabeth River with its “feather of snow-white smoke… to try the force of our ribs of oak.” After receiving shots from Virginia, Cumberland “sen[t] her straight defiance back in a full broadside!” The fire from Cumberland’s guns, while able to damage a few of Virginia’s cannons, lifeboats, and smokestack, is unable to penetrate the “iron scale of the monster’s hide.” At this moment, in Longfellow’s telling, a Sailor aboard Virginia demands Cumberland’s surrender:

"Strike your flag!" the rebel cries,
In his arrogant old plantation strain.
"Never!" our gallant Morris replies;
"It is better to sink than to yield!"
And the whole air pealed
With the cheers of our men.

This action becomes a defining moment of the engagement. First, it signals the Cumberland crew’s intent to continue fighting regardless of the circumstances, becoming a rallying cry for Union forces as well as the public. Second, it places Lieutenant George Morris as the central hero in the tale, something that is mirrored in some of the articles and recollections in part 1 of this series, as well as in poetry, song, and prose. Morris was acting commander of the vessel since Cumberland’s captain, William Radford, was not aboard when the battle commenced. Longfellow describes Virginia ramming Cumberland, and Cumberland’s subsequent sinking, continuing to fire until the decks were submerged. The scene is completed with the image of Cumberland’s flag still flying the following morning on the mast, visible above the water. He states, “Every waft of the air was a whisper of prayer, or a dirge for the dead.” Longfellow’s “Cumberland” was well received publicly, and in 1863 composer Francis Boott put his words to music.
Cover of F. Bootts' musical arrangement of Longfellow’s “The Cumberland,” 1863. (Library of Congress)
In contrast, Herman Melville’s “The Cumberland” was first published by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in March 1866, four years after the battle. Its publication was part of a series of Civil War poems by Melville published in Harper’s as a leadup to the release of his collection of poems titled Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. Melville, unlike Longfellow, served over a year in the US Navy, aboard USS United States from 1843 to 1844 (one of the first six frigates authorized by the US Congress in 1794). Where Longfellow and others recount the events and deeds of the battle, Melville uses his poem to eulogize and memorialize USS Cumberland and its crew. He begins by declaring, “Some names there are of telling sound, whose vowelled syllables free are pledge that they shall ever live renowned,” immediately identifying Cumberland as worthy of remembrance. To aid in imprinting the name Cumberland into his reader’s mind, each stanza ends with a sensational description of saying the ship’s name, feeling it, “flowing, rolling on the tongue.” As with other poetry about the battle, Melville invokes the image of Cumberland’s flag still visible and flying on the mast, a symbol for defiance, and states, “Your flag and flag-staff shall in story stand,” as the “dead unconquerable manned the Cumberland.” While Melville is now considered one of the United States’ most celebrated poets, his book Battle-Pieces, which contains “The Cumberland,” only sold 496 of the 1,200 copies printed in the 10 years after its publication. Regardless, the existence of the poem, and the fact that Melville was moved enough by the events of March 8th, 1862, to pen the work four years later, is a testament to the effect the actions of Cumberland’s crew had on the popular consciousness.
Portrait of George Boker, author and later US Diplomat, c. 1860. (Library of Congress)
Somewhat less well-known today, George Boker also wrote a poem titled, “On Board the Cumberland,” which like Longfellow’s verse recounts the events of the battle from a crewmember’s perspective. The poem was published in Boker’s book, Poems of the War, in 1864. Throughout the American Civil War, George Boker was a staunch Unionist and was a foundational member of the Union League Club, supporting the war effort with his writing. During the presidency of Ulysses Grant, he was appointed as a diplomat to the Ottoman Empire, and later served as a representative to the Russian Empire. Boker’s poem focuses on the heroism of acting commander Lt. Morris. He has Morris giving an inspirational speech to the crew as CSS Virginia approached. In this lyrical account of Morris appealing to the crew, Boker ascribes him with great eloquence, stating:

"Remember, boys, this flag of ours
Has seldom left its place;
And where it falls, the deck it strikes
Is covered with disgrace.

"I ask but this: or sink or swim,
Or live or nobly die,
My last sight upon earth may be
To see that ensign fly!"

This moment of foreshadowing primes the reader for the now famous image of Cumberland’s flag still raised off its sunken wreck, having not surrendered even to the last. In his poem, Boker does something that many other works do not; he recounts the actions of other individuals made famous by the battle, most notably future Rear Admiral Thomas O. Selfridge Jr. and Acting Master (later Lieutenant Commander) William Pritchard Randall. To Selfridge, Boker attributes the command to abandon ship, but only once the sinking was imminent, and so that the crew may survive to continue the fight, saying, “’Up to the spar-deck! Save yourselves!’ Cried Selfridge. ‘Up, my men! God grant that some of us may live to fight yon ship again!’" While the crew prepared to leave Cumberland, Boker writes, “We reached the deck. Here Randall stood: ‘Another turn, men – So!’ Calmly he aimed his pivot-gun; ‘Now, Tennery, let her go!’” With this final shot from USS Cumberland, Boker describes the ship finally sinking, coming once more to the image of Cumberland’s flag remaining to wave over the wreck as a “sign that we who live may claim the peerage of the brave; a monument, that needs no scroll, for those beneath the wave!” The inclusion of these men in the poem presents a slightly different narrative than so many other works. While Morris is still the intrepid commander, intent on fighting, regardless of the odds, introducing others into the work reminds the reader that it was actions of the entire crew that fueled the public’s imagination and inspired so many authors to write about this event.
An illustration that accompanies Boker’s “On Board the Cumberland,” depicting a soldier pointing out Cumberland’s mast and flag, still visible, to a rescued Sailor. (A Selection of War Lyrics, by Felix Darley and James Gregory, 1864)
The narrative of “brave Morris” and Cumberland’s struggle, stuck in the public consciousness well after the war, with efforts to recognize and reward Cumberland’s crewmembers led by authors and citizens, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and members of Congress, continued well into the 1870s and‘80s. While we have seen three poets and their interpretations of the battle’s aftermath, many more were produced by authors of various backgrounds and perspectives. Many extol Morris as a singular hero, but there are a few, like Boker, that include the deeds of a wider variety of individuals. What remains true in every case is the admiration and praise from the authors for the crew of USS Cumberland and their desire to preserve this crew’s actions in writing for future generations. Poetry wasn’t the only creative endeavor to give voice to Cumberland’s story. In part 3 of this series, we will look at songs about Cumberland and the Battle of Hampton Roads, and how they passed through time into the present day.

Poem Links:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Cumberland,” 1862

Herman Melville’s “The Cumberland,” 1866

George Henry Boker’s “On Board the Cumberland,” c. 1864