Thursday, February 18, 2021

Before Chief Turpin: Other Early African American Chief Petty Officers


Chief Gunner's Mate John Turpin seen in the early 1920s. (Puget Sound Navy Museum)

Alexander Bright & Elijah Palmer
HRNM Educator and Deputy Director of Education

Chief Petty Officer John Henry Turpin has long been rightfully recognized as one of the most important African American Chief Petty Officers (CPOs) in American history. Among the first Black men to achieve such rank while serving aboard the cruiser USS Marblehead (CL 12) in 1917, during World War II he proudly wore his uniform again while recruiting young African Americans for the U.S. Navy. With a long career in the Navy and with prior fame having survived two terrible shipboard disasters (USS Maine in 1898 and USS Bennington in 1905) he received widespread recognition and his legacy was well established. However, due to Turpin’s popularity and readily accessible sources, other early African American CPOs have largely been overlooked. We recently discovered the names of three other African American Chief Petty Officers who made rank before Turpin: Chief Carpenter’s Mate Isaac A. Miller, Chief Gunner’s Mate John C. Jordan, and Chief Water Tender Frank E. Smith. Let’s take a closer look at each of their places in naval history.

USS Columbia (CL 12) seen (left) at Brooklyn Navy Yard in March 1903. The auxiliary cruiser USS Buffalo is seen in the foreground right. (Brooklyn Museum Collection)

Isaac Miller's story picks up on August 4th, 1903, the day he was promoted to Chief Carpenter’s Mate aboard USS Columbia (C 12) by Captain Snow, commanding officer of the receiving ship. After Navy leadership recognized Miller for his contributions aboard Columbia, while it docked at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Captain Snow promoted the sailor to the rank of Chief Carpenter’s Mate, in charge of maintaining the ship’s condition. Little is known of Isaac Miller before this. He is only identified as having a long, respected career in the Navy as he worked his way up the ranks. Immediately following his promotion, disagreements erupted aboard Columbia. On August 5th, eight white chief petty officers publicly refused to eat with Miller in the chief’s mess. When asked why, one of the sailors did not hesitate to use a racial slur to justify their reasoning and decry it “an outrage [the Navy] should try to force [African Americans] in on us.” 
“Color Line is Now Drawn in the Navy,” Indianapolis News (August 7, 1903)

Chief's mess aboard USS Newark (C 1) in the 1890s. (Library of Congress

Miller’s promotion and the incidents on August 5th immediately drew the attention of both the Navy and the media. On the same day Chief Miller received his promotion, the New York Herald ran an article “Navy Tired of Negroes” that stated the explicit intent of some in the Navy to rid the service of African American sailors – “Naval officers believe the efficiency of the service will be increased if no more negroes are enlisted.”
(Left) New York Herald article on August 4, 1903 on Navy attitudes towards African American sailors, and (right) an editorial echoing this sentiment that was published directly below the August 7 article related to Chief Miller in the New York Herald

In response to the editorial piece, and perhaps in response to the prior day’s incidents involving Miller, another Chief Petty Officer wrote in agreement that the Navy should seek the end of black enlistments into service. Despite the outpouring of hatred toward Chief Miller, he remained calm and collected, refusing to engage with the racist rhetoric. Captain Snow reportedly remained supportive of Chief Miller as well, having said that, “Miller’s rights would be protected as the navy makes no distinction as to color.” Some 14 years before Turpin, Miller had achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer.

Not long after Miller’s promotion, another black sailor, John C. Jordan, was promoted to the rank of Chief Petty Officer. Jordan’s career in the Navy has been much better preserved. Enlisting in 1887, he became Gunner’s Mate 2nd class by 1898. That year he was serving aboard USS Olympia (C 6), Commodore George Dewey’s flagship for the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War. Jordan was the port gun captain in Olympia’s forward 8-inch turret and earned the reputation of being one of the best gunners under Dewey’s command.

USS Olympia (C 6) and the rest of Dewey's fleet firing at Battle of Manila Bay (Library of Congress)

Jordan featured in a June 10, 1899 article from The Evening Star ( 

By 1900, he had reached Gunner’s Mate First Class and served aboard USS Iowa (BB 4) before finally being stationed at the U.S. Naval Academy to help train new officers. Sometime in early 1905, Jordan received his promotion to Chief Gunner’s Mate and seemingly met little resistance. While some high-ranking officials endeavored to end the advancement of African Americans in the Navy, sometimes stating the reason for denial could “be found in the applicant’s descriptive list” (e.g. race), shipboard officers could not ignore Jordan’s knowledge and prowess. Unfortunately, few details are known about Jordan’s promotions and whether or not they received public attention. Ultimately, however, Jordan’s attainment of the rank of Chief Gunner’s Mate in 1905 puts him alongside Chief Miller as one of the first African Americans to do so, and helped pave the way in the Gunner's Mate rating for Turpin to follow later.

Chief Jordan seen in his Chief Petty Officer uniform, likely near his retirement in 1916. (The Crisis, Vol. 17, Issue 6 (October 1917))
Engine fireroom aboard USS Brooklyn (C 3) in 1896. Note the African American sailor in the background. (Library of Congress)

Finally, in 1915, only two years before Turpin’s promotion, Frank E. Smith became Chief Water Tender as he retired. Notably, Smith was also a Medal of Honor recipient. Born in 1864, Smith joined the Navy in 1884 and the details of his career are unknown until 1900 when he was serving aboard USS Newark (C 1) as part of the Asiastic Squadron. According to his Medal of Honor citation, Smith was part of the Seymour relief expedition during the Boxer Rebellion and “distinguished himself by meritorious conduct” across four days of combat in June 1900. 

Members of the Seymour Expedition are seen in China in 1900. The American contingent is in the background. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Despite the medal, and clear recognition of his excellence in his rating, Smith faced obstacles to achieve his aspirations of making Chief Water Tender. At one point Smith wrote to his commander, “It has been the height of my ambition to attain the rank of Chief Water Tender and have taken two exams, heretofore, yet could not attain my object – not for lack of ability, but suitability.” At the end of his service Smith did receive the promotion he had hoped for and retired as Chief Water Tender Smith.

The lives of Chiefs Isaac Miller, John Jordan, and Frank Smith tell us a new story of integration in the U.S. Navy. Nearly fifteen years before John Turpin made Chief Gunner’s Mate, these three men demonstrated how racial barriers were broken much earlier than his timeline suggests. Amid some of the most intense periods of racial violence in the United States at the start of the 20th century, the rise of these three men to the rank of chief represent the best of the Navy’s ability to recognize skill above skin color. Ultimately, although Chief John Henry Turpin has been rightfully recognized as a pioneer in race relations within the U.S. Navy, it is important we remain vigilant to other stories that might have been forgotten. The addition of the stories of Chiefs Miller, Jordan, and Smith to the historiography serve to deepen our knowledge about the history of race relations in the U.S. Navy. 

Further Reading/Sources

“Color Line is Now Drawn in the Navy,” Indianapolis News (August 7, 1903)

"Navy Tired of Negroes," New York Herald (August 4, 1903)

“Letter to the Editor,” New York Herald (August 7, 1903)

"Color Line Drawn in the Navy Yard," New York Herald (August 7, 1903)

“Color Line in the Navy,” Washington Post (August 7, 1903)

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Saddam, AEGIS, and the Debut of the Tomahawk: The 30th Anniversary of Desert Storm


USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) firing a Tomahawk cruise missile at Iraqi targets during Desert Storm. USS Paul F. Foster (DD 964) to the right.(Navsource)

By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to invade the tiny, oil-rich nation of Kuwait. In addition to the armed invasion, Saddam Hussein had violated several United Nations resolutions. As a result, the United States had the full support of the United Nations to deal with Hussein and his recent invasion.

President George H.W. Bush, along with his military advisors, was concerned that Hussein might not be content with just invading Kuwait and might continue with an invasion of Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi Arabia was an ally, President Bush felt compelled to prevent this from happening. Along with 40 other allied nations, the U.S. implemented a plan called Desert Shield.
General Schwarzkopf talking with troops (Los Angeles Times)

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf was the overall commander in charge of the coalition for Desert Shield. Schwarzkopf, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam, had a very specific battle plan: do not attack until you are prepared. Having served in Vietnam, Schwarzkopf knew that the American public would be apprehensive about a lengthy ground war in a foreign land that would possibly result in extensive American casualties. Therefore, Schwarzkopf's plan had two phases. The first was the buildup of the coalition forces referred to as Desert Shield. The second phase, the offensive aspect, would include a lengthy air campaign, and was referred to as Desert Storm. Schwarzkopf’s plan would include significant support from the United States Navy.
USS Midway (CV 41), USS Ranger (CV 61), USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and USS America (CV 66) are escorted by USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55) and USS Normandy (CG 60) at the end of Desert Storm (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Reminiscent of the large-scale invasions of World War II, the U.S. Navy deployed to the Persian Gulf with six aircraft carriers, 18 cruisers, 13 destroyers, 18 frigates, two nuclear fast attack submarines, and a wide variety of support ships. The Hampton Roads-based vessels alone numbered thirty six, including the battleship USS Wisconsin (BB 64). Within this assembled armada was a class of ship that would prove to be a true workhorse during the operation: the Ticonderoga-class AEGIS cruiser.

USS San Jacinto (CG 56) transits the Suez Canal to the Red Sea in September 1990 to join the build up of forces in Desert Shield. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Ten AEGIS (Automatic Electronic Guidance Intercept System) cruisers deployed to support the operation from bases in Norfolk, San Diego, Mississippi, and Japan. AEGIS uses a combination of computers and radar to track multiple targets simultaneously. The AN/SPY-1 radar used by the cruisers also enabled the ships to track over 100 targets over 100 nautical miles away. Utilizing the AEGIS system, the various cruisers performed the tasks of coordinating anti-air warfare and anti-surface warfare operations. While serving as the Battle Force Anti-Surface-Warfare Commander (controlling aircraft from four different aircraft carriers), USS Mobile Bay (CG 53) directed carrier-based aircraft to engage 38 Iraqi naval vessels during the Battle of Bubiyan, which took place from January 29 to February 2, 1991. The outcome of the battle was the annihilation of the Iraqi navy, which proved the effectiveness of AEGIS in combat. Another new weapon system used by the Navy was the Tomahawk cruise missile. 

Concept art of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) from the 1970s. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Tomahawk first entered service with the Fleet as the primary land attack missile in 1983. This new cruise missile provided the Navy with an all-weather long-range weapon capable of engaging multiple targets simultaneously. Desert Storm was the combat debut of the Tomahawk, and the majority of the cruisers supporting the operation fired several of these weapons. The AEGIS cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG 56) fired the first Tomahawk missile in combat on January  while operating in the Red Sea. Other cruisers such as USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) and Mobile Bay fired Tomahawks from the Persian Gulf. A Sailor aboard Mobile Bay described the scene aboard the cruiser:

I can't remember what time we went to general quarters, but I know it was in the middle of the night. Normally a GQ in the middle of the night meant being pissed at getting pulled out of my rack for a drill. But not this time. I had been having trouble sleeping because being part of the CIC [Combat Information Center] watch team I knew we had plans to fire [Tomahawks]. I didn't know when it would happen, but . . . [I] knew that the GMs had gone in to remove the safeties on a lot of our missiles. So when GQ came I just knew we were going to get in a scrap! Because my GQ station was down in engineering monitoring the 400hz system, I didn't get to see the first missiles of Desert Storm get launched. But nobody on the ship could say you didn't feel and hear those bad boys launching. Net 66, the sound circuit for Aegis maintenance, went WILD with everybody whooping and cheering. We quickly got settled down by [the combat systems officer]. But I know I didn't have any issues staying awake in the middle of the night just waiting and not being disappointed in more and more TLAMs being launched. [*Mobile Bay fired 22 Tomahawks during Desert Storm

A Sailor in the CIC aboard USS Normandy (CG 60) a few years after Desert Storm (Wikipedia Commons)

USS Wisconsin (BB 64) launches a Tomahawk missile against an Iraqi target during Desert Storm (Wikipedia)

Two Iowa-class battleships, USS Missouri (BB 63) and Wisconsin, also fired Tomahawks utilizing the box launcher system installed during their modernization in the 1980s. Below the surface, USS Louisville (SSN 724) also fired Tomahawks at Iraqi targets, which marked the first successful launch of a Tomahawk from a submarine. The U.S. Navy launched a total of 288 Tomahawks during Desert Storm, hitting the enemy with great effect. Targets destroyed included command and control centers, power facilities, surface-to-air missile sites, and the Presidential Palace.
A Sailor from Louisville holds a commemorative Louisville Slugger baseball bat marked with the date of the submarine's Tomahawk launch against Iraqi targets. Note the text "Kick Saddam's Butt, Jan. 19, 1991." (National Archives and Records Administration)

Kuwait was liberated on February 27, 1991 with Hussein’s army fleeing in great numbers, and Iraq agreed to the resolutions from the United Nations the next day. The Navy’s role during Desert Storm was a key element to the coalition victory over Iraq. The Navy provided unchallenged control of the seas, provided consistent delivery of equipment and essential supplies, and flew numerous sorties during the air campaign. The use of new and at the time untested weapon systems like AEGIS and the Tomahawk land attack missile helped ensure a quick victory over the Iraqi forces.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Recent Reads: Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power by William F. Trimble


Admiral John S. McCain in the early 1940s (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Reviewed by Dr. Ira Hanna
HRNM Docent

Several books have been written about Admiral John S. McCain but none of them cover all aspects of this unusual naval officer. A Leader Born by Alton Keith Gilbert concentrated on the personality of the man and his accomplishments as a carrier commander. His grandson, Senator John S. McCain III, wrote a memoir that captured what it meant to follow in his footsteps. This book is different! Author William Trimble meticulously described McCain’s rise through the “black shoe” navy, his decision to become a naval aviator at the age of 52, and his leadership as a Fast Carrier Task Force Commander during some of the most important WWII naval battles leading to the Japanese surrender. Descriptions of McCain by his contemporaries, his staff members, squadron commanders and their pilots were particularly important to the total picture of the man. 

Admiral McCain on the bridge of his flagship, early 1945 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

If you are interested in the strategic as well as the technical side of planning and executing wartime fleet operations, this is the book for you. The almost minute by minute description of ship maneuvers during naval battles is enough to make you feel like you are right there. Unfortunately, this causes a problem. Sometimes, the details cloud the overall picture. 

There are even messages that show the pettiness between flag officers in the competition for fleet and task force command. Marc Mitscher still considered McCain a “Johnny Come Lately” to naval aviation. In comparison, Ernest King and William Halsey were friendly and supportive. Because of McCain’s experience with battleships and cruisers, he knew their capabilities and weaknesses. Once integrated into the naval air community, he recognized the usefulness of fast carriers and immediately understood the importance of his carriers to protect the fleet and provide current intelligence for Fleet commanders. He was noted for his aggressiveness and the use of bombers and fighters as deadly attack weapons when enemy ships were in range. His Task Force sometimes numbered thirteen carries that successfully protected the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He saw the strategic importance of carriers and correctly predicted that the super carriers built after WWII would become the expression of America’s power throughout the world.
McCain's Task Force 38 sailing in August 1945 right after the Japanese surrender (Naval History and Heritage Command)

McCain’s journey to become one of the most important task force commanders in WWII was not easy. In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt was anxious to see some naval action to blunt the Japanese victories in the Pacific. He instructed Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox to identify the forty admirals he considered “most competent” (Trimble’s term) to prosecute the naval war. Knox formed a committee of nine “high ranking and experienced” officers as an unofficial “selection board.” King and Harold Stark were immediately selected to be on the board and also the top two on the list. McCain barely made the list with just six votes. So at the beginning of the war, he spent several years working in stateside commands that eventually helped him in his seagoing commands. Still, he longed to be where the action was.

Admirals John S. McCain and William "Bull" Halsey talking aboard USS New Jersey (BB 62) on the way to the Philippines in December 1944 (Wikipedia)

In March 1944, Ernest King (CNO) chose McCain to command Task Force 38, part of Halsey’s Third Fleet. In May, Chester Nimitz (CIC Pacific Ocean Areas) and King agreed to the rotation of fleet and task force commanders and staffs. Bill Halsey’s Third Fleet would trade with Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet at appropriate intervals. This was known as the “two platoon” system and continued till the end of the war. In the rotation that usually occurred after each major mission, Task Force 58 under Marc Mitscher (Spruance’s Fleet) would become Task Force 38 under McCain (Halsey’s Fleet). During these relief times, McCain not only would get a chance to visit his family but often wrote articles that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. He was interviewed often by the press and regaled reporters about battle scenes in his most “colorful” boatswain-mate language. One of these landed him on the front page of Collier’s Magazine. In every speech, McCain guaranteed America’s victory over Japan and was a cheerleader for the Navy’s part in it. He even testified before Congress that the Navy’s air arm was crucial to wining the war.

McCain in his quarters aboard USS Hancock (CV 19) (Naval History and Heritage Command)
The naval battles of WWII took a toll of ships and men and the admirals were no exception. Halsey had shingles so bad that he had to be sent back to the states to recover. McCain just wore himself out. After he was relieved of the command of Task Force 38 on September 1, 1945, he attended the Japanese Surrender Ceremony on the battleship Missouri (BB 63), and then left for Hawaii. When he arrived, the reporters besieged him and wanted firsthand descriptions of the ceremony. As Trimble put it, the “explosive little admiral did not disappoint them.” A few days later, he arrived in San Diego and on September 6, 1945 a homecoming party was organized at his home. About 4pm, he became ill and went to his bedroom. A neighbor who was a naval surgeon was summoned, but despite his efforts, VADM John S. McCain USN died a little after 5pm, just a month past his 61st birthday. Three years later, he was elevated posthumously to full admiral by Congress.

McCain and an operations officer working on an operations plan on USS Hancock (CV 19) (Naval History and Heritage Command)

In his prologue, Trimble described how McCain showed he cared as much for his pilots as their missions. “McCain wanted to hear more than statistics.” After each mission, he personally would ask pilots “What did you see and what did you do?” Then he would tell them “You have performed one of the most dangerous as well as necessary missions. Congratulations. Glad you are back.” McCain cared so much for these junior airmen and their futures that he ordered that they be given opportunities to qualify as officers of the deck underway, later known as Surface Warfare Officers. This is why he was known as “The Airman’s Admiral,” which just as well could have been the title of this book.

Trimble concluded that “few among his peers bore the burden of command in such broad dimensions of naval aviation – patrol aviation, carrier, task group, and task force command, administration, technological change, personnel, and logistics – as did Admiral John S. McCain.”

Thursday, January 7, 2021

USS Langley (CV 1): The Beginning (Part One)

USS Langley (CV 1) with battleships of the fleet in the 1920s. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer

A collier was perhaps the most unprepossessing vessel afloat. Mostly empty space, it plodded from one port to another laden with coal, metallic ores or other bulky cargoes, fuel for the economy. But one collier, laid down as USS Jupiter (AC 3) on October 18, 1911 at Mare Island Naval Yard in Vallejo, California, would go on to become a nautical trailblazer.

The collier USS Jupiter (AC 3) seen in 1913. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The second of four sister ships, Jupiter was the first vessel in the fleet to be powered by a turbo electric drive. After being commissioned on April 7, 1913, it spent time with the Pacific Fleet before passing through the Panama Canal on Columbus Day 1914, becoming the first ship to transit the Canal from west to east in the process. It would spend the prewar and the First World War years engaged in the hum drum life of a naval collier, enlivened only by a pair of voyages to France in June 1917 and November 1918 carrying a detachment of 129 naval aviators. After supplying coaling services to ships transporting the American Expeditionary Force home, it returned to Norfolk for decommissioning on August 17, 1918. But its story was not to end there.

After the end of the First World War, the five great naval powers gathered in Washington D.C. in early 1921 to attempt to prevent another ruinous naval arms race like that that had led to the recently ended conflict. Most of the resulting arms treaty, colloquially known as the Washington Treaty, dealt with the battleship: entirely appropriate given that vessel’s then central role in the Fleet. However, recent wartime experience had revealed that ship-based aircraft could prove decisive in any future conflict. Therefore, each of the signatories were allowed to convert for experimental purposes several already existing vessels into aircraft carriers under Article VII of the Treaty.

Langley (ex-Jupiter) being converted at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1921 (National Naval Aviation Museum via wikipedia)

Because of its relative newness and ease of conversion, Jupiter was chosen to become America’s first aircraft carrier. Renamed Langley after an aviation pioneer on April 11, 1920, the collier would spend the next two years undergoing an extensive conversion at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. It would eventually be recommissioned as USS Langley (CV 1) on March 20, 1922 as an aviation trials ship. Data on everything from flight deck procedures to arrestor gear collected over its career would be the basis for the great carrier fleet that would lead America to victory a generation later. Under the command of Commander Kenneth Whiting, who had originally proposed the conversion of a collier to a carrier, the little Langley set out to face the future.

USS Langley with aircraft aboard in the 1920s (Wikimedia commons)