Thursday, May 6, 2021

From Commodore Perry's Black Ships to the Battle of Okinawa

A zoomed in portion of Wilhelm Heine's lithograph "Exercises of Troops in Temple Grounds, Simodo, Japan" on June 8, 1854, showing sailors firing two brass boat howitzers. (Brown University Library)

By Elijah Palmer
HRNM Deputy Director of Education

Blink and you'll miss it. Buried in the grainy footage of 6th Marine Division's fighting on Okinawa in 1945 is a short clip of Brigadier General William Clement, assistant division commander of the 6th Marine Division, placing a bouquet on the grave of a U.S. Navy Sailor. This might not have been too unusual if this footage was taken at the cemeteries that were hastily established on Okinawa that year, with rows of white crosses marking part of the horrendous loss of life from that last great battle of World War II. But in this case, the buried sailor had been dead for nearly a century! 

(National Archives and Records Administration, 428-NPC-13055)

There are three graves visible in the clip, all from sailors who sailed with Commodore Matthew Perry's expedition to Japan. Perry left Hampton Roads in November 1852 and arrived in the Ryukyu Islands by May 26, 1853, coming ashore at Naha, Okinawa. At the time, Okinawa (then called "Loo Choo") was a vassal state to Japan. Perry's fleet (called the "Black Ships" by the Japanese) sailed to Japan shortly after his visit to Okinawa, but would return several times through the protracted events that led to the Kanagawa Treaty on March 31, 1854 that opened Japan's ports. 

A Japanese painting of Perry's fleet (MIT Visualizing Cultures Project)

Some who died during the Perry Expedition were buried in Japan, most famously a Marine Private Williams. But several were interred in Naha, Okinawa at a foreigner cemetery near Tomari Port that had been established sometime in the early 1800s. In fact, part of Perry's treaty with the people of Okinawa mentioned the cemetery specifically. 

A Japanese depiction of the funeral of Pvt. Williams, USMC. Williams' headstone was also drawn on some of Japanese scrolls in the collection of the Naval War College Museum. (MIT Visualizing Cultures Project)

In the video clip above, the first grave that is zoomed in on is of John Barnes, who was a seaman on USS Vandalia. He died on December 31, 1853 at the age of 23. The next tombstone seen in the footage is Hugh Ellis, who was a landsman. That was the lowest rank for a sailor, and meant that he had little to no experience. Ellis was stationed aboard USS Mississippi, and passed away on July 24, 1853, just as the American fleet returned to Okinawa after the first visit to Japan.  A 1905 book titled Loochoo Islands by Charles Leavenworth references the cemetery and the author claims that he has gravestone rubbings of some of the inscriptions. The book also states that Ellis was from Syracuse, New York. The last grave shown in the video is Jesse L. Carter, a sailor aboard USS Macedonian. He died on January 10, 1854. Leavenworth's Loochoo Islands states that Carter was from Rhode Island. 

There were a few other Americans buried in the Tomari International Cemetery from this time era, including Eli Crosby, 2nd assistant engineer aboard USS Susquehanna, who died on January 24, 1854. Two sailors from a separate surveying expedition in late 1854, John Miller and John Williams, both off of USS Vincennes, are also buried there.  Another Navy sailor, noted only as William Board, died in 1854. 

The Marines in 1945 were not the first American military personnel to honor their predecessors, as both Loochoo Islands and the 1903 "Army and Navy Register" reference Sailors from USS Vicksburg (Gunboat No. 11) paying respects and repairing tombstones in an April 1903 visit to Naha. 

A colorized picture of the "Graves of American Sailors" near Naha, from the 1908 book In Togo's Country by Henry Schwartz (University of the Ryukyus Library)

As can be seen in the later part of the video clip, the cemetery suffered heavy damage from the bombardment and bombing of Naha both prior to the invasion as well as during the fighting there in May 1945. As American forces pressed the Japanese defenders in costly fighting, they reached the northern outskirts of Naha by mid-May 1945, and had secured the entire city by the end of May. 

Marines of the 22nd Regiment, 6th Marine Division firing a water-cooled .30-caliber machine gun on the outskirts of Naha, overlooking the Asato Gawa river looking south, on May 12, 1945. Below their position is a large cluster of traditional Okinawan tombs, but they are likely set up near some at the higher elevation as well. They are on the high ground above the Tomari Foreign Cemetery, firing in a south/southeast direction. (U.S. Marine Corps Archives)

This 1945 map (based on a captured Japanese 62nd Infantry map) shows the area of the Tomari cemetery, with the orange arrow pointing to that area. The green arrow points to the the Okinawan tomb area (see picture above) which still exists today, and is visible off the Tomari Port bridge as you drive north. The blue circles indicate minefields. (Map detail courtesy of MacArthur Memorial)

The vast majority of Naha was razed during the fighting at the end of World War II. In 1955, the cemetery was restored and can be visited today
The Tomari International Cemetery today (Naha City Tourism Database)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

USS Langley (CV 1): The Finale (Part 3)

Sailors watch from USS Whipple as Langley is scuttled. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer

 Editor's Note: This is part 3 of the USS Langley series. Click the links to read Part 1 and part 2.

On February 26, 1937, USS Langley, now designated as AG 3, reentered active duty as a member of the Aircraft Scouting Force. It operated out of various West Coast ports and Pearl Harbor before making a brief detour to the Atlantic between February and July 1939. It was then deployed to the Asiatic Fleet some ten weeks later. War would find Langley at Cavite, Philippines.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Langley fled south, first to Balikpapan in what is now Indonesia and eventually to Darwin, Northern Australia, by early January 1942 where it joined ADBACOM (Australian Dutch British American Command). It would spend the next month assisting the Royal Australian Air Force in anti-submarine patrols off Darwin. On February 22, 1942, Langley would leave on its date with destiny.

Curtiss P-40Es in flight (Wikipedia)

The seaplane tender embarked 32 P-40 Warhawk fighters of the 13th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) in Fremantle, Australia, as part of Convoy MS5 bound for Columbo in what is now Sri Lanka. Alongside three further transports and the cargo ship Sea Witch and escorted by the light cruiser USS Phoenix, the convoy was to deliver its war materiel to British forces in India. However, ABDACOM ordered both Langley and Sea Witch to deliver their combined cargo of 59 P-40s to Tjilatjap on the island of Java in a desperate attempt to stem the Japanese tide. Langley would not succeed.

On the morning of February 27, 1942, the tiny convoy, now escorted by destroyers Edsall and Whipple, was spotted by a Japanese reconnaissance plane. In response, 16 G4M Betty bombers attacked from Denpasar airfield, Bali. With the convoy lacking air cover, the Japanese commander, LT Jiro Adachi, ordered a rather leisurely attack on the American ships with Langley drawing the lion’s share of the attention. Apparently enraged at this lack of respect, the tender fought back with a fury worthy of a far larger warship. Coupled with exceptional ship handling, Langley was able to evade the first two attack runs. But the third pass would prove fatal, with five hits and three near misses from 550-lb and 130-lb bombs killing 16 sailors, starting fires, crippling the ship, and inducing a 10-degree list to port. The crippled vessel was abandoned at 1:32 P.M. and scuttled by the escorting destroyers to prevent its capture. 

A torpedo from the destroyer USS Whipple (DD 217) strikes home as the seaplane tender USS Langley is scuttled after being disabled by Japanese bombers on February 27, 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Of the 485 men rescued, most would be lost when the ship carrying them, oiler USS Pecos, was sunk by the Japanese on March 1 south of Java. Thirty-one more would be lost when the destroyer Edsall was sunk in an epic showdown with two Japanese battleships Kirishima and Hiei that same day, while they were responding the oiler’s distress calls. Thus ended the story of the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier. The valiant sacrifices of ABDACOM bought the time necessary for the United States to prepare a counterpunch against the Japanese, but that is a story for another time.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Recent Reads: The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance by Thomas Buell


Admiral Raymond Spruance seen in April 1944 (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Reviewed by Lee Duckworth
HRNM Docent

The impetus for writing The Quiet Warrior was a 1963 interview with Admiral Raymond A. Spruance and follow on work at the Naval War College in the early 1970s. Author Thomas B. Buell, CDR USN (Ret.) used extensive interviews with the Spruance family and members of the admiral’s staff, letters, official reports and oral histories in writing his book. The author spends some time on Spruance’s early years and post-retirement as Ambassador to the Philippines but concentrates on his US Navy WWII career.

Buell alternates chapters chronologically with the preparation and planning for an upcoming battle, followed by the ensuing battle and results. Woven in are vignettes about home life. He makes excellent use of how Spruance applied lessons learned from previous battles into planning for the next battle.

How does a Navy Captain with only a shipboard background make his way in three years to four-star rank and command of the largest naval battle ever fought? The biggest force Spruance ever commanded prior to the June 4-6, 1942 Battle of Midway was a cruiser division of only four cruisers. Yet he accomplished this meteoric rise through his professional competence, intelligence and leadership traits. He was a listener, student of naval strategy and tactics, and a master at delegating work (in fact, he admits to being lazy and wanted others to do the work—and receive the credit). Spruance believed in being at the front and recognized that accurate and timely intelligence was imperative to success. Perhaps most importantly, he had the ability to see the big picture and hired good people to work for him.

Planes of Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6) prepare to launch off USS Enterprise (CV 6) on the morning of June 4, 1942 during the Battle of Midway. Enterprise was Spruance's flagship during the battle. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

With no aviation experience, Spruance was thrust into the role of leading a two-carrier task force in battle with the Japanese Navy at Midway. He was seemingly unperturbed as Admiral Chester Nimitz gave him excellent intelligence and broad guidance: he would be “…governed by the principle of calculated risk” which he was to interpret to mean to avoid exposure of his force without a good prospect of inflicting greater damage to the enemy. With two days advance notice, he set sail aboard USS Enterprise for Midway.

The author doesn’t delve deeply into the details of the Battle of Midway but he addresses the controversy surrounding Spruance and his perceived lack of aggressiveness in this battle, as well as others over the next three years. Buell puts Spruance on a bit of a pedestal and states that he was operating under the principle of calculated risk and his plan was bold, arguing that there was no lack of aggressiveness. The author admits that there were delays in the June 4 aircraft launch and a number of miscommunications during the course of operating the carrier group, but Spruance confidently launched his entire air wing. Another major mistake was Spruance’s failure to launch search planes on June 4 and 5. Spruance made his June 5th decision to turn on shipboard lights to assist aviators in finding the US fleet at night. This was a conscious decision made prior to the mid-afternoon launch, knowing it would be dark on their return. There is still much controversy nearly 80 years later as to whether he should have pressed the attack but in Buell’s mind, Spruance wasn’t being too safety-conscious and deserves the title “warrior.”

Spruance’s task force grew in size and complexity as the war continued and he attacked the Marianas, Gilberts, Marshalls, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa from 1943 to 1945. By the latter battle his command had grown to 1,500 ships (1,200 of them were amphibious) and included 16 aircraft carriers.

Admiral Chester Nimitz (left), Spruance (center), and Marine General Holland Smith (right, with helmet), looking out from a 20mm gun tub while inspecting preparations for the Gilbert Islands campaign in October 1943. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Who was this now four-star admiral who very much avoided the public and publicity and was a private man who rarely let feelings show? Described by one of his staff: “He was like a sphinx…” and thoroughly disliked public speaking and talking with reporters, a real contrast to his counterpart Admiral “Bull” Halsey. His personal quirks included ignoring people when they were talking to him or requesting a decision, and taking random long hikes of ten miles or more nearly every day. He would attempt to bring members of his staff to accompany him, despite the pleas that they had too much work to do.
Admiral William "Bull" Halsey (left) with Spruance aboard USS New Mexico (BB 40) off of Okinawa in April 1945 (Naval History and Heritage Command) 

As WWII progressed, Spruance clearly became a master at seeing the big picture and felt he had to be in the vanguard rather than remain in the rear. He rarely acted as the Officer in Tactical Command as he left that to his junior admirals so he could concentrate on executing the battle plan. Spruance left the planning to his experts and exercised overall command. He refused to become involved in personnel squabbles and let others intervene or just let it fester in the hope it would resolve itself.

How did this “quiet warrior” thrive during WWII when so many (e.g. Halsey, King, and MacArthur) seemingly had to be in the spotlight? Spruance won over his superiors and subordinates with his intellect, hand’s-off approach and total focus on the big picture. He was an advocate of Mahan and felt that surprise and striking first were essential to victory. It is difficult to fault this thinking as he had successful outcomes in every major battle he fought.
Spruance (right) seen with Nimitz (left) and Admiral Ernest King (center) aboard USS Indianapolis (CA 35) in July 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Spruance was superb in his delegation of authority and often took a long time to make decisions and was fearful of making mistakes. His lack of aviation, amphibious and logistics experience didn’t seem to bother him and he became adept at each as the war progressed. He was scrupulous in planning for the concentration of his naval assets and saw it as a force multiplier in offensive military operations.

War for Admiral Spruance become one of a scale and complexity that will not be seen again. The Quiet Warrior provides excellent insight into Spruance’s thought process and how he led naval forces during WWII. He was successful because he didn’t overmanage from afar, trusted his intelligence staff, had faith in those under him, and had the support and confidence of admirals Nimitz and King. Could he have been more aggressive and pressed the attack at Midway and the Philippine Sea? Most certainly, but both battles are regarded as tremendous American victories and Spruance took the more cautious approach to ensure the fleet would survive to fight another day.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

A Tragedy on Granby: Part 2

(George Tucker/Virginian Pilot/TCA)

By Captain Alexander G. Monroe (Ret.)
HRNM Docent and Contributing Writer

This is the second part covering the December 9, 1958 crash (Part 1 available here) of a Navy AJ-2 tanker airplane into a Norfolk neighborhood. 
(Virginian Pilot/TCA)

The task before the investigators at Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet, at the Naval Aviation Safety Center, and in the Squadron was to determine what happened and why. The initial thrust of the investigation was reported in the Virginian Pilot on December 11. An unsigned piece noted that “two smashed engines probably hold the grim key to Tuesday’s tragedy in the 8900 block of Granby Street.” An anonymous investigator opined that, “we are not overlooking the possibility that fuel ready for transfer had been commingled with the Savage’s fuel supply.”[i] The aircraft was removed from the crash site and taken to the Overhaul and Repair Department of the Naval Air Station where investigation began. It was colored by the statement of the investigator noted above. Though a reconstruction layout was not possible because of the extensive destruction of the airplane, the wreckage was sifted and components worthy of study were removed and photographed.[ii] Fuel samples from the aircraft were removed for comparison with those taken prior to take off. The upshot of the examinations was that no JP-4 contamination was found in the plane's fuel tanks and there was no evidence of contamination in the pistons, cylinders or carburetor.[iii]
Headline from December 11, 1958 (Virginian Pilot/TCA)

(Virginian Pilot/TCA)
The cause of the engine malfunction and resulting crash remains speculative, and opinions of the entities conducting the investigations and the endorsers have never been made public. Provisions of federal law, calculated to encourage frank discussion of causes and protect the privacy of those whose performance is under scrutiny--and their families--prohibit such disclosure. It is thought that the safety of Naval Aviation could be improved by non-disclosure.[iv] The squadron commanding officer wrote a final endorsement to the accident report on February 13, 1959. Heavy Attack Squadron 15 was disestablished two days later.[v] His endorsement and those of others, to include Commander Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet, were heavily redacted. There have been at least five other major air crashes since December 9, 1958, at or in the immediate vicinity of Naval Air Station Norfolk (now known as Chambers Field on Naval Station Norfolk). The accidents have resulted in nine fatalities and involved Patrol, Transport, and Electronic Warfare aircraft. The first and last involved crashes into Willoughby Bay and Ocean View Beach, and one involved an approach and “hard landing”[vi] of a P2V Neptune aircraft in rain with visibility reduced to half a mile.

Though it has taken time to issue regulations that would reduce the likelihood of aircraft accidents in a high density area such as Hampton Roads, initial steps have been taken with the publication of Air Installation Compatible Use Zones studies with respect to Naval Station Norfolk’s air facility Chambers Field. The studies set forth regulations applicable to various governmental entities in the vicinity of Chambers Field. They also establish zones in which construction and occupancy are constrained by existence of the airfield. It assigns various functions and responsibilities to certain entities. For example, in certain areas, such as the approach end of runway 10/270, development is prohibited. On the departure end, the intensity of use of existing structures in the civilian community may not be increased. Such regulation would be within the authority of the Building Commissioner of the City of Norfolk. The Plans of Development would be reviewed by Navy staff to determine if they were in conflict with aviation operations. The resulting apparatus has evolved over a number of years, though its operations have not been without some turbulence as Norfolk has grown.[v]
The 1958 crash was the first in Norfolk in which civilians died (Virginian Pilot/TCA
At the time of the December 9, 1958 crash, it was opined that diverting the aircraft to the Naval Air Station at Oceana in what was then relatively pristine farmland might have been a preferable course of action, rather than attempting to reach the home station. However, the area around the station has been built up over the years, and aircraft operations now present a hazard to nearby residents. Although most citizens in South Hampton Roads accept the risk of accidents, they do occur occasionally with devastating results. Since 1967, over 25 air crashes have occurred on the station or in the vicinity of Oceana.[viii]
An F-4 from VF-41 flies over NAS Oceana in 1971. The area was even more rural in 1958. (Wikimedia Commons)
As happens in the Navy, those whose lives were touched by the events of December 9, 1958, moved on, and many are now deceased. A major thoroughfare overlooking Hampton Roads on Naval Station Norfolk is named for Admiral Hughes, who died on December 23, 1960, while on active duty. The CO of VAH-15, Commander Shepard (later Rear Admiral), went on to the staff of Commander Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet, as Air Operations Officer in USS Essex (CV 9), as Naval Aide to President John F. Kennedy and Commanding Officer of USS Aucilla (AO 56)[ix] and USS Princeton (LPH 5). The squadrons configured for refueling, VAH-15 and 16, were disestablished about 60 days after the terrible crash. In fact, by the summer of 1959 all VAH squadrons had been re-designated RVAH (reconnaissance) Squadrons. What is admirable and lasting is that various Navy and civilian organizations have taken action to lessen the risks and problems that emerge when, as Admiral Hughes aptly expressed it, “we have aircraft continually flying over our heads,” though there may, as a practical matter, be only so many preventative steps that may be taken.


[i] “Wreckage studied for clues to crash,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, December 12, 1958, p.1.

[ii] AAR 1-58,  p.96.

[iii] Ibid.,pp.70-73; See also CO NAS NORVA(Code 98E/310/869 F11 Ltr of 24 December 1958.

[iv] United States Code, Section 552(b)(5) and United States Code Section 552(b)(6)

[v] The West Coast Heavy Attack Squadron, VAH-16, was disestablished fifteen days earlier. 

[vi] Bureau of Aircraft Accidents (B3A) entry in the case of Norfolk Chambers Field NAS; “Neptune Crash Hurts 6,”  Norfolk Virginian Pilot, Al Edmonds, July 22, 1964.

[vii] For some recent friction see Official Warns about Threat to Naval Station’s Airfield,” Eric Hartley, Norfolk Virginian Pilot, March 17, 2016, p.1.;“Norfolk business owner says she’s broke, stuck in limbo after debate over Navy’s flight path,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, Eric Hartley, p.A1. September 8, 2016; “Seven months later, banquet hall back on track to open in Navy Crash zone,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, Eric Hartley, p.A1. September 10, 2016.

[viii] “Life in the flight path, noisy, unnerving,” The Norfolk, Virginian PilotAlec Klein, Sherrill Evans and Angelita Plummer, June 20, 1992. p. A9; “Mayhem from above, amazingly no deaths reported in Navy Jet crash; dozens displaced after Hornet’s  crash destroyed Beach apartments,” Mike Hixenburg and Kate Wiltrout, Norfolk, Virginian Pilot, p.A.1., April 7, 2012; “Oceana has had 25 plus crashes over 4 decades,”  Norfolk, Virginian Pilot, Bill Sizemore, April 7, 2012.

[ix] Captain Alexander G. Monroe, USN (Ret.), author of this blog, served as an Ensign as Gunnery Officer on board Aucilla during the period of Captain Shepard’s deep draft command tour.