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)

Friday, December 18, 2020

Graffiti on a Vietnam Troopship

Army soldiers prepare to board USNS Barrett (T AP 196) under the watchful eye of a boatswain's mate before the voyage to Vietnam. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
By Alicia Pullen & Elijah Palmer
Educator & Deputy Director of Education

Two artifacts often overlooked in the museum's exhibit, "The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea: The U.S. Navy in Vietnam, 1950-1975," are the canvas racks from the troop transport USNS General Nelson M. Walker (T AP 125). Canvas was used in the berthing compartments aboard ships dating back to the Age of Sail. During the first half of the 20th century, canvas was attached and spread inside the metal bed frames. This served as cheap, lightweight bedding that could be easily removed or changed. Like military personnel through the ages, soldiers on transport ships to Vietnam passed some of their time expressing themselves through words and art on materials at hand. In this case, they used the canvas racks upon which they spent so much time. 

Canvas racks taken from USNS General Nelson M. Walker on display in HRNM's Vietnam exhibit (Alicia Pullen)

USNS General Nelson M. Walker preparing to debark troops at Vung Tau, South Vietnam in April 1967. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
General Nelson M. Walker was one of many vessels that participated in the "steel bridge" from the United States to the war effort in Vietnam. 98% of all supplies came to Southeast Asia via sea, and while some troops arrived in Vietnam by airplane, many units still arrived in country like their predecessors in earlier wars, by troopship. Built as USS Admiral T. Mayo during World War II, this ship was brought out of the reserve fleet in August 1965 to help with the buildup of American forces in Vietnam. After a refit in the 1950s, the vessel could carry over 3,700 troops. It made numerous trips between the United States and Asia from 1966 through the end of 1967, carrying Army and Marine units. 

This graffiti is most likely commemorating Bruce and Pat's wedding anniversary (Elijah Palmer)

Possible Star of David (Elijah Palmer)

The soldiers transported aboard General Nelson M. Walker had to cope with boredom, cramped spaces, and seasickness during their 5,000-mile voyage. The trip usually lasted close to three weeks, with only a short stop at Okinawa near the end of the passage to Vietnam. The ship also took marines and soldiers back to the United States on return voyages, during which the men faced many of the same challenges of shipboard life. Many of these servicemembers likely never imagined that they would be aboard a ship in the first place. Now they had to share limited spaces--which got hot and smelly--they had to wait their turn for meals and to use the head, and they had to entertain themselves for days on end. Thus, it is not unusual that some individuals turned to drawing graffiti on the canvas which was abundant in their berthing areas.  
Based on the date, this soldier likely debarked at Vung Tau in the picture earlier in the post. An interesting note here is the inclusion of the ETS (Expiration Term of Service) date. (Elijah Palmer)

This soldier also likely marked his ETS date as the ship was no longer in service in September 1968. (Elijah Palmer)

The canvas from General Nelson M. Walker was retrieved by Art and Lee Beltrone from the ship while it lay in the reserve "ghost fleet" on the James River. The ship had not been touched since it came back from Vietnam in December 1967. The Beltrones created the "Graffiti Project" to preserve the history of the ship and its passengers during the Vietnam War. They also graciously loaned the canvas on display at HRNM. Artifacts like these canvas racks provide a tangible reminder of the servicemembers who traveled to fight in Vietnam.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Summer of '67: Training for the Fleet

Seaman Thomas Kirchman works aboard USS Lenawee (APA 195) on the way to South Vietnam. The Fifth Naval District E1-2 School would train additional Sailors for the fleet. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
By Captain Alexander G. Monroe, USN (Ret)
HRNM Docent & Contributing Writer

On June 5th, 1967, three days before the attack on USS Liberty (AGTR 5), I reported to Captain Robert B. Deadmond of the Headquarters of the Fifth Naval District at the U.S. Naval Station, Norfolk, Virginia.[1] I was a Lieutenant (JG),  assigned to the Selected Reserve Crew of USS Henley (DD 762). I was to be Administrative Officer and an instructor in an entity known as the Fifth Naval District E1-2 School. It was established to provide a steady flow of Seamen who could serve the fleet aboard ships and in squadrons or by attending fleet schools and thereafter serving in the fleet or the shore establishment. The war in Vietnam, which had begun as a modest advisory enterprise, had changed both in nature and scope after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 7th, 1964. The resolution authorized the President to take all steps necessary to protect American forces in the theater.[2] The school, two weeks in length, was a “Boot Camp” for Navy Reserve Personnel. It had been conducted in other summers but the exigencies of the war made it a key effort for the Navy. It is a cogent reminder that much of importance that happens in the Navy is in such places ashore rather than in major impressive ships at sea.[3] 

Officers at the "Boot Camp" for Naval Reserve in summer 1967. Left to right: Lieutenant Joseph T. Buxton, Commander James L. McBee, Lieutenant William J. Lauer and Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Alexander G. Monroe. 

The officers chosen for this duty were--in addition to myself--Commander James L. McBee (Officer in Charge), Lieutenant William J. Lauer, and Lieutenant Joseph T. Buxton, III. They were supplemented by various senior enlisted personnel, many of whom were teachers and administrators in school systems and colleges on summer holiday. 

Ranger Hall as seen today (M.C. Farrington)
The school was located in Barracks November, near the present parking lot for the staff of Commander Surface Forces, Atlantic Fleet, now known as Ranger Hall.[4] This building was constructed as Barracks N in 1939 through Navy Contract 3243 (8837) as part of the expansion of the Naval Training Station Norfolk, begun just prior to the beginning of World War Two. [5]  The school program in 1967 was two weeks long and was intense by design so that those enrolled might be advanced to Seaman or Fireman (E3) at its conclusion. It was preceded by additional training elsewhere, and it involved classroom instruction that enabled the trainees to complete practical factors for advancement as noted above. Those ordered to the school came from the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Naval Districts and the Naval District of Washington.[6] It also provided hands-on experience in ship maintenance.[7] On September 5, 1967, the school finished its work.

A sailor works in the engine room of USS Sacramento (AOE 1) in 1967. (Naval History and Heritage Command

Ranger Hall was constructed in the late 1930s to meet the requirements of a rapidly approaching war. In the summer of 1967, those in charge of the Fifth Naval District E1-E2 School in this building prepared young men for service in the fleet. Subsequently, it has been a women’s barracks and now, it houses the offices of the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Department of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Navy. This is an integral part of an organization dedicated, among other things, to the morale of sailors and the enhancement of their families’ lives, clearly a worthy and necessary task. 

[1] Commandant Fifth Naval District orders 181008 dtd 2 May 1967 w/ends.

[2] This resolution is 78 Statutes at Large 384. Two Senators, Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon voted against it.

[3] “Boot Camp Again at Naval Station,” The Seabag, August 3, 1967. Pages 1 and 15. Page 1 has a picture of trainees passing in review on the parade ground in from of Building N26.

[4] See Photo Collection of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, A1043/1044.

[5] Ltr, Chairman of the Station Development Board to COMNAVBASE NORVA, 15 January 1952, “History of the Development of the Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia to December 31, 1941,”

[6] See again footnote 3 above.

[7] The Naval Surface Force U.S. Atlantic Fleet was created on 1 July 1975 by consolidation of the Amphibious (PHIBLANT), Destroyer (DESLANT) Minesweeping (MINELANT) and Service (SERVLANT) Forces