Thursday, December 1, 2022

Run Silent, Run Deep and The Hunt for Red October: Two Submarine Novels That Made It to the Big Screen

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

Captain Edward L. Beach Jr. wrote his first book, Submarine! in 1952. Three years later he wrote his second book, Run Silent, Run Deep. Beach graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1939. He served aboard three submarines during World War Two, participating in twelve combat patrols, and received the Navy Cross for his actions. His first book was a collection of war patrols based on his own experiences as well as those of other US submarines that had served during the war. The book received high praise from Time magazine, and Beach’s first attempt as a published author was indeed a success. His second book, Run Silent, Run Deep is considered to be a classic regarding submarine warfare.

Commander Edward Beach, 1960 (Wikimedia Commons)

Run Silent, Run Deep became a bestseller shortly after it was released, and was included on the list of the 250 outstanding books of the year for 1955. The plot of the story revolves around the fictional submarine U.S.S. Walrus and its crew taking on Japanese naval forces in the Pacific Theater during World War Two. The popularity of the book eventually led to a feature film, which began production in 1957. The film version of Run Silent, Run Deep starred Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster (also one of the producers of the film), and was the film debut of comedian Don Rickles. 

The book cover for Run Silent, Run Deep

Released on March 27, 1958, the film was praised by critics for its action and realism regarding undersea warfare. The producers used cutting-edge special effects, as well as consulting active-duty submariners to train the cast. Set designers created realistic sets depicting the working and living conditions aboard a submarine. The director of photography utilized tight shots of the actors portraying the crew, visually demonstrating to the viewing audience the close quarters nature of submarine service. The producers also had access to USS Redfish (SS 395) to film exterior shots, and used authentic submarine equipment in the interior sets.

Run Silent, Run Deep movie poster, 1958 (Wikimedia Commons)

Probably the most noticeable inaccuracy in the film is the age of the characters played by Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. At 56 years old, Gable played Commander Edward Richardson, who was based on Edward Beach. In reality, Gable’s character would have been in his 20s during the war. The same could be said for Lancaster, 44 years old during filming, who played the part of Executive Officer Jim Bledsoe.

Fast forward to 1984 and an insurance agent-turned-author by the name of Tom Clancy created another bestselling submarine novel. Like Beach’s Run Silent Run Deep, Clancy’s debut novel, The Hunt for Red October, is primarily about submarines. At the center of the story is a brand new Russian submarine, the Red October, capable of carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles. This submarine’s commanding officer decides to defect to the United States during the height of the Cold War. The book was noted for its authenticity and technical detail in terms of both US and Russian submarines. It might surprise readers to learn that Clancy never served in the Navy. Due to poor eyesight, Clancy was unable to join any branch of the armed services of the United States. He sold his book to the Naval Institute Press of Annapolis, Maryland, for $5,000. The book would go on to sell over 45,000 copies. It became a national bestseller, and even President Ronald Reagan could be counted as a fan of the work.

Tom Clancy (New York Daily News)

In 1990, Clancy’s book became a feature film. Distributed by Paramount Pictures with a production budget of $30 million, the filmmakers also had support and cooperation from the US Navy. The Navy loaned ships, submarines, and a helicopter for filming purposes. This support added additional authenticity to the look and feel of the film, and the benefit of over thirty years of improvement in movie special effects.

Book cover, The Hunt for Red October

The cast of the film included a young Alec Baldwin playing Clancy’s hero, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, as well as the man who brought James Bond to life on the big screen, Sean Connery. Connery played the veteran Russian submarine captain and would-be defector, Marko Ramius. The film stayed fairly true to the book, and the Navy’s mindset at the time was that perhaps this movie could generate interest in serving in the submarine force much like what Top Gun did for naval aviation. Released on March 2, 1990, The Hunt for Red October was well received by movie goers and critics with a final worldwide gross of over $200 million.

The Hunt for Red October movie poster (

Run Silent, Run Deep and The Hunt for Red October gave readers and moviegoers a glimpse into the world of submarine warfare. Although Hollywood is never “perfect” regarding military films, the strength of these two stories helped provide audiences with some insight to the challenges Sailors faced while serving on submarines during World War Two and the Cold War.

Sean Connery and Alex Baldwin on the set for The Hunt for Red October (

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Book Review: The History of Norfolk Naval Shipyard

By James H. Shoemaker
Reviewed by Lee Duckworth
HRNM docent
The History of Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) is based largely on the unpublished history of a longtime shipyard public affairs officer. There is little documentation of original research, but it appears that much of the history was gleaned from shipboard logs and annual submissions to higher authority. This lack of historiography is evidenced in the first sentence of the acknowledgment section, which states, “This book does not introduce any new history to the long story of Norfolk Naval Shipyard.” The book was started and handed down over the years with seemingly no one able to make the time to complete the history of NNSY. Credit goes to James H. Shoemaker for completing this project, a service to those who will benefit most from reading the book—the workers who have served at the shipyard.
USS Delaware in Dry Dock #1 at Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NHHC)
The author does an outstanding job of relating the NNSY’s 255-year history in the context of what was occurring in America and in the U.S. Navy, and provides a good history review for the reader. Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book details actions within the shipyard during the Civil War. This chapter delves into the strategic importance of NNSY and highlights significant events at the facility as it twice changed hands during that conflict.
CSS Virginia being built during the Civil War (NHHC)
Presented chronologically, it makes for an easy read but too often bounces from topic to topic, frequently with no transition. For example, on pages 180-181, the author goes from describing USS Arthur Radford entering dry dock for repairs to the wage grade system of NNSY employees. There is no apparent connection between the two as it drifts from one paragraph to the next.

The author devotes three pages to enslaved workers, specifically highlighting mechanic George Teamoh and the positions he held and tasks performed. More detail about specific shipyard workers such as Teamoh and their work would have made the book more interesting. Photographs or drawings of many of the shipyard commanders and short accompanying narratives are interspersed throughout the book but unfortunately, there are few photographs of everyday shipyard workers and even less text about the work they conducted.
USS Shangri-La at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, 1944 (NHHC)
The first chapter identifies numerous locations throughout the NNSY area, but there is no accompanying map that allows the reader to determine their precise sites. The only map is one from perhaps the 1700s and is virtually unreadable. A modern-day map with significant annotated landmarks would be a huge help, especially for the reader not familiar with the area. In fact, the author never provides a definition/distinction of “Tidewater” or “Hampton Roads” which will undoubtedly further confuse many readers. The book suffers from too many photos and drawings, several of poor quality/resolution and some absolutely illegible.

The History of Norfolk Naval Shipyard will hold most appeal for its target audience—the personnel who have worked there over the years.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Two Sisters for Normandy: USS Raven (AM 55) and USS Osprey (AM 56)

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

Construction of USS Raven (AM 55) and USS Osprey (AM 56) came about in part because Franklin D. Roosevelt faced two major problems when he assumed the presidency on March 4, 1933: the United States was at the nadir of the Great Depression and the U.S. Navy faced obsolescence of the fleet. It was estimated that by 1936, the destroyer type ships would reach the end of their service life. The period was marked by growing international tension. In June 1933, Congress enacted, and Roosevelt approved, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and FDR earmarked $237 million to build 32 ships. Congress took further action in the Naval Act of 1938 (Public Law 75-238), which mandated a 20% increase in fleet size and corresponding improvements in shore activities.[i] Work was not to begin before 1939. The act authorized the President to “construct 75,000 tons of auxiliary vessels of such size, type and design as he might consider best suited for national defense.” Accordingly, on August 23, 1939, keels for the two minesweepers were laid at Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY).

Keel laying party lays the keel for USS Osprey (AM 56) at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, June 28, 1939. (NNSY)

Keels for USS Raven (AM 55) and USS Osprey (AM 56) in Drydock #2, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, June 28, 1939. (NNSY)

Building the ships was carried out in Drydock number 2 and was carried out simultaneously with the vessels alongside each other. Construction took fourteen months, and the ships were launched on August 24, 1940, with Elizabeth Baker and Margaret Kays, daughters of two NNSY officers, serving as sponsors. Both ships were “fully dressed” with colorful signal flags, and oversized “holiday” ensigns flew at the main truck. It was a stirring scene full of U.S. Navy tradition. The ships were moved to another location at the Yard for the outfitting. On November 11, 1940, Raven was commissioned with Lieutenant Commander Joe Warren Stryker in command. On December 16, 1940, Osprey was commissioned with Lieutenant Commander Cecil Llewellyn Blackwell—a 1925 U.S. Naval Academy graduate—in command. The ships were capable of minesweeping and antisubmarine warfare.

Launching of USS Raven and USS Osprey at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, August 24, 1940. (NNSY)

Commissioning of USS Osprey (AM 56). LCDR Cecil L. Blackwell and ship's officers at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, December 16, 1940. (NNSY)

Following fitting out and shakedown, both ships were assigned to Mine Division Twenty One at Norfolk. They conducted local training operations and also escorted ships in and out of the naval base and along the East Coast, which assumed greater importance with the increasing tensions in an unsettled world. The cruises ranged from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the Panama Canal Zone. While on an escorting operation on March 23, 1942, Osprey rescued one survivor of the tanker Naeco, which had been torpedoed near Cape Lookout, North Carolina.[ii] Osprey and Raven participated in the November 8-11 invasion of North Africa known as Operation Torch, ensuring the safety of landing craft involved in the ship-to-shore movement. They performed anti-submarine operations and returned to the United States in early 1943 as part of a convoy. Each ship resumed escort duties until April 3, 1944, when they departed Hampton Roads bound for England and ultimately Normandy as a part of Operation Neptune, the maritime portion of Overlord, the invasion of continental Europe.

USS Osprey (AM 56), full view (NNSY)

The voyage to Europe is well documented in Osprey's war diary for April 1944. The ship and its sister were “moored at N.O.B. [Naval Operating Base] Norfolk” until their 8:04 am departure in accordance with Operation Order 1-44 of Commander Task Force 66 on the 3rd in a convoy of 34 ships, Yard Minesweepers (YMSs), and troop carrying landing craft (LCIs) with destroyer type ships as escorts.[iii] The twenty-one day crossing was broken into two legs, one from Norfolk to Horta in the Azores, and the other to Southwest England. In port at Horta, the ships were slowed by a collision between two LCIs, which required a stop for repairs.[iv] Nevertheless, the convoy made landfall in the Scilly Islands on April 24, 1944, and by 5:33 pm, they were anchored at Falmouth, England.[v] The ships undertook some minesweeping and reached Tor Bay later, remaining there until sailing for Normandy on June 5.

USS Osprey's war diary, April 1944, page 4 (NNSY)

Raven and Osprey, along with other minesweepers, left Tor Bay, Cornwall, at 6:30 am on June 5, 1944. They proceeded in an easterly direction, passing Portland Bill, until reaching Point How. Then, they turned toward Normandy. They were to drop lighted dan buoys to mark a safe channel. In the late afternoon, Osprey struck what its commanding officer stated was a moored contact mine.[vi] The nearby Raven’s commanding officer remarked that Osprey was “struck by a violent explosion and orange flame girded her amidships.” [vii] He noted that fifteen to twenty men “appeared in the water directly astern of the Osprey,” and rescue of the ship’s crew was undertaken by USS Chickadee (AM 59). Raven proceeded on duty assigned. The crew tried in vain to save the ship. The six crewmen lost—one officer and five enlisted men—“led the way” in the invasion of Normandy, according to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Gilday. They were LT (jg) Van Hamilton, Fireman Walter O’Bryan, Quartermaster 2nd Class Emery Parichy, Motor Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Joseph Vanasky, Motor Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Cleo Whitschell and Seaman John Medvic.

USS Osprey's loss report, June 17, 1944, page 1 (NNSY)

USS Raven's report of operations, June 5-15, 1944, page 3 (NNSY)

Raven, as part of Minesweeper Task Unit 125.9.3, sailed on to Normandy, dropping lighted dan buoys to mark a channel safe for transit by others.[viii] In the area near Utah Beach, Raven and other minesweepers carried out daylight sweeping operations to ensure that areas safe for landing were marked, and that areas for gunfire support ships were identified. At night, Raven performed underwater listening watches at the western extremity of the Amphibious Objective Area to prevent intrusion by enemy forces. On June 6, those aboard Raven observed “friendly transport planes showing amber lights crossing overhead at low altitude.”[ix] The ship maneuvered to pick up a British aviator who been shot down, though this was in fact accomplished by USS Nuthatch (AM 60). On the nights of the 7th and 8th, from its anchorage two miles north of Grandcamp, France, Sailors aboard Raven observed heavy volumes of anti-aircraft fire ashore. On the 9th, Raven was taken under fire by German shore batteries and returned fire, silencing them.[x] The daily pattern of sweeping operations in daylight and listening watches at night continued for the Raven until June 15, 1944, when the ship, in company with USS Chickadee (AM 59) departed the area to return to England. Raven returned to the United States in June 1945 and was decommissioned on May 31, 1946, placed in reserve at San Diego. Stricken from the Navy register on May 1, 1967, Raven was later sunk as a target, an ignominious end for ship that had served the Navy well.

USS Raven's report of operations, June 5-15, 1944, page 6 (NNSY)

USS Raven's report of operations, June 5-15, 1944, page 12 (NNSY)

There are two talismans of the service of the two sisters. The wreck of Osprey became a site frequented by amateur divers in the vicinity of the Isle of Wight, and in a somewhat unusual, mysterious fashion, the bell from the ill-fated ship was turned over to the British Maritime and Coast Guard Agency Receiver of Wrecks in 2019. The bell was restored to its pristine condition and turned over to the United States. It was unveiled by Admiral Gilday, along with the commissioning pennant of the first commanding officer provided by his son—also a Naval Academy graduate—for display in the American Embassy in London. As the CNO observed on August 18, 2022, in an unveiling ceremony at the embassy, “the Osprey Bell echoes with history proclaiming the honor, courage and commitment of those who served so nobly at sea.”[xi]

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday reveals the USS Osprey ship's bell during a dedication ceremony held at the U.S. Embassy in London, England, Aug. 18, 2022. (US Navy)

Author's Note: Special thanks to Marcus W. Robbins, Norfolk Naval Shipyard Historian, for his assistance with this blog.

[i] Gray Hulls and Black Oil, Fast Tankers and Replenishment at Sea 1922-1992, Thomas Wildenburg, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1996. The text references a memo entitled “The Navy’s needs written to Roosevelt by Admiral William V. Pratt, Chief of Naval Operations.
[ii] The Naeco had been sunk by U-124 while enroute from Houston, Texas to Seawaren, New Jersey
[iii] War Diary, USS Osprey (AM 56), AM 56/A12, Serial 0182 (C/DECL) 25 May 1944
[iv] Ibid, War Diary, p1.
[v] Ibid., War Diary,pp.3-5
[vi] Ltr(S/DECL) w/ends, Commanding Officer, USS Osprey (AM 56) to Secretary of the Navy, USS Osprey-Report of Loss of, 17 June 1944, p.1. The endorsement of Commander Mine Squadron Seven praises the Commanding Officer’s “valiant attempt to save his ship.”
[vii] Ltr(S/DECL) w/ends, Commanding Officer USS Raven (AM 55) to Commander Western Task Force, Chronological Report of Operations of USS Raven(AM 55) 5 June 1944 through 14 June 1944-Operation Neptune, p.3.
[viii] Ltr(S/DECL) w/ends, Commanding Officer, USS Osprey (AM 56) to Secretary of the Navy, USS Osprey-Report of Loss of, 17 June 1944, p.1. The endorsement of Commander Mine Squadron Seven praises the Commanding Officer’s “valiant attempt to save his ship.”
[viii] Ltr(S/DECL) w/ends, Commanding Officer USS Raven (AM 55) to Commander Western Task Force, Chronological Report of Operations of USS Raven(AM 55) 5 June 1944 through 14 June 1944-Operation Neptune, p.3.
[ix] Ibid., Chronological Report of Operations, p.6.
[x] Ibid., Chronological Report of Operations, p.12.
[xi] CNO Press Office, Speech by Admiral Mike Gilday, USN, August 18, 2022.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

No Longer the Enemy: The Pro-German Message of The Enemy Below

By Zac Cunningham
School Programs Educator

A classic of the submarine film genre, The Enemy Below depicts an intense battle between the U.S. Navy destroyer escort USS Haynes and a German U-boat in the South Atlantic during World War II. Robert Mitchum plays the destroyer’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Murrell, and Curt Jurgens portrays the U-boat’s commander, Kapitän zur See Von Stolberg. The fictional USS Haynes is portrayed in the movie by the real life USS Whitehurst (DE 634), a Buckley-class destroyer escort that saw substantial action in the Pacific during the war. Based on the 1956 novel of the same name by British naval officer Denys Rayner, the film was directed by Dick Powell and released by 20th Century-Fox on Christmas Day 1957.

The Enemy Below theatrical poster (20th Century-Fox)

USS Whitehurst (DE 634) portrayed USS Haynes in the film (NHHC)

In the film, the veteran officers portrayed by Mitchum and Jurgens ferociously fight to destroy each other and their ships but, during the battle, each man gains a respect for the other's courage, audacity, and intellect. Both men hate war and what it forces them to do. (Jurgens’ character has no sympathy for Hitler and the Nazis.) Nevertheless, they wage their war to the best of their abilities because they have no other choice.

Robert Mitchum as Murrell and Carl Jurgens as Von Stolberg (

The Enemy Below has proven fairly influential as a submarine film and features some of the genre’s familiar tropes. Haynes ramming the German submarine echoes the ramming a Q-ship by the American sub in the 1951 John Wayne movie Operation Pacific. The German crew’s singing overheard on sonar is echoed when the Russian crew is similarly heard singing in The Hunt for Red October. Most notably, The Enemy Below inspired a foundational Original Series episode of Star Trek. Titled “Balance of Terror,” the episode aired in 1966 and featured the Enterprise and Captain Kirk in the destroyer role and the Romulans (in their first appearance in the series) with their cloaking device in the role of the U-boat.

What’s more interesting than The Enemy Below’s influence on the submarine film genre is the movie’s decidedly Cold War-era pro-German message.

In the mid-1950s, the U.S. and its allies were ending their punitive postwar occupation of West Germany and working to integrate the country into their anti-Soviet alliance. In 1955, West Germany once again became a sovereign nation officially recognized by the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, and other Western European nations. At that same time, West Germany joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Then, in 1957 – the same year that The Enemy Below was released – West Germany joined with France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg to form the European Economic Community, the forerunner of today’s European Union.

Symbols of and allusions to the Cold War-driven rehabilitation and integration of West Germany are prevalent in The Enemy Below, especially in the movie’s final ten minutes.

As the film moves towards its close, the destroyer and U-boat are both fatally wounded and the two crews, Americans and Germans together, end up in a shared lifeboat. They leave the battle behind them and are now all safe even though the sea burns around them. The subtext here is that the United States and West Germany must put the Second World War behind them and become allies in a dangerous world where the fire of communism is spreading everywhere.

A lifeboat full of American and German crew members flees the sinking destroyer and U-boat as the sea burns around them. (20th Century-Fox)

As the crews escape, Murrell literally throws a rope to Von Stolberg and the American and German captains unite to try and save the German's executive officer and best friend. The friend dies anyway, symbolizing the Soviet Union’s subjugation of East Germany.

After rescue, the German and American crews are shown together again and all wearing the same uniforms (Hey, we're on the same side now!) as they bury the dead German officer at sea. The American ship's doctor sees this cooperation as a reason to hope that the world is not destined for total destruction and death.

German and American crews come together to bury a German officer. (20th Century-Fox)

In the movie’s final scene, the Mitchum and Jurgens characters share a cigarette as Von Stolberg observes, "I should have died many times, Captain, but I continue to survive somehow. This time it was your fault." West Germany survives thanks to the United States. Murrell suggests, "Next time, I won't throw you the rope," but the German knowingly replies, "I think you will." The film is saying that the U.S will save West Germany if the Russians invade because Americans are a decent people who would honor their promises.

Von Stolberg (Jurgens) and Murrell (Mitchum) share a cigarette (20th Century-Fox)

Ultimately, The Enemy Below is as action-filled and suspenseful a movie as you'll find among submarine films. More importantly, it is an excellent artifact – and a decently sophisticated one at that – of Cold War cultural efforts to rehabilitate the Germans and Germany in the eyes of the American people.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

USS Essex in the War of 1812: Victory and Defeat in Two Oceans

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator
USS Essex under sail (NHHC)
The War of 1812 saw the rise of the United States Navy through the actions of many famous ships and captains. The actions of USS Essex, its crew, and Captain David Porter stand out as exemplars of the importance of the war in developing the U.S. Navy and placing it on the world stage. Largely funded by the people of Salem, Massachusetts, Essex was launched September 30, 1799. The ship was approximately 140 feet long with a 36-foot beam, displacing 860 tons. Essex was originally armed with twenty-six 12 pound long guns and ten 24 pound carronades. Many regarded shipbuilder William Hackett’s design of Essex as one of the finest sailing ships in the U.S. Navy. USS Essex participated in the Quasi-War with France, as well as the First Barbary War. Notably, in 1800, Essex became the first U.S. warship to sail around Cape Horn, crossing into the Pacific Ocean to escort merchant vessels back into the Atlantic under the command of Edward Preble. However, it is Essex’s performance during the War of 1812 that makes the ship and crew one of the most successful of the early U.S. Navy.
Captain David Porter, circa War of 1812 (NHHC)
In the summer of 1811, USS Essex received its latest commanding officer in Captain David Porter at Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, VA.[i] Captain Porter immediately wrote to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton, complaining that a previous captain had swapped most of the long guns for carronades. He wrote, “Was this ship to be disabled in her rigging in the early part of an engagement, a ship armed with long guns could take a position beyond the reach of our carronades and cut us to pieces.” By some accounts, the change in the ship’s armament also reduced the ship’s sailing qualities, negating the advantages of William Hackett’s balanced design. Despite Porter’s disdain for carronades, he spent the following months drilling Essex’s crew so if they were called upon, they would be ready and capable. When the U.S. declared war with Great Britain on June 18, 1812, the Navy sent Essex to the Caribbean waters off Florida to hunt for an English convoy allegedly carrying specie and supplies. Failing to locate this convoy, Essex spotted a different flotilla and succeeded in isolating and taking a ship named Samuel and Sarah, which was loaded with British troops. Without the means of taking the soldiers, Porter confiscated $14,000 worth of goods and specie. This capture marked the beginning of Essex’s seizure of prizes in the Caribbean over the span of its eight-week cruise.
USS Essex briefly engages with and captures HMS Alert on August 13, 1812 (NHHC)
Merchants and cargo vessels were not the only prey for David Porter and USS Essex, however. On the morning of August 13, 1812, Essex spotted the 20-gun sloop of war, HMS Alert. The crew’s training paid off in this encounter. In a planned maneuver, Porter ordered the gun ports to remain closed and his crew took steps to make Essex appear to be a slow-sailing merchantman. Captain Thomas Laugharne took the bait. Only too late did he realize that the ship he was approaching was a military vessel. After just eight minutes of combat, unable to match the overwhelming firepower of Essex’s carronades at close range, Laugharne ordered Alert’s colors struck and surrendered to Porter. This marked the first British warship taken by a U.S. warship in the War of 1812. Porter ordered Laugharne to take his ship to Newfoundland and disembark his crew before taking it to New York and surrendering the ship to U.S. authorities there. Bound by tradition and honor, this is exactly what occurred. On September 7, 1812, Essex evaded the British blockade and entered Delaware Bay to reprovision and prepare for its next foray, with David Porter writing, “I have the satisfaction to reflect that I have been a great annoyance to the enemy. The injury I have done them in less than two months may be fairly estimated at $300,000. I hope, however, to have another slap at them ere long that will gall them still more.”
Essex and prizes in a U.S.-controlled bay in the Marquesas Islands c. 1813 (NHHC)
Following this successful first cruise, Essex set sail once more. After spending some more time in Atlantic waters, Essex made its way to the Pacific, where the ship took prizes from the British whaling fleets. Essex’s success continued until February 1814. On February 3, 1814, Essex, along with a captured and converted whaler (Essex Junior) arrived at Valparaiso, Chile.[ii] Five days later, two British vessels, HMS Phoebe (36-gun frigate) and HMS Cherub (28-gun sloop), appeared at the port. They were both under the command of veteran Captain James Hillyar. Essex was effectively trapped. While none of the belligerents dared to break the neutrality of the port, several weeks of challenges, insults, and saber rattling followed. Finally, on March 28, 1814, Captain Porter decided to make a run for open water and ordered the ship to get underway. Phoebe and Cherub quickly gave chase. Then, as if by fate, Essex’s main topmast broke and fell into the ocean, ensuring that Essex would not be able to escape the British pursuit. Porter ordered Essex into a small nearby bay and prepared his crew for the inevitable engagement. After some initial close-range combat between Cherub and Essex, Captain David Porter’s prediction from three years earlier now occurred. With Essex’s mobility limited as the battle unfolded, Phoebe and Cherub stayed just out of range of Essex’s carronades and blasted the ship with their long guns. Between 4 and 6pm the battle raged, until finally Porter gave the order to strike Essex’s colors. Of Essex’s 255-man crew, 58 were dead and 65 wounded. Aboard the British vessels, only five crewmen were killed and 15 wounded. Porter and Essex’s crewmembers were paroled[iii] and released to sail back to the United States aboard Essex Junior.
Battle between USS Essex, HMS Phoebe, and HMS Cherub on March 28, 1814 (NHHC)
Despite having lost USS Essex, when David Porter and his surviving crew arrived back in the U.S., they were welcomed and celebrated. The American Advocate, a New York newspaper, reported, “It was really pleasant to see the joy which animated the American citizens of New York where he [Porter] was received with six hearty cheers. This is the way Americans receive their heroes, tho’ they may have been unfortunate.” Porter went on to dine with President James Madison, and Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wrote that USS Essex had “elevated the naval character of our country even beyond the towering eminence it had before attained.” Over the course of nearly two years, Porter and USS Essex had sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, captured 22 ships, and managed to evade superior British forces for a substantial period. Although eventually cornered and defeated, the story of USS Essex during the War of 1812 is one of determination, resilience, courage, and ultimately sacrifice.

[i] David Porter was the son of Revolutionary War naval officer David Porter Sr., and father to Civil War Admiral David Dixon Porter.
[ii] Valparaiso was a neutral port during the war, and both U.S. and British ships often stopped there to refit, resupply and rest. Porter used the port for this purpose several times while Essex was sailing in Pacific waters.
[iii] “Paroling” captured soldiers or sailors was a common practice of the period, whereby prisoners were released to return home on the condition that they will not take up arms once again to participate in the conflict. These paroles, however, were not always honored.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Correcting the Record: USS Cumberland Lost 123 Sailors at the Battle of Hampton Roads

By Hunt Lewis
HRNM Volunteer
USS Cumberland rammed by CSS Virginia (Library of Congress)

When USS Cumberland was rammed and sunk by CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack) on March 8, 1862, approximately a third of the crew were lost. Lost also were all personnel records. All that was known was the number of officers and men aboard at the start of the battle.

The ship’s commanding officer, Commander William Radford, had to report circumstances of the loss of his ship and number of Sailors killed or drowned. Lacking an accurate muster roll on which names could be called out, and a count made of those who made no response, Commander Radford did the next best thing. He mustered and took a count of the survivors and subtracted that count from the number of men attached to the ship at the beginning of the battle.

Final page of the muster roll, indicating the number of killed and drowned aboard USS Cumberland on March 8, 1862 (Library of Congress)

The muster consisted of 255 handwritten names on six pages. On the last page is the annotation:

            "Officers and men when action commenced          376
                do              do                  do          over               255
                                                       killed or drowned        121

              This is a large number and I am hoping more men will be found.
                                                        (signed) Wm. Radford,

The 121 fatalities has been reported in official records for 160 years, but this muster roll of survivors contains an error. On the first page of the muster, two officers were listed as having died in the battle, but when we counted up every name on the muster roll, we found that Radford accidentally counted the two men as survivors. Chaplain John Lenhart was listed as drowned and Master’s Mate John Harrington shown as killed. Because these two men were killed but accidentally counted among the survivors, the correct count of survivors should have been 253 rather than 255. Thus, the number of Sailors killed when USS Cumberland sank on March 8, 1862, stands at 123. With that conclusion, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum will begin using the corrected number of 123 in all future historical documents and exhibits. 

First page of the muster roll, listing the officers. When we added up the number of Sailors listed in this entire muster roll, we realized Commander Radford had accidentally counted Lenhart and Harrington as among the living. (Library of Congress)