Tuesday, June 26, 2007

USS Asheville (PG-21)

The USS Asheville (PG-21) was a single-screw, steel-hulled gunboat that was laid down on 9 June 1918 at the Charleston, South Carolina, Navy Yard. The ship was launched on 4 July 1918 and was finally commissioned on 6 July 1920, with Lt. Commander Elliot Buckmaster in command (Buckmaster would later go on to fame as commander of the carrier USS Yorktown, CV-5, during World War II). The 241-foot Asheville had a crew of 185 and was armed with three 4-inch .50-caliber gun mounts as well as three 3-pounders. The Asheville was initially assigned to Cruiser Division 1, Cruiser Squadron 1, of the Atlantic Fleet and was based in Galveston, Texas. She made port visits to Tampa and Key West, Florida, as well as Havana, Cuba.

The Asheville was sent to Bluefields, Nicaragua, in August 1921 to “show the flag” and to help put down a revolution, but the local government was able to suppress the rebellion without the help of the US gunboat. She then went down to the Panama Canal, transited the Canal, and then spent the next few months operating off the Pacific coast of Central America. The ship was sent back to Charleston, South Carolina, via the Panama Canal on 10 January 1922, where she was converted from a coal-burning warship to an oil-burning one (the first ship of her type to undergo such a conversion). Then on 5 June 1922, the Asheville, now under the command of Commander James O. Richardson, was sent to join the US Asiatic Fleet via the Mediterranean. On this amazing trip the Asheville visited Bermuda, the Azores, Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria in Egypt, went through the Suez Canal, and then went on to Aden, Bombay, Colombo in Ceylon, and Singapore before finally reaching Cavite in the Philippines on 11 September 1922.

After spending a short time training off Corregidor while being based at Cavite, the Asheville was sent to Foochow, China, on 16 October 1922 with a contingent of marines on board. There was a lot of civil unrest in China at that time and the Asheville was sent to China to protect American lives and property, as well as to assist in the defense of the American consulates that were located there. Once the Asheville arrived in Foochow, the marines on board the ship were immediately sent to the American consulate. The gunboat then spent time visiting the ports of Tsingtao and Shanghai, making sure the local Chinese warlords knew that an American warship was in the area in case there was any civil unrest. After a brief trip to the Philippines in April 1923, the Asheville was sent back to China in May and was based in Hong Kong. From there the ship visited the ports of Swatow, Canton, Foochow, Amoy, and Yeung Kong. During this time there were a number of local rebellions and the Asheville sent her Marines ashore on several occasions to protect and assist American citizens and consulates. The Asheville would continue patrolling the coastal waters and rivers of China until 1929.

In 1929 the Asheville was sent back to the Panama Canal. From 5 August 1929 to 17 June 1931, the gunboat was ordered to Nicaragua on six separate occasions. Sailors and marines from the warship were sent ashore to protect American lives and property as local bandits terrorized coastal towns. In March 1932, though, the Asheville returned to the Asiatic Fleet where she resumed protecting American lives and property wherever there was trouble on the coast of China.

Tensions began to rise considerably in China with the start of the Sino-Japanese War in July of 1937. Though neutral, American warships were caught in a very hot war in China, with the US gunboats trying to protect as many American lives as possible. Japan was beginning to invade large portions of China and, even though the US Asiatic fleet was trying to guard American consulates and property, the situation was getting more and more untenable as the months, and then the years, dragged on. After spending the bulk of her life on the “China Station,” the Asheville was finally ordered to return to the Philippines. On 5 July 1941, the Asheville left Chinese waters for the last time and steamed back to Manila.

The Commander in Chief of the US Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, had some tough decisions to make after war with Japan started on 7 December 1941. One of them was what to do with old gunboats like the Asheville. Since these gunboats had neither the speed nor the guns to fight any modern Japanese surface warships or submarines, he assigned them to the Inshore Patrol based in Manila, where they remained on local patrol duty for the next few days. After the Japanese started bombing the Cavite Navy Yard on 10 December, Admiral Hart sent Asheville, as well as a number of other American surface warships, south from the Philippines to Balikpapan, Borneo, and then to Surabaya, Java, where she arrived on 28 December 1941. The Philippines could no longer be defended by sea, so a last stand was to be made in Java. The Asheville was based at Tjilatjap, on the southern coast of Java, but there was little use for her there.

As the months passed, the situation was getting increasingly desperate on Java. On 1 March 1942, Vice Admiral William A. Glassford, Commander, Southwest Pacific Force (formerly the US Asiatic Fleet), ordered all of the remaining American warships to retreat to Australia. The Asheville, under the command of Lt. Jacob W. Britt, left Tjilatjap on 1 March 1942 and was headed for Fremantle, Australia. At 0615 on 2 March, the gunboat Tulsa (ironically the sister ship to the Asheville) sighted a ship and identified her as the Asheville. On 3 March the Asheville radioed that it was “being attacked” about 300 miles south of Java. The radio transmission was received by the minesweeper USS Whippoorwill (AM-35). The ship turned and headed towards the Asheville’s position, which was some 90 miles away. But when a second radio transmission was received by the Whippoorwill stating that the Asheville was being attacked by a surface vessel, the captain of the minesweeper, Lt. Commander Charles R. Ferriter, concluded that, “Any surface vessel that could successfully attack the Asheville would be too much” for his own poorly-armed minesweeper, so he ordered his ship to continue its voyage to Australia. The Asheville was never heard from again.

The Asheville was presumed lost and was stricken from the Navy list on 8 May 1942. It wasn’t until after World War II that the US Navy found out what had happened to the Asheville. A survivor of the heavy cruiser Houston (CA-30) stated that he had met in a Japanese prison camp 18-year-old Fireman 1st Class Fred L. Brown, who had been in the Asheville’s fireroom when a Japanese surface force under Vice Admiral Kondo Nobutake had attacked the ship on 3 March 1942. The Japanese destroyers Arashi and Nowaki attacked the Asheville and pummeled her with numerous hits, destroying the bridge and the forecastle. When Brown reached topside to abandon ship, most of the men he saw on deck were dead. Brown jumped in the water and a sailor on one of the Japanese destroyers threw him a line, which Brown held on to. He was then pulled on board the ship. Fred Brown was put into a Japanese prison camp, but the Asheville’s only survivor died in captivity on 18 March 1945.

The Asheville was the classic gunboat, designed to protect American lives and property in different parts of the world, from Central America to China. Gunboats were never really intended to fight other warships, but they were perfect for “showing the flag” and attacking coastal targets that had no naval protection. They performed tough and hazardous jobs with little recognition and even less gratitude from a Navy that was far too busy to even notice them, let alone honor them. They held the line in parts of the world that few Americans had ever even heard of, much less been to. Yet they did their job with the utmost professionalism under very difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, when World War II finally erupted in the Pacific these ships were forced to fend for themselves since there were no modern ships out there to help them. A few survived, but many were sunk and, like the Asheville, were never heard from again.


Figure 1 (top): “First USS Asheville,” Walter Ashe Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, UNC Asheville 28804. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 2 (middle): USS Asheville in China, date and place unknown. Photo Credit: Scott McCoy. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 3 (bottom): USS Asheville in Hong Kong, 1924, while serving as flagship of Commander, South China Patrol. The owner of this photograph served as a radioman in this ship at the time and has written her radio call letters, “NELV,” on the print. Collection of Henry J. Poy, US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

HMS Hood

The HMS Hood was perhaps the most famous battlecruiser in the Royal Navy. Construction on the ship, named after the 18th Century Admiral Samuel Hood, began in September of 1916. After the loss of three British battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland in June of 1916, 5,000 tons of extra armor was added to the Hood. The additional armor was supposed to protect her from 15-inch shells fired by German battleships. But the additional armor did not cover the entire ship and the first three decks only possessed thin layers of armor. This defect would have tragic consequences later on in her life. The Hood was also the largest capital ship in the British fleet at the time of her commissioning and she was longer than any other British capital ship.

The Hood was launched on 22 August 1918 and was christened by the widow of Admiral Sir Horace Hood, who died in the battlecruiser Invincible at Jutland and who was also a distant relative of Lord Hood, for whom the ship was named. The ship was commissioned on 15 May 1920 under the command of Captain Wilfred Tomkinson and she became the flagship of the British Atlantic Fleet’s Battle Cruiser Squadron. In the years between World Wars I and II, the Hood was the largest warship in the world and was seen by the British public as a symbol of the Royal Navy’s immense size and power. She went on a world-wide cruise with the HMS Repulse and several other ships between November 1923 and September 1924. It was estimated that approximately 750,000 people visited the Hood during that cruise.

The Hood was given a major overhaul from May of 1929 to June of 1930 and was transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet in July of 1936. In June 1939 the Hood was assigned to the Home Fleet’s Battle Cruiser Squadron at Scapa Flow. When war broke out in September of 1939, the Hood was sent to patrol the area around Iceland and the Faroes to protect and guard against German raiders attempting to sneak into the Atlantic. She then steamed back to the Mediterranean as flagship of “Force H” and took part in the destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940. The Hood fired 56 rounds of 15-inch shells during the battle, which lasted only 30 minutes. In August she was sent back to the Atlantic Fleet’s Battle Cruiser Squadron and continued to search for German sea raiders. From 13 January to 18 March 1941, the Hood was sent to Rosyth for some badly needed maintenance, but the urgent demand for British capital ships prevented her from undergoing a more lengthy overhaul.

In May of 1941, the dreaded German battleship Bismarck, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, attempted to break out into the Atlantic to attack Allied merchant convoys bound for Britain. The Hood, under the flag of Admiral Lancelot Holland, together with its escort, the newly commissioned Prince of Wales, was sent out to intercept the German warships. Although numerous British warships were searching for the German raiders, the Hood and the Prince of Wales were the first Royal Navy capital ships to actually try and stop them. The Hood and the Prince of Wales finally caught up with the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen in the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland on 24 May 1941.

What followed was one of the quickest and most savage battles in naval history. Because the British warships were heading toward the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, they could only fire their forward guns at the Germans. The Germans, though, could fire full broadsides at the British. The Hood possessed eight 15-inch guns, while the Prince of Wales had ten 14-inch guns. The Bismarck had eight 15-inch guns but the Prinz Eugen had only eight 8-inch guns. The British fired first but scored no hits. The British ships then began to turn so that their rear guns could begin firing at the enemy ships. At this point the German warships opened fire on the British. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen started hitting the British warships almost immediately. Although the Hood’s side armor was 12 inches thick, the battlecruiser’s deck armor was only three inches thick, making her vulnerable to plunging armor-piercing shells being fired by the Bismarck. One of the Bismarck’s hits started a major fire amidships on board the Hood. Then, at approximately 0601, right after the Bismarck’s fourth salvo, the Hood’s after ammunition magazines blew up in a gigantic pillar of flame and smoke. The ship broke in two and the Hood’s bow rose out of the water, with the after section sinking rapidly. The shattered bow section pointed straight into the air, remained there for a few brief moments, and then slid down beneath the waves. The entire battle lasted only ten minutes. Of the 1,418 men on board the Hood, only three survived. The destroyer HMS Electra rescued the three men almost two hours later.

At the same time, three 15-inch and four 8-inch shells hit the Prince of Wales, seriously damaging the ship. The Prince of Wales, though, was able to hit the Bismarck three times before having to break off contact and leave the area. The damage to the Bismarck was serious enough to reduce her speed and make her leak oil, thereby reducing her range. The brief “Battle of the Denmark Strait” caused the Germans to end the Bismarck’s attempt to enter the Atlantic. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen split up later that day, with the undamaged Prinz Eugen heading for Brest, France, and the damaged Bismarck also steaming toward German-occupied France for repairs. After hearing about the loss of the Hood, Winston Churchill and the Royal Navy sent every available warship out to “Sink the Bismarck.” Although the Prinz Eugen got away and made it to Brest, the Bismarck was eventually cornered and sunk by a British task force on 27 May 1941. The Royal Navy had avenged the sinking of the Hood.

The HMS Hood was the symbol of the Royal Navy for many years. It was big, intimidating, heavily armed, and its men were unafraid to meet any enemy, even if that enemy happened to be a more modern battleship. But, sometimes, courage is no match against a more powerful adversary. The Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy and indeed looked like a formidable warship, but that was before she met the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait.


Figure 1 (top): HMS Hood, Watercolor by Edward Tufnell, RN (Retired). Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. Donation of Melvin Conant, 1969. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 2 (middle, top): HMS Hood, photographed in 1931-32, while fitted with an aircraft catapult aft. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 3 (middle, bottom): HMS Hood, photographed in 1931-32, while fitted with an aircraft catapult aft. The seaplane on the catapult is a Fairey IIIF. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 4 (bottom): Explosion of the British battlecruiser Hood. Smoke from HMS Prince of Wales's gunfire is faintly visible just to the left. This photograph was taken from the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. Copied from the report of officers of Prinz Eugen, with identification by her Gunnery Officer, Paul S. Schmalenbach, 1970. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

US Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane

Named after the niece of President James Buchanan, the US Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane was a 750-ton side-wheel gunboat built in 1857. She served as a Revenue Cutter for only a short time before being transferred to the Navy in 1858. The Harriet Lane, under the command of Captain John Faunce, was sent to Paraguay as part of a US Squadron to help “convince” the ruling dictator, Carlos Antonio Lopez, that he should pay reparations for an unprovoked attack on the US Navy survey vessel Water Witch on 1 February 1855. The US Commissioner to Paraguay, James B. Bowlin, had been negotiating with Lopez for almost four years and had gotten nowhere with the dictator. Frustrated, President Buchanan decided to send a US Naval Squadron down to Paraguay to help speed up negotiations. After seeing the US warships off Paraguay’s coast, Lopez officially apologized for the incident, paid an indemnity to compensate the family of the American sailor killed during the incident, and signed a new commercial treaty that was highly advantageous to the United States. The Squadron Commander, Flag Officer William B. Shubrick, commended the Harriet Lane for its good work during the operation, especially when acting as a rescue vessel and towing ships that had run aground in the dangerous waters of the Parana River.

After returning to the United States, the Harriet Lane went back to the Revenue Cutter Service. From October 1859 to the start of the Civil War, the Harriet Lane was used to intercept slave ships. On 22 March 1794, Congress passed a law making it illegal for an American citizen to carry slaves from the United States to another nation or between foreign nations. On 1 January 1808, a new federal law closed all of the nation’s ports to the foreign slave trade. The Revenue Cutter Service was given the task of enforcing these laws, even though it only had a handful of wooden sailing ships (as well as the Harriet Lane) to patrol America’s enormous coastline. That, coupled with the fact that there was big money to be made in the slave trade, made it almost impossible to stop slaves from being shipped into and out of this country. The slave trade was especially rampant in Florida and Georgia, where there were few Revenue Cutters and little local support for the Federal Government or its laws.

The Harriet Lane was transferred back to the Navy on 30 March 1861, when she became part of the relief force sent to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The Revenue Cutter left New York on 8 April and reached Charleston on 11 April. The very next day, the Harriet Lane fired a shot across the bow of the merchant ship Nashville when she was seen flying no colors. It was the first shot fired at sea during the Civil War. The Nashville quickly hoisted the American Flag, but two days later she became a privateer sailing under the Confederate flag. When Fort Sumter surrendered on 13 April, the Harriet Lane and the other ships in the relief force headed back north to New York City.

The Harriet Lane was then ordered to join the Union’s naval blockade of the South. She became part of the invasion force sent to take Fort Clark and Fort Hatteras in North Carolina. This would eventually become the first combined amphibious operation of the war and the ships assigned to take the forts arrived at Hampton Roads on 27 August 1861. The next day, the Harriet Lane, Monticello, and Pawnee were sent close to shore to provide direct gunfire support for the troops being landed by boat, while the larger ships remained farther offshore to bombard the forts with their heavy guns. Both forts fell the next day and, as a result of this victory, the Union’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron was able to secure a large naval base deep in Southern waters.

On 10 February 1862, the Harriet Lane was sent to join Commander David Dixon Porter’s Mortar Flotilla at Key West, Florida, where ships were gathering for the assault on Confederate Forts in the Mississippi River Delta below New Orleans. The Mortar Flotilla sailed from Key West on 6 March for what was to become the Battle of New Orleans. The Harriet Lane became Porter’s flagship during the attack on Forts Jackson and St. Philip, which guarded the entrance to New Orleans. The Revenue Cutter provided intense gunfire that enabled Flag Officer David Farragut to dash past the forts and take the port of New Orleans on 24 April. The Battle of New Orleans was a major victory for the North and it enabled the Union Navy to steam up the Mississippi, eventually cutting the Confederacy in half.

Porter’s Mortar Flotilla, including the Harriet Lane, then sailed up the Mississippi to assist in the bombardment of Vicksburg. In May of 1862, the Revenue Cutter was part of the amphibious task force sent to occupy the fortifications at Pensacola, Florida. After spending some time as part of the Union blockade of Mobile, Alabama, the Harriet Lane participated in the capture of Galveston, Texas, in October of 1862. But on 1 January 1863, while moored in Galveston Bay, the Harriet Lane was attacked and boarded by Confederate troops who were ferried out to the ship by the Confederate steamers Bayou City and Neptune. What followed was a vicious hand-to-hand battle for control of the Harriet Lane in which both the Captain of the ship, Commander Jonathan M. Wainwright, and the executive officer, Lt. Commander Edward Lea, were killed. (Coincidentally, Commander Wainwright was the grandfather of General Jonathan Wainwright, the officer who surrendered Bataan to the Japanese in World War II.) The attack on the Harriet Lane was coordinated with a land assault on Galveston and, after a brief but bloody struggle, both the Revenue Cutter and the city fell into Confederate hands. Initially, the Harriet Lane was used by the Confederate Army for supply and patrol duties off the coast of Texas. But in 1864 she was sold and converted into a blockade runner. Renamed the Lavinia, she left Galveston on 30 April 1864 and sailed to Havana, Cuba, where she was interned until the end of the Civil War. After the war she was converted into a merchant sailing vessel named Elliot Richie and remained in commercial service until 13 May 1884, when she was lost off Pernambuco, Brazil.

Few ships have seen as much action and adventure as the Harriet Lane and her amazing career spanned almost 30 years. The Harriet Lane was yet another in a long line of tough and resilient Revenue Cutters that made significant contributions to America’s maritime history in both peacetime and in wartime.


Figure 1 (top): Halftone reproduction of a wash drawing of the Harriet Lane by Clary Ray, circa 1898. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on the picture for a larger image.

Figure 2 (middle): "Bombardment of Forts Hatteras and Clark by the US Fleet, Under the Command of Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham, on the 28th and 29th of August, 1861." Colored lithograph by J.P. Newell after a drawing by Francis Garland, a seaman on board the USS Cumberland, published by J.H. Buford, Boston, Massachusetts, 1862. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on the picture for a larger image.

Figure 3 (bottom): "Surprise and Capture of the United States Steamer Harriet Lane, by the Confederates, under General Magruder, and the destruction of the flagship Westfield in Galveston Harbor, Texas, January 1st, 1863." Line engraving published in The Soldier in our Civil War, Volume II. The USS Harriet Lane is shown in the center, under attack by the Confederate gunboats Neptune and Bayou City. The USS Westfield is at the far left, being blown up to prevent her capture. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on the picture for a larger image.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

USS Monadnock (BM-3)

The original USS Monitor revolutionized naval warfare when it was commissioned on 25 February 1862. It possessed the world’s first rotating turret that was protected by eight layers of 1-inch thick iron plates. The Monitor then went on to make history by facing the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia on 9 March 1862 at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Although neither ship was sunk, the battle proved that the era of the wooden warship was over and that the future of naval history would be dominated by iron and, eventually, steel. The rotating turret would also become a standard fixture on all major warships in the years to come.

The Union Navy subsequently built many monitors during the course of the war, but, even though monitors were invented during the Civil War, this type of warship saw active duty throughout World War I and, in some rare cases, even participated in World War II.

A good example of a monitor seeing extensive naval service after the Civil War was the USS Monadnock (BM-3). Named after a mountain in New Hampshire, this 3,990-ton iron-hulled, twin-screw, double-turreted monitor was originally laid down in 1874 but wasn’t actually launched until 1883. It then sat at the Mare Island Navy Yard in California until it was finally completed and commissioned on 20 February 1896. The Monadnock served as a unit of the US Pacific Squadron along the west coast. She spent the next two years on training cruises and exercises along the Pacific coast from Puget Sound to Baja California. After war started between the United States and Spain in 1898, the Monadnock was ordered to steam to the Philippines and join Admiral George Dewey’s task force. Monitors were slow, had limited range, poor sea keeping qualities, and were designed only for coastal defense missions. Nonetheless, the USS Monadnock left San Francisco on 23 June 1898 and started its perilous journey for the Philippines. This was hardly the type of ship you would want to take into the open ocean since monitors had a very low freeboard and could easily founder if they ever encountered a serious storm. But, after making a brief stop in Hawaii for coal and supplies, the ship finally reached Manila Bay on August 16. She immediately became part of Dewey’s Blockade of the Manila-Marviles-Cavite area and she eventually provided American troops in the Philippines with badly needed offshore artillery support. In December of 1899, the Monadnock steamed to Hong Kong where she spent the next five years protecting American interests in the area by patrolling Chinese rivers (especially the Yangtze) and steaming along China’s coast.

The Monadnock eventually went back to the Philippines in 1905 and was decommissioned there in 1909. She was re-commissioned in 1911 and remained part of the US Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines until 1919, when she was decommissioned for the last time. She was sold for scrap in 1923. Although odd-looking ships, monitors like the Monadnock made important contributions to fleets around the world by guarding extensive coastal waters and by functioning as mobile artillery platforms. They were perfect gunboats for assignments in far-off colonies and, on many occasions, the mere sight of these large warships succeeded in intimidating the local populations. They represented the big guns in an era that was known for its “gunboat diplomacy.”


Figure 1 (top): The USS Monadnock at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, in June 1898. She is about to sail on her voyage to the Philippines. Note the old monitor USS Camanche (1864-1899) is visible beyond Monadnock's after turret. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (middle): The Monadnock in the Pacific Ocean during her voyage from San Francisco to Manila in the Philippines. Photographed from the USS Nero (1898-1922), a collier that escorted the Monadnock on her trans-Pacific voyage. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (bottom): Another photograph of the Monadnock at sea between San Francisco and Manila. This picture was also taken from the USS Nero. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for lager image.