Tuesday, July 31, 2007

USS Machias (Gunboat No. 5)

Named after a town in Maine, the gunboat USS Machias was launched at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, on 8 December 1891. She was the sister ship to the USS Castine, which was also built at the Bath Iron Works. The Machias was commissioned on 20 July 1893 and went on her shakedown cruise along the east coast of the United States. In November 1894 the Machias left her home port of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and headed for the Far East, where she was assigned to the US Asiatic Fleet. Her journey would take her to the Azores, Gibraltar, Malta, the Suez Canal, Aden, Ceylon, Singapore, and finally to her new home in Hong Kong, where she arrived on 6 March 1895. The Machias stayed in the Far East for the next two years, protecting American interests primarily in Korea and Japan, but also making occasional visits up the Yangtze River in China. On 16 December 1897 this sturdy gunboat was ordered to return home and she made it back to Boston on 18 March 1898.

The Machias was sent on 7 April 1898 to join the North Atlantic Fleet that was given the task of blockading Cuba. On 11 May 1898 the Machias was ordered to lead an attack on the port of Cardenas, Cuba, along with the US Gunboats Wilmington, Hudson and the torpedo boat Winslow. The Machias was armed with eight 4-inch guns and four 6-pounders, as well as four 1-pounders. With a length of 204 feet, a beam of just over 32 feet, and a crew of 154, the Machias was a typical gunboat designed for operations just like this one. As the small task force neared the port of Cardenas, the Spaniards attacked with three gunboats and began firing highly accurate artillery shells from concealed positions on shore. It was a quick but extremely vicious battle, with Spanish artillery shells almost demolishing the torpedo boat Winslow. But the other three American gunboats gave a stiff reply by bombarding the town of Cardenas, silencing all of the land-based artillery, and destroying two of the three Spanish gunboats. What was left of the Spanish garrison in Cardenas soon gave up, with the American warships winning the day, even though over half of the Winslow’s crew was either dead or wounded. After a few brief stints serving as a transport for Army troops and supplies, the Machias continued on blockade duty until September 1898. After that she returned to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for an overhaul.

On 15 January 1899 the Machias resumed her career as a typical gunboat, patrolling the waters of the Caribbean, the West Indies, and steaming off the coasts of Cuba and Central America. She carried the US Minister to Venezuela on a diplomatic mission in January 1900 and was ordered to return home on 8 July. Oddly, even though she was in almost constant use, the Machias was decommissioned on 14 August 1900 and placed in reserve in Boston.

The Machias was recommissioned on 24 July 1901 and was quickly sent off to Panama and Columbia, where she was given the task of protecting American lives and property during the Panamanian Revolution. After briefly going back to Boston for repairs, the Machias then landed American troops at Boca del Toro, Columbia, from 17 to 19 April 1902. She continued to patrol the coasts of Latin America until 8 January 1903, when she was assigned to the US Navy’s “European Squadron” in the Mediterranean. She visited various European ports until 1 March 1904, when she was ordered back to the United States. The Machias arrived in Pensacola, Florida, on 26 March 1904 and was decommissioned on 14 May. The gunboat languished until she was assigned to the Connecticut Naval Militia on 19 November 1907. After steaming to New York and undergoing a complete overhaul, the Machias was formally handed over to the Connecticut Naval Militia on 27 June 1908. She was based in New Haven, Connecticut, and functioned as a training ship until 27 April 1914, when she was recommissioned back into the regular Navy. Once again the Machias did what she knew best, working as a gunboat in the Caribbean.

On 14 June 1915 the Machias was sent to Vera Cruz, Mexico, to protect American lives and property during one of that country’s bloody revolutions. She returned to New Orleans from October 1915 to February 1916 for repairs, and was then sent back to Mexico to evacuate American nationals from the town of Tuxpan, which was in the middle of some civil unrest at the time. After that the Machias resumed patrolling the Caribbean until the United States entered World War I in April 1917.

During the war the Machias was based at Gibraltar for antisubmarine duty and stayed there until July 1918, when she was ordered home. She was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, for a complete refit and then left in April 1919. This time she was headed for the Pacific via the Panama Canal. After transiting the Panama Canal, the Machias steamed along the west coast of Central America until she finally reached the Mare Island Navy Yard in California on 27 August 1919. She was decommissioned on 3 October 1919 and a year later was sold to the Mexican Navy. Renamed the Agua Prieta, the old gunboat functioned as a transport and coast guard ship for the next 15 years. The Mexican Navy finally scrapped her in 1935.

Both the USS Machias and her sister ship the USS Castine had long and remarkable careers. They literally sailed around the world protecting American interests and they proved to be important naval assets in times of war and peace. Few people today know their names, but they successfully accomplished the many mundane (yet vital) missions that are usually assigned to smaller warships. Their contributions to the US Navy should never be forgotten.


Figure 1 (Top): The USS Machias (Gunboat No. 5) circa 1903. Courtesy U.S. Warships of World War I. Click on Photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle): The USS Machias off the Boston Navy Yard, Massachusetts, 7 August 1901. Courtesy of Howard I. Chapelle, Smithsonian Institution. U.S. Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Bottom): USS Machias (Gunboat No. 5) and USS Castine (Gunboat No. 6) general appearance plan, with decorated mount, showing the ships' preliminary design. It was presented to the Secretary of the Navy (the Honorable Benjamin F. Tracy) by the Chief Constructor, circa the early 1890s. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation. U.S. Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

USS Castine (Gunboat No. 6)

Named after a town in Maine, the USS Castine was launched on 11 May 1892 at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. The ship was commissioned on 22 October 1894 and was immediately assigned to the US Atlantic Fleet. The Castine (along with her crew of 154) circled the globe on her shakedown cruise, traveling to the Azores and then on to Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, Zanzibar, Mozambique, around the Cape of Good Hope, and finally ending her journey at Pernambuco, Brazil, on 13 October 1895. The Castine was a typical gunboat of the day, showing the flag and protecting American lives and property in distant corners of the world. Except for a brief overhaul in Norfolk, Virginia, the Castine continued to patrol South American and West Indian waters for the United States for more than two years.

In March of 1898, just before America’s formal declaration of war against Spain, the Castine was ordered to steam north and join the US Navy’s blockade of Cuba. With a length of 204 feet and a beam of just over 32 feet, the Castine had a speed of 15.5 knots and was armed with eight 4-inch guns and four 6-pounders. Although useful for shelling land targets and intercepting unarmed merchant ships, a gunboat like the Castine was a questionable selection for blockade duty, especially if it ran into a larger, faster, and more powerful warship. Perhaps the US Navy realized the Castine’s limitations, because for the rest of the war she was used to escort merchant transports for the US Army.

In December 1898, the Castine was sent to the Far East. She sailed to the Philippines to help the US Army put down the insurrection that began there shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War. This was the way gunboats were normally used, by shelling land targets and patrolling the coastal waters of countries that did not possess any major naval vessels. The Castine patrolled the southern islands of the Philippines for several months and was then sent to cruise the coast of China until June 1901, when she was sent back to the United States.

From October 1901 to October 1908, the Castine was placed in and out of commission by the Navy, being recalled to active duty every now and then to serve as a gunboat in the South Atlantic or Caribbean. But from October 1908 to May 1913, the Castine served as a submarine tender at naval bases along the East Coast. After that she returned to her more familiar role of US Gunboat, patrolling the Caribbean and the coast of Mexico.

During World War I, the Castine was assigned to the US Naval Patrol Force in Gibraltar on 5 August 1917. She remained there until 21 December 1918. The ship was then sent back to the United States and was decommissioned at the New Orleans Navy Yard in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 28 August 1919. The US Navy then sold this fine ship on 5 August 1921 to a private shipping firm, which converted her into, of all things, a banana boat. The USS Castine met an ignominious end when it was sunk in a collision on the Mississippi River on 12 December 1924.

Tough warships such as the Castine played an important role by patrolling the coasts of foreign lands for the United States for many years. They literally sailed all over the world and did the dirty little jobs that the larger, more glamorous warships could not do. Although few people remember them today, they made their mark on naval history in their own, quiet way.


Figure 1 (Top): Color-tinted post card of a photograph taken of the USS Castine circa 1905 at Pensacola, Florida, by Enrique Muller. It was published by the American News Company, of New York City. Courtesy of Commander Donald J. Robinson, USN (Retired), 1983. U.S. Navy photo. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, top): USS Castine underway in harbor in 1898, during or shortly after the Spanish-American War. Copied from "The New Navy of the United States," by N.L. Stebbins, (New York, 1912). Donation of David Shadell, 1987. U.S. Navy photo. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, bottom): USS Castine in drydock at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, circa 1905-1908, while out of commission. USS Topeka (1898-1930), also out of commission, is astern of Castine Collection of Harry Gilfillan. U.S. Navy photo. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Photograph autographed by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, circa the later 1950s or early 1960s. He served on board the Castine while commanding the Atlantic Fleet Submarine Flotilla between 20 May 1912 and 30 March 1913. U.S. Navy photo. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

HMS Wivern

During the Civil War, the Confederate States of America needed warships. Since the South didn’t have the shipyards capable of producing modern warships in great numbers, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory sent James Bulloch to England as a “naval agent,” with the mission of purchasing warships for the Confederacy. Bulloch had already successfully negotiated contracts for the construction of two of the most famous Confederate merchant raiders, the CSS Alabama and the CSS Florida, but was now interested in more powerful warships.

In 1862 Bulloch contracted John Laird and Sons to build two ironclad ram warships. The ships were to be built at Laird’s Birkenhead shipyard in Liverpool, England, and each ironclad was to have two revolving turrets, with each turret mounting two 9-inch muzzle loading cannons. The ships were to be named the CSS Mississippi and the CSS North Carolina, but since Great Britain was technically neutral during the Civil War, cover stories had to be created for the ships so that Britain’s neutrality could not be compromised. If it became known that Britain was openly helping the Confederate States, then the North would have a pretext to attack British interests in North America, most notably Canada. Therefore, Laird and Sons stated that the ships were being built for the Egyptian Navy and that the CSS Mississippi and the CSS North Carolina were going to be named the El Monassir and the El Tousson, respectively.

While the two ships were being built, the US Government’s Minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams (the son of President John Quincy Adams), discovered this plot through information he received from Federal agents in England. Adams was alarmed because these were two of the most modern ironclads afloat and if the Confederates obtained them it could change the entire naval war off the coast of the United States. The Union navy had only one modern warship that could take on these ironclads (the USS New Ironsides) and these ships could easily defeat any of the conventional Union warships that were blockading the South, most of which were made of wood. Adams quickly lodged a major protest with the British government demanding that they seize the two ships.

Bulloch was able to fool the British with the Alabama and the Florida because they were designed in England as unarmed merchant ships, which did not compromise British neutrality. But after the two ships sailed away from Great Britain, they were refitted as merchant raiders (with cannons and other provisions) in a different country. But with two revolving turrets fitted for four cannons, there was no way to hide the fact that the North Carolina and the Mississippi were warships. As a result of the US Federal Government’s formal protest, the British government seized the two ironclads in October 1863, just a few months after they were launched and just before they were completed. In 1864 the two ships were bought by the Royal Navy and were renamed the HMS Scorpion (ex-North Carolina) and the HMS Wivern (ex-Mississippi).

The Wivern had the longest career of the two ships. Her turrets were mounted in front of and behind the ship’s mainmast and funnel. The ship had a large iron spur ram in its bow, although it does not seem likely that a ship like this would actually need to ram another ship, given its heavy armament. The ship also had hinged bulwarks that could be folded down to permit the cannons in her revolving turrets to have a clear field of fire and, when the turrets were not in use, the bulwarks were folded back up to protect the ship from rough seas. The ship displaced 2,750 tons, was almost 225 feet long and had a beam of slightly over 42 feet. She had one 1,450 horsepower steam engine and an armor belt around most of her hull that was 4.5 inches thick. Her turrets had 10 inches of armor on their faces and 5 inches of armor on their sides. The Wivern had a complement of 153 and a top speed of 10.5 knots under steam power, although this could be increased a bit by the barque-rigged sails she carried.

The Wivern was completed in October 1865 and was assigned to the Channel Fleet until 1868. The ship was then refitted with a fore and aft sail rig, thereby eliminating her original square sails. The Wivern spent several months as a coast guard ship based at Hull, England, and then spent almost 10 years in reserve. She returned to service in 1880 and was sent to defend the British Colony of Hong Kong. The Wivern spent the rest of her career there, being reduced to a harbor support service vessel in 1904. But she continued in this role until she was finally sold for scrap in 1922.

If the CSS Mississippi and the CSS North Carolina actually made it to the United States, they would have had a dramatic affect on the war at sea during the Civil War. Certainly none of the Union’s wooden warships would have been able to defeat them and all of the monitors the Union Navy had were designed for coastal or river warfare. These ocean-going British ironclads could have wreaked havoc on the Union’s blockade of the South and throughout the Northern seaboard. Their loss was an enormous blow to the small Confederate Navy.


Figure 1 (Top): HMS Wivern at anchor off Plymouth, England, in 1865. Note the lowered bulwarks abreast her two turrets, with hammocks stowed around the turret tops to form rifle pits, and her tripod fore and main masts. She was reportedly the first ship fitted with tripod masts, which eliminated standing rigging, thus increasing the arc of her turrets' gunfire. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle): HMS Wivern moored off Plymouth, England, during the late 1860s, with another ironclad in the left distance. Wivern's bulwarks and smokestack are in the "up" position. Copied from the photographic album "Types of Ships in the British Navy", printed in 1877. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Bottom): HMS Wivern in the 1870s or 1880s. Her rig was reduced in 1868 and she was sent to Hong Kong in 1880 as a harbor defense ship. Note the ship-of-the-line being repainted in the left background. Collection of Rear Admiral Ammen C. Farenholt, USN(MC). U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

HMS Nabob

Built in the United States at the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Co. in Tacoma, Washington, the HMS Nabob actually started its life as the USS Edisto (CVE-41). Work on this escort carrier began on 20 October 1942 and it was originally designed to be a merchant ship. But the hull was purchased by the US Navy and the ship was converted into a Bogue class escort carrier to be renamed USS Edisto. The new escort carrier was completed on 7 September 1943. On 7 September the ship was transferred to the Royal Navy and placed under the command of Commander L.R. Romer. At this point, the ship was renamed the HMS Nabob and was sent with a small temporary crew to Vancouver, Canada. Once there, she picked up her permanent crew. Of the 750 men on board the Nabob, 450 were from Canada. On 15 October 1943 the ship was formally handed over to Captain Horatio Nelson Lay, OBE, RCN, who assumed command of the ship.

While in Canada, the Nabob underwent further conversion for duties as an Antisubmarine Warfare carrier. The conversion was completed by 13 January 1943 and the ship left for Esquimalt on 24 January for final working up exercises. However, on 25 January the ship ran aground in Georgia Strait after hitting a silt deposit on the seabed. There was no serious damage to the ship, but it took three days before the Nabob could be pulled free from the silt. On 6 February the Nabob steamed to San Francisco where she picked up her aircraft, a squadron of Grumman TBM Avengers. After a brief working up period off San Francisco, the Nabob transited the Panama Canal and went to New York City, arriving there on 19 March. While in New York City, the Nabob received a number of P-51 Mustang fighters as deck cargo to be ferried to England for the RAF. The Nabob left New York on 23 March and reached Liverpool on 6 April, where she unloaded her cargo of fighters. Although the Nabob was assigned to Western Approaches Command, she was sent to the Clyde shipyard to repair defects that were found throughout the ship. The Nabob did not return to active duty until 26 June 1944.

After another working up period during which her TBM Avengers returned to the ship, the Nabob took part in Operation “Offspring” on 10 August 1944. Aircraft from the Nabob, along with planes from the fleet carrier Indefatigable and the escort carrier Trumpeter, laid aerial mines off Norway. This was the largest mine laying operation attempted by aircraft from the British Home Fleet, of which the Nabob was now a part.

The Nabob went on to take part in Operation “Goodwood,” which was an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz that was also anchored in Norway. During this operation, a torpedo fired by U-354 on 22 August 1944 struck the Nabob. The torpedo struck the starboard side of the ship, causing a 32-foot gash below the waterline and right next to the engine room. Water poured in through the hole and soon the escort carrier settled 15 feet down by the stern. Electrical power was lost throughout the ship and the Nabob sat dead in the water. The initial explosion killed 30 crewmen and 40 others were injured. Another torpedo was fired at the Nabob from U-354, but this one hit the frigate HMS Bickerton, sinking the ship. Crewmembers from the Nabob worked feverishly to save their ship. Damage control parties were eventually able to patch the hole and stop the flooding. After much effort, power was gradually restored and the Nabob was able to start moving at a very slow three knots. She eventually made it to Scapa Flow on 27 August 1944, where she underwent emergency repairs. The ship then steamed to Rosyth where she was dry-docked. After inspecting the ship, the Royal Navy decided that the Nabob was beyond repair and that she was to be laid up for the rest of the war. The ship was beached and decommissioned on 30 September 1944 and stripped for parts for other escort carriers.

What was left of the HMS Nabob was returned to the US Navy on 16 March 1946. Her hulk was sold for scrapping in March 1947 but, in an amazing turn of events, the ship was then resold to German buyers (Norddeutscher Lloyd in Bremen, Germany). The Nabob had her flight deck removed and was then towed from England to Bremen, Germany. The ship was equipped with new British-built steam turbines and was eventually converted into a merchant ship. Even though the ship was totally rebuilt, she kept her old name Nabob. The freighter Nabob remained in German hands for 16 years and was re-sold to new owners in Hong Kong in 1967. At this point the ship was renamed Glory and kept on working as a merchant ship until 1976, when she was sent to Taiwan to be scrapped, ending a very long career. The Nabob showed how much punishment an escort carrier could take and still remain afloat. She also proved that, even though stripped and left as a derelict hulk, some ships still have a lot of life left in them.


Figure 1 (Top): HMS Nabob steaming off the coast of British Columbia shortly after completion. Photo Courtesy of Corvus Publishing Group / Canada's Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, top): The HMS Nabob as she appeared shortly after being torpedoed on August 22, 1944, by U-354. Although the torpedo punched a 32-foot hole below the ship’s waterline, she was eventually able to steam to Scapa Flow under her own power. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, bottom): Another view of the HMS Nabob after she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-354. She clearly can be seen settling by the stern. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): The German freighter Nabob, ex-HMS Nabob, leaving Bremen, Germany, on a foggy day in March 1965. Photo by Gerhard Mueller-Debus. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

USS Bunker Hill (CV-17)

The USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) was an Essex Class carrier and was launched on 7 December 1942 by the Bethlehem Steel Co. in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was commissioned on 24 May 1943 with Captain J.J. Ballentine in command. After a “working up” period in the Atlantic, the Bunker Hill was sent to the Pacific in the fall of 1943 where she had an amazing career. The Bunker Hill took part in a carrier strike on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul on 11 November 1943, participated in the Gilbert Islands campaign by providing air support for the invasion of Tarawa (13 November to 8 December 1943), assisted in the Kavieng air strikes in support of the Bismarck Archipelago operation (25 December 1943; 1 and 4 January 1944), took part in the Marshall Islands campaign (29 January to 8 February 1944), and attacked the Japanese base at Truk (17-18 February 1944), during which eight Japanese warships were sunk. The Bunker Hill’s planes then went on to raid islands throughout the Pacific, including the Marianas, Palau, Yap, Ulithi, Truk, Satawan, Ponape, and Hollandia. She then took part in the invasion of the Marianas Islands from 12 June to 10 August 1944 and also fought in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. On 19 June 1944, during the battle, the Bunker Hill sustained some damage when a Japanese bomb scored a near miss on the carrier, spraying shrapnel fragments across the ship. Two men were killed and more than 80 were wounded. But the Bunker Hill stayed in the fight and her planes helped to sink one Japanese carrier and shot down a portion of the 476 Japanese aircraft that were lost during that battle. In September of 1944 she took part in the Western Caroline Islands campaign and, after that, began launching air strikes against Okinawa, Luzon and Formosa.

On 6 November 1944, the Bunker Hill steamed back to Bremerton, Washington, for repairs and a badly needed overhaul. On 24 January 1945 the carrier returned to the front in the Pacific and took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Her planes also bombed the Japanese islands of Honshu and Nansei Shoto and took part in an attack on Japanese naval forces in the East China Sea. During that raid the Japanese battleship Yamato, one cruiser and four destroyers were sunk.

But, on the morning of 11 May 1945, while participating in the invasion of Okinawa, two Japanese “Kamikaze” suicide planes hit the Bunker Hill. Major gasoline fires burned out of control and several explosions tore through the ship. The Bunker Hill was on fire, listing and heavily damaged. But even though the situation looked hopeless, the brave crew refused to give up on their ship. After fighting the fires for several hours, the crew gradually began to bring the situation under control. The loss of life, though, was staggering: 346 men were killed, 43 were missing and presumed dead, and 264 were wounded, many of them badly burned. But the ship remained afloat and, remarkably, was able to make it back to Bremerton for repairs under her own power. This incident showed how much punishment an Essex Class carrier could take and still remain afloat.

The Bunker Hill was sent back into service in September 1945, just after Japan surrendered. Throughout the rest of the year she was given the task of transporting US servicemen home from the Pacific. In January 1946 the Bunker Hill was sent to Bremerton and placed in reserve. Although reclassified three times while in reserve (first as an “Attack Aircraft Carrier” CVA-17 in October 1952, then as an “Antisubmarine Warfare Support Aircraft Carrier” CVS-17 in August 1953, and finally as an “Auxiliary Aircraft Transport” AVT-9 in May 1959), the Bunker Hill never returned to active duty. She was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in November 1966 and sold for scrap in May of 1973. The Bunker Hill received the Presidential Unit Citation for the period of 11 November 1943 to 11 May 1945 and received 11 battle stars for her service during World War II.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) at sea in 1945 (although dated October 16, 1945, this picture is older, as the ship did not operate aircraft after May 1945). This photo has been autographed by Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, who served on board the Bunker Hill in January-May 1945, while he was Chief of Staff to Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, Commander, Task Force 58. From the Admiral Arleigh A. Burke Collection, USN. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): The Bunker Hill on fire after being hit by two “Kamikaze” suicide planes off Okinawa, 11 May 1945. Photographed from the USS Bataan (CVL-29). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): The Bunker Hill (CV-17) burning after being hit by "Kamikaze" suicide planes during the Battle for Okinawa, 11 May 1945. A Cleveland class light cruiser is steaming nearby, at left. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): With the fires almost put out, this picture shows just some of the damage done by the Japanese suicide planes to the Bunker Hill. Official US Navy Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.