Tuesday, November 27, 2007

USS Wachusett

Named after a mountain peak in north central Massachusetts, the USS Wachusett was a 1,032-ton Iroquois class screw sloop of war that was commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on 3 March 1862. The ship was approximately 201 feet long, had a beam off almost 34 feet and had a speed of 11.5 knots. The Wachusett was heavily armed with two 11-inch guns, two 30-pounders, one 20-pounder, four 32-pounders and one 12-pounder.

As soon as she was commissioned, the Wachusett was assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. She reached Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862 and was sent to patrol the York and James Rivers in Virginia. The Wachusett supported Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign during the spring of 1862 and on 6 and 7 May this ship assisted in landing troops at West Point, Virginia, while under fire from Confederate shore batteries. The Wachusett moved deeper into the James River and on 15 May was part of the Union assault on Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia. The ship stayed on the York and James Rivers through August and also served as Commodore Charles Wilkes’ flagship as part of the Potomac Flotilla from 29 August to 7 September.

On 8 September 1862, the Wachusett was made the flagship of a special “Flying Squadron” that was put under the command of Commodore Wilkes. The primary mission of the Flying Squadron (which was made up of seven warships) was to hunt down and destroy the elusive and notorious Confederate commerce raiders CSS Alabama and CSS Florida in the West Indies. On 18 January 1863, the Wachusett and the USS Sonoma captured the Southern merchant ship Virginia off the coast of Mexico and on 25 March the Wachusett captured the British blockade runner Dolphin between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas Island. But even though the Flying Squadron managed to catch some Southern ships, it was unable to intercept either the Alabama or the Florida. In May the Wachusett returned to Boston for an overhaul and some badly needed repairs.

On 4 February 1864, the Wachusett was sent off the coast of Brazil to protect American merchant ships from Confederate commerce raiders, especially the dreaded Alabama and Florida, which were still on the loose. The Wachusett was now under the command of Commander Napoleon Collins, a tough US Navy veteran. Collins was born in Pennsylvania on 4 March 1814 and he became a Midshipman in the US Navy in January 1834. After being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in 1846, Collins was very active aboard US warships during the Mexican-American War. After the Civil War started, Collins was given the command of several gunboats and was made a Commander in July 1862. Now he was in charge of a formidable Union warship that was hunting down two Confederate cruisers, both of which posed a very real threat to the Union’s shipping and commerce.

After searching off the coast of Brazil for many months, Commander Collins finally sighted one of his targets. On 4 October 1864, the Wachusett saw the CSS Florida entering Bahia Harbor in Brazil. The Wachusett stayed just outside the harbor but, since Brazil was a neutral nation during the Civil War, Commander Collins technically could not enter the port to capture the Confederate raider. Collins tried to goad Lieutenant Charles M. Morris, the Captain of the Florida, into coming out of the harbor to fight. Morris, though, wisely decided to stay inside the neutral harbor to avoid a confrontation with the Union warship. What could Commander Collins do? Sitting right in front of him was the CSS Florida, the dastardly Confederate cruiser that had captured or destroyed 33 Union merchant ships. Would he dare risk Brazil’s neutrality, risk his naval career and risk a court martial for breaking international law by entering a neutral port to destroy a notorious Confederate raider? What made matters even worse was that Brazil had positioned one of its own gunboats in between the Florida and the Washusett in hopes of keeping the two ships apart. What would Collins do if the Brazilian ship opened fire on his ship?

Shortly after midnight on 7 October 1864, Commander Napoleon Collins made up his mind. He ordered the Wachusett to quietly steam past the Brazilian gunboat and enter the harbor. Collins wanted to ram the Florida and sink it, but as the Union warship approached the Confederate cruiser it was only able to strike it a glancing blow on its starboard quarter. The impact did a considerable amount of damage to the Florida, but both ships remained afloat and seaworthy. Fortunately, half of the Florida’s crew (including her Captain, Lieutenant Morris) was ashore while the attack was taking place and only a few shots were fired between the two ships before the balance of the crew on board the Florida surrendered. The Wachusett then quickly took the Florida in tow and literally pulled it out of Bahia Harbor. As the Wachusett and the Florida were leaving the harbor, a Brazilian coastal fort at Bahia opened fire on the two ships. No hits were scored and the two ships quickly left the area and headed north. On 11 November the Wachusett and the Florida reached Hampton Roads, Virginia.

An international firestorm erupted after this event took place. Brazil strongly protested this violation of its neutrality and the United States could only admit that it had indeed acted illegally in taking the Florida. The US Navy promised to return the Confederate raider to Brazil but on 28 November 1864 the Florida was rammed and sunk by a US Army transport in Hampton Roads. Whether this was an accident or a deliberate attack was never established, even though two courts of inquiry investigated the matter. As for Commander Collins, he was promptly courtmartialled for violating Brazilian neutrality. He was found guilty and sentenced to be dismissed from the US Navy. But the bold attack on (and the subsequent capture of) the Florida made Commander Collins a hero in the North and it neutralized one of the South’s main commerce raiders. The Union’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, seemed to agree with what Commander Collins did because he ignored the decision of the court martial and he restored Collins to active duty. Napoleon Collins not only remained in the US Navy, but in July 1866 he was made a full Captain. In August 1874 Collins achieved the rank of Rear Admiral, but he died only a year later on 9 August 1875 in Lima, Peru, while in command of the US South Pacific Squadron.

As for the USS Wachusett, in March 1865 she sailed around the Cape of Good Hope bound for the East Indies. Once there, she joined the USS Wyoming and the USS Iroquois in searching for another Confederate raider, the CSS Shenandoah. The Wachusett stayed in the Pacific until 1867, when she was sent back to the United States. From 1871 to 1874, the Wachusett was sent to the Mediterranean and then returned to the United States to patrol the waters off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. After being decommissioned from 1874 to 1879, the Wachusett was brought back into service to patrol the Gulf of Mexico. She also joined the South Atlantic Station in October 1879, but in May 1880 the Wachusett was transferred to the Pacific. She remained on the Pacific Station until September 1885 when she was decommissioned for the last time at the Mare Island Navy Yard in California. The US Navy sold the Wachusett to a private company on 30 July 1887.

How many naval officers today would risk their ship and their career (not to mention a court martial) to defeat a sworn enemy of this nation? Commander Napoleon Collins faced that exact problem on board the Wachusett and he decided that defeating the enemy was more important than any single person’s career, including his own. That was a tough decision made by a tough officer on board a tough ship.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Wachusett (1862-1887) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, with the city of Vallejo in the distance, circa 1880-85. She decommissioned for the last time in September 1885, at Mare Island. Photograph from the William H. Topley Collection, Courtesy of Charles M. Loring, 1969. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): USS Wachusett photographed at Shanghai, China, in 1867. Courtesy of Charles H. Bogart, 1973. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): "Cutting out of the Florida from Bahia, Brazil, by the U.S.S. Wachusett," 19th Century phototype print by F. Gutekunst, Philadelphia. It depicts the capture of CSS Florida by USS Wachusett at Bahia, Brazil, on 7 October 1864. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Commander Napoleon Collins, USN. Carte de visite print of a photograph taken circa 1864 by E. Anthony, New York. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

USS Plymouth Rock (LSD-29)

The USS Plymouth Rock (LSD-29) was an 11,270-ton Thomaston class dock landing ship and was built by the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The ship was launched on 7 May 1954 and was commissioned on 29 November 1954. She was 510 feet long, had a beam of 84 feet and had a crew of 766 officers and men. The Plymouth Rock was a modern amphibious assault ship that could steam at 21 knots, had an armament of four twin 3-inch/50 gun mounts (for a total of eight guns) and could carry approximately 400 troops plus 2,400 tons of equipment. She also carried 18 LCM(6) landing craft and four LCVPs, and had two large cranes that could handle roughly 50 tons each.

After being commissioned, the Plymouth Rock steamed to her new homeport in Norfolk, Virginia. After conducting a shakedown cruise off the eastern coast of the United States and in the Caribbean, she was assigned to the US Atlantic Fleet. In March 1956 she joined the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and supported the landing of US Marines in Lebanon in July 1958. This ship also made numerous trips to the Caribbean and was part of the Arctic Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line support operations in 1955 and 1957. The Plymouth Rock also was one of the pioneers in developing the concept of “vertical envelopment” by helicopter assault in early 1959 and she was part of “Operation Amigo,” which involved carrying support helicopters and other equipment for President Eisenhower’s trip to South America.

In 1961 the Plymouth Rock made several trips to the Caribbean and one voyage to the Mediterranean and she participated in the Project “Mercury” space flight support mission. In 1962 the Plymouth Rock was again sent to the Caribbean and she was part of the US Naval blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After that, she was sent back to the Mediterranean on 7 May 1963. In 1964 the Plymouth Rock took part in Operation “Steel Pike I” off the coast of Spain, which, up to that time, was the largest amphibious training operation since World War II. From 28 January 1966 to 7 March she took part in the H-Bomb recovery mission off Palomares, Spain, and during the latter part of 1966 she assisted the victims of Hurricane Inez in Haiti. For the remainder of her career, the Plymouth Rock made numerous training cruises to the Caribbean and Europe. The Plymouth Rock was decommissioned in September 1983. After spending more than 10 years in the US Navy’s Reserve Fleet, she was sold for scrapping in September 1995.

This tough and versatile ship was obviously named after the site of the landing of the first permanent settlers to New England in 1620. May all of you have a happy and safe Thanksgiving Holiday!


Figure 1 (Top): The insignia of the USS Plymouth Rock (LDS-29). This emblem was received from the ship in 1958. It features an alligator (symbol of the Amphibious Force) in Pilgrim dress standing on the ship's namesake, Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. A depiction of USS Plymouth Rock is in the left background. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): The USS Plymouth Rock photographed circa the later 1950s or early 1960s, with a HUS helicopter parked on her after deck. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph from larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): USS Plymouth Rock photographed circa 1963, while she was fitted with a retractable sonar forward. The photograph was received with the annual ship's historical submission, dated 6 January 1964. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Amphibious Group at sea, 17 April 1964. The ships are USS Hermitage (LSD-34) in left foreground, USS Francis Marion (APA-249) in center, USS Plymouth Rock (LSD-29) in the left rear and USS Yancey (APA-93) in the right rear. Three UH-34 helicopters are flying in formation over the Francis Marion. Photograph received from USS Francis Marion, 1964. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

USS Aaron Ward (DD-773/DM-34)

Named after a famous US Navy Rear Admiral, the USS Aaron Ward was designed as an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer (DD-773) and was launched on 5 May 1944 at the Bethlehem Steel Co. in San Pedro, California. She was reclassified as a “destroyer-minelayer” (DM-34) on 19 July 1944 and was commissioned on 28 October 1944. The 2,200-ton Aaron Ward was approximately 376 feet long, 40 feet wide, had a crew of 363 officers and men, and had a top speed of over 34 knots. She was armed with six 5-inch guns, eight 40mm antiaircraft guns, 12 20mm antiaircraft guns, and 80 mines. The Aaron Ward was assigned to the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet and, after conducting several shakedown and training cruises off California and Hawaii, was sent on 5 March 1945 to Ulithi atoll in the Caroline Islands in the Western Pacific.

The Aaron Ward arrived at Ulithi on 16 March 1945 and was added to the giant naval task force that was being created for the invasion of Okinawa. By 25 March the Aaron Ward began the dangerous assignment of picket duty off the coast of Okinawa. On 28 April she shot down several attacking Japanese planes and drove off others. During this attack, the USS Pinkney (APH-2) was hit by a Japanese “Kamikaze” suicide plane and the Aaron Ward rescued 12 of its survivors and assisted in bringing the Pinkney’s fires under control.

While on picket duty, the Aaron Ward successfully fought off numerous air attacks, but her luck ran out on 3 May 1945. That day the ship was attacked by a large number of Japanese suicide planes. Although the gunners on board the Aaron Ward managed to shoot down two of them, a third one smashed into the ship’s port side and the bomb the plane was carrying went through the ship and exploded in the forward fireroom. As a result of the explosions, the Aaron Ward eventually came to a stop. Damage control parties worked heroically to fight the fires and stop the flooding, but soon the ship was under attack by even more Japanese warplanes. The gunners on board the Aaron Ward shot down two attacking Kamikaze aircraft, but another two suicide planes managed to get through the antiaircraft fire and both smashed into the ship. The Aaron Ward was also hit by a bomb from one of the planes which exploded and blew a large hole in the port side of the ship. Most of the crew were either killed or wounded because of these attacks.

Remarkably, after sustaining all of this punishment, the Aaron Ward was still afloat. Initially assisted by LCSL’s 14 and 83, the Aaron Ward was taken in tow by the USS Shannon (DM-25) and brought to Kerama Retto for initial repairs. The ships arrived there on 4 May. After making sure that the ship was seaworthy, what was left of the Aaron Ward then went on a remarkable journey that took it across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal and north to the New York Navy Yard. The Aaron Ward arrived at the New York Navy Yard in August 1945, but the war was almost over and the US Navy didn’t think it was worth the expense to rebuild the ship. The Aaron Ward was decommissioned in late September 1945 and was sold for scrapping in July 1946. For her amazing conduct during the battle for Okinawa, the Aaron Ward received the Presidential Unit Citation and one battle star. The courage and dedication of the crew of the Aaron Ward kept the ship afloat and this destroyer-minelayer proved that a small ship could take a tremendous amount of punishment and still make it back home.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Aaron Ward (DM-34) photographed on 17 November 1944. The ship is painted in Camouflage Measure 32, Design 11a. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1975. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): USS Aaron Ward in the Kerama Retto anchorage, 5 May 1945, showing damage received when she was hit by several Japanese suicide planes off Okinawa on 3 May. Note three-bladed aircraft propeller lodged in her superstructure, just forward of the after 5"/38 twin gun mount. Collection of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): USS Aaron Ward in the Kerama Retto anchorage, 5 May 1945, showing damage received when she was hit by several Kamikazes off Okinawa on 3 May. Collection of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Damage amidships received during Kamikaze attacks off Okinawa on 3 May 1945. View looks down and aft from Aaron Ward's foremast, with her greatly distorted forward smokestack in the lower center. Photographed while the ship was in the Kerama Retto on 5 May 1945. A mine is visible at left on the ship's starboard mine rails. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

USS Yankton

The USS Yankton was originally a yacht named Penelope and was built in 1893 by Ramage & Ferguson in Leith, Scotland. The Penelope was a 975-ton, steel-hulled schooner that was 185 feet long, almost 28 feet wide and carried a crew of 78 officers and men. When the Spanish-American war started in April 1898, the US Navy was short of warships and decided to purchase the Penelope and convert it into a gunboat. The ship was acquired in May 1898 and was renamed the USS Yankton after a county in South Dakota. The Yankton was armed with six 3-pounders and several other smaller caliber guns. She was commissioned on 16 May 1898 and was sent to Cuba on 18 June.

The Yankton arrived off Santiago de Cuba on 25 June 1898 and was assigned to Rear Admiral William T. Sampson’s North Atlantic Fleet. She then joined the blockade of the southern coast of Cuba near Cienfuegos. Patrolling that area of Cuba, the Yankton came into contact with the enemy on three separate occasions. While steaming towards the coastal town of Casilda, the Yankton saw another converted American yacht, the USS Eagle, bombarding a Spanish artillery battery on Cape Muno. The Yankton quickly came to the Eagle’s assistance and opened fire on the battery. After 20 minutes of shooting, the battery was destroyed. The Yankton also assisted the gunboat Dixie in shelling several Spanish gunboats that were anchored near Casilda. Finally, the Yankton spotted an unidentified ship heading for Cienfuegos. She chased the ship for two hours but the enemy ship was faster than the American gunboat and was able to escape. The Yankton’s skipper, Lt. Commander James D. Adams, identified the mystery ship as the Spanish auxiliary cruiser Alfonso XII, but that claim was never confirmed. After making a brief trip to Guantanamo Bay on 21 July, the Yankton returned to her blockade duties off Cienfuegos. She remained there until the end of hostilities on 12 August 1898.

After returning to the United States for maintenance, the Yankton was used to perform coastal survey work off the coast of Cuba. She was based in Guantanamo Bay and returned to the Naval Base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, once a year for her annual overhaul and repair. The Yankton continued operating off the coasts of Cuba and Puerto Rico until 1903, when she was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, and used as a fleet tender to battleships. She continued being used as a tender until 16 December 1907, when she was added to the “Great White Fleet” that was being sent on its famous around-the-world cruise. The Great White Fleet was a large collection of American warships that was sent on a good-will visit to ports all over the world. The Fleet visited such countries and islands as the British West Indies, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Ceylon, Egypt, Italy, France and Gibraltar. The Fleet ended its journey at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 22 February 1909. It was an amazing accomplishment for any fleet and it proved to the world that the United States was now a major naval power.

From 1909 to 1917, the Yankton resumed her duties as a tender for the Atlantic Fleet. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Yankton was initially assigned to patrol the waters along the coast of northern New England. In August she was sent to Gibraltar to help protect Allied shipping from German U-boats. The Yankton escorted merchant ships in the Straits of Gibraltar as well as the western Mediterranean. On 5 May 1918, while escorting an Allied convoy that was steaming from Bizerte, Tunis, to Gibraltar, the Yankton spotted the German U-boat U-38. The U-boat managed to hit the Italian steamer SS Alberto Treves with one torpedo, but, fortunately, it didn’t sink the merchant ship. The Yankton immediately started shooting at the U-boat, which quickly submerged and got away from the elderly gunboat. For the rest of the war the Yankton did not see any more German U-boats, but it assisted several merchant ships that were victims of U-boat attacks.

The Yankton was sent back to the United States for repairs in September 1918. When the war ended on 11 November 1918, the Yankton was still part of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. In January 1919 she was sent to Plymouth, England, to carry two naval officers to Murmansk, Russia, where they were to serve as American port officers. On 8 February the gunboat reached Murmansk, which by that time was involved in a tense standoff between Allied troops and Bolshevik Army units. When Rear Admiral N.A. McCully arrived to take command of American forces in northern Russia on 23 February, he used the Yankton as his headquarters. McCully eventually transferred his flag to the cruiser USS Des Moines, but the Yankton continued being used as a patrol boat and fleet tender for the remainder of her time in Russian waters. On 9 July 1919, she was ordered to return to England and stayed in European waters until the end of 1919. She was sent back to the United States and arrived at the New York Navy Yard in January 1920. The Yankton was decommissioned on 27 February 1920 and was sold on 20 October 1921. She was converted into a merchant ship and was seized two years later by the federal government for, of all things, transporting illegal rum! Evidently the once proud US gunboat had been converted into a rumrunner during the Prohibition Era here in the United States. After being held by the US government for a number of months, the Yankton was sold once again for use as a merchant ship. This time she was able to end her days as an honest merchantman and was finally sold for scrap in Boston in 1930. Thus ended the amazing career of a ship that was never even designed to be in the US Navy. The Yankton went from being a yacht, to a gunboat, to a convoy escort, to a rumrunner, and, finally, to a law-abiding merchant ship. No ship today could ever hope to match a career like that.


Figure 1 (Top): The USS Yankton shortly after the Spanish-American War. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle): The Yankton circa 1906. Courtesy U.S. Warships of World War I. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Bottom): The Yankton photographed on 22 May 1919 while operating with U.S. Naval Forces in Northern Russia. Courtesy the Sub Chaser Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.